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.”