Booze isn’t a cure for what ails small-town Minnesota

Running a liquor store in rural Minnesota seems like a great way to lose money, especially if it’s the town running the store.

The Minnesota State Auditor has found net profits for municipal liquor stores dropped nearly 9 percent in 2015 compared to the year before, the Rochester Post Bulletin reports.

It’s not that rural Minnesota has become a bastion of teetotalers; the stores have had record sales. But all 34 municipal liquor stores that lost money in 2015 were located in rural Minnesota.

One exception, the Post Bulletin says, is Mazeppa, where the town of 800 turned its liquor store fortunes around. Why?

The liquor store’s manager Heather Groby said the business is on track to do even better in 2016. So why the big turnaround?

Groby, who became manager one year ago, said there has been a big push to change the way business is done to help the small town “muni” better compete in today’s crowded liquor marketplace.

“I’m kind of a determined individual, and I love a challenge,” she said. “I grew up on a dairy farm so I’m a rural, country, small-town girl. I don’t want to see these towns going to ghost towns. We need revenue in these communities.”

More food, a patio with heaters, lowering prices, and sprucing up the joint helped.

Can’t every town do that?

The Post Bulletin went to West Concord, which, at $25,000, lost the third-highest amount in the state. It fired its store manager and put the city administrator in charge of things.

He wouldn’t talk to the newspaper, however.

Want to buy a liquore store? City Council member Ryan Fay says the town should sell it.

“It would keep a bar in town for people because they like having it. People don’t want it to be gone, but people don’t want to spend a ton of their tax dollars to keep it open,” he says.

And industry representative says many grocery stores are opening their own liquor departments.

But there’s another reason why it’s a struggle. Rural towns are dying off in Minnesota and even booze can’t stop it.

  • Will

    I’d like to see a state law that makes all municipal liquor stores illegal. Local government shouldn’t be in an industry competing against private sector stores, which are providing a better product at a better price. Then you have inanity of creating anti-competitive laws like the city choosing where the liquor stores are located, how many there are and no one in the private sector can put their own liquor store in that city/town to offer a lower prices. On top of all that I’ve contacted my legislators about why they vote against Sunday liquor sales, the main reason they cite, again and again is the fact that these muni liquor stores don’t want to be open on Sundays (they use the faulty logic that they’d somehow lose money as well)…that’s a clear conflict of interest when one level of government being corrupted to protect another level of government. No thanks, shut them all down and let the free market handle it, also, allow Sunday sales.

    • It’s the mom and pop stores, not the munis , that are blocking Sunday sales

      • Rob

        And why are car sales verboten on Sundays?

        • Postal Customer

          Yeah! That forces me to do the thing that I do once a decade on Saturday instead! Man we should change that law.

          • Ralphy

            I’ll drink to that!

            Sorry. Somebody had to.

        • ec99

          As I understand, that is due to all the big Metro dealers who don’t want to pay employees to stay open. They have the pull to keep it that way.

        • tboom

          I think that’s a great law, that gives me one day a week I can browse the lots without having to talk to every car salesman in the place.

      • jon

        My rep told me she doesn’t support Sunday sales because on municipal stores in he distinct (though not in my town, kind of a i don’t represent you, I represent the town next to you. Really disappointed that she maneuvered her way into winning the primary that she didn’t even campaign in……….

        Admittedly, a sample of one…

    • Postal Customer

      The real problem is that all the money is on the side of no Sunday sales. Nobody with any serious money or lobby ability will push to get rid of the law. And the few of us citizens who support a change aren’t enough against the vast majority of people who don’t care.

      It will be a long time before the law ever changes, if it ever does. Calling it “booze” doesn’t help much. That just makes it out to be the sin that gave rise to the law in the first place.

      • Maybe the law repeal could be indexed somehow. Right now, 1 of every 7 drivers in MN has a DUI conviction.

        Maybe it could automatically be revoked when it reaches 1 in 10 or some other percentage.

        • Postal Customer

          The two issues are completely unrelated though.

        • tboom

          If you’re going to index the thing, at 1 in 7 ratio we should be closing 6 days a week.

      • jon

        I don’t think that is true, total wine had deep pockets, and they want Sunday sales…

        • Jack Ungerleider

          I think part of the issue is expansion of sales to grocery stores. (without requiring a completely separate entry)

          Total Wine might want Sunday sales, but they don’t want the competition. Recent bills have linked the two items.

          • jon

            On the topic of Total wine in particular, I don’t think they have particularly strong opinions on grocery stores as the municipalities do.

            total wine already operates in many states where booze can be sold alongside of food already, and they’ve found a way to make enough profit in those locations that they expanded out here.
            I’m sure they’d be happier not competing with grocery store booze, but I don’t think it’d be a show stopper for them if Sunday sales and grocery booze got linked.

            Municipal stores don’t want either, because they still think they are the convenient option for booze, I mean they are the only stop in town, by city ordinance!
            If people have a day off and need to get liquor they will go to total wine or similar, but if they are just getting it quick on the way home from work… hello muni!
            Of course evidence shows that total wine is taking customers from municipalities in the cities any how, but we all know reality and political debates don’t mix any more….
            (and if they are picking something something up on the way home from work, and a total wine happens to be on the way….)

  • MrE85

    I think the answer is pretty clear. Mazeppa’s muni operator realized she was in a competitive business that needs to constantly make changes and improvements. West Concord’s former liquor store manager likely did very little, thinking of themselves as a just branch of city government no one pays much attention to.
    If government is going to compete with private industry for customers, that’s fine with me. Just don’t try to phone it in.

  • Mike Worcester

    When you consider it has not been that long in the grand scheme of this state’s story (fifty years) that we got rid of county option, and we still have local option, that the Sunday sales ban still exist seems not out of the question. (Not that I agree either btw.)

    Munis were created to allow local governments to control the liquor trade in their cities. Some cities do quite well with them. Whether that makes the broader concept appropriate or not is another issue. That being said, considering the economic havoc being visited upon many smaller communities in our state, should the demise of a muni be a surprise?