Friday, October 9, 1998

New Minneapolis Eagle Soars

(Article published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #88, October 9, 1998)

“It’s the nicest leather bar I’ve ever seen!” That has been a frequent reaction from visitors to the new Minneapolis Eagle, located at 515 South Washington Ave. The bar was formerly known as The Mill Inn because directly across Washington Avenue is the historic Minneapolis flour-milling district on the Mississippi River.

Decked out in beautiful tri-tone mahogany paneling supplemented with dark green and dark red upholstery, carpet and wall colors, the Minneapolis Eagle doesn’t fit the usual image of a leather bar as a dark and somewhat spartan space. Liquor and glasses are displayed on a streamline-moderne masterpiece of a bar, complete with spectacular wood-veneer and chrome inlays and amber fluted glass columns lit from inside with red light tubes. Owner Ed Hopkins was concerned at one point that maybe everything was too nice—now, he says, “If I changed the woodwork I think people would kill me, because everybody comments on it.” At the back of the bar is a small kitchen and a hallway leading to an outdoor patio in back of the bar.

Hopkins is one of the Eagle’s three owners; the other two are Greg Norton, who is in charge of the kitchen, and Tom Wolden. Hopkins and Wolden have been friends for ten years and have worked together as CPA’s specializing in taxes, while Norton’s background is in the bar and restaurant industry. The idea for the Eagle started with Hopkins: “I wanted to do something for gay community; I wanted to have my own business; I’ve always liked being in a bar and being around music, so this was ideal way for me to have my own business.”

The partners have been working on opening the Eagle for over two years and considered several other sites before finding their present location. Plans for a West Bank location led to lengthy negotiations that finally collapsed. A south Minneapolis location had parking problems. Space in downtown Minneapolis on Hennepin Avenue was also investigated.

Once the present space was located came the hardest part of opening the bar, according to Hopkins: obtaining the liquor license. “It was cumbersome, and there was a gigantic amount of paperwork. There is a police investigation of all the owners, and you have to submit a business plan and financial information. The city is very concerned about where the money’s coming from to purchase a bar, and how it will be run.” Hopkins applied for a Class A liquor license which allows stage shows (a leather contest could not be held at the bar without a Class A license). By contrast, the previous (Mill Inn) license was Class E which, according to Hopkins, “basically allows them to watch television. Jumping from Class E to Class A was a big deal with the City Council.”

In Minneapolis liquor licenses are not sold from bar owner to bar owner; each prospective bar owner must apply to the city for their own license. Part of the licensing procedure is a public hearing. Hopkins didn’t expect his hearing to go poorly, and was surprised when it did. “A man stood up and argued they shouldn’t issue a Class A liquor license because of all the apartments and condos by the river. He said, ‘I thought we cleaned up Washington Avenue, what are you doing granting another Class A liquor license?’ He was afraid it would be an ‘adult entertainment’ business, a straight strip bar. I tried to counter that it would be a gay bar and our clientele would better behaved than other types of bars. There wouldn’t be a lot of police calls, we’d have our own security, there wouldn’t be a lot of problems.”

After the meeting the gentleman who had protested pulled Hopkins aside and apologized, saying he hadn’t known it was going to be a gay bar. Hopkins again: “He said, ‘I have a lot of gay neighbors, they’re wonderful people, I think you should go for it.’ He was an older gentleman and I thought that said a lot for him.

“Unfortunately, he did the damage before the council. Typically the liquor committee gives a recommendation to the full City Council as to whether you should be granted a liquor license or not, and the committee did not give me a positive recommendation.” Hopkins called Jackie Cherryhomes, the city council member for the ward where the Eagle is located, and Cherryhomes’ office wrote a letter to the City Council supporting the issuance of the Eagle’s liquor license.

Hopkins called Lisa Goodman, the council person for ward where his residence is located, and “she was exuberant about supporting me too. But I didn’t know going into the full council meeting what would happen because it left the liquor committee meeting without a recommendation. Then at the full council meeting, the chairman of liquor committee, Mr. Biernat, said ‘We’ve discussed this and we’re changing our position—we’re going to recommend you get your liquor license.’” In the end the City Council voted 13 to 0 to issue it.

Hopkins said one of the minor problems of opening the Eagle was with bartenders and other staff accepting a position with the bar and then changing their mind. “That would screw up the entire schedule, and it was close to opening. But the bartenders who stepped up to the plate in a pinch have been incredible. Our staff is amazing, and it frees the owners to do other things.”

Hopkins plans to have a different personality at the Eagle on different nights of the week, leading up to dress-code weekends. “I was afraid I was going to be criticized for not being a full-time leather bar, but I was also afraid I would not succeed as a strictly full-time leather bar. I felt I had to diversify in order to be able offer the community a leather bar on the weekends—I felt without something different on the other nights I would not have the level of business I needed to stay in business.” Plans call for Karaoke Monday nights, two-for-one Thursday nights with 80s videos, and a Sunday beer/soda bust from 4 to 8 pm. Happy hour pricing is in effect from 5 to 7 pm on weekdays; Friday’s happy hour includes a complimentary buffet. “One thing we want to try, but we don’t quite know how to do it yet, is to have a Womyn’s night. We’d also like to promote something toward the Sober Leather community. It’s easy to offer non-alcoholic drinks, but we want to do something more in coordination with that.”

Friday and Saturday nights a leather/rubber/uniform dress code will be enforced starting at 9 pm (check the Eagle’s website at for what is and is not allowed.). People have already been turned away for wearing white shoes or other dress code violations. Hopkins instructs his bouncers to enforce the dress code because it’s what his customers expect. But dress code issues are sometimes not as simple as they might seem. Hopkins has already received e-mail from patrons who have seen customers in white tennis shoes on Friday and Saturday night and who wonder why he’s not enforcing the dress code. “If you see somebody with white tennis shoes they were probably there before 9 pm, when we begin enforcing the dress code, and we’re not going to ask people to leave if they’re already in the bar. It’s not appropriate to ask them to leave.” Hopkins also reminds the community to be careful about what’s exposed and how people behave. “We’re new, and we don’t know when the vice squad is going to be in here, checking to see if we’re legit or not. We haven’t seen any sexual behavior so far, and that can’t be tolerated. We just can’t allow it here.”

The kitchen at the Eagle is open weekdays from 11 am to 10 pm, which means they cater to both a lunch and a dinner crowd. (On weekends the kitchen is open from 3 to 10 pm.) The menu currently features, in Norton’s words, “pub food, but with a creative twist to it.” Their most popular menu item is the Eagle Burger, and Norton wants to concentrate on developing other signature dishes. Future plans call for some sort of kitchen expansion, which would allow the Eagle to offer steaks, prime rib and pastas, as well as a Sunday brunch with exhibition-style cooking.

There are leather bars called “The Eagle” in major cities around the world. One question Hopkins hears often is who owns the Eagle franchise. His answer: “Wouldn’t you have liked to be the person who franchised it? That was the very first thing I checked into: whether it was franchised or if they were somehow all connected. They’re not; they all stand alone. But there’s kind of a brotherhood in a sense. I made a lot of calls to the other Eagles around the country and they’re very excited that someone’s opened another one. They sent me posters when I asked for them, and asked if there was anything they can do to help. I thought that was pretty nice.” (Another nice touch: The Saloon sent flowers and a card welcoming The Minneapolis Eagle to the community.)

There are already posters on display from the Baltimore and Washington, DC Eagle bars, as well as New York City’s LURE (which stands for “Leather, Uniform, Rubber, Etc.”), with more to come. People tell Hopkins they want to contribute “posters, flags, videotapes. The leather groups want to contribute their colors. They all want to contribute something. People are taking stock in it as if it’s theirs. That’s exactly what we wanted to do, and it feels so good.”

In addition to the kitchen expansion plans already discussed, future possibilities for the Minneapolis Eagle include expanding into the unused space in the building next door. (There is a second floor to the existing building but it is currently inaccessible.) Hopkins says the building next door “needs work, but it would be wonderful to be able to expand into it.” But for now, he’s glad that The Minneapolis Eagle is finally open and he knows he did the right thing in opening it. He says he’s enjoying it as much as he thought he would: “I’m about a hundred times happier than I ever was doing taxes. Every night, it’s like having a group of friends over.”

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