As a young man more than 25 years ago, Peter Kirihara took a rail trip across western Europe. He became enamored with the sense of history, as well as Europeans’ appreciation of a good cup of coffee.
Though he’d never planned to get into the business, Kirihara saw an opening in a dank brick space in what was then known as the Warehouse District, just north of downtown Minneapolis. He decided to open a European-style coffee shop before the chains made coffee shops ubiquitous.
There were a few problems about the location, however. No one lived there, and few worked there.
“The whole reason I wanted to go down there is I loved the history, I wanted to be in the old part of the city,” said Kirihara.
That was 1991, when a decent cup of coffee was hard to come by in the city. Kirihara started Moose & Sadie’s at 212 3rd Av. N. and hung on for dear life.
As the coffee scene evolved, the neighborhood coffee shop became a full-scale restaurant, with made-from-scratch food served in homey and familiar surroundings. The Warehouse District evolved with it, becoming the trendy North Loop, with thousands of residents living in upscale condos, fancy restaurants and clothing shops and a boutique hotel.
Kirihara also expanded, finding partners for two other ventures, Bev’s Wine Bar (with Susan Liesch) and Jetset Bar (with Paul Schula), both within the loop.
Area business owners, politicians and customers honored Kirihara Tuesday for his pioneering vision and his determination to transform the once ghostly neighborhood into a legitimate destination spot.
“Peter was at Moose & Sadie’s before anybody was there,” said Bob Pohlad, who toasted Kirihara at the event. “When he started it, he said he wanted a ‘dirty coffee shop,’ and he turned it into a dirty and smoky coffee shop.”
But when Starbucks and Dunn Brothers started their conquests of the local coffee scene, Kirihara pivoted to organic food, bringing in Susan Muskat to execute an imaginative menu.
“He wisely decided not to compete with the chains,” said Pohlad. “He partnered with good people in all three of his businesses and he’s not only survived, but thrived.”
“He saw what the North Loop could be before it even had a name,” said City Council Member Jacob Frey. “You make a special kind of connection to a business when you know the owner, and everyone knows Peter.”
Frey compared Kirihara’s influence in the North Loop to the moment in the “Wizard of Oz” when the movie goes from black-and-white to color.
Mayor Betsy Hodges named a day after Kirihara. “Peter brought imagination, and it’s the imagination that makes a city great,” Hodges said.
Heather Bray, an owner of the Lowbrow Restaurant, said that Kirihara has been supportive of the restaurant industry in general. He helped Bray scout locations and coached her on their business model.
“We love Peter,” Bray said. “He’s a friend and a mentor. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever met.”
“It’s a bit overwhelming,” Kirihara said of the tribute. He said he got his strong work ethic from his mother, Lucy, who was a schoolteacher and pushed him to excel at whatever he did, including the job stocking shelves at the local Byerly’s when he was a kid.
“All three businesses are the epitome of mom-and-pop shops, so there are peaks and valleys,” Kirihara said. “But we really want to keep them that way. [Poor] staffing can ruin you, but I’ve been lucky, I’ve always been grateful for the people who work with me.
“Now, everything is for sale and everything is being developed and retail is taking off. It’s kind of now just getting started.”
Standing before a crowd of perhaps 300 at the North Loop’s Ford Center, Kirihara was humbled. He said he was “completely horrified” to find that he was being honored.
“I mean, my God,” Kirihara said. “It’s like I’m Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago.”
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