Once a gathering spot in many Minneapolis neighborhoods, 3.2 bars are dwindling.
Marion Abell pulled a small metal box out from under the well-seasoned T-Shoppe bar and reached inside to pull out slips of paper. “We have a tab for regulars. They pay every two weeks,” Abell said. “Some people come back in a year and pay.”
What makes this Camden neighborhood hangout distinctive isn’t running tabs, but rather the kind of beer it serves: It’s one of only two remaining 3.2 bars in Minneapolis.
Two decades ago, 64 city establishments had licenses that allowed them to sell only lower-alcohol beer. While a few of those bars have made the transition to stronger stuff, most have gone by the wayside. In their stead, there’s been a proliferation of upscale craft-beer bars (Buster’s, Pat’s Tap, Pig & Fiddle) and restaurants (Piccolo, Corner Table and Al Vento).
Today’s neighborhood bar is more likely to offer India Pale Ale, charcuterie and flatbreads than Hamm’s, Stewart sandwiches and pickled eggs. It’s also more likely to draw a younger, more affluent crowd from around the metro area.
Grant Wilson, the city’s manager of licenses and consumer services, said the transformation has been a good thing for the city.
“People really like having neighborhood facilities like this,” he said.
But the people who frequent the remaining 3.2 joints say they do so because of camaraderie, not the percentage of alcohol in the beer. And they prize the old-fashioned, small-town feel, which can get lost in gentrification.
“It all tastes like beer,” said Dennis Carpenter, a regular at the Sunrise Inn in south Minneapolis. “I’m just glad I’ve still got this place.”
Everybody knows your name
On a blustery, snow-spitting afternoon at the T-Shoppe, Carlos Benevedez was ready to light up the karaoke machine. “We turn this place into a cantina once in a while,” he said before taking a swig from his 22-ounce mug.
Benevedez downplayed the quality of his voice, saying “RCA Records ain’t gonna knock on my door in the morning.” But fellow regular Dana Martin disagreed.
“He’s pretty good,” said Martin. “We know who can sing in here, and also who can’t sing.”
In fact, the people who frequent the bar know a lot about one another. Abell said about half of her customers arrive by foot. Once there, they tend to move from stool to table, chatting up their friends.
“This place is like a small ‘Cheers,’ ” Benevedez said. “They say whatever happens at the T-Shoppe, the whole neighborhood knows.”
Many areas still have that kind of neighborhood bar, with stronger beverages. But affluent people are moving back into the city, and commercial corners are becoming more upscale.
And 3.2 bars have been hurt by more than changes in taste.
Steve Houle, co-owner of the Sunrise Inn, said the 2005 smoking ban “knocked the heck out of us. The pool table went all weekend before that. I used to work more hours, make good tips,” he said. “We’re lucky to still be going.”
At the T-Shoppe, owner Abell and her husband, Joe, put in a patio to woo smokers. Still, Abell estimates the smoking ban has cost them about 30 percent of their business.