Taco Bell Cantina on State Street wins court battle for liquor license
Patrons of the Taco Bell Cantina in Downtown Madison may soon be able to order a beer or a glass of wine with their 12-pack of tacos or their Cheesy Gordita Crunches after a judge’s ruling Friday granted the franchised restaurant a liquor license.
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Rhonda L. Lanford ruled that the city acted arbitrarily and unreasonably when denying the license for the Taco Bell at 534 State St. The license would allow Taco Bell to serve beer and wine until 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
The license will now go into effect unless the city files an appeal within 90 days, said Michelle LoGuercio, a spokeswoman for the restaurant.
Just over a year ago, Mayor Paul Soglin vetoed the license the City Council approved for the operator of the Taco Bell, Bell Great Lakes. Two attempts by the council to override the veto failed, and the city sent an official denial of the license in January.
State law generally presumes a municipality’s decisions are valid, but Lanford said in her ruling that the city acted arbitrarily because three similar restaurants in the immediate area were granted licenses following Taco Bell’s denial.
“The problem with the city’s action is not that it did not have the discretion to act in this manner under the law; the problem is that it did not then apply this policy consistently,” Lanford wrote.
The restaurant plans to begin serving alcohol early next year, LoGuercio said. The court order means the license will be issued without further action by the City Council, she said, though the city can file an appeal before the license is issued.
“We look forward to continuing to serve the residents and visitors of Madison, Wisconsin, with the option of beer and wine,” said Greg Flynn, chairman and CEO of Bell Great Lakes’ parent company, Flynn Restaurant Group.
Soglin could not be reached for comment.
According to Lanford’s ruling:
Soglin’s two reasons for vetoing the license, which were provided to Bell Great Lakes upon the denial, were not reasonable because they were not applied to other nearby restaurants seeking liquor licenses.
Soglin said more liquor licenses on State Street would over-tax police in the area and that granting Taco Bell — a fast-food restaurant — a liquor license would lead to more fast-food chains applying for licenses.
In its denial, signed by City Clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl, the city said, “Issuing this license would place additional strain on police and public safety resources. Adding another licensed (establishment) to this area would seriously undermine the ability of public safety agencies to provide services to your business and to other businesses/residences in the State Street area.”
Three weeks after Taco Bell’s license was denied, a license for Chen’s Dumpling House, 505 State St., was approved without a veto from Soglin.
Soglin did veto a license for Koi Sushi, 502 State St., but the council overrode the veto.
HungryBadger Cafe, 540 State St., was also granted a license in October.
Taco Bell’s application stated that it expected about 5 percent of its sales would be for alcohol. The other three restaurants on the block whose liquor licenses were approved after Taco Bell’s license was vetoed expect 10 percent of sales from alcohol.
Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Zilavy argued that a previous Wisconsin case, Rawn v. City of Superior, supported the city’s ability to deny a liquor license because that city had decided not to allow more liquor licenses for new taverns at the time.
But Lanford said that case does not support Madison’s case because it applied to a denial without subsequent approvals of other similar establishments.
“Had Bell (Great Lakes) been denied licenses, and no further licenses were issued, the record would have substantiated the decision, and this matter likely would not have been appealed to this Court for review,” Lanford wrote.
The city also argued that the Taco Bell outlet was treated differently because it was a national chain and not a family-owned restaurant with a focus on food. Lanford deemed that argument was an irrational reason for denying the liquor license given the city’s ordinances’ definition of “restaurant” and Taco Bell’s expectation that only 5 percent of sales would be from alcohol.