A Republican legislator who has been a vocal critic of pandemic-related business closures is now fighting to keep his own doors open — in this case, a red door leading to a basement speakeasy in downtown Anoka.
Nucky's Speakeasy, which Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, co-owns, was open for three days in November before Gov. Tim Walz's latest executive order closing bars and restaurants went into effect.
"We were totally surprised," Abeler said. "We didn't mean to open in a pandemic, but that's how it worked out."
Abeler has owned the historic post office building on Anoka's Main Street since 1994. It's taken different forms over the years, from a charter school to an antique store.
Abeler tried selling the building a year and a half ago, but in "the most random of happenstances," he crossed paths with husband-and-wife chefs Rowan Brown and Von Inthisone last November.
That's when an employee of the couple's former restaurant in Big Lake had an appointment with Abeler, a second-generation chiropractor in Anoka. The employee and Abeler struck up a conversation about the restaurant business, how Brown was looking for a new location and how Abeler needed new occupants in the post office.
Brown and Inthisone brought their "Jamasian" cuisine — a combination of their Jamaican and Laotian roots — to Club 300, the restaurant above Nucky's.
"All by luck" is how Brown describes the partnership. But now the fates of the bar and restaurant hang in the COVID-19 balance.
"It's the worst thing that could happen to anybody in the food industry," Brown said. "It's not anything I would wish on my own worst enemy."
Careful safety features
Club 300 opened Oct. 3 at 50% capacity, then shifted to takeout-only after the latest executive order — a difficult move with just seven weeks to build up a clientele, Brown said.
"We're making sales but we're nowhere near where we should be," he said. "There's a lot of hope but we're still in limbo."
Abeler said in the past year they've poured about $200,000 into the new business venture, including an air purifier system.
"I felt really good about our safety features," Abeler said, adding that tables were socially distant while guests and employees wore masks.
Abeler said his greatest concern now is a staff of about a dozen people who are without work until the lockdown is lifted. Though Walz's executive order is set to expire Dec. 18, Abeler and Brown said they're worried it will be extended.
"I'm not trusting the governor to do a wise action," Abeler said.
Enter the Prohibition era
A red door leads to Nucky's — named after Atlantic City racketeer Enoch Lewis "Nucky" Johnson — a basement bar that guests can enter after ringing a buzzer and providing a secret password to the doorman through a peephole.
During the short-lived opening, the phrase "I've got mail" — a nod to the building's history — was the key to enter and enjoy Prohibition-era drinks like sidecars, old fashioneds and bee's knees.
Inside, artwork of bootleggers hangs on hundred-year-old brick walls, and whiskey-barrel tables await guests. The main feature is a 22-foot-long illuminated quartz bar imported from Italy, the arrival of which delayed the bar's opening.
Like a scene straight from "The Great Gatsby," customers dressed in Prohibition-era flair for the bar's opening, reliving the Roaring '20s if only for a few days.
Abeler said customers jokingly asked what the real secret password would be to get in during the shutdown.
"This is begging to be what it is, to be made into a speakeasy," Abeler said. "The bar looks amazing, with all its unused liquor sitting there."
Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751