Like so many other things these days, Jarret Oulman found it on Craigslist.
Oulman, co-owner of the 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis, was surfing Craigslist's maze of online classifieds last November when he stumbled upon a peculiar entry. The posting read:
Bar for sale -- downtown Minneapolis.
"That's all it said," Oulman remembered. He was intrigued.
Oulman has had a short but successful stint in the bar business. Four years ago, he and his business partner (his dad, Jon) transformed a ramshackle biker bar into the 331 Club, now one of Northeast's hippest hangouts. But were they ready to open another joint? Prior to the 331's success, Jarret had been a teacher; Jon was a salon owner (and still is). Plus, the economy sucked (and still does).
The bar he found on Craigslist was Matty B's -- a wannabe-chic sports bar in downtown Minneapolis named after former Vikings center Matt Birk. With its overpriced burgers and garish decor (light purple walls, wood paneling and football-shaped tables), the bar had failed to find a steady clientele since it opened in 2006, and the operators were looking for a way out of the lease.
Jarret Oulman took one look at the space and said, "I'll take it."
Choosing a name wasn't hard. The 331 Club was named after its address, so the "501 Club" was only natural.
More food, more music
For their remodeling, Oulman and his father brought a little Northeast attitude to the much larger downtown space. It's a lot darker now. The elder Oulman, who helped pioneer Minneapolis' trend of art gallery/salons at his Jon Oulman Salon, plans to line the walls with paintings by Twin Cities artists. The bar opened in early April with pieces by well-known stencil artist John Grider (of billy goat fame).
The two-level layout of Matty B's always felt strange, but the Oulmans have turned its odd shape to their advantage. The upper level houses the kitchen and restaurant seating. Oulman calls the menu "smart but not esoteric." Beyond their regular burger and fries, there's a shrimp burger, a turkey burger, hash plates, chicken livers and a GLBT (guacamole, lettuce, bacon, tomato).
The lower level centers on a freshly built stage. It represents what Oulman is most excited about at the 501 Club: rock music.
Since its inception, the 331 Club has played a large part in Northeast's surging live-music scene. It stands apart for offering every show for free.
Oulman will do the same downtown, but the bands are bigger and louder. On a recent night, the lead singer of hardcore band Chibalo jumped offstage in midsong, dashed to the upper level and blasted virtual deer on the "Big Buck Hunter" arcade game -- all while singing his screaming lyrics. It was something you just wouldn't see at the 331.
Look for the music calendar to fill out in June, when booker Christy Hunt takes over. She most recently turned Stasiu's in Northeast into a live-music destination.
Enter the spelling bee
Beyond free music, the 331 Club became famous for its willingness to try anything once. Case in point: the Grown Up Spelling Bee (formerly the Drunken Spelling Bee). The popular bar game, where contestants earn free drinks after completing a successful round of spelling, was started on a lark, but quickly became a monthly staple at the Northeast bar. (City officials frowned on the original name.)
With 50 to 60 spellers each month and a large crowd of onlookers, Oulman thought the spelling bee would fit perfectly at the roomier 501 Club. During its first showing in the new digs last month, spellers tackled the bee's usual mix of naughty words and political terms. "Tea bagging" was dually relevant. (The next bee is May 16.)
Before it started, however, the bee's host, a loud and funny woman named Taffi Vagilante, commented on this month's smaller pool of spellers (there were 36).
"Thirty percent of our spellers got lost on the way here," she yelled from the stage.
Yep, for fans of neighborhood bars like the 331 Club, downtown definitely takes some getting used to: Parking is tough, drinks cost more and cover can be outrageous.
But the 501 Club seems to have conquered such pitfalls. (The lot out back is only $1.50, the drinks are reasonable and there is no cover.)
Next time, I'd bet a beer and a bad word that those same spellers find their way.
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