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Loring Cafe & Bar fights to keep its home
By Marisa Helms
Minnesota Public Radio
April 23, 2002

The fate of one Minneapolis restaurant is generating more attention than usual for an industry where openings and closings happen with regularity. Many patrons of The Loring Cafe and Bar call it a cultural icon. But the restaurant's landlord wants the business to move out, and recently refused to renew its lease. The Loring's owner is asking for - and getting - support from the community to help him stay.

The Loring Bar resembles a huge Victorian living room. Antique tables and chairs, mini-potted plant jungles, and dozens of couches carve out intimate spaces for the 30-something artists and professionals who come here.

Thirty-one-year-old regular Baker Murphy of Minneapolis says he likes the Loring because it's different. "There really isn't anything at all in Minneapolis that is at all similar to this. I love it. Everybody that I take here loves it," he said.

The area around Loring Park is home to stores and restaurants, an art gallery, a performance theater and an art supply store. There's even a Starbucks.

But it wasn't always as inviting.

When artist and entrepreneur Jason McLean opened up the Loring Cafe and Bar in the first floor of the historic Fawkes Building 16 years ago, the neighborhood was considered one of the worst in town with regular shootings and drug dealing. Despite that, McLean says he was drawn to the location. "Loring Park seemed like such a lovely park," says McLean. "Despite its seediness in the 70s and 80s, I still thought it had a charm about it. And just its situation here nestled amongst these magnificent cathedrals and the cultural destinations of the Guthrie and the Walker."

McLean says over the years, what he calls his labor of love has become more than just a restaurant and bar. "It's quite a bit bigger than Jason Mclean and even the staff of the Loring at this point. I think it's a beloved fixture of the community for just and good cause."

Not everyone agrees.

Landlord Joe Whitney and his company Loring Corners own the Fawkes building and won't renew McLean's lease.

Loring Corners Building Manager Tim Oskey says in the last 18 months Whitney has been contacted by many of the major restaurant owners in town who are interested in the Loring space. He says Whitney is looking at options, but has not made any deals yet.

While the Loring restaurant and bar has its supporters, the owner, McLean, has many detractors, including several former employees. McLean has been criticized for poor labor relations. In 1997, workers launched an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to unionize.

Critics also say McLean's a bad businessman who's been having financial problems for years. McLean admits he was late on two rent payments this fall and has had trouble financing a new restaurant in Dinkytown.

Tim Connolly worked at the Loring Cafe and Bar on and off from 1994 until last September. He says McLean's troubles are his own making, and that losing the Loring Park lease is merely a case of market forces creating change. Landlord Joe Whitney is getting a "bum rap," says Connolly. "I see people demonizing Joe Whitney. He's a business man just like Jason is. Why doesn't he have the right to rent to whomever he wants to? I think he probably has reasons why he wants Jason out of there."

Since the start of the lease dispute, McLean has launched an aggressive campaign to save the business. He has plastered the restaurant and bar's huge windows with posters that read: "Don't Feel Sad, Get Mad, Save the Loring!" McLean has also amassed over 4,000 signatures from fans of the place.

Supporter Kim Havey says he's willing to do anything he can to keep the Loring in business. Havey is the land use chair for the Loring Park Neighborhood Association. He says replacing the Loring with another restaurant could trigger a backlash. "We really think that another restaurant coming in here would face severe negative consequences because the negative attitude and animosity toward a business that pushed out, basically, the Loring Cafe. I mean, I wouldn't be surprised if there was pickets, I'm sure there would be boycotts by folks."

Loring owner Jason McLean says there's no way he could replicate the look and feel of the Loring in another location. He says he'll keep fighting to remain in Loring Park.