Bar Fights

Owners of the Delmar want to sell, but they may be victims of their own success

This late-April gathering in a cramped City Hall conference room looks more like a Cold War diplomacy session than a public hearing.

Seventeen people are here to discuss the future of the Delmar Restaurant & Lounge, one of the most popular late-night bars in St. Louis. Catering to a college-age crowd, the Delmar attracts a throng that swells well past 100 after the clock strikes 1:30 a.m., when most other bars close. Early evenings, it's upscale dining, with patrons of all ages and jazz a few days a week. But that's not what pays the bills. Work it right, and a 3 a.m. liquor license can be a permit to print money.

Doug Morgan and Jim Russell, who've owned the Delmar for six years, appear to have worked it right -- despite a sluggish economy, they've increased their annual revenue by nearly $500,000 during the past four years, according to records filed with the St. Louis excise commissioner's office. They think they've helped make the east end of the Loop a success, but now they want to cash in and move on.

The partners have a deal to sell the bar, located at the corner of Delmar Boulevard and Eastgate Avenue, with the sale contingent on the buyer's getting a 3 a.m. license. That means the new owner has to start from scratch. Doesn't matter how long the bar's been there. Doesn't matter whether the business has been a good neighbor. Doesn't matter whether you're God. "If you don't get neighborhood consent, it doesn't matter how nice a guy you are -- you're not going to get a license," says James Morgan, liquor-control officer for the excise commissioner's office.

It doesn't take much to bring everything to a screeching halt. Ten signatures from property owners or tenants within 500 feet is enough, and Carrie Steinbach, who lives on Washington Avenue, just inside the 500-foot mark, has 28, all from neighbors on her street. At the hearing, she sits stone-faced as Brandon Hellan, who's managed the Delmar for two years, makes his case while digging his nails into his palms beneath the conference table. He wasn't planning on this when he began his quest to become the Delmar's new owner.

Hellan's presentation lasts less than two minutes: I want to own the Delmar and keep things as they've always been, he says. The building's owner testifies in favor of the license, as does Hellan's mother and a representative from the Delmar Commercial Committee, one of at least three neighborhood associations and business groups that have written letters in support of the license transfer. A St. Louis police officer has shown up to support Hellan, but he has to leave before it's time for testimony.

Alderwoman Lyda Krewson (D-28th Ward), who once held a fundraiser at the Delmar, is also present. She's been on the Board of Aldermen for nearly as long as the Delmar has been open and says she got her first complaint -- for noise -- about two months ago, after Hellan submitted his application. "And people usually don't hesitate," she notes. Krewson says she wants to hear concerns from opponents before taking a position, but she walks away empty. Steinbach won't say why she opposes the license transfer. Blake Ashby, a minority partner with Morgan and Russell, asks her several times to state her concerns. "Let us know what we're doing wrong," he pleads. "Please. Just anything. Let us know what we can work on."

Each time, Steinbach gives the same answer: "I will reserve my testimony until the next hearing." And so Excise Commissioner Robert Kraiberg does what the law requires, holding off action for 30 days, when another hearing will be scheduled.

If Steinbach succeeds, the Delmar won't shut down, and it won't close early, Russell and Morgan say. It simply won't be sold. Liquor-license renewals are virtually automatic unless there's a history of significant problems, and that isn't the case with the Delmar, according to records at the excise commissioner's office. The Delmar file contains no complaints from the public, although Morgan, the liquor-control officer, says the excise commissioner's office received a complaint about the same time Krewson did.

Russell leaves the hearing looking tired. He has a newborn child and a father with lung cancer. After six years of being chained to the Delmar oar, he wants to buy an RV and travel the country with his family.

"I am not being allowed to sell my business," he says. "It's sad. This is going to be a 45-day delay. My dad could be dead by then."

Doug Morgan says that he, Russell and Hellan want to work with neighbors. Morgan notes that he and his partner long ago hired off-duty police officers to provide security four nights a week, and they're willing to hire officers on every night if the neighborhood wants it. "In our opinion, we've done absolutely the best we can to, number one, create a good business and, number two, be good neighbors," he says. "And we're willing to do more if the neighborhood has other issues with us. Don't just say no. Give us a shot."

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