Live rock lives

With the Uptown Bar & Café gone, Sauce Spirits & Soundbar has moved into the spotlight as the area’s only live-rock venue

Sauce Spirits & Soundbar was only a few months old when word spread about the impending death of its legendary music counterpart to the west, the Uptown Bar & Café.

Mike Riehle, owner of the fledgling Lyn-Lake business, was still developing the menu, figuring out the music format and trying to explain how an Italian restaurant could also be a venue for live rock. But comparisons were already flying. Sauce, after all, would soon be the only place in the Uptown area to catch such acts. Local music lovers couldn’t help but debate whether the new place would be up to the task.

“They were an inspiration to us,” Riehle said of the now demolished Uptown Bar. “I tell people all the time, look in my cupboard at the number of Uptown glasses I’ve got. I think people have artificially tried to start some sort of a Sauce against Uptown Bar [argument] which didn’t happen until it was rumored that they were closing, which we never would have wanted.”

Wanted or not, the Uptown music scene now belongs to Sauce and the place is seeing a gradual increase in customers, in part because of a migration of former Uptown Bar patrons and bands. The bar recently started offering entertainment seven days a week and it’s booked with bands all the way through January.

It has a long way to go toward becoming an institution, but Riehle said its direction is promising.

“Certainly in the number of people, I’m really encouraged to see them feeling like this is a music venue they can fit into,” he said.

A creative outlet

Riehle, 39, spent 15 years working in merchandising for Target before he had an epiphany.

“All of the sudden I looked at my watch and the calendar and was like ‘oh my god, I’ve got to get out and try something else,” he said.

Looking for a creative outlet, he honed in on his passions for food, music and art and decided to express them all in a new bar and restaurant. After doing a little research, he saw a need for more live music in the Uptown area.

“I was shocked when I did our business plan at how few live music venues there were in Uptown,” he said. “A lot had jumped up in Northeast, but in Uptown proper, which you think would be a hub for live music, there’s shockingly little.”

Famous Dave’s in Calhoun Square hosts blues acts, Dulono’s in Lyn-Lake hosts bluegrass shows, and Bryant Lake Bowl and some coffee shops occasionally host light music. But venues for amplified rock and hip-hop are lacking.

Food was just as important to Riehle as the music. He decided to name his business Sauce after his grandmother’s pasta sauce and serve primarily Italian dishes inspired by her cooking.

After looking at multiple potential sites for his venture, he settled on the former La Bodega space at the corner of Lake Street and Hennepin Avenue. At the time, the area was going through a large turnover in businesses and road construction was just wrapping up.   

Sauce was one of several new businesses to launch at the corner during the past couple years, a trend Riehle hopes will continue.

“The independent and unique businesses that are here, if we can flourish and foster that kind of creativity and independent business, I will be so proud to be a member of this corner,” he said.

Inside, Riehle decorated Sauce with a rotating gallery of local art, much of which is for sale, and the bar sports a vending machine filled with CDs from local musicians. In a separate room surprisingly devoid of sound from bands playing next door, a free jukebox is loaded with Riehle’s favorite tunes.

He said success has come gradually and after innumerable changes, including the return of the once-removed fryer after patrons requested more traditional bar food. Greasy eats including chicken wings and fries were added, but Riehle said the focus is staying Italian.

“A lot of people had commented, ‘does Italian food really go with a rock venue or can an Italian restaurant be married with it?’ The way I described it to people was I looked at Sauce as an Uptown Bar if they had an Italian grandma,” he said.   

Sauce, which has a 60-percent food sales, 40-percent alcohol sales requirement, has also added more weekend breakfast options and is considering serving breakfast on weekdays.

“It’s been a slow build,” Riehle said. “We’re still not where I would want us to be [with food], but the music was strong off the bat.”

Booking the best

Sauce band bookers Joe Winterer and Matt Johnson started scheduling shows back in April, months before the bar’s July 10 debut.

“Our format was to provide the best live music as far as local indie rock, hip hop, experimental and otherwise,” Winterer said.

Most performances have been from local bands, but artists from as far away as New York and Philadelphia have played at Sauce. Winterer said he plans to start reaching out to more national acts.

The bar started offering entertainment seven nights a week in early November. Bands play Wednesday–Saturday, a DJ spins Sunday, two local guys host trivia on Monday and Minneapolis record label Susstones runs an event each Tuesday.

A cover charge of $5 is the norm for shows Thursday–Saturday, but Wednesdays are free. Winterer said the bar plans to start $3 Thursdays soon.  

Sauce has had little trouble drawing crowds so far, even for its Monday and Tuesday events. Winterer said he has noticed an increase in patronage since the Uptown Bar closed and Sauce has absorbed some of the band bills that would have traditionally ended up on the west side of town.  

“I won’t lie, we have seen more attendance since it happened,” he said. “But we sort of appreciated having someone that was drawing water from the same scene that we were, just to help us be a little more competitive. It helps us be a little more on our toes about our shows.”

Still, Winterer isn’t complaining about working for the only music venue of its type in Uptown.  

“We’re just excited of the prospect of having that title,” he said. “But then again, we don’t want to jeopardize people wanting to go to south [Minneapolis] for live music due to us being the only option.”

Owners of the Uptown Bar are still looking for a new home for the venue and have said Lyn-Lake is a strong possibility. Winterer said such a move could open up an opportunity for joint events and a symbiotic relationship.

Riehle would also welcome a reopening of the Uptown Bar at Lyn-Lake, but with a big dose of caution.

“In general it would make me happy just because I really deep down do want to see the Uptown reopen. I have a long history with them,” he said. “I hope they do reopen, but it makes me a little nervous just in the hopes that we could sustain live music.”

A different scene

Dietr Poppen, who goes by Mr. Dietr in local band Prozac Rat, played the Uptown Bar 21 times during the past two years. His band performed at Sauce for the first time Nov. 18.

“You’re never going to be able to duplicate the Uptown Bar as it was in its old location,” Poppen said.  “It’s impossible. It took decades to get there. There are expectations that can’t be met. That being said, we had a great time playing [at Sauce].”

Poppen said he was still bitter about the Uptown Bar’s closing, but he thinks Sauce has been doing a good job of keeping the live music scene alive in the area and he guesses more people like him will make their way toward Lyn-Lake to check out the new place.

Local musician Charlie Gilb, whose band The Butcher’s Bag played before Prozac Rat, said Sauce should be around for a long time if it continues to operate as it does. People want a music option in Uptown, he said.

“I think this place is actually in a huge position to capitalize on that if they do it right and they market themselves properly,” Gilb said. “I think it’s incredible that they’re booked all the way through January already.”

Music fan Sarah Morrison, 25, said she lives six blocks from Sauce and has started to frequent the bar. She was an Uptown Bar regular and said Sauce offers a completely different vibe in its décor and, to a degree, its music. The punk shows the Uptown Bar was known for haven’t shown up at Sauce, but that won’t keep Morrison away.

“It’s going to be a great new hangout spot,” she said.

Riehle doesn’t expect Sauce to be Uptown’s sole rock music venue forever, but he intends to take full advantage of the time he’s got.

“I hope if nothing else it’ll give us the time we need to get our feet underneath us and be a long-term business,” he said. 

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]