EL City Council Willing to Revisit 50/50 Ordinance

Wednesday, March 15, 2017, 10:08 am
Jessy Gregg

East Lansing’s City Council seems ready to revisit the 33-year-old 50/50 ordinance mandating that bars and restaurants in downtown East Lansing must derive at least 50 percent of their sales from food.

East Lansing’s 50/50 ordinance has been in existence since 1984, but has only had provision for enforcement since 2001, when the City mandated that restaurants provide “ratio reports” demonstrating that they were meeting the requirements. Now that there are several big downtown developments in the pipeline which could increase the spaces available for eating and drinking establishments, the balance of food sales to alcohol sales is seen by some as a possible detriment to development.

Councilwoman Shanna Draheim said at last night’s City Council meeting that she thinks it’s time to revisit the rule, which she says is difficult to enforce and may be having the opposite of its intended effect. She remarked that the ordinance was initially meant to promote a diversity of options downtown, not just “college bars,” but resulted instead in restaurants that are serving “cheap beer and high priced burgers.” Draheim added that she wanted to raise the 50/50 rule because there is a desire to diversify dining downtown, but some of the kinds of eating establishments that would appeal to adults older than students can’t work under this rule. She mentioned as examples a wine and tapas restaurant or a nice jazz music venue that might serve upscale cocktails. Proposed redevelopment projects downtown would make new retail space available, so this was a good time to address the issue, Draheim said.

East Lansing Police Chief Jeff Murphy explained that there is really no way to enforce the 50/50 rule other than through an audit of each establishment’s financial records, which Tim Dempsey (filling in for City Manager George Lahanas) said was financially untenable. According to Murphy the reports supplied by the restaurants really mean “very little,” and he asked “If we aren’t going to enforce it, then why have it?”

Councilmember Susan Woods talked about her experiences with the Responsible Hospitality Council (RHC) which is a coalition of East Lansing businesses committed to the responsible service of alcohol. She said that she felt a lot of the aims of the ordinance were being met by the RHC, whose members exert “positive pressure on each other to conform to best practices.” Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier asked what the RHC members thought about the 50/50 ordinance and Woods answered emphatically that “they hate it.”

The Council then discussed whether removing the ordinance would allow establishments to revert to being “just bars.” It was generally agreed that it wouldn’t have that effect, but that, even if a few restaurants switched over to being bar-only, it probably wouldn’t make much difference.

Chief Murphy remarked that from an enforcement standpoint it was easier if the people who might be drinking in East Lansing on any given night were more spread out. He used the example of the Tin Can, a relative newcomer to downtown, as a place that pulled bar traffic away from the Albert Avenue and Abbot Road corridor.

Draheim and Beier both remarked on the problem of “expensive” craft beer skewing the sales figures, and Beier remarked that they didn't exist when the 50/50 rule was first drafted. Furthermore, the 50/50 encourages higher food prices, an unintended consequence, Draheim suggested. Hopcat, with its emphasis on microbrewed beer, was mentioned as an establishment that is just barely in compliance. “Is that an operator that you would have difficulty with (if the ordinance were eliminated)?” asked Chief Murphy “I would argue not.”

Beier, addressing Dempsey, concluded by saying, “I think Council is interested in staff’s recommendations for possible changes, even if they’re pretty drastic,” indicating a willingness to abandon the 50/50 requirements altogether or dramatically change the requirements.

Read more about the history of the 50/50 Rule and its impact on the EL restaurant scene here.