It’s a Saturday night in Lowertown, and the Black Dog Café brims with people and jazz. The tables are full, the bar stools are taken. A standing crowd hopes that seats will open up somewhere.
On the stage, in front of a red curtain draped with Christmas lights, Steve Kenny blows his trumpet hard. With him are Rodney Ruckus on drums, Brandon Wozniak on saxophone, Billy Peterson on bass and Peter Schimke on keys, all fierce musicians. Servers weave between the tables carrying food and drinks. The room buzzes.
This is a scene that almost didn’t happen. It’s a tale of hard work, family loyalty, resilience, the willingness to change and — pardon the pun — dogged determination.
It was 20 years ago Thursday that the Black Dog opened its doors. Long before Lowertown was cool, before it was hot, before 55101 was dubbed the top hipster ZIP code, three of the seven Remke siblings — Sara, Andy and Stacy — decided to open a coffee shop. They leased a vacant space on the ground floor of the Northern Warehouse Artists Cooperative on E. Prince Street. It had formerly housed the Copernicus coffee shop, which moved out a year earlier.
Previously, Sara Remke managed the Rossmor building, then a squat for artists. She tended bar and worked in restaurants during high school. Andy Remke was Sergeant at Arms for the Minnesota House of Representatives. Stacy Remke worked at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.
That was the extent of their experience. They had done some research but never owned a business together. Today they still run the place. Sara and Andy are hands-on; Stacy, who teaches at the University of Minnesota, chooses the wine and bakes the cakes. According to Sara, they have never had a major disagreement.
“I think it would be more difficult to do this with friends than family,” Andy said in an interview earlier this month. “With family, from the time you’re a toddler, you’re used to having struggles, and you know you’re going to get through it and get over it and figure out how to work it out.”
‘You could do music here’
The Black Dog survived the early years, when Lowertown (and much of St. Paul) was a ghost town after dark. The neighborhood was home to artists and industry and not much else.
The new-music ensemble Zeitgeist rented rehearsal space in the nearby Northwestern Building. Co-artistic director Heather Barringer remembers, “There weren’t civilian places to live. There were no street-level businesses to speak of. The Black Dog became a gathering place, where people in the community would go to have a cup of coffee, do their work and run into one another. You could walk in and expect to see [artist] Ta-coumba [T. Aiken]. Or Ben Krywosz [founding artistic director of Nautilus Music-Theatre]. Or [actor] Bradley Greenwald.”
Customers wanted food, not just coffee. The Black Dog started making sandwiches and pizzas in a makeshift kitchen. They got a wine license. Then they banned smoking before smoking indoors was illegal. “The neighbors went on strike for about a week,” Sara recalls.
Sara fell in love with a French record producer named Jean Rochard, who said, “You could do music here.” The first band she featured was a French jazz trio. There’s been live music at the Black Dog ever since.
With Rochard, Sara went to “a lot of pretty wild concerts” and developed a taste for free jazz. That led to something jazz fans still talk about in reverent tones: the Minnesota Sur Seine Music Festival. For four years starting in 2004 and ending in 2008 (the fall 2007 festival was bumped to the following spring), Remke and Rochard produced a visionary multicultural music event that grew in size and scope, putting international artists together with area musicians in one-of-a-kind collaborations.
Sur Seine was musically rich but financially hopeless. The final year took place during the Great Recession.
The economic downturn was followed by light rail construction and the building of the new Saints ballpark, both just outside the Black Dog’s door. For three years, getting to the Black Dog and finding parking were nearly impossible. Even the faithful stopped coming.
“We cut way back on our staff,” Sara said. “Andy and I probably each worked 75 hours a week. There were days when we did $300. It was brutal.” The Black Dog relied on the St. Paul Farmers Market a short walk away. Construction turned that into a four-block slog.
They considered giving up. “Andy and I had quite a few conversations,” Sara said. “At one point, I told him I didn’t think I could work for someone else. And he said ‘Exactly.’ We kept our heads down and plowed through.”
Changing with the neighborhood
When the construction ended, the Remkes remodeled and expanded. During the past 10 years, Union Depot reopened after a $243 million makeover. Warehouse buildings were converted to market-rate apartments and condos. Restaurants opened around Mears Park. For a time, the Remkes eyed a spot there. Then the Clouds in Water Zen Center next door moved out.
They acquired that space, cut a doorway in the adjoining wall and created an all-purpose event center. They built a scratch kitchen, hired a chef, developed a full menu and started table service. They redid the main room and got a liquor license. After staying open every day, they held a grand reopening at the end of July 2016.
For a business that began as a coffee shop, the Black Dog has joined the big dogs. But it’s still a neighborhood hang. People show up during the days, open their laptops and settle in. At night, they come for drinks and food — and music. All kinds of music.
“There’s been music on that corner virtually every night for almost 20 years,” said Steve Kenny, who’s about to present his 240th consecutive Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog date. “This is part of Sara’s deal. And it’s a big deal. Interesting music — improvised music, creative music, marginalized music — has been holding down the fort there for years. That changes the subconscious of a neighborhood and makes it better.”
A St. Paul native, musician and communications director for Mayor Melvin Carter, Peter Leggett knows the Black Dog well. He sees it as an anchor in the community. “If you think about what Lowertown was like 20 years ago, or what downtown St. Paul and Lowertown were like 10 years ago, it’s phenomenal to have weathered the changes we’ve seen. To do that as an independent cafe with the same owners that entire time is an incredible feat. But if you know Sara or Andy, you know that they know their customers and who they serve.”
“I think we have been a very stable influence,” Sara said. “We’ve been a gathering place — after the death of Paul Wellstone, for the Iraq war, the Republican National Convention and the opening of the Green Line. People meet here during those times. We hold a lot of history and continuity.”
To Andy, the Black Dog is the place where the old Lowertown meets the new. To Sara, “it’s a place where we want people to feel good. When we’re busy and people are enjoying themselves, the hum and flow are infectious.
“To some people, we’re that hippie place, which I actually don’t mind,” Sara continued. “But I feel like the Black Dog is my art project and my dharma. It’s where I meet the world, reflect, work on myself and constantly try to make things better.”
Twenty years is a long time. But Andy is already thinking ahead. “Ten years in the future, the Black Dog is going to be different,” he said. And “I’d like to be here another 20 years.”
Birthday Bash: 20 Years of the Black Dog
What: Free cake, drink specials and giveaways. When: 5 p.m. Fri. Price: Free.
David Huckfelt of the Pines
What: Solo acoustic concert. When: 4 p.m. Sun. Price: $20, eventbrite.com.
Early, Safe, and Sane New Year’s Celebration
Who: Todd Harper, keys; Aaron Kerr, cello; Chris Hagedorn, sax. When: 5-8 p.m. Dec. 31. Price: $10
New Year’s Eve show
Who: Steve Kenny, trumpet; Dave Brattain, saxophones; Will Kjeer, piano; Charlie Lincoln, bass; Pete James Johnson, drums; special guests. When: 8:30 p.m.-close. Price: $20
Lowertown Variety Show
What: A monthly curated variety show with musicians, shadow puppets, dancers and more. When: 8 p.m. Jan. 10. Price: $5 goodwill offering.
What: Klezmer, folk, rock. When: 8-11 p.m. Jan. 11. Price: $7 suggested donation.
Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog
What: Babatunde Lea’s Rhythm’s Mama performs original compositions and jazz standards in the rhythms of the African diaspora. When: 8:30 p.m. Feb. 16. Price: No cover, tip jar.
Pamela Espeland is the Artscape columnist at MinnPost and blogs at bebopified.com.