Uptown Bar fights to transfer liquor license to new location

Manager Denni Willey seeks to usher scene staple into its second life

It's the bar that three generations of local musicians have called home. The bar where bands like the Jayhawks and the Replacements tested out their new material before taking it on the road. The bar that Monotonix nearly set on fire. The bar of homeward stumblings for thousands of Uptown music fans, the jewel of an otherwise anemic Uptown music scene that throbs with history.

In a month, the Uptown Bar will be razed to rubble, and its staff, many of whom have been with the bar for more than a decade, will be displaced into a bitterly cold economic winter. But despite being just a few weeks away from the wrecking ball, the Uptown's fight for survival isn't over. The Uptown Bar wants reincarnation elsewhere in Minneapolis, but there's a catch in the city's liquor licensing—for the Uptown, the available liquor licenses require 60 percent of an establishment's income to come from food sales, a figure that the bar can't hope to meet, despite its robust breakfast and lunch traffic. Even worse, there's no grandfather clause to save the Uptown—its current license, which puts no restrictions on its sales, is non-transferable. What does it mean? It means that despite the Uptown Bar's iconic status in Minneapolis nightlife, despite its outstanding relationship with the community, and despite all its history, current plans to relocate the venue teeter on a razor's edge.

"We have longer kitchen hours than anyone in the area," says Denni Willey, who has managed the Uptown Bar for almost 30 years. "But if you have a good show and get 250 people in here, the drink numbers overwhelm our food numbers. I don't even think I can do 50-50. That's just the way it is."

A Minneapolis landmark of live music and drunken debauchery
Stacy Schwartz
A Minneapolis landmark of live music and drunken debauchery

For the Uptown, it's an embarrassment of riches, and the most bitterly ironic of stumbling blocks. The Uptown bar does huge breakfast and lunch business, and the kitchen stays open until 1 a.m. most nights. But it's the Uptown's success as a music venue that render those sales immaterial, and unless the Uptown wants to amputate its entertainment property, the very commodity that has earned the bar its good name, squeezing into a 60-40 liquor license just isn't possible.

Currently, the Uptown has its eye on one place in particular, a location that, because the deal is still up in the air, Willey won't disclose. They'd be building from the ground up, and the spot has room for about 100 more people than the Uptown currently accommodates. But the lack of a proper license would make any of those negotiations moot, a prospect that discourages Willey. To take action, the Uptown Bar has started a petition that sits just beside the front door. Get carded on your way in, and you'll likely be told where to sign. After just three weeks, the petition has over 4,000 signatures.

"Everyone in the neighborhood wants us to stick around," Willey says. "Best-case scenario, they'll let us transfer our existing license. I'm not asking for anything new or anything special. I just want to be able to operate the way we do now."

The worst-case scenario? Willey audibly bristles. He talks about Tommy Stinson's mother, who's tended bar at the Uptown for 30 years. About his current staff, who, rather than jump ship and hustle to find work with the bar's closing so imminent, opted to stay aboard instead. About dispatching a cadre of loyal employees into the most unforgiving job market the city has seen in 20 years. Beyond those concerns lies the simple fact—the Uptown Bar is Uptown.

"Yeah," he says. "Worst-case scenario? I don't even want to think about it." 

The Uptown Bar's final shows

WEDNESDAY 10.28: Me And My Arrow (CD-release) with Story of the Sea, Chooglin', Speed's the Name, Death Cube, Alicia Wiley. 21+. Free before 9 p.m., $6 after 9 p.m.

THURSDAY 10.29: Faux Jean (original lineup), John Swardson and Get Gone, Luke's Angels. 21+. $8. 9 p.m.

FRIDAY 10.30: Janis Figure, the Rockford Mules. 21+. $10/$12 at the door. 9 p.m.

SATURDAY 10.31: Lusurfer, Zebulon Pike, Buildings. 21+. $6.66. 9 p.m.

SUNDAY 11.1: The Twilight Hours, Happy Apple, the Hawaii Show. 21+. $12. 9 p.m.

 
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