Purple Onion Cafe to be uprooted


When the weather is nice, Frank Boucher and his friend Paul Marker sit outside to have their coffee and a smoke in front of a 13-year-old Dinkytown coffee shop.

The two friends have been daily patrons of the Purple Onion Café since it opened in 1993.

“This place, you don’t have to worry about it,” Boucher said. “It’s like an old pair of boots. The older they look, the better you feel.”

This Saturday, after years spent on the corner of 14th Avenue Southeast and Fourth Street Southeast, the Purple Onion will leave its birthplace for a new home around the corner.

“There’ll be a communal shift,” Marker said, “but it’s not closing.”

The places

The Purple Onion will close Saturday and reopen as early as this July at 1301 University, an apartment complex that opened in 2005 on University Avenue Southeast.

The new shop will include more than 100 seats, a patio, all new furniture and a new menu with homemade soups and hot sandwiches, owner Pat Weinberg said.

“I’m going to be way better off,” Weinberg said, citing some problems he said he had with the building owners along the way.

Weinberg said he began negotiating a new 13-year lease with Kraus-Anderson Realty Company, the building owners, back in 2000. He said he put those negotiations on hold to look at his own financial situation and see what he could offer the company, knowing large chain restaurants had expressed some interest in the space.

According to Weinberg, Kraus-Anderson agreed to give him all the time he needed. When he returned to the negotiations, he said they told him there was a better offer on the table.

“When you own a building, you have the right to do what you want,” he said. “I don’t want to take that away from them, but I was disrespected.”

Weinberg said he considered fighting the issue, but thought it better to seek a new location.

“There was a time when we were going to let the community go,” he said. “We would’ve had a good fight. But, in the end, I decided to let the big guy handle this one.”

The “big guy,” in this case, was Kraus-Anderson and its director of property and redevelopment, Ken Vinje, who said this type of business deal is “a natural progression in how an area develops.”

“Not everybody is going to be happy,” he said. “We both worked together very well to try and make things work for both parties.”

A Purple Onion employee mixes a cold chai for a customer. The drinks will stay the same after the café moves; however, there will be a patio, new furniture and a new soup and sandwich menu.

Vinje said Weinberg was given “ample opportunities” to renew the contract.

“Other parties became interested in the space,” he said. “You have to go with the benefits of going with one prospect over another, and it ended up that the decision had to be made.”

Next fall the space will house two chain restaurants: Potbelly, a sandwich shop, and Qdoba, a Mexican fast-food chain, both of which Vinje said will be a good fit for Dinkytown.

“We’re going to be adding a new mix for the Dinkytown area that doesn’t exist there today,” he said.

He also said the new businesses shouldn’t overshadow the smaller ones that exist because they are unique to the area.

“You can’t eat the same things every day,” he said.

Dinkytown Business Association President Skott Johnson said he disagrees, saying locally owned businesses are concerned about being overtaken by bigger corporations, especially with the prospect of a new on-campus Gophers football stadium.

“We’d hate to see (local businesses) hurt by the competition coming in with a similar product,” he said, noting that Qdoba would compete with locally owned Burrito Loco.

“I don’t recall anybody asking what a good mix is,” he said, adding that he would rather see something like a bakery go into the space.

Johnson also said he is happy the Purple Onion is staying in Dinkytown and that they are moving into a great new space.

“If Pat (Weinberg) is happy, I’m happy,” he said.

The faces

Over the years, the Purple Onion has accumulated more than a handful of regulars, like Boucher and Marker.

“(The café) is kind of like a community living room,” Boucher said. “We argue with each other and come back the next day acting like nothing ever happened.”

Boucher and Marker both said they plan to visit the new location.

“They can’t get rid of us that easy,” Marker said.

After coming to the Purple Onion for four years, University graduate student Andy Zieffler said he is afraid the coffee shop will lose something in the move.

“It’s probably good for them, but I think it’s going to lose a little nostalgia,” Zieffler said. “It’s not about the coffee a lot of times, it’s about the atmosphere.”

Noah Skogerboe, an employee for seven and a half years, said he also has some mixed feelings about the move.

“This job has been good to me,” he said.

Skogerboe started working at the Purple Onion when he was an undergraduate at the University.

“I’m attached to this place,” he said, “but change is a constant of life.”