The coronavirus-related shutdown of local nightlife — and day life — will be delivering bad news for a while. We got some on Thursday, when Ginger Hop and Honey, a pair of bars in Northeast Minneapolis that have served up some of the Twin Cities’ most adventurous bookings, particularly of DJs, announced they were shutting down effective Saturday, March 28.
These were vital music spaces, particularly Honey. In addition to the boisterous first-Friday dance party House Proud, Honey was notable for a slew of adventurous out-of-town DJ bookings, courtesy of the club’s soundman and occasional promoter, Jon Davis. Honey was a serious spot for dancehall and hip-hop fans, as well. Plus fans of stand-up comedy, and jazz, and spoken-word — even opera. Honey tried things that most clubs didn’t, and its legacy is solidly in place.
Ginger Hop and Honey opened together in 2009. Originally, the owner-operators — Jon Provenzano, Jake Polt, Katey Leitch, and Charles Lodge — were planning to simply open a restaurant. “We all used to work and own Chiang Mai Thai in Calhoun Square, and we always knew we wanted to do something in Northeast Minneapolis,” says Provenzano.
“The idea was to offer pan-Asian cuisine, but also some fun twists on familiar pub food,” says Polt. “We were looking at spaces to take this idea of Ginger Hop — craft beers, cooking with beers, combining music with food.”
“[The Ginger Hop space] used to be called the Times, and Honey was Jitters,” says Provenzano. “That closed, and there was an interest in us in that spot. But honestly, we were only interested in the Ginger Hop spot. We were thinking of doing a version of Chiang Mai Thai in that location. But the owner said the only way it works is if you take both — they shared water heaters and liquor storerooms. We were hesitant but thought, What could we do with that spot?”
Initially, says Polt, Honey was “a restaurant with different offerings, with jazz music. We started down that path and it was not going to pay rent.”
Instead, Provenzano took over the space, tending bar as well as booking the entertainment.
“It was a big learning curve,” he says. “I’d book jazz bands and maybe six people showed up. Book another band, and maybe seven people showed up. I started finding bands that were willing to play for drinks or food, because we weren’t paying anybody. Then the DJs started coming our way — hip-hop DJs and the house scene. Bryan and Nicole contacted us and thought they could create events — could make it into a scene.”
House Proud standard-bearer Bryan Gerrard had been spinning house music since the mid-nineties, first at raves, then in bars and clubs. “I pretty much played at every club or bar that had DJs for the better part of the 2000s and 2010s and threw one-offs as well as a ton of other mini and combo residencies,” he says.
When Nicole Johnson asked Gerrard to play her birthday party at Honey, he quickly fell for the place. “We thought that room really had a chance to be something special,” he says. “We called up Jon and set up a meeting, and the rest is history. We were really lucky we got in early, because nights, they just never turned over. If we had tried four years later, there was no way we would have gotten a night. It was probably the most coveted room in the city to have a DJ night.”
House Proud, Gerrard says, “took off pretty hard right away. Some rooms just work. Also I think it was something that the city was really missing at the time and we were filling a void that a lot of the other clubs in town weren’t.”
A lot of things stood out about House Proud — the high quality of the music, sound system, and the dance floor; the knot of older black gentlemen from Chicago who took over the dance floor right in front of the booth every month, like clockwork, to show the rest of us how it’s done. Seeing someone you knew who hadn’t been to a party in years—that happened a lot. House Proud was always the place they’d dip back in.
But my sustaining memory is the fact that the crowd was never exactly the same twice. Sure, there were regulars, lots of them — but there was always a number of locals, casuals, first-timers there, not out of loyalty to house music or the club itself, but because it was a Friday night and they’d heard this was the best party in town. Those casuals gave the night a different charge — and often became regulars themselves.
House Proud’s fungible crowds were, in fact, standard for the venue. “I’ll always remember how adaptable the room felt,” says Jeff Swiff, who replaced Johnson as House Proud’s co-promoter in 2014. (Swiff has run it alone the last couple of years, with Gerrard a resident DJ.) “Very often, it felt like it really was a different room, each time you happened upon it. I’ve seen acoustic performances, jam bands, trios, experimental artists, guitarists, vocalists, turntablists, private gatherings, comedy and improv shows, benefits, and nineties hip-hop nights touching down. The sheer amount of variety I was able to take in there seems endless, in addition to the warm staff and the feels-like-home aesthetic.”
Provenzano decided early to cultivate a breadth of programming. “I grew up in New York — the venues would die out in six months because it was so hot and heavy and all one thing,” he says. “We wanted to be more of a community space; if you become one thing, you don’t last in this business. I mean, Opera on Tap. It’s unbelievable how many people didn’t know we had an opera monthly for eight years. I used to scratch my head and say, ‘This is what it’s really all about.’
“There was a monthly called Err — they classified themselves as wayward artists. They promoted spoken word, visual art every month for six years. They hit it from every angle. It was always successful. Button Poetry is insane — so big. They’d throw an event, and there were hundreds of people coming to the stairs for a poetry reading. They had no limits on some of these art categories. It blew me away to see how many people supported each type of art.”
Another regular event at Honey that served a specific niche was Last of the Record Buyers, co-promoted by Medium Zach of Big Quarters. “The night’s format has always been largely open, so producers can sign up on a list, get called up like an open mic, and play their beats for about three to five minutes,” he explains. It began in 2007 at the Dinkytowner and then moved to Fifth Element, and was a regular part of the Soundset Festival, before it went on ice for much of the middle 2010s. “About three and a half years ago, I took it upon myself to bring the event back, and I don’t know if I even considered any other venue besides Honey,” Zach says. “I wanted to take time in bringing the event back, and allow for a slow build, because it’s a niche thing, and the community makes it what it is each time, not us. Jon understood all of that.”
Ginger Hop was also hosting weekend DJs. “We’d take the tables out from the dining area by the windows and carve that out as a dance floor, and we served a late-night menu,” says Polt. “We had DJs who were slightly different to what it was downstairs. If you got tired of being downstairs, you still had a place upstairs to go to — no cover, and if you didn’t want to pay a cover for Honey, you could still come in.”
The two venues’ model seemed to be working well, and as March began, the owner-operators were at work on their future.
“We were coming up to a crossroads of maybe signing a longer lease,” says Provenzano. “But there was also some hesitation of what’s going on in the world. There’s this transition into app-based dining. That was making us slightly hesitant on trying to forecast the future. Is a sit-down restaurant going to be the way of the world one, two, three, four years from now? We were debating a long-term plan for that, and looking at Honey — will people still come out for the shows? We were really working hard at trying to come up with a business plan for the next three to five years, all the things we could start implementing downstairs and upstairs, and then we got interrupted with the virus. What do you do? You can’t sell anything from the bar. You can’t run a sit-down restaurant. Shutting it down is the most logical thing right now.”
As for all those regular nights, we’ll have to wait and see. But it stands to reason that Medium Zach speaks for many of them when he says of Last of the Record Buyers, “We plan to still exist, with or without a venue.”