We see that you have javascript disabled. Please enable javascript and refresh the page to continue reading local news. If you feel you have received this message in error, please contact the customer support team at 1-833-248-7801.

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

University Liquor faces fine for underage sales

Roto of Duluth Inc., the owner of University Liquor, could face a $1,000 fine for selling alcohol to an underage, undercover customer for the third consecutive time that it has been subjected to a compliance check.

University Liquor on Woodland Avenue in Duluth Thursday afternoon. The Duluth City Council will decide on Monday whether Roto of Duluth Inc., the owner University Liquor, should be fined $1,000 or face other penalties for repeated violations in which the business sold alcoholic products to undercover underage customers. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
University Liquor on Woodland Avenue in Duluth Thursday afternoon. The Duluth City Council will decide on Monday whether Roto of Duluth Inc., the owner University Liquor, should be fined $1,000 or face other penalties for repeated violations in which the business sold alcoholic products to undercover underage customers. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
We are part of The Trust Project.

Roto of Duluth Inc., the owner of University Liquor, could face a $1,000 fine for selling alcohol to an underage, undercover customer for the third consecutive time that it has been subjected to a compliance check.

Those checks have been spaced out over the course of the past seven years, but the repeated violations prompted Duluth's Alcohol, Gambling and Tobacco Commission to recommend a larger-than-normal fine for the latest citation due to a few "aggravating circumstances."

Chief among those aggravating circumstances was a commission finding that: "The licensee has failed every city of Duluth compliance check in at least the past seven years, regarding sales of intoxicating liquor to a person under the age of 21."

That statement, while true, would be far more damning if Duluth were conducting annual or even regular compliance checks.

But Duluth Police Officer Cha Vang, who heads up liquor license enforcement for the city, said such stings have been infrequent in recent years.

ADVERTISEMENT

"We used to do more compliance checks, but of course with manpower being down, we couldn't check as much as we used to be able to," he said.

Vang's records show University Liquor, located at 1603 Woodland Ave., was found to have sold alcoholic beverages to an underage customer in 2010 and 2012, but the business had not been subject to another compliance check until Aug. 31, 2017, when it was cited for its latest such violation.

Faced with fewer resources today, the Duluth Police Department typically conducts targeted underage buy efforts only in response to complaints it receives about a particular establishment, Vang said. It was just such a complaint that prompted police to check on University Liquor in August.

Vang said back when staffing was less of an issue, up to 14 officers would be involved in compliance checks, but those officers have since been transferred back into patrol-focused roles, except on an as-needed basis.

Assistant City Clerk Roberta Pirkola said there had been some discussion on the commission about imposing a harsher punishment on University Liquor, due to its past transgressions. Commissioners contemplated a fine of up to $2,500 and a 30-day suspension of sales, but given the five-year gap between citations, she said that punishment was deemed too harsh.

Tony Walker, CEO of Roto of Duluth, did not return messages from the News Tribune left at University Liquor or his personal cellphone Thursday afternoon.

Pirkola noted that neither the business owner nor the clerk who made the sale to an undercover, underage customer disputed the violation. Each was charged a $200 fine, which they paid.

If the Duluth City Council follows the commission's recommendations and passes a proposed resolution Monday night, Roto of Duluth Inc., will be required to pay another $1,000.

ADVERTISEMENT

During a Thursday night agenda session meeting, At Large Duluth City Councilor Noah Hobbs asked if the council had the latitude to impose a greater punishment than the commission had recommended.

City Attorney Gunnar Johnson said he would look into the matter and report back to councilors before they take up the issue Monday night.

When asked if the city is doing enough to crack down on sales of alcohol to underage drinkers, Vang said: "Yes, we'd like to do more. But of course with the manpower that we have, we just can't do the kind of compliance checks that we used to. But remember that we've got hundreds of establishments that sell alcohol, and the number of violations are very low."

Hobbs, too, recognized the staffing limitations.

"We've done cuts to the budget every year that I've been on the council, and cuts were made prior to me joining the council. So, do I think we're adequately enforcing everything? I think staff is doing their best and are performing adequately. I don't know if we just have the resources to say that that is a No. 1 priority," he said.

Hobbs said he does support a steeper fine for University Liquor, as proposed by the commission.

"I guess as a liquor store owner, you should assume that you're always going to have someone under the age of 21 trying to get liquor or beer, particularly given that location, he said, noting University Liquor's close proximity to the University of Minnesota Duluth and College of St. Scholastica campuses.

"So you should have a higher due diligence in that location, versus a place out in Gary-New Duluth, where you're less likely to have a higher influx of underage customers," Hobbs said.

ADVERTISEMENT

Vang said University Liquor could easily address its problems with additional staff training.

"The simplest thing would be if they would just ask for an ID. That would solve this whole issue," Vang said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
What to read next
Thomas Shephard's favorite part of harvest is the people he does it alongside as there are a lot of jobs to do and the people who he works with are the ones who get it done.