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Continued: Vikings stadium funding plan relies on bars' culture, marketing and 'whales'

The scene at Fabulous Fern’s in St. Paul, a bar/restaurant that attracts a business crowd, looked much the same. But Fabulous Fern’s ranks No. 8 in Minnesota e-pulltab sales, generating $41,000 last month. Customers streaming in checked out the popcorn machine near the bar, but not an eye shifted toward the games underneath it.

“If we’re a top stop in the charity world, the whole effort is a disaster,” said Fern’s owner Charles Senkler.

Senkler believes about a dozen regular players drive his sales, an analysis echoed by many gambling managers.

More would play, he predicted, if they could see how many prizes were left in the game, and how much they were worth — like with paper pull­tabs.

Playing in the dark

This is a universal complaint among players and bar owners.

“You’re playing blind,” said Nick Closmore, general manager at Wild Onion, who thinks that is the main reason his customers don’t play.

“We did some table tents for a while and promoted it on Facebook,” Closmore said. “But we concluded that the way games were set up, there was no sense, ‘I have a way to beat the house.’ ”

Most of the bars on the Top 10 list of e-game sales do some advertising, say owners. Plus, their bartenders and/or pulltab sellers promote it.

“I think a lot of bars aren’t taking responsibility,” said Amanda Jackson, assistant gambling manager for the Spring Lake Lions Club, which sold $35,000 in e-games last month at Monte’s Sports Bar. “Our pulltab sellers encourage people to give them a try. We have signs up. We put them on the counter. If someone comes to the [pulltab] booth, we encourage them to give them a try.”

Other Top 10 bars, such as Mills Lounge in Dilworth, say its $41,000 in sales last month reflect its location on busy Hwy. 10 and near I-94.

Mully’s on Madison, a country-western bar in Mankato, also benefits from its location and from being the first in the area, said owner Patrick Mulligan. His bar broke all state records in March, selling $110,000 in e-pulltabs.

Napkin holders say, “Mully’s Now has Electronic Pull­tabs See Bartender for Details.” And the high-trafficked wall by the bathroom has a poster announcing the games.

“We had [advertisements] on the marquee for a while,” said Mulligan.

Angie Oachs, a regular at the bar, believes sales are hot because Mully’s long has been “a gambling bar.’’

“I was a little confused at first, because of the bonuses and things,” said Oachs. “But I haven’t gone to the casino since I started playing these.”

But the monstrous sales coming out of otherwise-ordinary bars have some folks suspicious about high-stakes gamblers, or “whales,’’ skewing results. Mully’s $110,000 sales bonanza in March plunged to $52,600 in April. Likewise, Knuckleheads Bar & Grill in Hill City saw sales plunge from $50,400 in March to $1,349 in April, according to state figures.

Porky’s, meanwhile, has consistently been in the Top 10. The windowless bar, which has about a dozen stools and a few booths, also has long been a gambling bar.

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