Patrons of Cheater's Bar and Lounge are in for a surprise: the establishment will not be serving a drop of alcohol for three days next week. Following an incident in which a bar employee and a group of people were caught drinking at the bar at 3 a.m. on Monday, March 4, the Winona City Council fined the bar $2,000 and will suspend its liquor license from Tuesday, June 25, through Thursday, June 27. City code requires that bars discontinue serving alcohol at 1:00 a.m. and close at 1:30 a.m.
The general managers of Cheater's asked for leniency in the case, saying that the employee's actions were beyond their control. "We had no idea this was going on, said General Manager Mo Vafaei. "We work very diligently to keep these things from happening, but, unfortunately, it happened."
In his report to the council, Police Chief Paul Bostrack included a list of 171 calls for service to Cheater's since 2012, including 54 reports of assaults, fights, and disturbances. Vafaei contended that less than half of the calls were actually to Cheater's, but rather to nearby Gabby's Bar and the flock of bar patrons that congregate on the street outside the two establishments. Cheater's head bouncer, Max Anderson, said that such logs of calls often discourage bars from calling the police. For his part, Anderson said that he does not hesitate to call.
"We are a clean bar — as clean as I can run a college bar," Vafaei said, asking the council not to impose punishments.
Ultimately the council, however, decided to not to skimp on fines and to include a suspension, albeit reduced from guidelines. Members said that given the history of problems and the staff time involved in this incident, they needed to punish the bar.
Vafaei related the employee's description of events that night, which contrasted with police reports. While Vafaei said that he did not necessarily believe that version of events himself, he prefaced his retelling of the employee's story by saying "depending on what version you want to hear […]." The employee, the bar's former manager, told Vafaei he had left Cheater's to give some friends a sober ride, and returned with the friends to finish closing out the registers. Unbeknownst to the employee, the friends helped themselves to drinks while he was counting the cash, Vafaei explained.
The police report differs from that account.
An officer cited Cheater's manager at the time, Stephan Barr, 22, of Winona, for an alternate-side parking violation at 2:30 a.m. The officer's report stated that Barr asked for leniency and also asked the officer not to cite his vehicle for similar violations in the future since he works there and does not park overnight. Barr appeared intoxicated at the time, the officer stated, however the officers had to leave to respond to a medical call.
When the officer returned at 3 a.m. he noticed several people drinking inside the bar. When they noticed him, they scrambled to conceal beer bottles and drinks and hid, he reported. The officer knocked loudly on the front door, but no one answered. Shining his flashlight in through the windows, the officer saw Barr look at him and duck out of sight, according to the report.
The officer and two others monitored the exits to the bar, while a Sergeant prepared a search warrant. The officers continued watching and knocking for nearly three hours, until the search warrant could be signed by a judge and executed. The after-hours imbibers and evidence of their consumption was found inside the bar.
"One of the concerns was the amount of time our officers spent dealing with the situation that could have been resolved rather quickly," Bostrack told the council. "We had zero cooperation from people in the bar at that time." The whole event preoccupied four officers for nearly three hours.
City Attorney Chris Hood pointed out the city's standards for punishing liquor license violators, which calls for a $500 fine and a 10-day license suspension for both of two license violations resulting from the incident: having non-employees in the bar after 1:30 a.m. and consumption of alcohol after 1:30 a.m.
Mayor Mark Peterson said that he felt Vafaei may have misled him in conversations prior to the meeting in which the mayor listened to Vafaei's side of the issue. "I think you've exaggerated [your case] a little bit. I listened to you and since then I've gotten a lot more information on the incident," Peterson said. The mayor called for a fine and the suspension of the bar's liquor license.
"I think we do need to send a message to the bar owners downtown," said council member Pam Eyden.
Council member George Borzyskowski opposed suspending the bar's license, saying that alcohol vendors, charitable gambling vendors, and other businesses that work with Cheater's would be unfairly hurt by suspension. "They had no hand in this and they are being punished as well." Borzyskowski suggested a fine of $1,000 per violation for a total of $2,000 for the whole incident.
Council members supported Borzyskowski's suggested higher fine, but determined that some suspension was needed as well. "It's time for us to send a message that these are serious issues," Council Member Allyn Thurley responded, advocating for a suspension.
Council Member Gerry Krage noted that prior to the meeting, council members had discussed an outright revocation of Cheater's liquor license.
Ultimately, the council voted 5-1 (Council Member Michelle Alexander was absent) to suspend the bar's liquor license for three days, with Borzyskowski casting the dissenting vote.