Dinner service at The Chef’s Hat in Ephraim isn’t complete without a conversation that goes something like this:
Tourists on their first trip to Door County walk into the restaurant to enjoy an Ephraim sunset and a meal. They sit near the window and settle in, beginning to look at the menu.
When a server walks up to them, the group asks, “Is there any chance we could see a beer or wine list?”
The server responds in a practiced humor, “You’re in the last dry village in the state.”
“In Wisconsin?” they question in disbelief. “There’s still a dry place in Wisconsin?”
Todd Bennett, owner of the Chef’s Hat, said at that point some people simply get up and leave, heading to Sister Bay or Fish Creek to enjoy a glass of wine or beer with dinner. If they are there for lunch, he can be sure that the group won’t be back for an evening meal.
But a group in Ephraim is looking to change that. On the April ballot, Ephraim residents will get to vote on whether to allow beer and wine licenses to be provided in the village, dampening the last dry spot in Wisconsin.
“The businesses in Ephraim are somewhat hobbled by the inability to serve beer and wine,” said Hugh Mulliken, who started the petition to add a beer and wine vote on the ballot. “What it boils down to is, everyone used to go around in a Model T Ford, and times have changed.”
Mulliken needed 33 signatures from Ephraim residents by Jan. 28 to have beer and wine licenses added to the April ballot. By the second week in January, he had 100.
“I was on the fence about it,” said Fred Bridenhagen, owner of Beach People and Water Street Gallery in Ephraim. “It doesn’t bother me because I don’t serve beer or wine in any of my businesses nor do I have any desire to… [Ephraim] consistently loses businesses because, I honestly believe, we are not on the same playing field as the competition.”
But some residents don’t want a glass of wine or pint of beer when they go out to dinner in Ephraim.
“This village was established 160 years ago and there was a reason why it wasn’t damp then and it hasn’t been damp for 160 years,” said Niles Weborg, recently retired long-time fire chief in Ephraim. “I guess I see no reason why it has to be damp now. All the business owners in town knew the village was dry when they bought in and now they’re screaming because they can’t have beer and wine. I understand they can make more dollars, but it’s a step in the wrong direction.”
Weborg recalled 1992, when petitioners attempted the same referendum to allow beer and wine in Ephraim. Seventy-four percent of voters rejected the move. The only other time the question of damp Ephraim came up was 1934, when 59 percent of residents voted against it. The number of absentee voters for the 1992 election was not recorded.
“Why don’t you go by what the residents of the village felt at that time,” said Weborg. “Don’t take it upon yourself because you’ve got enough outsiders to carry the vote.”
The process for adding the question on the ballot bypasses the Ephraim Village Board. A petition needs 15 percent of the electors that voted in the most recent Governor’s election, which totaled 221 people in 2014. When the petition is submitted to the village clerk and determined to be sufficient, the questions are added to the April ballot.
There will be two separate questions on the ballot, one for beer licenses and one for wine licenses, making it possible for the village to accept one but not both. If a simple majority votes in favor of the referendum, the village board will be required to issue licenses after receiving and reviewing applications from businesses.
“We’re not trying for a liquor license,” said Mulliken. “You’re not going to see a tavern spring up.”
Mulliken explained that the village does have some power over the terms of the licenses, such as cutting off service at a designated time and setting the cost for obtaining a license from the village. He and Bridenhagen also believe it is not just the restaurants that will benefit.
“There’s a nice jeweler right over there,” said Mulliken, pointing out his office windows. “People do a lot of walking around after dinner, but if no one’s eating dinner in Ephraim, they miss the road traffic. It’s a disadvantage to them.”
An Ephraim native, Bridenhagen remembers growing up when grocery stores and gas pumps were sprinkled throughout the village. He explained that gas stations and grocery stores make a big portion of their profit on alcohol sales, which could be why Ephraim hasn’t had a food market in decades. “We have to be supportive of the business and the business districts or we will simply become a subdivision with an ice cream store.”
Some people in Ephraim don’t think the village can claim the dry title at all after state statutes passed in March of 2013 allowing for the sale of beer and wine at the Peninsula State Park Golf Course.
“I wasn’t for how the state pushed it in at the golf course,” said Weborg, whose jurisdiction at the Ephraim Fire Department included the golf course. “The state park is covered by the village of Ephraim and how they were able to push that in…I do not know.”
Despite being state land, the golf course lists its physical address in Ephraim, meaning that there is already one operating beer and wine license within the village.
Weborg is not convinced that 100 signatures on a petition will equate to a majority of voters in April.
“If I come up to you and say, ‘Will you sign this piece of paper?’ you might just do it because he’s your friend,” said Weborg. “But what you vote on the ballot might be a different story.”
Both Mulliken and Bridenhagen understand they are trying to change a 160-year standard in Ephraim, but they believe it is ripe for change.
“We respect everybody’s opinion either for or against,” said Bridenhagen. “We are not here to debate. We simply have our opinion.”
That opinion will be tested by Ephraim voters on the ballot this April.