When Winona Police Department (WPD) officers entered MC's Sports Bar for a surprise compliance check this January, they found 16 underage women, most of them 18-20 years old, drinking at the bar. Owner Clint Evans was present at the bar that night. When he and partner Matt Golden took over the former Schyde's & What Not bar at Second and Johnson streets, they described MC's as a cleaned up version of the former bar, which had become well known for violent outbursts and delinquent taxes. However, last month, in response to the January incident, the Winona City Council imposed the second-most serious penalty enforced in the last decade to a bar that has served underaged people.
As Evans appeared before the council for a public hearing on what consequences the city would impose, he acknowledged, "I understand this looks really bad, and I just wanted everyone to know that this is something I take very seriously and took seriously when it happened, and I am doing everything in my power to make sure it never happens again."
Evans told the council that one employee was responsible for checking each patron's identification that night, and due to the high volume, should have been stationed at the door, checking the identification of every person entering the bar. That did not happen, and the employee was fired, he said.
"Why would they have not been watching that door when that's their primary job, and [given] the liability that comes with not watching that door?" asked council member George Borzyskowksi. "Because you folks have a hell of an investment in that establishment down there, and you would think you would have all those bases covered…. I'm starting to wonder, if 16 got caught, how many came and went before that?"
According to the police report, the underage women all said they had been coming to MC's on Wednesday nights for "Wing Night" and they knew they would not have to show identification if they were nice to the bar staff.
Council members Michelle Alexander and Allyn Thurley both pointed to those statements as evidence that many more minors had likely been served at the bar. "'Wednesday nights' [is] plural — if it wasn't for this enforcement check and this action, who knows how long it would have continued," Thurley said. How will MC's overcome the expectation among underage women that they can get in, Alexander asked.
Mayor Mark Peterson echoed that concern, saying, "I think word gets out and people know this is an easy bar to get into. I think we should set an example here."
Evans told Borzyskowski that there was no excuse; it was a mistake. He told Alexander and Thurley that he noticed Wednesday nights were becoming more popular and he was on the verge of mandating that a bouncer be stationed at the door, but that the compliance check happened before he made the rule change.
Now, Evans said he has 15 video cameras in the bar, including cameras trained on the door so he can make sure employees are checking identification, and he employs a private security company to coordinate bouncers on Fridays and Saturdays. He added, "I grill [the bouncers] constantly, and I basically nag them every day that I see them so they know what they're supposed to be doing and protect our investment. Unfortunately, not everyone cares about that place as much as we do, as the owners do."
Per state law, the council could have fined MC's up to $2,000, suspended the bar's liquor license for up to 60 days, or even revoked the license entirely. The city has its own guidelines on penalizing liquor license violations, which offers less stringent penalties for bars that participate in trainings sessions led by the WPD. MC's staff completed the training. For a "Best Practices Program," a participant's first offense with 11-19 minors, city policy advises fining the participating bar $1,000 and implementing a stayed 30-day liquor license suspension, meaning that the suspension would only occur if there were further problems.
The City Council voted to waive the stayed suspension and fine the bar $1,500, which it paid on time.
The only time in the last 10 years that a bar has faced a larger fine — and the only time the city suspended a liquor license — was in 2013, when officers spotted bar employees drinking after legal hours of operation at the former Cheater's Bar. The employees hid when officers knocked on the door, and officers had to wait outside the bar for three hours while a judge was awakened in the middle of the night to sign a search warrant. Cheater's Bar was fined $2,000 and its liquor license was suspended for three days.
"Had this bar not worked with the police department it would be facing a 30-day suspension, which for most places would mean going out of business," council member Gerry Krage stated, referring to the city policy for non-participating bars caught serving that many minors. This bar may not have followed the best practices very well, but it's been city policy to ease sanctions on bars that work with the police, he noted.