Jim Jennings would routinely visit his restaurants to eat lunch, chat with regulars and exchange business ideas with his managers on the back of beverage napkins.
“There’s nothing he loved more than to meet people and get the opportunity to get to know people,” said son Michael Jennings.
Jennings continued to have a hand in his Twin Cities restaurants right up until his death June 4 at age 95.
Michael “Jim” Jennings was born Nov. 27, 1923, and grew up with his family in Minneapolis. He went to West High School, where he excelled in athletics, especially football. He then attended the University of Minnesota, where he played as a running back for the football team. In 1942, Jennings was drafted into the Army and served during World War II.
After he completed his service, Jennings returned to the Twin Cities and worked a variety of jobs, including at Jennings Liquor, the St. Louis Park liquor store that his father ran and left to Jennings’ mother after his death. Jennings eventually bought the liquor store.
In 1963, Jennings opened his first restaurant, Jennings Red Coach Inn, after taking over the vacant former Jennings Tavern that his father had previously operated next door to the liquor store. The Red Coach Inn was a supper club that served steaks, seafood and other food.
In a 2016 interview with St. Louis Park Magazine, Jim Jennings said, “I really didn’t know much about restaurants, but I believed if I made sure I had great food, top-notch service and I could create a place where people could go meet friends or get away from their problems, I would be successful.”
Jennings was successful. He opened several other eateries, including Timothy O’Toole’s Pub, which he opened in 1973 in part of the liquor store space, and Gipper’s sports bar in 1987, which he opened next door after moving the liquor store just a little farther down the road. Those four businesses flourished until he was forced to sell them to the city of St. Louis Park in 1999 to make way for the Excelsior and Grand mixed-use development.
Jennings opened two other restaurants in the 1990s that are still around: the Scoreboard Bar and Grill in Minnetonka and JJ’s Clubhouse in Golden Valley. In 2015, Jim Jennings was inducted by the Minnesota Restaurant Association into the Minnesota Hospitality Hall of Fame. He is also in the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association’s Hospy Hall of Fame.
“He paid attention to all the little details,” said Jill Dekarske, general manager of JJ’s Clubhouse who worked for Jennings for about 15 years and considered him family. “The light bulbs. Is the door clean? ... He kept you on your toes.”
Jennings would often use stories and proverbs to help teach his children about how to run a business, said his son Mike. He remembers his father saying, “Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered,” to remind them to not get greedy. Out of Jennings’ seven children, five own their own businesses, said Mike Jennings, who owns Jimmy’s Kitchen and Bar in Minnetonka with his sister Ann.
“It was just kind of something that we learned through his example and exposure,” Ann Jennings said.
Jim Jennings had recently purchased an empty eatery next door to JJ’s Clubhouse and was working to open another restaurant at the location “to keep him busy,” his daughter said. The Jennings family plans to open the restaurant in the fall or early winter.
Another passion of Jennings’ was golf. He practiced his golf swing daily and was a 67-year member of the Minneapolis Golf Club.
Jennings is survived by his wife, Joyce; children Mary, Ann, Michael, Tim, Peggy Frisch and Barbie; and eight grandchildren.
Services were held Monday. A reception was planned at the Scoreboard Bar and Grill after the funeral.