The corner of 20th and University in northeast Minneapolis has been Kozlak territory for almost a century, starting on the day in 1910 when Stanley Kozlak opened his furniture and funeral parlor business. Today, Stanley's great-grandson Bill Kozlak presides over his family's legacy, Jax Cafe. This year marks the restaurant's 75th anniversary, a milestone matched by very few restaurants, not just in Minnesota but nationwide. In a recent conversation, Kozlak, 39, talked about growing up in the family business, the joys of prime rib and the tale -- make that tales -- behind the unusual Jax name.
Q What's your first memory of the restaurant?
A Sitting on a telephone book and eating dinner [laughs]. We had six kids in the family. We used to be closed on Sundays, that was the only day my dad was at home. But we would still stop in after church and check in. That was fun. We'd run around the empty dining room, play in the elevator, color on the back of menus, eat mints. My kids already have so many memories of coming here: pictures with reindeer at Christmas, catching their first trout. I want them to have all the memories that I have. They already have a love for it. We go to other restaurants and they notice things. My 5-year-old has been eating prime rib for two years. That's scary [laughs]. He once tried to order it through the drive-through at Wendy's.
Q What was your first job?
A I was a bus boy. I always worked here as a kid, although I was never forced to -- well, other than a few occasions [laughs]. My dad was good about teaching me about all the aspects of the restaurant, but my parents also made sure that I did other stuff: I was a caddy, I worked at a mortgage company, I bartended, I worked at a Radisson. I'm a people person, so everything kept going back to hospitality, to what I love. Most days I'm here by 7 a.m. That's when the phones don't ring and I can get things done. I work through lunch, and in busier times I'll stay through dinner. In December I'll come in at 7 a.m. and leave at 11 p.m. I don't see my kids all that much in December, but July is our slow month, so I spend a lot of time with them in July. I love my work. People ask, 'How the heck do you keep those hours?' and I turn around and ask them, 'How many other jobs can you go to on a given day and get a hug from someone?'
Q I think of Jax as a place where people celebrate. True?
A I like to say that we're a hotel without the hotel rooms. We can serve 325 people upstairs and 300 people downstairs. The patio adds another 50, and then there's also the bar. We served 1,350 people on Easter. We have 65 or 70 weddings a year, and probably 135 groom's dinners a year. I got married here -- I met my wife at Jax, she was a waitress -- and all of my sisters were married here. Matter of fact, my wedding was kind of interesting. Customers had watched me grow up, so they were calling my parents, asking to be invited. We probably had 450 people at our wedding. I think my dad would have liked it at 300, because that was a pretty big liquor tab [laughs]. We have so many amazing customers, which is why my business is so much fun. We see generations of families here: the baptisms, the first communions, the proms, the weddings and the after-funeral events, all here at Jax.
Q Why has Jax endured?
A Part of it is my dad taught me to reinvest in the business. When times are bad, you can't afford it, so invest when times are good; don't buy that boat. If the phone breaks, fix it today. Buy new carpet. Remodel the bathrooms. Also, we're consistent with our menu. When people come to Jax, they want lobster. They want steak. They want prime rib. They know they're coming home when they come to Jax. Certain things taste better in certain atmospheres, you know what I mean? When I go to the Lex, I know the short ribs are going to taste good. As good as they are at, say, the Chambers, they're not going to be as good as they are at the Lex.
Q What's the story behind the Jax name?
A Grandpa leased the bar to a gentleman named Jack Dusenka. He went to get the sign made, and Brede Corp. here in Northeast suggested spelling it 'Jax' for the notoriety. The other story is that Jack was cheap, and a three-letter Jax was cheaper than a five-letter Jack's.
Q How are you observing the 75th anniversary?
A We're doing the yearlong dinner special [a porterhouse dinner for two for $75]. We're also going to have an open house in the fall, although we haven't set a date yet. And we're planning an all-Kozlak family reunion.
Q The restaurant's great patio dates back to 1959. That made Jax a real patio pioneer, didn't it?
A It was originally built as a waiting area, people would go out and have a cigarette and a drink. Eventually the tables came in, the canopy, the gardening. We were the first in town with outdoor dining, first with salt-water tanks, first to send buses to Gopher games. Of course, when you've been around this long, you get the chance to be first at a lot of stuff.