BLUE MOUNDS, Wis. - It was a question Matt Heindl didn't expect, and it has turned into an unexpected concern.
Heindl, who along with owner Sarah Lemke started the Naked Elm Bakery in Blue Mounds last November, said customers often ask for alcohol at the counter. The store sells pizza and bakery items made in its wood-fired oven, but it has not been able to get a liquor license, which he said has hurt sales.
Heindl said he has allowed customers to bring beer and wine into the eatery at no charge. But he recently learned that state law prohibits the practice, sometimes called corkage or bring-your-own.
"(Customers) come up, they order a pizza, ask some questions about it," Heindl said. "The question pretty much promptly after that is, 'Do you sell beer or wine?'"
Wisconsin prohibits restaurants without liquor licenses from allowing customers to consume alcohol. Licensed eateries may only sell alcohol from wholesalers, said Mark Woulf, Madison's alcohol police coordinator.
"It's not OK under state law," Woulf said. "You can't bring your own beer or wine or other alcohol into establishments for consumption purposes."
Heindl said he hasn't been able to get a liquor license because Blue Mounds, a town of 855 residents, isn't large enough to support another one, he said.
"From what we understood, it was going to be very unlikely," Heindl said. "But most of the traffic that comes through here is coming from Madison and other areas outside of our local municipality."
He said customers have come from as far away as Milwaukee, drawn to the area by Cave of the Mounds, Blue Mounds State Park, the nearby Tyrol Basin ski hill, and other attractions.
In Madison, the city has halted new liquor licenses downtown as part of its alcohol density plan. Corkage would be an opportunity for unlicensed establishments to survive. But Woulf said it's illegal.
"The main purpose of that is to make sure you're adhering to state and local alcohol laws, and the main way to do that is to be a licensed establishment," Woulf said.
Wisconsin is one of 15 states that prohibit corkage, according to a study by Wine Spectator, a wine industry publication. Half of all U.S. states allow the practice in some form, with 'BYOB' restaurants in nearby Chicago and Minneapolis.
But Heindl said Wisconsin's law is holding back the Naked Elm. He said beer and wine sales would allow the eatery to hire an additional employee -- and would ease the financial pain of starting a new business.
"People like to be able to sit down," he said. "And if people sit down and they have a good time, they're more likely to spend more money and buy more goods. If they take it to go, that's the end of the sale for that night at least."
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