How about a side of instant runoff voting?
Restaurants serving up civics lesson with their menus


By Kathie Jenkins
Published September 7th 2009 in St. Paul Pioneer Press
Get ready for dinner with a side of politics. Restaurants and cafes in St. Paul are hosting "tasting trials" to educate St. Paul voters about instant runoff voting, a controversial issue on this fall's ballot. Diners will select menu items using the same process voters would use in an IRV ballot.

The hope of the sponsor, St. Paul Better Ballot campaign, a project of FairVote Minnesota, is that citizens will come to understand the process and know what they are voting for or against come November.

The hope of St. Paul restaurants is that it will boost business. Participants include Coffee News Café, Happy Gnome, Cecil's Deli and Cooqi bakery. The Lowertown Entertainment District, a group of eight bars and restaurants, is also interested.

Coffee News Café was one of the first to get on board. The restaurant on Grand Avenue will put its four omelets — Greek, Garden, Western and Goat Cheese — up for a vote for a month beginning Wednesday.

"We jumped on the opportunity instantly," said Coffee News general manager Stephen Schweckendieck. "I don't know if we'll get more business, but I feel like we'll at least have done something to educate the community and figure which omelet people like the most."

Catherine Pflueger, general manager at Happy Gnome on Selby Avenue, doesn't understand how instant runoff voting works but she wants to learn. "It seems so complicated," Pflueger said. "But at least they're trying to simplify it, and what a better way to educate people than have them vote on something they really love."

At Happy Gnome, customers really love the beer — 70 brews on tap and another 300 by the bottle. So later this month, they'll be asked to vote on their favorite local brew. For Pflueger, it's a win-win situation. The bar will sell more beer and the issue will connect with a lot of customers at the Cathedral Hill bar. "We have a lot of people come over from the Capitol," she said. "And they like to drink beer. What a shocker!"

Meanwhile, Amore Coffee on Grand Avenue just tallied the votes on its three new salads. "It took a little explaining, but it was a fun way to show my customers and staff how runoff voting works," said co-owner Cathy Hauser. "I told them it's like having three politicians sitting at your table and you get to pick which one you like best, second and third."

It was a good lesson for Hauser, too. She learned that the Caesar salad (with 61 percent of the vote) was more popular than the orzo-pasta and vegetables-with-balsamic salads.

She also learned something about Minnesotans.

"We just thought the voting was going to bring people in and get them to try our salads and learn about a new political process," she said. "We also found out Minnesotans are fiercely loyal to what they like and use."

Kathie Jenkins can be reached at 651-228-5585.

WHAT IS THIS?

Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank candidates by order of preference so no primaries would have to be held, and no one would be declared a winner without a majority — more than 50 percent — of the votes.

For more information on participating restaurants, results of tasting trials and instant runoff voting, go to stpaul.betterballotcampaign.org/tastingtrials.