Trio of downtown Eau Claire businesses threatened with losing their liquor licenses | cover page

EAU CLAIRE — A trio of businesses in downtown Eau Claire are at risk of losing their liquor licenses.

On Tuesday, city council is due to vote on renewing licenses for pizzeria The Plus, entertainment venue The Metro and wine bar The Rev, but the city attorney’s office recommends denying them.

“First, businesses have been closed for extended periods beyond the 90 days allowed by the city ordinance and have failed to provide specific plans for reopening, forcing city council to review licenses for non-renewal. “wrote Assistant City Attorney Jenessa Stromberger. in a note.

She added that the companies show no intention of reopening in a way that matches the combined Class B licenses they currently hold.

The Subway, 201 E. Lake St., has been closed since a kitchen fire in February 2020. The Plus and The Rev, 206 and 208 S. Barstow St., closed in March 2020 when COVID-19 began and only this last has reopened so far with limited hours.

Benny Haas, the businessman who runs all three establishments and holds their liquor licenses, says The Rev has been open enough to keep his license and that the other two establishments are being renovated in preparation for their reopening.

“Our plans have been and always have been to open,” he said in a phone interview with Leader-Telegram. “The goal is to have a better Plus and a better Metro too.”

Haas said he has already paid $4,200 to renew various licenses, including to serve alcohol, that his businesses need to operate.

They’ve battled delays in getting materials and scheduling from contractors, Haas said, noting that’s been common with construction projects over the past two years.

Added to this are the difficulties encountered by Haas between his insurer and the remediation company he hired to repair the metro after the fire. After his lawyer intervened due to the slow progress of the project there, Haas said he was finally allowed last month to personally oversee the work and get it back up and running.

With the city considering revoking liquor licenses, Haas said he felt he was being punished for not having deep enough pockets to pay contractors more money to get all the work done quickly.

Stromberger’s memo notes that the city gave latitude on the 90-day limit not to serve alcohol to businesses undergoing renovations.

For example, The Alibi Lounge was severely damaged by fire in May 2021 and just reopened last month while still being able to retain its liquor license. The Alibi Lounge has kept the city updated on its progress toward reopening, but Stromberger said the contrasting information Haas has given about resuming normal operations, which the assistant city attorney called “often superficial or inaccurate “.

One example she gave is the current operation of The Rev’s posted hours – 10 a.m. to noon on Mondays only. Last week, a city employee went to the wine bar during these hours to check that it was open, but the front door was locked and the lights were out, according to Stromberger’s memo.

Haas told the newspaper that he and his wife were out of town that day, but otherwise opened the wine bar during those hours as well as for private events and during the downtown jazz festival. city ​​last month.

Although he acknowledged that it’s not a lot of hours to run a wine bar, that’s what he’s able to do at the moment and he said that’s enough to satisfy him. requirement to retain liquor license.

Because The Rev and The Plus – located next to each other on South Barstow Street – share the same license, Haas said the wine bar business should operate until the pizzeria reopens.

“It’s the same license, the same company,” he said. “As long as you do something, you should be fine.”

But Stromberger’s memo said some of the ways The Rev and The Plus used the combined Class B liquor license weren’t what it was primarily intended for and even broke the law on a few occasions.

Businesses have been selling door-to-door alcohol for the past two years, but Stromberger said that doesn’t fit the purpose of the limited supply of liquor licenses the city can issue to bars and restaurants.

“The city issues licenses that are better suited for this purpose and can be granted in unlimited numbers,” Stromberger wrote of the offsite sales.

And the city noted that for four events at other businesses where The Rev provided wine, it was not done through a face-to-face sale, breaking a rule for the Class B license. Haas’s wife, Kate, had dropped off bottles of wine at the events and billed the businesses, in lieu of the required payment made at the establishment with the Class B license.

Haas said he spoke about the company providing events during one of his communications with city staff late last year. Shortly after, an agent from the state Department of Revenue’s Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement Unit summoned Benny and Kate Haas to speak at a government office building in Eau Claire.

A report from that officer provided to the city council said the Haas had 12 violations related to the four events, including Kate Haas not having her liquor license on those dates.

Benny Haas called it “an agonizing two-hour meeting” but that it ended with no fine, but rather with a “warning of advice”.

The officer’s report says the violations could directly affect the company’s liquor license, but that would be up to the Eau Claire city council to decide.

If the board denies liquor licenses for Haas for 2022-23, it is able to appeal the decision for further review, according to Stromberger’s memo.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Haas began renovating the interior of The Plus.

“Originally, in this first year of COVID, there was a lot of work towards that,” he said.

The restaurant still needs some plumbing and electrical work before it can reopen. The Plus would also need to hire and train new employees, which Haas said he hopes to do in the summer.

“Basically, we’re recreating our business,” he said.

But observations from a health inspector’s visit to The Plus last month were among the details Stromberger cited that the restaurant is not making progress toward reopening.

The inspector’s report noted that pallets of bulk packaging of crackers, tortilla chips and other dry food items were stored in the dining room of the restaurant. When the inspector asked Haas about them, he replied that he obtained the large quantities of merchandise from distributors, separated them into smaller quantities and sold them online to other companies.

Haas explained that’s what the restaurant did to survive the hit during the pandemic and it continues to do so now.

“That was our pivot during COVID,” he said.

When the restaurant reopens, Haas said it will move that food delivery operation to another part of the building, away from the dining room and bar.

Last week, the city’s community development department sent a letter telling Haas that it needed to obtain a permit to use the building for warehouse purposes. On Friday, Haas said he had yet to see that letter.

Another impediment to reopening The Plus noted in the inspection report is that the restaurant is also being used to store tables, chairs and other items after the 2020 fire at the Metro. Haas said their elimination depends on ongoing work in the subway.

“I would love to move this stuff, but I can’t do it in a building that doesn’t have a floor yet,” he said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in the spring of 2020, the city relaxed its enforcement on how long bars and restaurants could be idle and retain their liquor licenses.

Even after safer home orders eased in 2020 and establishments were able to reopen, some chose to wait.

The city checked in regularly with slow-to-reopen businesses, periodically asking about their plans, and nearly all have since resumed service.

“All businesses that were closed at the time of the spring 2021 license renewal have long since reopened, with the notable exceptions of The Metro and The Plus/The Rev,” Stromberger wrote.

As new businesses intending to serve alcohol approached the city after the initial shock of the pandemic, the scarcity of combined Class B liquor licenses was mentioned in several meetings.

Currently, all regular city-assigned licenses are reserved. Four reserve licenses are available, but they incur a significantly higher initial cost.

If he lost his liquor licenses, Benny Haas said it would be harder to run a restaurant without the ability to serve alcohol.

And he fears that will mean the end of his establishments that have also served as venues for live entertainment, including stand-up comedians, open-mic parties and musical acts.

“You’re going to leave a big hole not just in downtown, but in the music and arts community,” he said.

David H. Henry