Patron buys Lee's Liquor Lounge in order to save it

Lee's Liquor Lounge
Lee's Liquor Lounge at 101 Glenwood Ave. in Minneapolis, Minn., on May 26, 2015. Owned by Louis Sirian since 1976, but Sirian says he has an agreement to sell the iconic bar.
Jon Collins | MPR News

Louis Sirian wakes up at 9 every morning. He chases down supplies until 11, then unlocks the doors of the Minneapolis bar he's owned for going on four decades.

"I'm here until about 6," Sirian said. "I go home to have a sandwich and then I come back again at 1 o'clock to clean. And I'm here until 4."

That's a Tuesday. Days for the 80-year-old bar owner can be even longer on the weekends, when the iconic Lee's Liquor Lounge hosts rockabilly, country and roots rock shows on a mirrored stage at the back of the room.

Lee's is a Minneapolis institution known for its immaculate early 1960s decor, its long bar and its cash-only service. And, of course, for its music. Country singer Dale Watson even commemorated Lee's with a song that refers to the modest owner:

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is Member supported public media. Show your support today, donate, and ensure access to local news and in-depth conversations for everyone.

"He bought it from a man named Lee, but he didn't change the sign," Watson sang. "'Cause Louis thinks what really counts is what you've got inside."

Now Sirian has agreed to sell the bar to a regular patron, who says he wants to preserve its unique character even as the neighborhood becomes gentrified around it.

Nearby Target Field has loomed over the bar since 2010. Luxury condos have sprouted across the North Loop neighborhood. When Sirian first took over in 1976, most of the patrons came from nearby factories.

"Factory people came in here and they were all just as nice as they could be," Sirian said. "I always figured, you're not really going to replace them ... and of course you can't, that's true to some extent. But these ballpark people that come in here, and other people in the area, everybody's 100 percent."

Louis Sirian, owner of Lee's Liquor Lounge
Louis Sirian, owner of Lee's Liquor Lounge in Minneapolis, Minn., for almost four decades, said he has an agreement to sell the iconic bar, on May 26, 2015.
Jon Collins | MPR News

The blocks near the bar are divided by a number of highways and their associated on-ramps and off-ramps, which can give the area an isolated feel. Homeless shelters and social service organizations have also located nearby, which has never created a problem for a bar that prides itself on polite service.

"They come in here, they want to use the bathroom, I let them use the bathroom. They want a cup of water, I give them a cup of water," Sirian said of those coming from nearby shelters. "They're like anybody else. If you treat them nice, they're going to treat you nice."

Sirian, a widower with two older siblings, still mows his 90-year-old brother's lawn. He said he agreed to the sale because he didn't know how much longer he would stay healthy, and he wanted to sell to someone who would continue the bar's legacy.

"I waited a long time to make that choice because I wanted the bar to stay the way it was ... because the people are nice and they enjoy it," Sirian said. "It's a real plus for the area."

The purchase agreement, pending the Minneapolis City Council's final approval in early June, will give Craig Kruckeberg ownership of Lee's Liquor Lounge next month. The men haven't released the terms of the sale.

Kruckeberg founded Kruckeberg Enterprises, which invests in the heavy-duty trucking parts industry and other small businesses.

It was a threat to another institution, Nye's Polonaise Room, that spurred Kruckeberg's interest in buying the bar.

"When I heard that Nye's was disappearing, I was like, no, no, no," Kruckeberg said. "Lee's is one of the last ones — those last real iconic bars in downtown Minneapolis. I looked at Louis and said, 'Want to sell this place?'"

The new owner said he doesn't need to take a paycheck from the bar; he just wants to make sure this part of old Minneapolis stays around as condos and hip restaurants move in.

"You know how somebody will just buy an old pickup and just have it? ... I just bought an old bar to just have it," Kruckeberg said. "We keep it from being torn down."

He promised that the spirit of Lee's will stay the same, although Kruckeberg plans to add a patio near the back door, increase staffing and start accepting credit cards.

Sitting in his small front office at the bar, Sirian said he was optimistic about Kruckeberg's ownership. He said most of the changes would be good for Lee's. As rain poured outside, he cashed a woman's $3 check for free, and gave her a dollar of it in quarters, as she asked. She comes in every week.

"The bar is great, but the people make it great," he said.

Even after he hands over the keys to Lee's, Sirian plans to stop by and visit his longtime friends and customers. He said not seeing all these nice people will be the hardest thing to cope with.

"A lot of people don't make it to 80 — for some people, that's a long life," Sirian said. "I haven't had a long life. I've basically spent my life in this bar."