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Goodbye, Gastro Non Grata: "Even the Clusterfucks Were Good"

Co-founders Craig Drehmel (left) and Jeff Mitchell immortalized Gastro Non Grata in the standard way.

Co-founders Craig Drehmel (left) and Jeff Mitchell immortalized Gastro Non Grata in the standard way.

"I just like fucking with people."

That's Craig Drehmel, co-founder (along with Jeff Mitchell) of Gastro Non Grata. And that's the succinct way he describes the semi-monthly food, booze, and rock event that took place mostly in bars around the Twin Cities for eight years.

They're retiring it because they're tired, because the dining landscape has changed, because the public is fickle. But, says Drehmel, even the clusterfucks were fun.

See also: The Art of Gastro Non Grata

In case you never had the pleasure of going, sufficeit to say it was always something a little different, the main ingredients being good music, good food, and good beer -- all the obvious requirements for a good party. But it was more than that.

"It was a good time. Something where people saw things they didn't know they were going to see and ate things they didn't know they were going to eat."

Gastro Non Grata show posters were purposely nebulous. "You had to go to know what you were gonna get."

Gastro Non Grata show posters were purposely nebulous. "You had to go to know what you were gonna get."

Like?

"Like the time REPULSAR played and the guy was driving around with a bike wrapped in bubble wrap playing a one-man band with a pineapple taped to his head. We were really nervous about that one, but then realized it was the right call."

Those sorts of things were the right call at Gastro.

Or Mike Phillips (now of Red Table Meat) making sausages in the middle of the bar at Triple Rock. "That was the first 'what the fuck?!' show."

"Numerous people met their girlfriends at Gastro. It was always electric." [I can vouch for that -- yours truly is a girl who met a boyfriend there -- the relationship didn't last but the good memories, of him and of Gastro, did].

Despite all of the warm fuzzies, their last event had an abysmal turnout, even though all the right pieces came together. It was at the newly remodeled Turf Club, the tunes were by country music hall-of-famer Sherwin Lynton, and they had hometown brewer Summit on board.

Or there was the time that they booked the entirety of First Avenue, had food stations from Coastal Seafoods shucking oysters in the record room to Sheela Namakkal slinging cupcakes in the Entry and the lead singer from the Fuck Knights drumming and harmonica-ing all at once. (Harmonica tied to face with bandana).

When the party ended, after paying everyone who needed paying, there was $2 left in the kitty. "We paid each other a dollar each. When we got in the car, Jeff was pretty down, and I said to him: 'Hey, look around you. How many people driving sensible cars just took over First Avenue?'"

Drehmel thinks it worked, when it worked, because there were few things of its kind, and they didn't attach a $50 price tag to it. They specifically wanted to take chefs out of the dining room, because lots of us can't afford the dining room. The first events were free -- they raised money with meat raffles, which they eventually discovered was illegal. Then they upped the ticketing to $5 and $10 at the door. They always paid everyone what they could.

Once they hit their stride, they figured they had about 60 to 70 percent of the local chefs interested in their brand, and 10 percent of the dining public. Eventually, they had chefs calling them. "Chefs all want to be rock stars and rock stars want to be chefs."

He's grateful for making those relationships, and that's the best part about all of it -- the people.

"When I call Landon Schoenefeld (Haute Dish) and tell him I have a stupid idea, he says yes before I even tell him what it is."

Drehmel is a proletariat, and the age of Kickstarter-funded food dreams and oceans of craft beer makes him nervous. He says it's "hard to trust." Is all of it even going to be good?

"I usually eat at Vietnamese places on University or Eat Street because I'm old and I'm getting fat and I have kids and a bowl of Pho takes 20 minutes to eat and it costs eight dollars," he says. "These days, underground dinner parties have a $200 price tag and some weird jazz band, and its all hoity-toity."

Gastro non Grata was always the little "show" that could. (That's how Drehmel refers to the events, as "shows"). He recounts a time when a friend told him: "Hey, Craig, I really like the posters, but I don't get what it is." And, says Drehmel, that was the whole point. "You had to show up to know what you're gonna get. Otherwise, why even show up?"

It took the partners two years of "complete confusion" to get it sort of right, to build the trust of those who were willing to come, not knowing what they were gonna get.

"But if you're afraid to fail you shouldn't be doing anything," he says in the words of anyone who has ever succeeded at anything, at least the honest way.

He thinks he'll still plan some kind of event, sometime in the future, but he's wary about Kickstarter. He says he's not sure it's kosher to let other people fund your dreams.

We told him he should let the people decide.

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