Lepsche had a more concise reason to do away with the old Sunday restriction.
“It was a ridiculous law,” he said.
Thirty miles east of Minneapolis on Interstate 94, just across the St. Croix River, which separates Minnesota and Wisconsin, you’ll find the town of Hudson. It has a quaint downtown along the river, but it was well known to Minnesotans, before the new law, as the best source for Sunday beers.
If you take the first exit off Interstate 94 in Hudson and make a right at the Dairy Queen, you’ll end up at Historic Casanova Liquor, a liquor store known for craft beer, specialty wine and, according to its owner, Tyrrell Gaffer, being the “first one off the interstate.”
Gaffer estimated that 60 percent of his Sunday sales before passage of the new law were from Minnesotans crossing the border to buy alcohol. “A lot of it was: ‘Hey, I forgot. People are at my house and I need something,’” he said. “Everyone in Minnesota knows this area pretty well.”
Compared with the owners of other border liquor stores, Gaffer is fortunate. His store is filled with high-margin niche beers and wines, and Minnesotans still come to buy products like Spotted Cow, the farmhouse ale from New Glarus Brewing, which doesn’t distribute to Minnesota.
What he now sells fewer of are name brand spirits and cases of low-margin beers from macro breweries, like 24-packs of Bud Light. “We haven’t gotten hit as bad as some of the other stores and other places around here,” he said.
Tom Salewski owns Valley Spirits, just across the Wisconsin border in Osceola, about an hour northeast of Minneapolis. There is no town directly across the river in Minnesota, but he would still see plenty of Vikings fans who forgot to buy beer.
“It blew me away sometimes when people would come in, trying to leave their place at halftime and drive 20 or 30 miles and try to get back for the fourth quarter because they ran out of beer for the game,” he said. “You’d really notice it if the Vikings played a later game.”
He said his Sunday sales were down a third since the new law, and he now schedules one fewer employee to work on Sundays.
Salewski is resigned to the fact that he will simply make less money. Without a town directly across the river, he cannot run promotions or otherwise attract Minnesotans to his store. “There is only so much you can do with pricing where you can make somebody drive 30 or 40 miles,” he said.
About 110 miles south of Osceola is Fountain City, Wis., over the river from Winona, Minn., and the 8,400 students at Winona State University. “Before they changed the law, we were pretty busy, and it’s not like it used to be,” said Bridget Johnson, a clerk at Wine House in Fountain City.
While the law is just seven months old, its effect is beginning to be quantified. During the first five months after it took effect, Wisconsin state sales tax collected from liquor stores in counties that do not border Minnesota grew by 3.4 percent compared with the same months in 2016, according to the Wisconsin Department of Revenue.
But in Wisconsin counties bordering Minnesota, state sales taxes collected from liquor stores fell 5.5 percent over the same period. A Department of Revenue spokeswoman cautioned that the data did not include alcohol sold at places like grocery stores and gas stations — which is allowed in Wisconsin — and that monthly sales tax data was volatile.
It isn’t clear yet whether Minnesota liquor stores are seeing an appreciable rise in sales. The Minnesota Department of Revenue has not completed its 2017 data, and it also lumps together taxes on all alcohol products, including those in bars and restaurants. Minnesota’s border counties also tend to be much more populous than Wisconsin’s, making small changes less noticeable.
It’s not all bad news for Wisconsin’s liquor stores. Unlike Minnesota’s, they are still allowed to be open on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and some stores still anticipate brisk sales to Minnesotans after their stores close on Sunday nights before holidays like Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Plus, as a patron drinking Wednesday afternoon at the newly opened Hop & Barrel Brewing in Hudson noted, without the hordes of Minnesotans running in to buy their cases of beer, on Sundays locals “can finally go to Casanova again.”