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Judge rules in state’s favor against former Brainerd-area restaurant owner in pandemic-related case

The case hinged on the fact defendant Stacy Stranne repeatedly opened the coffee shop and restaurant for business after the revocation of her food and beverage license by the health department.

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The Iron Waffle Coffee Co. in Lake Shore, seen here Thursday, Aug. 13, has drawn controversy over its apparent failure to enforce the statewide mask mandate. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
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ST. PAUL — The former owner of Iron Waffle Coffee Co. in Lake Shore, Minnesota, lost in court again last month in a ruling issued as part of a lawsuit brought by the state after repeated violations of pandemic-era executive orders.

Ramsey County Judge Laura E. Nelson granted the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office’s motion for summary judgment in favor of the Minnesota Department of Health, determining the facts of the case prompting the suit were undisputed.

The case hinged on the fact defendant Stacy Stranne repeatedly opened the coffee shop and restaurant for business after the revocation of her food and beverage license by the health department. The revocation came after Stranne failed to correct violations observed by a health department employee, including multiple employees not wearing masks and allowing indoor dining when such activity was restricted by executive order.

Read more on the Iron Waffle case
The petition asked the state’s highest court to reconsider an earlier ruling by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which found the Ramsey County District Court did not abuse its discretion in issuing a temporary injunction and contempt of court order against Stacy Stranne for operating the Lake Shore coffee shop without a license.
Attorney Richard Dahl, who represents the previous operator of Iron Waffle Coffee Co., delivered a scathing rebuke of the Minnesota Department of Health, its counsel from the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and the judicial system itself during oral arguments in the virtual hearing in Ramsey County District Court.
In seeking the judgment in its favor to avoid a trial, the health department stated the fact the establishment continued opening its doors without the license was not in dispute.
In a ruling filed Monday, Feb. 28, the state appeals court rejected the business’ arguments seeking to invalidate findings of the Ramsey County District Court as part of an ongoing civil lawsuit of the Minnesota Department of Health against the coffee shop. The lawsuit came after months of inspections, fines and other administrative actions failed to prevent the business from disobeying pandemic-driven executive orders concerning mask usage and indoor dining restrictions while continuing to operate.
Arguing on behalf of the Iron Waffle Coffee Co., Attorney Richard Dahl sought to make the case the Minnesota Department of Health lacked the authority to revoke food and beverage licenses in response to violations of Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders in the first place, citing a number of state statutes he said collectively define emergency enforcement.
As recently as Wednesday, Iron Waffle posted its hours of operation on Facebook, stating it would be open 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday Sunday and Monday. A number of recent posts also advertised Labor Day weekend hours.
The latest requests from the state come as 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.
The latest action comes after an expedited motion filed by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office on behalf of the Minnesota Department of Health, seeking the order for contempt as part of a 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.
A Dec. 18 Minnesota Department of Health inspection found the Long Pine Store and Pizza north of Pine River violated Gov. Tim Walz's executive order prohibiting bars and restaurants from offering indoor service.
While owners of Mission Tavern and The Iron Waffle Coffee Co. find themselves in similar positions and say they’re fighting for the rights of other business owners, their reasons for defying the mandates intended to reduce the spread of the coronavirus differ.
In a Friday, Dec. 11, news release, the health department outlined several steps it took attempting to gain compliance from The Iron Waffle Coffee Co. on Interlachen Road before ultimately suspending the business’ license and issuing a $9,500 penalty.
The business — Iron Waffle Coffee Co. — appears to have reopened in defiance of the order, according to a post by the Facebook group "Recall Governor Tim Walz."

“Although Iron Waffle has genuinely held disagreements with the reason their license was revoked, there is no dispute that they knew the license was revoked and yet they continued to operate,” Nelson’s ruling stated.

As part of the order, Nelson granted the state’s motion for a permanent injunction against Stranne, preventing her from operating the Iron Waffle as a food and beverage establishment without first obtaining a license from the Minnesota Department of Health.

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Stranne is no longer operating the business. On April 12, Iron Waffle announced in a Facebook post it would reopen April 15 under new management. A health department spokesperson confirmed the issuance of a new food and beverage license to S and S Waffle and Coffee LLC, a Pillager-based company that filed as a Minnesota business Feb. 1.

Nelson also ordered Stranne to pay a $9,500 administrative penalty to the health department and allowed the state to file a future motion seeking reimbursement for litigation expenses.

Attorney Richard Dahl, Stranne’s attorney, declined to comment when reached by phone Wednesday, Aug. 17, on whether his client plans to pursue an appeal. According to Minnesota Court Rules, those wishing to file an appeal generally have 60 days after the entry of a judgment to do so.

Dahl previously argued the revocation of Iron Waffle’s license was improper for multiple reasons, including: the health department did not serve Stranne the revocation notice in person; the Office of Administrative Hearings, which handles appeals for licensure actions, did not have the power to hear such matters while the state of emergency was in place; the health department lacked standing to pursue the revocation on the basis of an executive order or under the Minnesota Emergency Management Act; and both the health department and Office of Administrative Hearings lacked authority to continue the revocation after Gov. Tim Walz declared an end to the state of emergency.

These arguments were rejected by both the district and appeals courts as not relevant to the matter at hand — whether the business operated without a license. The Minnesota Supreme Court also denied a petition for review based on similar arguments in May.

Dahl also submitted several exhibits throughout the course of the court case disputing the nature, scope and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the order, Nelson included a footnote to the heading “Procedural History and Uncontested Facts” explaining the defendant’s differing opinion on the facts of the pandemic.

“Defendant cites the opinion of Dr. Scott Jensen to support their view of Covid-19 and the appropriateness of the governmental response to it, including the executive orders that were at issue in MDH’s decision to revoke its food-and-beverage license,” the footnote stated.

A January 2021 affidavit signed by Jensen was among the material submitted by Dahl.

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During a May 18 hearing on the state’s motion for summary judgment, Dahl delivered a scathing rebuke of the health department, Assistant Attorney General Kaitrin Vohs and the judicial system, lobbing accusations of dishonesty and threatening prosecution of state officials should Dahl work for a Republican attorney general in the future.

The lawsuit — first initiated in December 2020 — was the next step at the time after months of inspections, fines and other administrative actions failed to prevent the business from disobeying the executive orders. The health department revoked Stranne’s food and beverage license after she failed to correct the violations.

Judges presiding over the case granted the state’s motions for both a temporary injunction and a June 2021 contempt of court finding for Stranne continuing to open and sell food and beverages, despite not having a license. Fines totaling $120,000 were leveled at the business — $2,000 for each day the health department documented the Iron Waffle was open after the license revocation.

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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