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Toby’s Two-Step: Restaurant Must Find Balance Between Food, Liquor Sales to Keep License

Toby Keith's I Love this Bar and Grill is struggling to meet a St. Louis Park requirement to sell at least as much food as liquor.

It’s a typical Friday night at in St. Louis Park, and the place is packed. Country musician Shane Wyatt is playing to an energetic crowd, many of whom are having mixed drinks or beer from Mason jars—a Toby Keith’s signature.

But for the eight-month-old establishment, the big crowds and busy bar has meant running afoul of a city ordinance and potentially putting its liquor license in jeopardy.

St. Louis Park requires all establishments selling liquor for on-site consumption to sell at least an equal amount of food, measured by gross receipts. Between the time the restaurant opened in June 2010 and the end of the year, Toby Keith’s was at 31 percent food and 67 percent liquor. On Feb. 22, the city renewed the establishment’s license, but on a probationary, six-month basis. In September, council will again check Toby Keith’s numbers. If the 50:50 ratio isn’t met, the city could impose a fine or possibly even revoke the bar and grill's liquor license.

While Toby Keith's general manager Kent Kramer said he personally doesn't agree with the St. Louis Park ordinance, he's confident his establishment will meet the criteria.

“I don’t think that a city should be able to tell a private business what they need to do,” he said. "(But) we've got to do it, and we understand that, and we’re going to do everything we can to do it.”

The ordinance, which has been in place since 2000, is similar to ordinances in nearby Hopkins, Minnetonka and Edina, the latter of which actually requires establishments earn at least 60 percent of their revenue from food. St. Louis Park Mayor Jeff Jacobs said the city has used the provision several times over the years to put other places on probation. In all instances, he said, the businesses came into compliance and kept their liquor licenses.

“I think generally it is (a good ordinance). It’s worked over the course of time," the mayor said. "We don’t want to have free-standing bars, and that makes sense.”

But Kramer said it’s hard to compare his establishment to others in town. Toby Keith’s regularly brings in well-known country acts on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, drawing crowds of around 800 per night—many of whom are looking to drink, not eat. At the same time, the general manager said, between Sunday and 6 p.m. on Friday, the establishment sells more food than liquor. Kramer added that he thinks many people have a misconception of Toby Keith's, labeling it just a bar.

“We sell a very large amount of food,” he said. “It’s a restaurant first. And that’s what we’ve been preaching since day one.”

Phil Weber, who owns the  in St. Louis Park, empathizes with Kramer and Toby Keith’s. The Park Tavern has bowling lanes and can bring in children’s birthday parties, helping the establishment meet its food-sales requirement. Weber says it's unfair to require the same 50 percent threshold for Toby Keith's, or any business.

“Truthfully, I think it’s an undue burden,” Weber said. “Toby Keith’s is a great place, but it is what it is. (They) can't change their platform.”

Maybe not, but other changes can—and will—be made. Starting on Monday, Toby Keith's will roll out new menus with entrees at slightly higher prices—a strategy to increase the overall revenue from food—and new happy hour appetizers that Kramer hopes will better appeal to the bar crowd. Also, the restaurant will soon distribute roughly 1,000 lunch cards granting free meals for every five entrees purchased. Kramer is also considering a revamped online marketing effort.

The specific penalty for Toby Keith’s if it doesn’t hit the 50:50 mark is unclear. The city could impose a fine of up to $2,000 or suspend the bar and grill's liquor license for up to 60 days. Revoking the license is also possible, though at this point seems less likely.

“I’d have a tough time with that,” Mayor Jacobs conceded. “I think we’d figure out some other way ... The city of St. Louis Park does not exist to put people out of business."

Kramer said he and staff will do "everything we can" to get Toby Keith’s into compliance.

“It’ll be close," Kramer said. "Will it be (exactly) 50:50? I don’t know. I’m not a soothsayer.”

Gretchen Peterson March 03, 2011 at 03:25 PM
I have mixed thoughts on this. I understand not wanting to have free-standing bars in the Park. HOWEVER. There's no getting around the fact that we're a first-ring suburb - and Toby Keith's isn't that far from downtown. If we want to keep a vibrant, hopping night life around the West End, the City Council may want to recognize that 50/50 just may no longer work. Why not 60% alcohol sales? Or even 55/45? Laws that have worked in the past need to be occasionally reviewed - because times change, people change, society changes - and things that USED to work... well, they may not work so well forever.
Rob March 03, 2011 at 07:13 PM
It seems to me, this city policy inhibits local businesses. Maybe I'm dense, but what's the issue with free-standing bars? I've lived in other cities, large and small, with bars right in the neighborhoods. They often become strong figures in these places. As Gretchen suggested, perhaps a different ratio would serve the city and the restaurants/bars better.
Nan March 04, 2011 at 03:11 AM
Once again SLP ordinances are inhibiting businesses and inhabitants. The town shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. Toby Keith's brings in lots of revenue and people into SLP. The West End is supposed to be a entertainment destination with a night life. How can the city expect those who go to the establishment to see the entertainment/band in the late evening to necessarily eat. Figure it out, City Council; you either want a busy entertainment venue or you don't.
Dead Skunk March 04, 2011 at 04:53 PM
This bar opened with the ordinance in place so the owners should not complain about the ground rules now. Raising food prices will reduce the amount of food people will purchase. The problem is that the food is terrible. I've been to the place once, with a group of friends who meet on a monthly basis at various establishments around the cities. None of us finished our meals (a first), which were bigger than average but not the largest portions in town. I had the catfish ($12.99) which was greasy, mushy and far too salty. I love catfish and I love southern food, but this catfish was as close to a southern delicacy as the Creation Museum is to science. What was most striking was that not a single person asked for a container to take their left overs home. The general consensus was that the food was not good enough to finish or take home. Even the couple that had ribs didn't take home the uneaten ones. I've never seen anyone ever leave ribs on the table in any restaurant. Out of the 15 people in our group, not a single one of us would go back because of the poor food quality. We would eat someplace else and then go there for the music and drinks. If they want to sell more food, they need someone in the kitchen who knows how to develop an interesting menu and ensure that food is properly cooked, properly seasoned and properly presented before it is served.
Lenny Small March 04, 2011 at 10:07 PM
The owners, it seems to me, are tap-dancing around the one clear reality: The place IS a bar. I have no problem with that, but it is what it is. Having said that, I have to say that the notion that they can bring the ratio to 50-50 by charging MORE for food makes about as much sense as most of Toby's lyrics. Look, the place ain't cheap. Charging more would be like (quoting Toby) putting a boot up our...well, you get the idea. I mean, while they're at it, instead of charging "slightly more," why not just triple the price? Then they won't have to sell very much food at all. (Toby Keith's: Home of the $50 wings!) Finally, I guess I won't lose too much sleep over this thorny problem. This is, after all, a city that sells its public parks whenever it needs to raise revenue. Imagine what the city will do to keep the Toby revenue coming in. I suspect that Toby's problem will be miraculously solved.
OurUptown March 07, 2011 at 02:51 AM
Dead Skunk mentioned that the bar opened with the ordinance in place so the owners should have anticipated its sales better. I would agree that the owners should have projected better but they must have had a reason to believe they would have been able to, as losing their liquor license over not meeting those rules could mean disaster for their ability to make good on their debts. That said, raising food prices could help but it isn't in St. Louis Park's interest to jack food prices. Regardless of the results, the same amount of alcohol is still being sold but you're paying more for your tab. Now that $13.99 Catfish plate (up from $12.99) may better offset the two $6.00 drinks you had. Alternatively, some businesses drop alcohol prices so that the impact of that $12.99 Catfish plate relative to a $3.00 drink is better than the 50/50 split. But perhaps you will now have two, three, or four drinks because the price is more in line with your budget. And will customers looking to get trashed come there then because of the cheaper drinks. The issue here is really about what sort of City you want to live in and finding the right tools to help get there. Alcohol is a tricky subject and there's no silver bullet. Alcohol concerns tend to relate to wanting to avoid the noise, vomit, and safety concerns associated with people consuming alcohol. Revenue splits don't necessarily reflect consumption. But other than tracking oz of food/drink, uncertain what else would work.
Jeff Jacobs March 09, 2011 at 05:13 PM
Selling its public parks to raise revenue? Dude, which city are you talking about? SLP passed an ordinance several years ago protecting its public parks from ever being sold. Perhaps you should stop drinking so much and eat some catfish; it soaks up long chain carbohydrates and bad information. Bon appetit.
Lenny Small March 09, 2011 at 08:19 PM
Well, at least you acknowledge (tacitly) that it HAS been the practice of selling off pieces of parkland. Seems to me there's a nice, new eating disorder clinic where the tennis courts used to be. The point: we couldn't trust you then and we don't trust you now. Deal with it. Instead of using lightweight sarcasm, acknowledge your dismal history and make amends. Oh, by the way, I guess you'd know about catfish. They are, as I recall, bottom feeders.
Nancy Ritzman March 14, 2011 at 03:41 PM
Nice. Our mayor can't engage in a dialog with some views contrary to the City Council's decisions, but has to immediately resort to swarmy personal comments. What did the City Council think was going to happen at the West End to make it a destination for those outside of SLP? Toby Keith's is mainly a bar and will never be otherwise, no matter if they start making decent food, raising the prices or push food more. And what about Al's - did they survive the antiquated 50/50 rule as long as they did by selling a couple of frozen pizza's to the few who wanted to soak up some of the alcohol? I doubt it. I am tired of SLP's ill thought-out rules that serve no real purspose or are obsolete and result in arbitrary restrictions and further problems (garage height restrictions, wood pile heights, empty multi-unit housing influx, traffic chaos, solar wireless fiasco, etc). SLP is not a planned community social experiment like Jonathon - oh wait, that failed, didn't it?
Loran March 16, 2011 at 12:14 PM
FYI, Al's was SLP's last true "bar". They were grandfathered into the previous ordinance and did not need to meet food sales requirements. I'll note that the ordinance was in place before Toby Keith's opened. Business owners understand that the market in which they operate is not only economic but is also regulated. From HR issues to health/sanitation inspections to local ordinances regarding food/alcohol sales, there are burdens to carry beyond the immediate concerns of patrons. I think that Toby Keith's needs to continue to find a way to make their business work in SLP.
Carl Johnson April 19, 2011 at 12:22 PM
The law was in place wel before this place opened and they should have known that the type of "restaurant" they have has no chance of making it. They were basically telling the city from the beginnning that they didn't beleive anything would be done -- they thought they were above the city.

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