Council gives liquor license to theater

Shawano Cinema owner’s written plan makes city reconsider stance
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

The Shawano Common Council reversed a decision it made last month and voted June 12 to give Zeke Heling, owner of Shawano Cinema, a liquor license.

Part of the reason was attributed to Heling sending the city of Shawano a five-page letter explaining his intentions for the liquor license, but there was also the discovery that the city had access to more liquor licenses than previously realized.

Heling, in his letter, explained that the alcoholic beverages would only be offered Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays for regular theater screenings, totaling 1,044 hours per year. Alcoholic beverages could also be offered during theater rentals or private parties, which are typically scheduled before 4 p.m. during the week and noon on weekends.

Heling wrote that the offering of alcohol is necessary to keep the theater industry functioning.

The movie theater industry has faced significant challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid evolution of home entertainment technology,” he wrote. “Five years ago, there were 5,869 theaters in the United States; since then, 869-plus have been lost. Shawano is lucky that our local cinema is not (yet) one of these casualties. Still, last year (in 2023) we admitted 32% fewer patrons than we did in 2019.”

Citing the National Association of Theater Owners, Heling noted that offering beer alone can boost overall food and beverage revenue by up to 30%, theaters that offer alcoholic beverages can see that revenue go up by 60% potentially. Fandango has cited that 55% of theater patrons prefer theaters that offer a wide variety of alcoholic options over those who only offer beer.

“Realistically speaking, we likely can only offer two to three beer options due to the higher volume-to-customer ratio that a beverage of this variety imposes,” Heling wrote. “More storage space must be allocated for beer versus liquor in order to address a comparable amount of orders, the implications of which are crucial to inventory management and space planning — as such, these volume disparities must be strategically considered in order to optimize my operations and meet customer demand efficiently.”

Heling cited that it seemed unfair for the liquor license to be denied because of the possibility other businesses might come to the city seeking a license. He wrote that previous owners for Shawano Cinema had talked about pursuing a liquor license, but he was the only one to move on the idea.

“On one hand, I understand the dilemma the city now faces with few liquor licenses left to give; but on the other hand, I do not believe my business should bear fault or be implicated,” Heling wrote. “The fact is, today, I am the only business making such a request, and there are licenses left to give. Prolonging this decision negatively impacts my business, because as a young, new business owner, and the state of my industry, I would struggle to put up the $10,000 needed to apply as a ‘reserve business’ were it the only option left for me.”

Heling wrote the theater would not cease to be family friendly, an issue that came up during the previous council meeting in May, and that while expansion of the alcohol-available hours could be considered, his plan is to have plenty of space for families to enjoy the movies without worry about alcohol being served.

“Additionally, many local events and establishments frequented by families, such as Sundrop Dayz, the Shawano County Fair, and various restaurants, also serve alcohol without significant pushback, so why should it be any different here?” Heling wrote.

City Clerk Lesley Nemetz said that the city had been working off the knowledge that Shawano Cinema would only be using the liquor license “intermittently,” and with the assumption at the time that only two liquor licenses were available for the city to utilize by the state, having an occasional use for one of them might not the best. Then she saw the details in Heling’s letter.

“It is much more involved than originally thought,” Nemetz said. “There are lots of plans for making it an entertainment center. There would still be movies. There would still be those types of things, but there will be nights where liquor won’t be served, so if it is something that is of concern to an individual, they could use the facility on those nights. He also wants to have gaming conventions and other types of uses for those spaces.”

City Administrator Eddie Sheppard looked into the liquor license issue, according to Nemetz, and it turns out that the city has 25 licenses total at its disposal, not 22, and with 20 being provided to other businesses in Shawano, that does not put the city in a place where it would run out of available licenses.

“We’re in a much better place than we originally thought we were about a month ago,” Nemetz said.

Alderman Kevin Barkow pointed out that the city already has precedence for a liquor license being given to a theater. Where Stubborn Brothers lies today in the downtown corridor, there used to be the Crescent Pitcher Show, which provided alcohol to movie watchers.

“I’ve been there, and I enjoyed myself,” Barkow said. “I never saw anybody get out of hand. This gentleman seems like a fine individual. I’m sure he’ll make sure things are run the way they’re supposed to be run.”

Alderwoman Sandy Steinke, who voted against the beer license for Shawano Cinema and opined that she didn’t think it was appropriate for liquor to be at a movie theater, changed her mind after seeing the plans.

“He’s not going to throw liquor out at Mickey Mouse movies,” Steinke said. “It’s going to fit with a certain kind of theme, and I understood it better, too.”