BRAINERD, Minn. — The owner of the Iron Waffle Coffee Co. is now facing $120,000 in fines for continuing to operate her business without a license after it was revoked for repeated violations of the governor’s pandemic-driven executive orders.

During a Zoom court hearing Thursday, Sept. 9, Ramsey County Judge Laura Nelson agreed with the Office of the Minnesota Attorney General’s request to issue a $98,000 fine — $2,000 for each of the 49 days for which a Minnesota Department of Health inspector found the business operating without a food and beverage license. Nelson also agreed to postpone the fine order for 30 days at the request of Iron Waffle owner Stacy Stranne’s attorney, a time period Nelson said provided the parties an opportunity to discuss an “offramp” to reaching a resolution in the case. In the meantime, the next step in the case is court-ordered mediation.

“If the Iron Waffle continues to operate without a license, that is contempt of court,” Nelson said. “… There are procedures to challenge decisions you disagree with. There’s a process, and this is not it.”

Judge Laura Nelson
Judge Laura Nelson

Thursday’s hearing came after an expedited motion from Assistant Attorney General Kaitrin Vohs — representing the Minnesota Department of Health — in mid-August seeking enforcement of the court’s June 22 contempt order. In that motion, Vohs sought a $62,000 fine in addition to the $22,000 fine already ordered by Judge John H. Guthmann.

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During the intervening weeks, however, the Minnesota Department of Health continued to inspect the business and found it operating without a license on 18 more days, which at $2,000 per day equated to $36,000 more in potential fines requested by Vohs Thursday.

“That fine request may seem high, but the Iron Waffle through Stacy Stranne has always been in control of the amount of that fine,” Vohs said. “… They cannot continue to operate because they disagree with a final decision that was made by the department nine months ago. There is no exception to the law for people who disagree with the law.”

Vohs said health department officials do not take pleasure in constantly enforcing the orders in place. The department is seeking compliance through monetary pressure, she noted, and would not ask the court to exercise its inherent authority to issue a warrant for Stranne’s arrest. It would, however, reserve the right to seek that consequence in the future.

“It’s 49 times that the department has had to use its resources to send out an inspector to this restaurant, just to see if it’s open,” Vohs said. “(She) endangered the public health by operating without a license. The fine amount is high, but it’s high for a reason.”

Attorney Richard Dahl, who represents Stranne, said his client was not a threat to public health and was instead the subject of a relentless campaign by the state to abuse its political power and fraudulently revoke her license.

The latest requests from the state are part of an ongoing civil lawsuit against Iron Waffle first initiated in December 2020. The lawsuit was the next step at the time after months of inspections, fines and other administrative actions failed to prevent the business from disobeying executive orders concerning mask usage and takeout requirements while continuing operation. Before the court’s contempt findings, Guthmann on May 18 granted a state motion for a temporary injunction, which sought to prevent Iron Waffle from operating without its license first revoked in December.

Dahl argued Thursday the health department lacked the authority to revoke the license in the first place under Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency powers. Dahl also made the case the state agency failed to properly notify Stranne of the revocation, depriving her of her right to appeal the decision in the proper venue and within the time frame allowed by law. He called the state’s assertion Stranne received proper notice a lie and “a pile of manure.”

“They have abused the law and declared here that they are going to twist the Emergency Powers Act and allow the governor to act as a dictator on all issues of law,” Dahl said.