The Price Gouging of Minneapolis Nightlife in 2022

Disclaimer: Many of the statements in this article are purely speculative as the balance sheets of private establishments are… private.

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I spend my days glued to a computer, with no roommates, family, or friends ever stopping by. The only way I get to interact with humanity is by going out on the town at night. If I don’t interact with humans regularly, I start to go a little crazy, and since I make very good money as a software engineer, I go out 7 nights a week. But I have to say, that the price of nightlife right now is completely out of whack, and the limits of what I’m willing to pay to patronize these places are being tested quite severely. Obviously, Covid-19 is largely to blame, and we all hope this is temporary, just like the pandemic is hopefully temporary… but I hope that the nature of free markets eventually balances everything out and things go back to normal, and soon.

In the middle of the pandemic, starting spring of 2021, armed with my vaccinated status, I rode my bike all over town hunting for signs of life. Just about everywhere I looked was shuttered. Many places never reopened, and many are clearly operating and hanging on by a thread. Whether a club survives this mess or not likely depends on a number of factors. I’m no expert but I can think of a few such factors… How well did the owners finance it? Do they have cash reserves? Debts? Was the club even profitable in good times? Did the government bail them out? How diversified are their other investments?

Many clubs are owned by people who own several clubs and they are relying on revenue from their surviving clubs to pay down their debts and losses from others. Some survived because they were the best of the best of our cultural centers. In this category, The Saloon comes to mind, being arguably Minneapolis’s most treasured gay bar, and the CC Club, being the nucleus of its neighborhood and a long-standing institution. Also surviving: Up-Down and Tilt for fans of pinball and retro gaming, as well as Mortimer’s, 1029 Bar, 331 Club.

I write this during the upswing in the “omicron variant” as many businesses are once again canceling events and imposing mask mandates. Economic losses in nightlife clearly have had a disproportionate inflationary effect on nightlife as businesses currently struggle to compensate their also-struggling employees with living wages and recover their losses due to months of complete shutdown.

What’s even open these days?

The clubs that remained open during the pandemic often operated just on weekends and/or at reduced capacities. Many clubs still only operate on the weekends and all struggle to hire employees because they cannot put together an economic balance sheet that competitively compensates new employees, particularly when accounting for inflation. The city, and particularly nightlife is basically dying, if not dead, as nightclubs close their doors… first temporarily… then permanently. The city of Minneapolis could help this by maybe offering free parking downtown or something… I paid $6.25 to park on the street, an empty street, to go visit an empty club last night… ever hear of supply vs. demand? Minneapolis, drop your insane street parking charges!

Thriving but/yet Expensive

What puzzled me for a while, is that there are many clubs that seemed like they could weather the pandemic just fine, striving on take-out orders due to demand for excellent food. For example, Moto-i, is a thriving, upscale establishment that is virtually never empty, yet here they are essentially gouging patrons for every cent they can get. I speculate that this is because owners were forced to shutter its sister club, The Herkimer, during the pandemic. Herkimer’s loss is probably weighing down its kin… forcing the owners to jack-up prices at Moto-i with covert “service fees” to all tabs. Moto-i, at least when compared to its neighbors, was a beacon of light, thriving, while other businesses struggled and failed, literally across the street (Muddy Waters). Even though it operated at reduced capacity, clearly it was thriving compared to other places around it.

Prices at Moto-i are up, up, up, with an additional 12% (down from 15%) premium attached as a “service fee”, hiding the true cost to you on their menu. I responded to the constant gouging by ordering water only with my food, and rarely, if ever, buying drinks. Jack up your prices, sell fewer products.

When I rode my bike around town, possibly the only club in which I was guaranteed to see signs of life was The Saloon… but as I returned to the place nearly every day, my drink prices rose and rose and rose. I made a point to visit it regularly… because… well… where else can I find civilization? Nowhere! But the social options during covid were restricted and limited, and the only person I got to talk to most nights was the bartender.

I watched as the price I paid for drinks at The Saloon shot up to obscene levels. I paid $8 for my favorite drink during “happy hour”! And once happy hour was over and the price of my favorite drink went up to $11 after tip… I had to concede… “I’m out.” The Saloon is no longer a place that I frequent. They have lost 99% of my attention… and 99% of the business I used to give them… so I can only assume they have lost other patrons in exchange for higher per-unit margins. You could argue that The Saloon is more likely to survive than the CC Club, because the Saloon, at least, offers patrons more than just a dive to hang out in, with its frequent shows, multiple bars, and excellent food quality, but the flip side is that The Saloon is downtown, and in a building that is probably quite pricey… and downtown is absolutely miserable right now. It is a difficult place to get people to visit. The corner had lots of problems with drug dealing and drug addicts in 2021, and someone was murdered on the street right where I would typically park my car when visiting the establishment (but in fairness, there have been shootings right outside nearly every popular club in town including Mortimer’s, CC Club, and Moto-i). It is difficult and expensive and dangerous to park around there, and I get frequently harassed walking the short distance from my car to the club… so I probably will not return until it is warm enough for me to take a bike, and then it will be just for a little food, probably no drinks, followed by a swift exit.

Having considerably greater financial strength than the average person, I can only conclude that many other patrons “tapped out” on paying for $11 drinks long before I did. Patrons only have a certain amount of money to offer an establishment. Maybe they compensate by ordering fewer drinks, skipping the $8 appetizers, staying home, or moving their patronage elsewhere.

Although I’d consider The Saloon to be an upscale club, I looked at the tab handed to me at the end of the night at even the crappiest of dives with a very audible “what the fuck!?” and a shake of my head. Particularly, if I was entertaining a friend, a typical tab rose into triple digits and I could easily spend $80 on myself alone if I ordered so much as french fries. It was very clear that I could not pay these prices every night as I racked up $3000 in tabs in December alone while I was largely on vacation, bored, and lonely. My employer was very generous to give me an 11% raise to start 2022… but even now with this kind of inflation, I question whether or not this is even enough… and I question how anyone else is surviving in this economic climate.

The CC Club is a similar story. I paid $14 for cheese curds and water at the CC Club a few weeks ago after a “service fee” and tip. It turns out, whereas the CC Club is still clearly a strong institution, the bakery next door, French Meadow Bakery, sharing owners, likely didn’t fare so well as it had to close for a long time and, although currently open, doesn’t seem to thrive like it used to from the outside looking in. At some point, the patrons of the CC Club will either get fed up with the prices or simply run out of money to offer the establishment. A scenario in which the patrons of the CC Club turn away from their hipster institution would be unprecedented. The patrons of the CC Club have no real reason to remain loyal to the establishment other than possibly the fact that it is close to where they live and therefore their friends and neighbors are there. Loyal patrons of this nature simply don’t exist in the world of most clubs… they are “unicorns”. Very few clubs are blessed with busy Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights, but the CC Club thrives on those nights… and the CC Club, for a long time, was one of only a handful of places I regularly found patrons and friends during the pandemic. It is blessed with the kind of loyalty that is an absolute holy grail… yet here they are jacking up prices, gouging their patrons, while many employees are pulling minimum wage. I can only conclude that patronage will be negatively affected by their price increases.

When I paid $14 for cheese curds and water at the CC Club, I no longer felt any desire to return as $50 there seemed to buy me very little in terms of food and drinks anymore. That was weeks ago, and I have not returned, despite heralding it to be one of my favorite places to visit for the entirety of 2021. I can see and make friends elsewhere, but even joints that are the diviest of dive bars are charging me $7 for drinks… even the clubs that offer little outside of Bingo night and pull tabs with very little in terms of socialization options. I’m finding it difficult to spend less than $50 a night anywhere, even at the saddest club I can find.

One night, while sitting in an almost empty club that was asking patrons to pay a $12 cover charge to enter an equally empty side-room for an under-attended, low-quality, production… I mentally disconnected from it all. I began to turn over all the stones to find one establishment that still believed in the capitalistic spirit of price competition. I found only one that stood out far above the rest. Vegas Lounge in Northeast Minneapolis, still offers cheap drinks. $3 rails, $5 for Vodka+Redbull. Additionally, they do Karaoke every night, and the staff and people there are all very nice. I found my new social club and I see no real reason or means to go anywhere else. I pay $5 for a drink there that costs me $7 at the Otter a few blocks away (which also does Karaoke 7 nights a week). That same drink would cost me $9 at a lot of other places that offer social options that are inferior. Capitalism. Competition. I hope the owners of these establishments start lowering prices again, instead of raising them, and I hope it is truly struggle and not greed that is motivating them to jack up prices. They need to ask themselves what the budget of their average patron is… even people making 6 figure salaries are struggling in 2022… and you shouldn’t have to have a 6-figure salary to be able to afford a dive bar… even in 2022.

Restaurants Struggling or Dying

Only restaurants that served the best of the best food survived the pandemic to this point catering to average people. Many high-end establishments shuttered their doors. Places like Wok in the Park made a killing on takeout orders surviving entirely for a time on the demand for high quality of food. Wok in the Park, unlike many places did not have to reduce or simplyify their menu, but did reduce their weekend hours. We saw many other restaurants permanently close their doors, like Egg and I, Muddy Waters, and high-end restaurants like The Bachelor Farmer, famously patronized by Barack Obama when he would come to town. One article reported that Minneapolis had lost at least 67 Restaurants due to the pandemic as of May 2021. If your restaurant was just a conveniently located joint that sold “tolerable” or unremarkable food, your business was and still is probably hurting really bad.

One of my favorite restaurants was forced to reduce their menu to almost nothing and removed my favorite entree from it. This dish was the sole reason that I went to the place for 27 years. When asked if they ever intended to bring my favorite dish back, the answer I got was “probably not”. I haven’t been back to Chianti Grill since, which is sad because it is the first place I visited when I came to Minneapolis in 1995. I assumed that they were over-leveraged in debt from building a fancy new location, as they tried to present themselves as an upscale, fancy establishment, and were likely having a hard time selling enough food to service their debts, forcing them to simplify their kitchen operation and jack up prices severely (like many restaurants have done). I used to frequent this place practically every day, and I’d pay $10 for lunch. Now it is hard to pay less than $30. But in fairness, it is hard to pay less than $10 at McDonalds these days. McDonalds, therefore is losing my business to White Castle lol.

So why is the nightlife at these clubs so expensive? Every establishment has a unique financing equation invented entirely by its owners and general managers, so only they can actually answer that question. But, speaking as a patron, I must simply warn that raising prices on your patrons is a dangerous experiment. You need to ask yourself… what is your average patron’s budget for nightlife, and how can I guarantee they will return with their friends? As more and more of my paychecks go towards drinks and appetizers, I can only imagine that the average person feels the pinch considerably more than I do, and I can only conclude people will stay home or find cheaper options if prices continue to rise at these rates. An absolutely obscene amount of money has been leaving my wallet and going into these places… and even if I want to, I just can’t patronize overpriced establishments anymore… I’m tapped out.

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