Bringing some Pop! to downtown St. Paul

Pop! co-owners Clark and Leslie Knutson (seated) make things official Thursday. On hand for the ceremony were, from left, St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune, Mayor Chris Coleman and Sarah Martin, a broker for Welsh Cos.
MinnPost photo by Marisa Helms
Pop! co-owners Clark and Leslie Knutson (seated) make things official Thursday. On hand for the ceremony were, from left, St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune, Mayor Chris Coleman and Sarah Martin, a broker for Welsh Cos.

City officials and St. Paul restaurateurs strolled among balloons and offered toasts with soda pop from plastic champagne glasses Thursday in a purposefully fun affair meant to celebrate the coming of St. Paul’s newest restaurant.

This one’s dedicated to all things Pop — not as in Daddy-O — but as in pop art, pop music, soda pop — you get the picture.

The city is hoping the new restaurant — called, naturally, Pop! — will restore some life to an important downtown corner at Wabasha and Sixth streets left empty by the failure of Fhima’s Restaurant, which closed a year ago.

And it’s been a long year, with city officials desperate to find a tenant and make up for some serious disappointment and real financial losses to the city. The city of St. Paul owns the 7,500-square-foot restaurant space, along with the parking ramp and two other retail spaces underneath it. It’s part of the mammoth Lawson Commons complex.

Back in 2001, restaurant owner David Fhima got a pretty good deal when he decided to open his namesake spot in St. Paul. The city rounded up $700,000 from its Cultural STAR (Sales Tax Revitalization) fund for Fhima to use to build out the space, which at the time, was unfinished. Fhima’s lease was set at $7,900 a month, with a clause that gave the city 6 percent of any profits over $1.5 million.

Fhima’s did well for a while and everybody was happy, but business dropped by 2007, and Fhima’s couldn’t make its lease payments. When the restaurant closed last June, it still owed the city back rent, and had several more years on its lease.

The city is considering legal action against Fhima to get back some of its money. Because of the possible legal case, city officials won’t put a dollar amount on how much they’re trying to collect from Fhima, but  Fhimas’s  owes “in excess of $300,000 to the city’s HRA (Housing Redevelopment Authority) for past due rent and expenses,” said Martin Schieckel of the St. Paul Planning and Economic Development department.

High-profile empty space bad for downtown image

But the intangible losses of such prime, visible retail space sitting empty months at a time may be even more damaging for the city.

Since Fhima’s closed, passers-by haven’t been able to ignore the sad space. Huge (but dirty) floor-to-ceiling windows reveal a ghostly gathering place; there’s  a lonely steel bar with some dangling wine glasses up top, and loads of  tables and chairs, ready for customers, just like Fhima left it.

Let’s just say, it doesn’t’ say “vitality.” 

And that’s just not acceptable with the Republican National Convention coming to town this summer.

Which is why the city is making such a fuss over downtown St. Paul getting its own Pop! Co-owner Clark Knutson opened the first Pop! with his wife, Leslie, five years ago in Northeast Minneapolis.

Clark Knutson said he estimates transforming the old Fhima’s into his creation will cost about $500,000.

The new Pop! will be a far cry from the sleek hipness attempted by Fhima’s.

“It’s a family-friendly restaurant, casual, affordable,” said Knutson.

Pop! spot promises to be lively and bright
The new spot will be filled with bright primary colors and colorful pop art hanging on the walls, “Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Warhol,” said Knutson. “And there’ll be music, pop music, alternative new wave, or retro ’70s pop.”

The food will be Latin — South American and Spanish, dishes Knutson considers fun, warm and colorful creations. Knutson’s also got a pop list — like a wine list — of fine soda pops of distinguished vintage (Crush, Yoo-Hoo Bubble Up, to name a few).

Knutson thinks he’s got a shot at success, and the city hopes he’s right.

Schieckel said the city lured Knutson to the Fhima space after the restaurant’s earlier deal in Lowertown fell through. The city happily signed a five-year lease with Pop! and will rent it to them for $10 a square foot, slightly less than Fhima’s rent. Pop! also has a similar profit sharing deal with the city — again, quite a bit better than the good deal Fhima’s got seven years ago. The city is supposed to receive 5 percent of Pop! profits over $2 million.

“We offered him what we think is a good market-based rent,” Schieckel said. “No incentives or enticements, just what we were offering to other interested parties.”

The city also has approved a loan for the restaurant worth $96,000.

Schieckel said Pop! fills an unmet niche in downtown.

“Something’s been missing,” said Schieckel. “There are plenty of higher-end restaurants downtown, and some lower-end. And (Pop!) is really middle ground with high-quality food. He’ll do just fine.”

And he’d better, because the Pop! move into the Lawson building represents more than a new restaurant for downtown St. Paul. It’s a symbol of the city’s resiliency, of hoped-for triumph over sluggish development in tough economic times.

Pop! owner and chef Knutson said he hopes to be able to open the restaurant by early to mid-August, just in time to work out some kinks before the GOP convention, which runs Sept. 1-4. But he admits he’s a little worried about drawing customers during the convention.

“We are hoping to be part of it, but will people stay away?” asked Knutson. “Are delegates already committed to other events?”

Downtown St. Paul has long had an image problem because of its perceived lack of excitement. City boosters hope Pop! can turn that around and become a destination downtown during the convention and long after the Republicans leave town.

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