From the time they announced the demolition of their legendary St. Paul bar in early 2018 until two weeks ago, Kris and Dan O'Gara believed they would reopen in a new building nearing completion on the same spot. But, no matter how many times they ran the numbers — or looked at other ways to increase profitability — onerous local and state regulations made long-term success unlikely, Dan O'Gara said Monday.
So they decided to darken the iconic O'Gara's sign for good.
Flanked by family members and longtime employees at the O'Gara's on the State Fairgrounds, the O'Garas announced the end of an era, blaming St. Paul's new $15 minimum wage, and sick and safe time requirements.
"We could have sustained it for five or six years, but it would have been too difficult to succeed in the long term," Dan O'Gara said. "I don't know of any small, independent local business that could succeed in this environment."
In a statement, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said: "O'Gara's has been a St. Paul institution for a long time. I'm saddened by the news that their landmark location on Snelling Avenue is closing, but look forward to celebrating their continued success at the State Fair."
The opening of local taprooms and distilleries played a role in the decision, too, O'Gara said. "I welcome competition," he said. "But they have a competitive advantage over traditional bars that buy their alcohol on a retail basis."
The move puts about 50 people out of work. Some of them had worked at the Irish pub for decades. O'Gara said he and his wife are committed to reaching out to their network of bar and restaurant owners to find work for as many as they can. Laura Henriksen, assistant general manager for more than two years, said the O'Garas were a rarity in the business — owners who welcomed ideas and input from staff.
"They are among the most compassionate people I have ever met," she said.
Henriksen added that the permanent closing marks another loss for St. Paul.
"We're losing that personal touch," she said, nodding to other nearby businesses that recently shuttered, like Creative Kidstuff and Bibelot. "You're losing the small-town feel of St. Paul."
The restaurant and music venue has been an institution at the corner of Snelling and Selby avenues ever since Jim O'Gara opened the doors in March 1941. The interior offered timeless accents, among them tin ceilings and historic photos on the walls.
It's also where Charles Schulz, creator of the "Peanuts" comic strip, lived upstairs as a child in an apartment, while his father charged 35 cents for a cut downstairs at a three-chair barbershop.
Schulz, who died in 2000, made his last trip home to Minnesota in 1994 and stopped at O'Gara's. Up to O'Gara's last day, one wall featured a visual ode to Schulz: A barber's pole hung next to a Schulz sketch of Snoopy nestled in a barber's chair ready for a trim. "In memory of the old days," Schulz had written below.
But over the past decade, the large crowds that were once common at O'Gara's were more and more rare. The bar closed more than a year ago as part of a redevelopment that demolished the 110-year-old building to make way for an apartment building, parking lot and co-working space.
The family sold the site to developer Ryan Cos. about a year ago and were planning to lease a significantly smaller space at the corner. Kris O'Gara said the family continued working with Ryan up until recently to brainstorm ways to decrease costs enough to make it work long term.
"We kept pushing and pushing to find a way. But in the end, we decided it wasn't going to work and we just have to move on," Kris O'Gara said. "It's disappointing — for everybody."
Brandon Long, executive director of Union Park District Council, said of the announcement: "It's a huge curveball. Very out of the blue."
But, he said, it could also be an opportunity to use the space that would have been the new restaurant as something more community focused. The corner is home to a bustling Whole Foods, a new Red's Savoy Pizza, Dunkin' Donuts and a Rose Street Patisserie. Located along the A-line and other transit, Long said, "if I could have my way, having it be a community space would really complement the area."
Dan O'Gara said his family relished being part of so many gatherings and celebrations over the decades. While O'Gara's will not completely vanish from the dining and drinking scene — the family will still have a presence at the State Fair, with that restaurant available for catered events all summer — he couldn't help but feel melancholy.
"We really just want to thank everybody for generations of love and friendship," he said.