By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Its members may be in the liquor business, but the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association might as well be a teetotaler when it comes to increased competition, says one player entering the Twin Cities market.
The powerful trade association and lobbying group representing big and small liquor license holders is trying to prevent Minnesota from becoming the 16th state with Total Wine & More superstores. The chain has 102 locations with 8,000 wines, 3,000 spirits and 2,500 beers on display in 25,000-square-foot stores, drawing customers from 10 to 15 miles away.
“This is the biggest hurdle we’ve had in all 15 states,” said Robert Trone, co-owner of Total Wine & More. “We’ve certainly come across groups before that tried to stop competition, but never as organized and fierce as this group. Their sole stated objective is to stop competition.”
The confrontation includes owners of liquor stores just up the street from proposed Total Wine locations. The owner of Fairview Wine & Spirits, Steve Burwell, “didn’t think his career would end this way, but if the license goes through neither he nor several other stores will be around next year,” according to minutes from a Roseville City Council meeting.
City councils considering Total Wine licenses in Roseville and Bloomington were recipients of last-minute document dumps, courtesy of MLBA attorneys. The files raise questions about the superstore’s legal and business records in several states, going back to the 1980s.
The association’s initial attempt to stop Total Wine from receiving its first license through the courts, however, came up short in a February Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling. “… Because the liquor-licensing laws are not intended to protect competing liquor stores, we conclude that relators (MLBA) do not have standing to challenge the city’s grant of Minnesota Fine Wines (Total Wine) application for transfer and renewal of its liquor license,” wrote Edward J. Cleary, chief judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals in dismissing the case.
The decision paved the way for the debut of Total Wine’s first Minnesota store in Roseville. Yet the law firm representing MLBA in contesting liquor licenses maintains cities have “broad discretion in whether to approve or deny a license.”
“The Association is interested in a fair application of the rules for liquor licensing applied to all,” said Bill Griffith, an attorney with Larkin Hoffman Attorneys in a memo provided to Watchdog Minnesota Bureau. “That is what the Association is interested in — a full and fair hearing with all the facts in front of the City Council.”
The November opening of the Total Wine store in Bloomington was postponed, pending further consideration of the company’s legal and business practices, scheduled to happen during a City Council meeting in April. The store stands empty along the busy Interstate 494 strip.
“I can guess at the motives of the attorneys who are sending the materials in opposition,” said Sandra Johnson, city attorney for Bloomington. “But they raise good issues. So I can’t just say, ‘Oh, you don’t like the competition.’ If they raise a good issue, I have to follow-up on it.”
Presented with the same information, the city of Roseville dismissed concerns about transferring a liquor license to Total Wine. City officials indicated the company fully disclosed litigation in other states and that “staff did not consider them pertinent to this City license,” according to council meeting minutes. The city attorney “found nothing to date on any of those cases that would indicate moral turpitude or character, causing this body to deny transfer or renewal based on his review.”
Just last week, Bloomington received another batch of documents critical of Total Wine’s operations from a law firm representing an anonymous “major food and beverage retailer.”
“I think there’s a lot at stake and we understand that. This is a business,” said Johnson. “They assumed a risk when they outfitted a store and entered into a lease. That to me was rather shocking. But it’s important to them, and we’re going to give it the time it requires.”
At the same time, Total Wine continues to pursue approval for a third store in the suburb of Burnsville.
“I think the only thing they’re doing now is throwing mud against a wall and hoping something sticks and try and delay our opening process and really make Minnesota uncomfortable for us to deal in,” said Trone. “Eventually, when the facts come out completely, I believe we’ll get licenses in all the places we apply for.”
From behind the counter of Fairview Wine & Spirits, Burwell said, “I think we’re just going to move forward and keep working hard and stress our customer service, our convenience, our location and I think we’ll turn out OK when it’s all said and done. We would have preferred to have them not so close, but that was a decision of the city council. It’s something we’re going to live with.”
Contact Tom Steward at [email protected]