The first comment people usually make about Lee’s Liquor Lounge is how it looks as if the place hasn’t changed in 50 years. Luckily, they still should be able to say that even if the historic downtown Minneapolis watering hole is finally taken over by a new owner.
“I love it as is,” insisted Craig Kruckeberg, who plans to buy Lee’s in mid-June, pending approval of the liquor license transfer by the Minneapolis City Council.
Aside from adding a patio and joining the 20th century by accepting credit cards, Kruckeberg said he does not intend to make any alterations to the bar and music club he fell in love with six years ago when he moved into the now-trendy North Loop neighborhood.
“I always tell people: ‘You know that bar you go to when you go home for Thanksgiving and you know everyone you know will be there? Lee’s is just like that bar.’ ”
Louie Sirian, the venue’s headstrong owner for four decades, has been looking for a buyer since 2012. That’s when he ran a feeler ad in the Star Tribune classifieds, which didn’t name the bar for sale but provided a big hint with this line: “Must see to appreciate.”
“I finally found the right guy,” said Sirian, who’s approaching 80 and believes he’s getting too old for “the saloon business,” as he calls it.
Sirian said he fielded several other offers in recent years, but they all involved Realtors who “always cut too deep into the money.” Kruckeberg agree to meet Sirian’s asking price without the involvement of an agent. Specifics of the deal were not offered.
The fact that Lee’s was owned by a fella named Louie became the inspiration for “Louie’s Lee’s Liquor Lounge,” a song by cult-loved Texas honky-tonker Dale Watson, who plays the venue a couple of times per year.
Sirian bought the business in 1976 from the family of Lee Tremer, who opened it in 1957. Housed in a 1900-era two-story building at 101 Glenwood Av. N., the bar has several identifying features, including a checkered linoleum dance floor, vinyl booths, an Elvis shrine, a stuffed mountain lion and other taxidermy displays.
Kruckeberg, 49, said he got the inspiration to buy the place after hearing that Nye’s Polonaise Room, another beloved postwar bar, is closing to make way for a possible high-rise condominium in northeast Minneapolis.
“I just couldn’t let an iconic bar and watering hole get torn down to build another condo building,” he said.
Kruckeberg’s nearest experience to running a bar was working in his parents’ restaurant growing up. He already runs one successful business, Minimizer, a trucking accessories business based in his native town of Blooming Prairie, Minn. He was named one of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneurs of the Year in the Upper Midwest in 2013.
“I don’t need to take a wage from [Lee’s],” he said, “I just need it to pay for itself and pay good wages to the staff and the bands that play there.”
Kruckeberg said the old-school country and rockabilly acts are another Lee’s formula he will keep, though he does hope to pay more for bigger-name bands. He is already in the thick of getting city approval for a patio behind the bar. The site offers an eye-popping view of the city skyline and nearby Target Field, which has been a boon to Lee’s but also brought a greater risk of redevelopment.
Sirian said of his would-be successor, “I think he’s going to be very good to this bar, and to this neighborhood — which have always been good to me.”
A former St. Paul Water Department employee, Sirian also ran another colorful old bar for 30 years, St. Paul’s Viaduct Inn. “I’d say I had a pretty good run,” he said.
Sirian insists he will walk away cold-turkey from Lee’s, despite Kruckeberg’s invite for him to tend bar on occasion. Instead, he said, “I just want to take care of my own now,” meaning a couple of ailing older brothers, his dog, and his beloved wife’s grave, which he visits weekly.
“I might pop over there when Dale Watson is playing,” he said, “but that’d be about it. If it’s not my place anymore, I really have no reason to be there.”