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February 14, 2011
By: Gregory J. Scott and Michelle Bruch
Gregory J. Scott and Michelle Bruch
Two new restaurants, more live music envisioned for 501 Club space

WASHINGTON AVENUE — The 501 Club is gone, but the live music may make a comeback at 501 Washington Ave. S., if Mario Cocchiarella has his way.

Cocchiarella, who owns the building that Jarret Oulman’s venue vacated last January, has plans to resurrect the space as not one but two new bar/restaurants. And both will likely have live bands.

Cocchiarella made an appearance at a Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association (DMNA) meeting on Feb. 7, seeking a recommendation for a Class B liquor license.

His plan? Split the spacious club into two autonomous bars, both with successful antecedents in other Twin Cities neighborhoods: St. Paul’s Twisted Fork Grille and the Crooked Pint, an offshoot of South Minneapolis’ Town Hall Tap, which is itself an offshoot of Seven Corners’ Town Hall Brewery.

Twisted Fork, which opened last summer at Grand Avenue and Hamline, is owned by the same people that operate the Green Mill dining chain and bills itself as specializing in “farm-to-table freshness.”

Town Hall Tap, which builds on Town Hall Brewery’s craft beer and gourmet pub fare, recently opened at 48th and Chicago Avenue in South Minneapolis.

But “the most important thing,” Cocchiarella said, is the return of live music.

“The 501 had some great success with live music,” he said. He wants to keep the shows going, with a focus on “higher end local acts, and maybe even regional acts.” But having a place where new bands can get gigs is essential, too, he said, and he hopes to work out a balance. He also said he would like to employ a “real, full-time booking agent.”

Details are still in the brainstorm stage, but Cocchiarella’s “two levels, two bars” approach could allow him to create two different, intimate musical settings, with acoustic sets in Twisted Fork and a more boisterous venue in the Crooked Pint.

Of course, the space suffers from a recent trend of short-lived bars.

“We do have a little bit of a challenge in front of us,” he told the DMNA “New restaurants in that area haven’t done well.”

After cycling through a number of bars — 501 lasted less than two years; its predecessor, Matty B’s, lasted less than three — Cocchiarella said he decided to intervene personally. He hired Maxfield Research to do a demographic study of the people who haunt the area. What he  found — an impressively diverse crowd, but not a wealthy one — directed his decision making.

Referencing both bars’ food menus, he points out that “there’s really nothing over $10.”

All plans aside, Cocchiarella stressed he would proceed deliberately. “We’re going slow,” he said.

— Gregory J. Scott


Holiday eyes Totino’s site for new gas station

EAST BANK — The small Holiday gas station at 107 6th St. SE has outgrown its cramped confines and wants to move across the street, taking over the corner where Totino’s Italian Kitchen used to be.

At a Jan. 18 meeting of the Nicollet Island/East Bank Neighborhood Association (NIEBNA), Holiday Companies vice president of real estate David Hoeschen presented preliminary designs for a 12-pump gas station with car wash.

“What we’re really asking,” he told the association board, “is, ‘Hey, what about the concept of us moving across the street?’”

The proposed station would take away the parking lot across from Denny Kemp’s salon, where Red Stag guests park.  Hoeschen said Holiday is working with the Totino’s family, which still owns the property, bounded by Central Avenue, 1st Avenue NE and 6th Street NE.

But there’s one big problem: Three-fourths of the site lies within a pedestrian overlay district, which prohibits “car-oriented” businesses from setting up shop in the neighborhood.

According to NIEBNA Chair Victor Grambsch, the neighborhood fought for the zoning restriction in the late 1990s, when the Jim Lupient Buick dealership closed and a proposed Jiffy Lube for the site “sparked enormous opposition.”

Hoeschen, who has been presenting at both NIEBNA and Marcy-Holmes meetings, says Holiday is putting feelers out first, to see what neighbors think of possibly “peeling back” the pedestrian overlay district. Such a move would require numerous levels of approval from the city, and would ultimately need a green light from City Council.

“They can make a case, and they can make a good case, but it wouldn’t be the easiest thing to do,” said City of Minneapolis Principal Planner Haila Maze. “The neighborhoods’ opinion does make a difference.”

While Grambsch worries that “poking holes in the district” would set a dangerous precedent — he says this is the 4th proposal that’s tried to monkey with the pedestrian overlay — some neighbors had more positive opinions.

Scott Parkin, vice president of the Northeast Minneapolis Business Association, said that while he’d like to see something with “more heart and soul” occupy the corner, he generally supports the idea.

“I hate that [current Holiday] gas station,” he said. “It’s hard to get in and out of, it doesn’t feel safe, it was shoved in with a shoehorn. And I think this is a better option.”

Another contentious issue is design. Grambsch worries that the proposed design would leave a blank wall at the corner of 1st Avenue and 2nd Street, leaving a worrisome blind spot on the street.

“The fundamental problem is that there should be an emphasis on eyes on the street,” he said. “This is the city. This is urban. And that design is straight-up suburban.”

The NIEBNA will revisit the issue at their next meeting, Feb. 22, 6:30–8 p.m., at Ginger Hop, 201 E. Hennepin Ave.

— Gregory J. Scott


Waite Park café Lily’s closes

WAITE PARK — Faced with a slow winter and a sewer fee hike of more than $10,000, Lily’s closed at 33rd and Central on Jan. 28.

“This has been sad, because this has been a really good neighborhood,” said café owner Brigitte Biraud, who lives a few blocks from the shop. “I’m really going to miss it.”

Lily’s catering business will continue operating, however, and Biraud expects to look for a new space next summer — perhaps a few blocks away, outside the Minneapolis city limits.

Biraud explained that when she opened the coffee shop, the Metropolitan Council allowed her to be classified as a “fast food” license, meaning her sewer access fee would be $4,000, rather than $16,000. But in September, she said, the Met Council changed her classification and asked her to pay the full amount.

“I can’t afford that, at this time especially,” she said.

Biraud said she hired a lawyer and fought the new classification without success.

Regular customer Ruthann Swanson said she’s glad that Biraud’s catering will continue, so the neighborhood won’t lose her completely. Swanson praised Lily’s croissants, soups and commitment to serving local food that’s in season.

In the last week of business, Biraud collected e-mail addresses to keep customers apprised of her news.

“Hopefully we will get reborn somewhere,” she said.

— Michelle Bruch


Downtown Cajun bar homing in on opening date

DOWNTOWN WEST — Bulldog gastropub owner Matt Lokowich has been fast at work getting his new Cajun themed bar, the similarly named Bullfrog, up and running at 1111 Hennepin Ave. S.  

He now says there’s an opening date in sight: “For sure by the first week of April.”

The goal, of course, is to be open before the Twins first home game, scheduled for April 8.

Lokowich is focusing his energies on the Bullfrog’s ambitious beer offerings, which he says include 24 taps from all over the world, including “a couple of beers that no one else [in the city] has.”

The Bullfrog takes over from Gladius, a short-lived gay bar that closed late December.

— Gregory J. Scott


OLSON plans to move out of Loring Park

LORING PARK — Local advertising giant OLSON may soon be departing from its long-time home in Loring Park.

Though the firm has declined to talk about it, sources close to the company say that OLSON is currently renovating the 10-story Renaissance Square building, at 5th Street South & Nicollet Mall, for future use.

The activity comes amidst a flurry of recent acquisitions that have made the company the largest independent ad agency in the Twin Cities, with more than 400 employees. On Feb. 7, OLSON acquired MyThum, a 30-employee mobile marketing outfit based in Canada. In December, the company acquired Dig Communications. And last summer, they nabbed up Denali Marketing, a four-year-old, 80-employee firm that specializes in customer relationship marketing.

At the time of the Denali merger, the company hinted that it was hunting for new headquarters. The issue resurfaced earlier this winter, when renovation efforts began at Renaissance Square.

“They are for sure moving,” said Mark Oyaas, principal of public affairs consultancy company Neerland & Oyaas, who recently confirmed the news with an OLSON insider. Oyaas mentioned the move in a January edition of his company’s electronic newsletter. He could not confirm whether OLSON had purchased the building or not.

— Gregory J. Scott


Thoma’s Smack Shack kicks-off winter residency at 1029 Bar

ST. ANTHONY WEST — In the latest move to keep Downtown’s street food phenomenon rolling through winter, the 1029 Bar has announced that it will host Smack Shack, Josh Thoma’s lobster-slinging food truck, throughout this winter. The Shack is in the midst of a “slow opening” at the 1029 that began in late 2010, and now plans to serve until spring are firming up.

Bar staff said in mid-January that the cart had “recently made this their headquarters,” with Thoma taking over the kitchen. On select nights, Smack Shack operates a semi-autonomous level of the bar (where karaoke usually takes place), with its own tables, booths and server.

An inaugural lobster boil, on Jan. 28, sold out two serving time slots. A second lobster boil, slated for Valentine’s Day, was also filling up fast as this paper went to press. Regular events will likely continue until the weather warms and the truck can return to the streets.

A few other popular food trucks have also found winter homes. Turkey to Go has moved into the Northstar Building, at 7th and Marquette. Samson Benti, of the Ethiopian food truck She Royal, is running the kitchen in the newly opened City Hall Café, 350 S. 5th St. The Brother’s Deli cart is parked in the skyway of the Soo Line Building at 5th & Marquette.

— Gregory J. Scott