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Last call for early closing times at St. Paul liquor stores?

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Jeff Moriarty, a founder of Tin Whiskers Brewing.
Jeff Moriarty, a founder of Tin Whiskers Brewing in downtown St. Paul, says the city's liquor ordinance ending off-premise sales at 8 p.m. is hurting small breweries like his.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

The bar at St. Paul's Tin Whiskers Brewing Company will sell you a glass of beer, but after 8 p.m. on weeknights you can't take it with you — at least in traditional half-gallon glass jugs called growlers.

"It's really confusing to our guests that come in and they can't get a growler after 8 p.m., and it really causes a lot of frustration with them because they expect to be able to," said Jeff Moriarty, a Tin Whiskers founder. "We're open. And two Minneapolis breweries are able to do that and a lot of other metro area breweries are, so we're kind of the exception the rule."

The reason you can buy a growler in Minneapolis but not St. Paul after 8 p.m. is because of St. Paul's closing time for liquor stores from Monday through Thursday. The ordinance, one of the last vestiges of post-Prohibition liquor restrictions, bans off-sale liquor sales at that point, making the city an outlier. 

But while the early closing time is popular among St. Paul's neighborhood liquor store owners, Minnesota's emerging brewing industry may be on the cusp of forcing a change. The St. Paul City Council is considering extending off-sale hours. A public hearing is set for Wednesday, although the measure is widely expected to pass.

Last year, state law changes to allow breweries to sell growlers off-sale on Sundays. For small brewing businesses like his, Moriarty says the need to change St. Paul's law is equally clear — those weekday restrictions mean money out the door.

"We have plenty of people that sometimes drive, they get here at like 8:30 and they have two growlers to get refilled in their hand, and you're like, 'Hey, sorry.' And they're like, 'Well, I just drove from Eden Prairie' or whatever, some suburb and you know they made that effort and we couldn't fulfill it," he said. "It happens on a daily basis."

Most suburbs and Minneapolis let liquor stores stay open until 10 p.m. St. Paul does allow liquor stores to stay open until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. 

However, the small, often family owned, neighborhood liquor stores that dot St. Paul worry that extending weekday closing times will force them to stay open, adding another eight hours of business to their week and more to their payroll. 

"It'll be hard to keep up, even if shop owners want to," said Nick Nadeau, of 1st Grand Avenue Liquors.

"Big box stores already open already have their staffing in place. We would have to make big changes as small liquor stores to hire," he said, noting that it's hard even to find people willing to work until 10 p.m. "Most of our employees are either students, or they have what we call real jobs during the week."

Nadeau doesn't think the demand is really out there, anyway. His dad opened the St. Paul shop in 1962 and the family opened another location in Woodbury in 1996, but closed it seven years later. The later hours in Woodbury weren't economical, he said.

Other small owners say the change will benefit chain stores, that it adds to the burden of the sick leave benefit the city just mandated and that, generally speaking, people have managed to deal with the unorthodox hours in St. Paul for decades.

That said, the initial response by St. Paul residents shows there will be some interest. Dozens have already contacted the council to express their support, and say they're tired of having to leave town to buy beer, wine and liquor on a weeknight.

"I know that the growlers [brewers] feel that they're losing quite a bit of business," said St. Paul City Council Member Chris Tolbert. "This just seems to be a reasonable change to equalize all the cities."