Appleton liquor licenses in demand

Heath Gordon

Anyone in Appleton who wants to open up a restaurant that serves liquor might be out of luck. Back in 1997 the Wisconsin State Legislature, under considerable pressure from the state’s tavern lobby, passed a bill that made it considerably more difficult to obtain a “Class B” beer/liquor license. The tavern lobby felt that by making it harder for restaurants to obtain a liquor license, already-existing taverns would increase in value. The last license in Appleton was taken in September, and a few businesses are already on the waiting list for the next available permit.
The liquor law makes the number of Class B liquor licenses proportionate to the population of the community. In addition, it set a fee of $10,000 for licenses, where they had been free. However, the city of Appleton reimburses businesses for a portion of this fee if they make improvements on their buildings.
Until now, this law has not had much of an effect on Appleton. When the bill passed in 1997, there were 97 institutions that were already in possession of licenses, and the city had 20 reserve Class B licenses, which later increased to 26. It was not until this year that the city reached that quota, and business owners suddenly found themselves on a waiting list.
As it stands now, the waiting list for a reserve license is only three names long, but the only way to get a license is if another business fails or if the population increases. For every 1,500 people that move to Appleton, the city can issue another license. Restaurants can get around the quota by maintaining a seating capacity of more than 300 people.
Not every city has been as lucky as Appleton. Neighboring Grand Chute reached its quota in late 1998. The waiting list is also swamped with developers, so it is especially difficult for restaurant owners to get a liquor license.
Judith Christjohn, the town clerk of Grand Chute, was not aware of any direct economic impact of the restriction so far. “Most businesses get around it by just opening with a beer license,” said Christjohn, commenting on a practice that is also unrestricted.
The Trolley Square restaurant on Olde Oneida Street snagged the last liquor license in September. The Appleton Arts Center became next in line after the new owner of Chef Chu’s Chinese Cuisine restaurant withdrew their bid for a license. The Appleton Arts Center currently has a special Class B beer license, which allows it to serve wine once or twice a year.
Whether the tavern lobby succeeded in its goal could be subject to some debate. Here in Appleton, the liquor license quota hasn’t been a limiting factor long enough to see if there was some impact. However, in places like Grand Chute, where the city hit its liquor license quota some years ago, an aspiring independent bar or restaurant owner has to beat out a long list of developers to get a license.