The end of an era: Little Jack’s closes its doors

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Little Jack’s, the oldest restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis, closed its doors earlier this year and might be demolished to make way for new development, according to the restaurant’s most recent owner. Its contents were recently sold at an online auction, and large items including the chandelier and walnut bar have found new homes.

The owner, who cited the smoking ban as the major reason the establishment went out of business, is negotiating with the city of Minneapolis on a series of health, safety and fire code violations that were issued to Little Jack’s before it closed.

“The closing was due to the smoking ban,” said Jake Jewell, who has owned Little Jack’s since 2004. “That more or less forced me out of business. That was the number one force that not only drove me out, but [hurt] many others in the Northeast area.”

Jeanne Cluelow agrees. She bartended at Little Jack’s for 19 years. “It was like somebody opened a trap door and the whole bar fell in,” she said. “The first night [of the smoking ban] I was watching the news and they were interviewing people at the Star Bar [in Columbia Heights]. My customers were there because they could smoke.”

Cluelow has fond memories of her nearly two decades at Little Jack’s, and said its closing felt like the end of an era. “It was wonderful, it was like my home,” she said. “The Reshetars were the original owners. They opened it in 1932 and owned it for 70 years.”

Despite the effects of the smoking ban, Cluelow said business at Little Jack’s had been declining for about five years before it closed. She said even neighborhood support waned. “What was sad was that the neighborhood did not support us in the end. They didn’t. It was almost unbelievable—regulars that we’d had for 15, 20 years stopped coming in. The menu changed and people don’t like change. Especially in Northeast.”
Jewell added that changing demographics in Northeast also contributed to lackluster business in recent years. “Most of the original clientele either died or moved away,” he said. “I think most people in Northeast, the old timers who are left, realize that in the wake of their departure, many other ethnic groups have come in who do not share the same values as the original [concept].”

Before Jewell took ownership of Little Jack’s in 2004, Jang Enterprises LLC briefly ran the business. They added Asian cuisine to the menu, but kept many of its signature dishes. During that time Little Jack’s received a rave review from the City Pages food critic.

“I was written up in the City Pages,” said Cluelow. “They were in the bar. I didn’t know who they were and Darla [Dara Moskowitz] just wrote the nicest article about the restaurant and about me. When the Reshetars sold it to the Korean family, we had Asian and American food, and that didn’t fly in Northeast. It just didn’t fly. But their food was really good, and Darla loved it.”

The City of Minneapolis cited Little Jack’s for health, safety and fire code violations over the years, and city officials say some were not corrected. Eventually there were enough citations to draw attention from the Problem Properties Unit (PPU) at the city’s Department of Regulatory Services.

Tom Deegan is the manager of the PPU. He said Little Jack’s owner decided to close the restaurant rather than comply with city orders. “The owner cannot operate the business because he has failed to comply with specific orders that have been written by various agencies in the city,” said Deegan. “Rather than comply with those orders, because those deadlines have come and gone, he has been forced to close his business.” He said it was somewhat unusual for a business owner to opt to close rather than comply with city orders.

License inspector Linda Roberts said the Department of Regulatory Services is currently negotiating with Jewell through a technical advisory committee hearing to reach compliance of the outstanding violations. The deadline for their negotiations is the end of May. If no agreement is reached by then, Roberts said she would forward a recommendation for “adverse licensing action to the council that may include revocation of the liquor license.”

“Basically, we have outstanding violations, some of which are so serious—the fire code violations—that make that building uninhabitable, so it’s not safe for people to be inside,” said Roberts. “Compounded with the other violations, the licensing and the other violations that they had, we placarded that the business is unlicensed. That means that it’s closed, it can’t be open to the public.”

But Jewell insists that he responded to the city’s citations. “All of those things on that list were corrected,” he said, adding that revoking his liquor license is moot because he already sold the building last March. Jewell said he has met with city planners, First Ward Council Member Paul Ostrow and the Marshall Terrace neighborhood group about developing the property at 201 Lowry Ave. NE. Plans include demolishing the building and building condos or town homes with a mixed-use retail space on the first floor.

As for Little Jack’s memorabilia, some of its best items have found new homes. Julie Ranallo Meredith is a Northeast native who recently bought a French country estate in Victoria, Minnesota. She purchased the Little Jack’s chandelier at the on-line auction and plans to put it in her entryway.

“It’s perfect for our entrance,” she said, adding that her aunt, Marlene Kellar, worked as a server at Little Jack’s for 15 years. “We went there growing up. Its closing is sad because it was there for so many years, it was an institution. It always had wonderful food.”

Ray Mulvey and his wife Terry also used to live in Northeast Minneapolis. They moved to Becker and opened a bar called Bailey Ray’s in Santiago, Minnesota. Last January it burned down, and they’ve been looking for replacement equipment and furnishings ever since.

When Mulvey saw the hand-carved walnut bar from Little Jack’s at the online auction site, he knew he had to have it. “I went, ‘Holy moly, look at this bar!’ My wife and I went to view it personally and, wow, what a bar. You could not build a bar like that today. There’s all sorts of faces, features of people, on the entire periphery of the canopy. It looks like people sticking their tongues out at each other, and people sitting. It’s just a real interesting piece. It’s very unique. I really feel fortunate to have it.”

The Mulveys plan to start rebuilding Bailey Ray’s in June and open in September. Ray said he hopes to someday learn more about the history of the bar itself. “I know there was a time when you could walk into Little Jack’s and feel it—you know, how good of a business they had at one time. I know there are thousands of people that have been through there, so I know some day somebody’s going to wonder, ‘where the heck is that bar?’ We plan to preserve it as best we can. Hopefully some day, somebody will walk in who has gone to Little Jack’s many times and say, ‘Hey, I know that bar.’”

Share your memories of Little Jack’s in the “Food forum”:https://www.tcdailyplanet.net/forum/64.

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