Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A pastor and a Spanish teacher go in on a bar together.
What’s the punchline? There is none, which makes it a fairly modern joke in its own right.
Jeff and and Randi Cowmeadow are big-picture people. Sitting around a low table on a Tuesday afternoon, they wax philosophic about what they’re trying to foster within the walls of their not yet two-month-old brainchild, the Prodigal Public House, aka the Prodigal Pub. (Don’t call it a bar.) Located just off Eat Street, awash in earth tones and decorated with unique treasures from all over the British Isles, you’d never know this is the same space GYST once occupied, at 26th Street and First Avenue South. It feels like it’s been there for decades.
“There’s no rocket science to this—hospitality,” Jeff expounds. “Everybody wants to be welcomed. Everybody wants to be known. Everybody wants to have a place.” Behind him, atop a piano anyone is invited to play, rests a stack of books that includes Running a Bar for Dummies.
More than 30 years ago, when Jeff was fresh out of seminary and Randi not yet a Spanish teacher, the couple dreamt of opening a coffee shop. “What we meant by ‘coffee house’ was not Starbucks or Dunn Brothers, but a social gathering space,” Randi clarifies. They meant a salon, in the most dead-expat-Parisian sense of the word.
That didn’t pan out. But now, at a period in life when most people begin to think about hanging up their work boots, the Cowmeadows have chosen to branch out into an industry in which they have little to no experience.
Inspired by these toxic times, and aided by an extraordinarily generous community who believed in their ideals, the couple resurrected that old dream in a different costume. “There’s a lot of division,” Jeff says. “So we’re hoping that a public house can once again create a community where we can have conversations around important things, and not speak at each other, or over each other, but with each other, and have a safe place.”
“Who opens a pub at our age?” the couple says, laughing, as we jointly explain things to each other: I helped them understand how the internet slang term “garbage son,” once used by City Pages as a shorthand, affectionate descriptor for their pub’s eponymous character, has zero to do with waste management. They, in turn, taught me the real version of the Prodigal Son. In it, a father gives a lot of money to the aforementioned garbage son, who squanders it after making it rain, biblical style. Returning home, he’s received with improbably open arms by his father, and feted with a fatted calf while his much more responsible brother looks on in shock.
Their pub venture sees the Cowmeadows as the parable’s father figure, betting everything on the idea of welcoming patrons from all walks of life with a warmth that spills over into extraordinary graciousness. They come to this with hearts not yet hardened in the way service industry professionals can be, and their openness is genuine, without a hint of ego or manipulation.
“People told us you’ve got to keep track of nickels and dimes, which is very difficult for us. But if that’s who you are, if you’re a hospitable person… Prodigal means ‘extravagant,’ so you have to be.” To illustrate his point, Jeff relays a nightly tradition, wherein a random person walks into the place, only to be met with the entire room of patrons yelling, WELCOME HOME! as Jeff tosses a “robe” over their shoulders and puts a free drink in their hand, in “extravagant” payment for the cement truck of attention they’d just been hit by.
“It’s pretty cheesy,” interjects Randi. “Also it’s pretty aggressive for somebody whose first visit it is.”
Jeff, meanwhile, just laughs.
The “robe” in question is really more of a hippie poncho. It hangs on a hook by the front windows. Such a hodgepodge of casualness mixed with very specific intention might just become the Prodigal Pub’s hallmark trait.
When I ask the pastor if this is a secular space, Jeff stammers more than at any other time during our conversation. “Well, we could debate whether that actually exists. Do we divide reality into sacred and non-? I tend to think of all space as sacred space.” Jeff is adamant in that he’s “not preaching at anybody. I’m not trying to convert anybody. It’s not a church, but hopefully it is a spiritual space. But what I, we, mean by that is, hopefully it’s a place where everybody is welcome… You know the hospitality industry. True hospitality is sacred.”
Most bartenders, or barkeeps, have been caught once or twice prattling on about how bars are temples, dammit! The best of the pack inspire an air of respect and devotion worthy of a non-denominational place of worship. Hearing an actual church leader echo such sentiments lands somewhat differently, yet anyone who’s ever been a regular someplace knows what the Cowmeadows are getting at. Maybe that’s why all those jokes about priests walking into bars end with us laughing at the devout: to make sure that distinct line in the sand remains.
The Prodigal Pub obliterates that line, in a very human way.
There’s power in being recognized and appreciated. It’s about being noticed when you’re absent, and finding a place where a friendly “Welcome back” sure can sound a lot like “Welcome home,” if delivered just so.
This is why the Cowmeadows have risked so much in an attempt to reintroduce into our world, at a customer-by-customer level—whether or not you’re graced with a poncho on your first visit.
The Prodigal Public House
25 E 26th St., Minneapolis