DULUTH – The facade still looks like a bright red temple from the Jade Fountain’s days as a Chinese restaurant, but step inside and see what owner Kai Soderberg describes as an homage to all the bars he’s ever loved.
Hanging lantern-style fixtures provide a dim glow over retro booths. Neon lights on the wall cast a pink glow over the room. An eclectic mix of Americana knickknacks and foreign treasures lines the walls, where maybe they’ll remind customers of some past time or place that makes them forget the present, just for a moment.
“I think the escapism is probably the biggest thing,” said Soderberg, the former general manager at the Rathskeller, a speakeasy-inspired bar in downtown Duluth. “It’s 2020. Nobody wants to be here.”
The Jade Fountain, Soderberg’s new cocktail lounge, opens Friday at 305 N. Central Ave. The 38-year-old owner, who will run the joint mostly by himself for the time being, was just about to launch his business when the COVID-19 outbreak started.
He spent his months of quarantine renovating the former eatery, which was a Chinese restaurant from 1968 until it closed in 2015. With the space ready, and the rent payments adding up, he figures it’s now or never.
“It’s a scary time to do this, but I feel like it could be a good time, too,” Soderberg said. “If I want to survive, I have to make moves.”
The Jade Fountain will be open from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Capacity will be limited to 50 people while the pandemic continues, and Soderberg plans to set up some outdoor tables in front of the building. Groups will be limited to six people, and many cocktails will be pre-batched.
Soderberg’s bartending background comes into play with the drink menu, which features boozy frozen favorites alongside lip-smacking mocktails. The average cocktail will cost about $9, and the Jade Fountain will also serve beer and wine.
The joint’s vintage soda fountain blender will be deployed to craft Mai Tais and frozen brandy Alexanders, which Soderberg makes using Pierre Ferrand cognac, crème de cacao and organic ice cream.
“I’m pretty sure that pretty soon we’ll be known as one of the best places to get a cocktail in town,” he said.
The Jade Fountain will also offer a few small plates (the official menu is still being worked out, but think Asian-style chicken wings, egg rolls and crab rangoon). Soderberg is leasing his space from the owner of Gannucci’s, the Italian restaurant with an adjoining kitchen where cooks will whip up whatever dishes the small cocktail lounge needs.
Soderberg has wanted to venture out on his own in the hospitality business for years. He graduated from Duluth’s Central High School in 2000 and moved to Portland, Ore., where he spent more than a decade in the food and beverage industry.
In 2015, he moved back to Minnesota and worked as the bar manager at Le Méridien Chambers in Minneapolis. Soderberg and his wife were considering moving to the East Coast the following year, but they spent the summer visiting family in Duluth and never left. They got a dog and bought a house.
The couple live in West Duluth near the Jade Fountain, which Soderberg hopes will become the neighborhood staple it once was. He thinks the bar could attract tourists, but he’s more focused on providing a new option for locals seeking nightlife.
“Duluth is beautiful, I’ve always felt it was my true home,” he said. “If I’m here, my expertise is in hospitality. That’s the way I want to make it better.”