From Wabasha to Warroad, from Sleepy Eye to Silver Bay, Dateline Minnesota scours the state to bring you breaking news from outside the Twin Cities.

Blue Plate backs off employee tip fee

Posted by: Jennifer Brooks Updated: August 20, 2014 - 1:02 PM

The Blue Plate restaurant chain no longer plans to take a cut out of its servers' tips to offset Minnesota's higher minimum wage.

In the face of blistering community backlash, the St. Paul-based restaurant chain announced Wednesday that it will resume paying a 2 percent credit card fee it had been passing along to its minimum-wage waitstaff every time someone paid their tip with a credit card.

Blue Plate's owners, David Burley and Stephanie Shimp, also announced they will be offering an additional wage hike of their own to their non-tipped employees.

"We have always listened to our guests and our community," Burley said in a statement. "We've reflected and decided to try a different approach that will give our communities a clear indicator of who we are as a business."

Minnesota's minimum wage -- which had been one of the lowest in the nation -- increased by 75 cents an hour on Aug. 1. In response, the Blue Restaurant Company sent a memo to its employees alerting them that the new wage hike, coupled with rising health insurance costs, would cost the company $1.25 million. Therefore, the 2 percent credit card fee on tips that the restaurant used to pay would now be coming out of servers' tips.

A number of restaurants already pass credit card fees along to waiters and waitresses, arguing that tips can make servers some of the best-paid employees on staff. But to the Blue Plate's tipped employees, it looked like they were being asked to pay for their own pay raise.

On Wednesday, management backpedaled, pledging to immediately resume paying the credit card fees themselves.

"I think Blue Plate made a business decision that backfired on them: 'Enjoy your increase in the minimum wage increase but we're going to nick you on the back end,'" said Wade Luneburg, political director of UNITE HERE Minnesota, a union representing restaurant and hospitality industry workers. "It was a tacky policy. It is legal, but that probably doesn't make it right."

The company also announced that beginning Sept. 1, it will offer its non-tipped employees a new, higher minimum wage of $9.69 per hour. Minnesota's current minimum wage is now $8 an hour and will increase to $9.50 by 2016.

Burley also said the restaurant chain would begin holding monthly meetings with employees to "share ideas and innovations."

Pope County shooting under investigation

Posted by: Jennifer Brooks Updated: August 14, 2014 - 2:28 PM

State and local investigators are looking into the death of a man who was shot and killed in his home in Gilchrist Township Wednesday night.

Pope County sheriff's deputies responded to a call to at the rural home just before midnight and found a distraught woman outside the house and the man's body inside. According to a report by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, the man and woman lived in the home. Investigators do not believe there is an ongoing risk to the public.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is working with Pope County on the investigation. They are  conducting interviews with the woman and other potential witnesses.

The man's body has been taken to the Anoka County Medical Examiner's office for formal identification. No additional details are available at this time.

Minnesota politics goes to the dogs

Posted by: Jennifer Brooks Updated: August 13, 2014 - 11:46 AM

The new mayor of Cormorant was elected in a landslide, despite -- or perhaps because of -- his refusal to give stump speeches, make empty campaign promises or wear pants.

Source: WDAYDuke the Dog takes office this weekend after handily winning the popular vote in this northwestern Minnesota village with a (human) population of 12.

Residents paid $1 per ballot to cast votes in the tongue-in-cheek election and Duke, a shaggy Great Pyrenees, will be sworn in at this weekend's Cormorant Daze festival.

The 7-year-old dog isn't the youngest mayor ever elected in Minnesota -- that would be 3-year-old Bobby Tufts who earlier this month lost his bid for a third term as mayor of Dorset.

But he may be the only mayor willing to work for food.

WDAY-TV in Fargo reports that Tuffy's Pet Food out of Perham is donating a year's supply of kibble to the new mayor. The station captured footage of the town's new mayor patrolling the local yards and mugging for the cameras in a mayoral sash and tiny top hat.

Duke was a dogged campaigner, but he wasn't the only candidate in the race.

“Poor Richard Sherbrook that owns the Cormorant Store, he didn't even have half as many votes as Duke did," Cormorant resident Tricia Maloney told WDAY.

Photo credit: WDAY

Hundreds come to learn more about medical marijuana manufacture

Posted by: Jennifer Brooks Updated: August 8, 2014 - 11:46 AM

Hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs crowded into an auditorium Friday, hoping to get in on the ground floor of Minnesota's new medical marijuana marketplace.

More than 250 people -- some in power suits, some in dreadlocks -- signed in for a six-hour seminar with the Minnesota Department of Health. Minnesota has less than a year to figure out how to grow, process and distribute the drug before the first patients begin lining up to buy it legally in July 2015.

Every ounce of legal marijuana grown in the state will come from two manufacturers the Health Department will license this winter.  Becoming one of the two won't be easy. Just to get a foot in the door, prospective manufacturers have to come to the state with a secure production facility already prepared and a $20,000 non-refundable application in hand.

"I'm a little dismayed," said Don Wirtshafter, an attorney and hemp activist from Athens, Ohio, who is consulting with one of the prospective manufacturers.

He worries that only the wealthiest, well-connected investors have a shot of being selected or of staying afloat in the first few startup years.

"They're not willing to let the free market work here. They're controlling it from the very start," he said. "Only the huge companies can survive. If you don't have $20 million, don't even start."

Minnesota's two marijuana manufacturers will grow and refine tjhe cannabis into pills, liquids and oils -- smoking marijuana will still be illegal -- for sale through eight regional distributors.

At Friday's hearing, prospective manufacturers peppered state regulators with questions about everything from marijuana taxes to union protections in the workplace. Assistant health commissioner Manny Munson-Regala acknowledged that the startups will face a great deal of uncertainty, and no certainty of profit in the beginning.

"We cannot come up with all the rules (for challenges) you're going to face. This is a huge abyss," he said.

The medical marijuana industry will be tightly regulated. But it's an industry that's starting from scratch, and there are a lot of questions the businesses will have to figure out as they go along -- everything from how to transport the product to how to train the staff and how to dispose of the leftover marijuana after the production process. Then there are the security concerns.

"You're dealing with a cash crop, folks. People are going to want to get at it," Munson-Regala said.

5-year-old mayor loses election

Posted by: Jennifer Brooks under People Updated: August 5, 2014 - 11:09 AM

Minnesota's youngest mayor is now its youngest ex-mayor.

Robert "Bobby" Tufts, age 5, lost his bid for a third term as mayor of tiny Dorset, Minn., this Sunday. Instead, voters at the Taste of Dorset festival threw their support behind a candidate three times his age -- 16-year-old Eric Mueller.

Despite losing the office he'd held for almost half his life, Tufts accepted his first electoral defeat with grace.

"It was fun, but it's time to pass on the vote," Bobby told The Associated Press. He's ready to pass the political mantle to the next generation -- his little brother. "I'm gonna let James do it. He's 2."

Bobby leaves behind a record of mayoral accomplishments that include tossing candy at parades and moving ice cream to the top of the food pyramid, the AP reports. He also leveraged the publicity his election generated to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Red River Valley in Fargo.

Dorset, with a population of around 25, has no formal government and its mayoral elections are a decidedly informal affair. Taste of Dorset festival-goers pay $1 per ballot and can vote as often as they like, with all the proceeds going to support the festival.

Mayor Bobby worked the crowds, gladhandling in a tiny tie and fedora, but this was Eric Mueller's year. When the time came to pull the winning mayor's name out of a hat, the honor went to the high school junior from Mendota Heights, who told the AP that the idea to run for higher office came to him after he ate five fried ice creams in a row.

For now, Bobby's mother, Emma Tufts, says her son is looking forward to being just another kid in the crowd at the festival, catching candy instead of throwing it.

"He really enjoyed being a kid in some festivals, not having to perform," she told the AP.

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