With a cribbage board and a couple of adult beverages on the table, Como Park residents Paula and Mark Jelinek said they really didn’t need a Wednesday family game night to bring them to Como Dockside in the cold dark of winter.
Coming to this 2-year-old food and entertainment spot already is part of their weekly routine. But, they said, they appreciate the effort.
“We like the atmosphere, and the food is great,” Paula Jelinek said.
Judging, however, by the unused board games and puzzles on tables in the sparsely populated restaurant Wednesday, game night appears to be slow to catch on.
It’s not that co-owner Jon Oulman’s expectations are huge. They don’t need to be. In warmer months, the place is jumping, pumping 10 times the revenue into city coffers than the coffee shop that used to be in the space.
Since taking over and renovating the former Black Bear Crossings less than two years ago, Dockside has spent $266,814 on capital improvements such as putting in a catering kitchen, installing a dock and adding outdoor beer taps on the promenade. City officials expected 2016 total revenue to be $2 million, of which $200,000 went to the city in rent.
But winter is another story.
Oulman said he learned after Dockside’s first sleepy winter last year that “we had to dial it down some” to adjust to fewer customers.
Fewer staff are called to work. They’ve moved out some tables and moved in more cozy seating. And they have instituted a winter schedule designed to at least pull in the neighbors.
Wednesdays are game nights, Thursdays are movie and trivia nights. Saturdays play host to a Cajun music brunch with a live band. Game nights sometimes draw a couple of dozen people, said server Joe Overhaug. Movie nights have pulled in 40-plus. The brunch has proved even more popular, Oulman said.
Last February, they even parked a free portable sauna outside the restaurant to draw customers to the Pavilion.
“We just want a presence,” Oulman said.
People, especially Minneapolis friends accustomed to seasonal park restaurants closing in winter, like Sea Salt and Sandcastle, still ask Oulman when Como Dockside will reopen in the spring.
“We’re open year-round,” he said, shaking his head.
‘We’re building something’
The switch to Como Dockside was an expensive move for St. Paul, which is halfway through paying an $800,000 settlement to the Lakeside Pavilion’s former operator for breach of contract. But city officials say Oulman’s New Orleans-flavored venture has better potential to capture business from Como Park’s 4.4 million visitors a year.
“Como Dockside has been a great managing partner. They have exceeded our expectations, and we are looking forward to another successful year,” said Clare Cloyd, a spokeswoman for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, which owns the Pavilion.
Last year, Cloyd said, Como Dockside hosted about 140 events, significantly more than the 100 events Oulman’s contract requires.
“From farmers markets, to outdoor dining, to better access to the waterfront, they are constantly enhancing the experience for residents and visitors to the area and we have received very positive feedback,” Cloyd said.
Oulman, who also is co-owner of the 331 Club and the Sheridan Room in Minneapolis and Amsterdam Bar & Hall in downtown St. Paul, said he’s willing to endure slow winter nights — for a while. He estimates it will take two to three years for Dockside’s year-round operations to show a return on investment.
“In the meantime,” he said. “We’re building something.”