Sweet Potato Pied

A journey through City Pages' past.

They were in Madrid, at a little place called Paco and Chano's, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives over bowls of garbanzo bean soup. To Tom Bartel and his wife Kris Henning, Spain was warm, romantic, and stimulating; maybe it was even home. And if not, what next? How to make the transition from this raucous paradise--where a new constitution had just been written, and where Franco loyalists, Basque separatists, and a dozen other political persuasions were grappling for the reins of the country's future--back to carving out a living in the American Midwest?

The only semiplausible answer was to start a newspaper. The atmosphere in Spain lent some luster to the notion; led by Madrid's El País, literally dozens of newspapers were at the epicenter of the nation's political turbulence. On a considerably more mundane level, Bartel had logged time as a staffer for the suburban Eden Prairie News, where he had gleaned some of the joys and travails of operating a fledgling publication. And just before Bartel and Henning had come to Europe, David Wright, their friend and former classmate at Carleton College, had offered Bartel a job working at Sweet Potato, a music-oriented weekly he had co-founded in Portland, Maine.

Even then, at age 27, Bartel knew he wasn't temperamentally suited to be anyone's employee. But taking Wright's Sweet Potato prototype into Minneapolis/St. Paul, where there was an active club scene and where music-industry giants like Musicland and Pickwick were headquartered--well, that was a concept worth the time of day over soup at Paco and Chano's.

Working out of Henning's brother's porch for about a month beginning in mid-May of 1979, the two hatched a business plan and began taking stock of potential resources upon which to simultaneously live and start a newspaper. Wise investments had turned Henning's $10,000 inheritance into $17,000; $15,000 more was borrowed from relatives, and a bank loan was secured to purchase a car that would double as a delivery truck. A two-room office at 711 W. Lake St. was leased for $250 a month, stocked by furniture from rummage sales. With Bartel as publisher and Henning as sales manager, it opened June 15.

"The initial capital to start the business, I think, on the [accounting] books, was $10,800," Bartel remembers. "When we left [nearly 18 years later], that would have run City Pages for all of three hours."

The August 1, 1979 debut of Sweet Potato benefited from impeccable timing: Prince, the Replacements, and Hüsker Dü were all on the verge of churning out incandescent records and unforgettable live shows that would make the Twin Cities a music nexus in the early Eighties. But the talent, sweat equity, and hardheaded business sense behind the publication ensured that no paper was better poised to take advantage of this cultural windfall.

"The economy was crappy but the music was good," Bartel says. Adds Henning: "And both of those things were in our favor, because we were a music publication that was inexpensive to advertisers. Of course, until we came back to town, we didn't know there were four other music and entertainment papers"--Nite Time, the Musician's Insider, Skyway News, and the Twin Cities Reader.

Bartel and Henning began distinguishing Sweet Potato with their very first outside hire, tabbing Martin Keller as editor and primary writer. Keller's broad-based knowledge of rock, blues, and reggae fit the paper's catholic mission, and he had extensive connections among writers and musicians throughout the Cities. (He'd already scored a rare interview with Prince two years earlier, when the wunderkind was a shy teenager about to cut his first record.) During the paper's first year in business, Keller pounded out copy under a variety of pseudonyms (Shelly Barker, Frank Schwartz, Martian Colour) and joined with art director Marcia Wright (David Wright's sister), Bartel, and Henning in a yeoman effort to put out the paper. Literally.

Each week the printer would deliver Sweet Potato's press run to a garage behind Bartel and Henning's south Minneapolis home, where the four divvied up the stacks and personally distributed them to locations around the Cities. Such labor-intensive savings strategies were in keeping with Bartel's oft-stated axioms for business survival: Take in more money than you spend; and The essence of a free press is having enough money to tell anybody to go to hell. "We never had any crises that really threatened the life of the paper, just little things like forgetting something on the way to the printer or pulling all-nighters to get something done. That happened pretty regularly," Henning recalls.

Bartel says that he and his wife rarely drew a paycheck in those early days, were never the paper's highest-salaried employees, and never took a bonus until the year before they sold out to Stern. As a result, the paper never missed a payroll and paid off the initial loans from relatives and the bank within two years.

Meanwhile Sweet Potato was inexorably enhancing its public profile, going from a monthly to a biweekly publication schedule in October 1980 and ratcheting up again to become a weekly in the summer of 1981. Earlier that year Bartel had founded the Minnesota Music Awards; during the early to mid-Eighties he helped sponsor a series of memorable annual awards shows that often featured Prince headlining a bill that included respected ensembles like Koerner, Ray & Glover and local club stalwarts such as Lamont Cranston and the Flamingos. By the fall of 1981, Sweet Potato had established its music franchise and solidly wedged its way into the crowded marketplace.

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