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Rising wheat prices the latest obstacle for Gopher Bar and its famed Coneys

With recessionary fears slowing business at many restaurants and the smoking ban causing bar owners to fume — not to mention the general concerns about the vitality of downtown St. Paul — I cringed a bit at a Monday morning email.

Someone had been downtown Saturday night for a concert and swung by the Gopher Bar in the early evening hours for a pre-show Coney, and found the Gopher closed.

By George, what was up with that?

Landmark bar won't ever be mistaken for high class
The landmark bar, at East Seventh and Wacouta streets, won't fit anyone's image of fine dining; it's more a  truck-stop type of establishment, with crude posters and a, shall we say, lived-in ambience. But people come from all around the metro area for the Coney Island hot dogs, thin wieners in a bun, covered with a home-cooked meat sauce.

Andrew Kappas opened the place in 1955 near where the Xcel Energy Center sits today; it was moved to the current location in the 1960s. His son George now runs the place. George says what he thinks, and doesn't particularly care what anyone else thinks. That's part of the charm, I guess.


(I did have a problem with his attitude a couple years ago, when he posted handwritten screeds against the smoking ban in his windows, clearly visible while waiting for the corner stop lights. The language was inappropriate. But the last time I drove past, I didn't see the signs.)

So I checked in with George first thing Monday morning. Yes, he was there, already stirring in the spices to the big pot of  Coney covering.

Early Saturday closings a reality
"Yeah, I close up early on Saturdays," he said. Usually about 6 p.m., he said, unless there's a Saturday night Wild game, when he'll stay open until 7 p.m., when the puck drops.

Why?

"Because what you get, you don't want," he said mystically. Apparently the level of clientele diminishes on Saturday nights. Even at the Gopher.

But he does stay open until 1 a.m. or so on Friday nights, and usually keeps the lights on until 11 p.m. the rest of the week.

Smoking ban hurt after-work business
He said his business dropped way off with the smoking ban, initiated in St. Paul even before the statewide ban took effect last year.

"My lunch hours held up, because I've got something unique. [The Coneys.] But the ban kicked the [crap] out of my after-work crowd," Pappas said.

To make matters worse, Pappas said his liquor license fee went up by $2,000 this year.

"Too many communists running things," he said.

And now, the price of wheat has caused an increase in the cost of buns. "They went up a month ago, and they're going up again," he said.

That's raising havoc with his price point.

Right now, a regular Coney goes for $3.25; with cheese, $3.75.

"You get two with cheese, and a pop, and it's still under $10. Get two regulars and a beer, still under $10. But once you escalate over that $10 mark, I got to think it ain't working."

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Comments (4)

When will we have LESS government and let the private sector get on with business?
Next step you won't be able to smoke or drink in your own home.

One of the last times I was in the Gopher the bartender had passed out drunk in the coatroom and one of the regulars was tending the bar. And the hours have been irregular for a long time. Might this explain something?

This place is without doubt one of the MOST over-rated nostalgic establishments in all of downtown St. Paul and when you stop to think of it, that is quite a claim. There is a long list of these kinds of places in St. Paul that are supposedly quaint, cute and worthy of our affection. The real truth is that the quality of the product is vastly over-rated. The price is outrageous and the costs have not gone up significantly. $3.25 for their "world-famous coney" is nothing but puffery. I bought 16 hot-dog buns at Sam's Club on Saturday for $1.88. That's less than 12 cents each. I also bought a Schweigert 100% all-beef hot dog in natural casing for LESS than 12 cents each. I guess the extra $3.00 that Gopher demands is for the squirt of mustard and a teaspoon of what tastes to me like off-the-shelf Hormel sauce AND OF COURSE THE STUNNING CLEANLINESS AND AMBIENCE THAT IS ENTOMBED IN THE DUSTY GREASY WALLS OF THE GOPHER BAR. Most restaurants offer soda refills when the initial soda is purchased. Not at the Gopher. They serve pop in 12-ounce cans that on an ounce by ounce basis is more expensive than McDonalds for the same product. And if you dare ask for a refill it is double the cost. The only reason I can imagine that his license went up $2,000. is to pay off the inspectors that allow that disgusting place to stay in business.

You want to experience a great Coney Island dog? Make the trip to LaCrosse, Wisconsin. They have 4 stores, named "Coney Island". It is worth the trip.

There are also a couple "Original Coney Island" shops in Duluth as well. One on 1st Strret downton and a satellite shop in the Miller Hill Mall under the same name.