The guts of Tooties On Lowry, charred and broken, have been loaded into a dumpster in the parking lot, now carrion for the neighborhood scrappers. The hull of the building has seen a parade of electricians, plumbers and inspectors, and builders are now working to finish off this working-class establishment in north Minneapolis for what owners Lili and Nick Johnson hope will be a September “re-re-reopening.”

Tooties, known as the place where locals can get a good burger or some of Nick’s famous five-spice wings, was burglarized July 9. The burglar then started a fire in the basement. The fire itself was contained, but the smoke and heat caused widespread damage that has closed the neighborhood joint for 40 days and counting.

“To the untrained eye, it didn’t look like there was much damage at all,” said Nick, who likes to frequently shake up his traditional bar menu with surprises such as a London Broil or a tuna steak. But inspectors quickly found that the fire fried pipes and electrical wires in the ceiling and oxidized some of the stainless steel equipment.

The fire is the latest hurdle for the couple, whose family has owned Tooties since 1984, when Lili’s brothers bought it. Nick and Lili bought it from them in 1988, determined to provide a homestyle restaurant where regulars and seniors could meet and dine cheaply in a neighborhood where such businesses have been scarce.

They planned for ups and downs, but not many restaurants can say they survived a vehicle driving through their front window — twice, in seven years.

Each time, the Johnsons rallied, repairing the damage while trying to hold onto longtime employees and loyal customers. This time has been more of a struggle, but neighbors and patrons have again responded. One of them set up a fundraising page (gofundme.com/a-little-love-for-tooties) to help raise money for the rebuild. So far, more than 80 people, some unknown to the couple, have contributed.

“That’s kind of why we’re still here,” said Nick. “After they redid Lowry Avenue, we had one of the strongest customer support groups we’d ever seen.”

North Siders were so determined to keep Tooties open after the car crashes, many of them pledged that they would eat there once or twice a week to get them back on their feet.

“They are just the classic example of how hard it is to keep a business going on the North Side,” said Barb Johnson, the Minneapolis City Council member who represents the ward. “People don’t understand the challenges people face on the North Side.”

The council member, who favors the “El Tootie” burger, said the restaurant has a good location, near North Memorial Medical Center, to bring in steady, regular customers. “But how many times can you get hit over the head and keep going?” she asks.

“They’ve had a tough go of it, and always come back,” said Stephanie Gruver, a real estate agent and customer. “Time and time again, it just shows the loyalty of the North Side.”

Patrons include people of all races and ages, from families whose kids play in the toy kitchen set up in the dining room, to millennials who have discovered the good beer list and authentic “dive-bar” feel.

Lili said that reviews have consistently touted their bar food, but years ago some customers and reviewers complained about the 1970s wood paneling. Now, social media comments, especially from younger patrons, talk about the “great, old paneling,” as Tooties got discovered as a “retro” bar.

“We definitely have a ’70s look,” said Nick.

Over the years, the restaurant has sponsored billiard leagues and hosted weddings. “There have been a lot of first dates here,” said Nick. “Some of the older retired people who came here are gone, but their kids and grandkids still come in.”

Current customers, some seniors from Golden Valley or Robbinsdale, are missed. “We’re worried about a lot of these people,” said Lili. “Older people come here, not just for meals, but for the whole social life. Everybody kind of recognizes everybody, and we wonder what they are doing.”

That’s not surprising, since Lili grew up here and attended Patrick Henry High School. Nick is from South Dakota. They’ve been married 29 years.

Customers have been calling to see if they can help with the move back in (not yet), and whether they can get their chicken wing fix. They are also concerned about two murals that have a fond following. One was lost to the fire, the other, of a shootout at the OK Corral, with Lili’s brothers painted into the scene, survived.

The fire would allow the Johnsons to alter the atmosphere and modernize it, but Lili admits, “it’s probably going to look just like it did before.”

Most customers think that’s a good thing.

Sitting behind the restaurant, where Nick grows the tomatoes, herbs and vegetables he uses in his menu, the two were planning a series of events in a few weeks to welcome back customers. They have kept paying their employees to help keep them, but those employees depend heavily on tips.

“It’s a place to bring people to north Minneapolis who wouldn’t necessarily go there,” Barb Johnson said. “It’s important for people to understand how vital these businesses are.”

 

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702

Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin