“I’m not your typical pastor’s wife. I wouldn’t be opening a pub if I were,” said Randi Cowmeadow, who is launching the Prodigal Public House with her daughters and her husband Jeff, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church.
The couple has been a fixture of the Whittier neighborhood for 32 years. Calvary was Jeff’s first pastoral job, and he never left.
“The two great commandments, right? Love God, love your neighbor,” Jeff said. “So we’re just trying to be a neighbor.”
The Prodigal Public House is slated to open shortly after Easter at 25 E. 26th St.
They thought about naming the pub Penderyn, a Welsh whiskey that means “bird’s head,” but no one else understood the reference. Kieran Folliard, an entrepreneur known for launching ventures like The Local and The Food Building, persuaded the Cowmeadows to go with “prodigal.”
“To me, the prodigal son story is about being welcomed home,” Folliard said, according to Jeff. “You’re not going to be the biggest Welsh pub, or the best Irish pub, or the best British pub. But you can be the best pub that truly welcomes people home.”
Prodigal will open in the former GYST Fermentation Bar space, while Gyst relocates to the StormKing storefront at 16 ½ W. 26th St. to host events like an upcoming book talk April 23 and Kombucha 101 on May 11.
Prodigal will serve pub grub like pot pies, fish and chips and panini sandwiches. The bar will focus on whiskey and serve Guinness. (Randi earned a certification to properly pour the famous stout during a trip to Ireland.)
The couple emphasized the public house root of the word pub. Public houses stem from early English common law, which required inns and taverns to receive all travelers willing to pay for food, drink and lodging, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Prodigal’s back room will host live music and conversation.
“I think people actually do want to talk about politics. I think people actually do want to talk about religion,” Jeff said. “Kind of like the Thanksgiving dinner, but it’s safe.”
Other ideas include giving a portion of proceeds to good causes, perhaps through buying a shot of the bourbon Redemption.
The couple looked at locations to open a coffeehouse decades ago, but over time, they decided a coffee shop wouldn’t fit their vision for music, books and conversation.
“Our original ideas didn’t include Guinness or Jameson, but the vision was very much the same,” Jeff said. “As I experience coffeehouses now, they generally tend to be workspaces, they don’t tend to be social spaces.”
Randi and Jeff met while working at the Ground Round Grill & Bar. Randi grew up working at her father’s sports bar Scoreboard in Bloomington.
“I might have illegally poured a 3.2 beer,” she said.
In addition to running the pub, Randi teaches Spanish at Normandale Community College, and she’s a certified yoga instructor. Daughters joining the business are Madison, who once managed Zelo’s bar; Kendahl, a pastry chef at D’Amico who will manage the kitchen; and Ali, who is developing the employee manual and will handle promotions and social media.
A memorial shelf allows people to display pieces in memory of a loved one. Jeff showcases his mother’s candle, his father’s radio and his brother’s 1970 yearbook cover.
“We want the neighborhood to see themselves in here,” he said.
The pub also displays a photo from Auschwitz, a portrait of Maya Angelou, Picasso’s anti-war painting “Guernica,” an old Calvary sign discovered in the 1883 church’s boiler room, and a sign that proclaims “Love one another.”
“Where do you see that in a bar?” Jeff asked.
One friend made stained glass windows for the pub, another loaned the large stained glass over the bar, and a third wrote two new verses of Bob Dylan’s song “Gotta serve somebody” (“They may call you Jeff or they may call you Randi/You may sip some whiskey or perhaps a little brandy”).
“This isn’t just Randi and I,” Jeff said. “We believe that the church has to do new things. We have to think outside the box. So people have been very generous to help this come to fruition.”
Calvary has worked to think outside the box for years, starting early in Cowmeadow’s tenure.
“As a congregation, we couldn’t use the sanctuary in the winter because we couldn’t afford to heat it,” he said.
Calvary found help renovating spaces to rent out, which helped the church survive. Today, Calvary’s multi-cultural congregation hosts an affordable preschool at below-market rent. The Whittier Farmers Market in the Calvary lot is prepared to launch a new season June 22. Four entrepreneurs use the church for commercial kitchen space.
About seven years ago, one member’s father told a client about a backpack drive at Calvary. Sight unseen, the client decided to give the church $1 million as an endowment for the working poor. When church members responded that the need was too great — they couldn’t realistically create an endowment — the client contributed another $1 million to make it happen.
As part of another project in cooperation with Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina, Urban Homeworks started managing housing at a neighboring fourplex, allowing Calvary to create parking and build a playground for the preschool.
Jeff said he’s worked at Calvary since 1986, and hasn’t seriously considered leaving.
“I don’t know how you ever feel done,” he said. “And the other reality is no one has ever called me.”
And while the pub is a family business, the Cowmeadows see it as an extension of work they do at church.
“It’s a mission to be a neighbor,” Jeff said.