"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun bars and club articles -- including guides, unique features, drink recipes and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!
If you have aspirations of someday opening a bar in Milwaukee, you should know two things: Getting a liquor license depends largely on where you plan on putting your pub; and it goes a long way to be an upstanding citizen who's willing to work with your alderman.
Unlike other communities, there aren't a finite number of bars given liquor licenses in Milwaukee. Instead, says Ald. Tony Zielinski, who represents Milwaukee's near South Side, the Common Council looks at each application on a case-by-case basis. If a potential bar builds excitement in a nightlife district, like Bay View's Kinnickinnic Avenue, it stands a good chance to get a permit.
If it's an instance of just trying to open a new corner tap, or opening a bar in a quiet, residential district, then the licensing process may be a lot less smooth. The council also looks at "concentration," which considers whether a neighborhood has too many bars per capita.
"If someone just wants to take some old place, turn the key and serve some cheap booze, that doesn't really add much to the area. It takes a little more of an investment to do something creative and unique, something special to the community," says Zielinski.
Similarly, if the bar owner has a history of trouble, specifically in drug convictions or D.U.I.s, then the odds for approval become more slim.
"That's a factor," says Zielinksi. "If you've got a guy who has a questionable background, or has operated a bunch places that have been closed down, or he has a history of drugs, that's going to hurt him."
Zielinski says the best way to get the ball rolling is to talk to your local alderperson, since he or she can serve as a strong advocate in front of a Common Council that might not be familiar with the specifics of your neighborhood.
From there, the process isn't especially complicated. You can download the six-page application from the city's Web site, and licenses range in price from $110 for the Class "C" Wine License and Class "B" Fermented Malt Beverage License, to $860 for a Class A Liquor and Malt License.
According to the application, it takes a minimum of five weeks to process an application, though it could take longer if a bar has been denied a license within the last year.
The license application also lists a few other stipulations, including a minimum age and residency requirement, and a certification that all applicants have completed a responsible beverage server course.
Beyond these requirements, Zielinski points to gray areas for getting a liquor licenses; namely situations in which a bar has a great plan, but is located in a quiet residential area.
Zielinski points to the Highbury Pub, 2322 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., as an instance of a "slam drunk" liquor license.
"That place was a hole in the wall before they bought it," says Zielinski. "They sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars in there, fixed it up with its soccer theme. It has its own unique ambience."
Recently, the alderman went to bat for two of Highbury's neighbors, Café Centraal and the soon-to-open Tonic Tavern, 2335 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.
"(Owner Paul Jonas) will have some live music, and it's on KK, not in a residential area. It's going to be a very vibrant, high-energy area, which is what people want."
When it's time to decide whether a new bar gets its license, the Common Council hears arguments from both sides. It also gets input from the City Attorney's office, which provides the Licensing Committee with a legal opinion on all applications.
"I have people who come and testify, one way or the other," says Zielinski.
In the case of Tonic Tavern, neighboring bar owners from Highbury to Lulu went to bat for Jonas. And, when Jonas was interviewed for the preview story on OnMilwaukee.com, he admitted that felt nervous throughout his hearing -- but Zielinski says he didn't need to be.
"That's the type of business I envisioned coming into (the neighborhood)," he says.
Of course, every bar in Milwaukee isn't adding to its neighborhood's value, but Zielinski says it's hard for a tavern to lose its liquor license once it has one. These businesses have a "legal property right interest in that license," he says.
Says Zielinski, "It's very difficult to not renew or to revoke that license. You have to establish a strong record of illegal or problematic activity with respect to that particular establishment. If you're a new application, you do not have any such legal property right interest in that liquor license.
"A lot of the new ones get turned down," says Zielinski, but the reason aldermen have a good success rate in passage of bars they vouch for is because they know the neighborhood's dynamics and have already spoken with the potential applicant.
That's why Zielinksi suggests a bar owner talk with his or her alderman first. "They should get a feel as to what the lay of the land is," he says.
Of course, an applicant can ignore the alderperson's advice and go straight to the Common Council, but Zielinski notes that most of the time, the council defers to the member most familiar with his or her district.
"If someone has a good business plan, and is willing to spend some money and it's the right location, they shouldn't have a problem," he says.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.