September 26, 2022

Women Fashion

Never be Caught

Before There Was a North Loop, There Was Peter Kirihara

How do you find the soul of a neighborhood? Years from now, historians will determine their mileposts for the origins of what we now know as the North Loop—they’ll dutifully research whose idea it was to use an old streetcar line as its marketing handle, note when the first mixed-use condo was built, document when it landed its first real grocery store. But who keeps records on soul? Well, hopefully, they’ll track down some old-timer who held onto their wits long enough to sing about the Golden Age of Peter Kirihara, when Loopers from antiquity could achieve full cultural expression solely by living in each of his three neighborhood joints.

There was Moose and Sadie’s, the seminal coffee shop on 3rd Avenue North. A little dingy and smoky when it opened it in 1991, it really came into its own 20 years later, in the 2010s, by which time it was serving a full café menu—pancakes in the morning, tuna melts in the afternoon—to a clientele that looked younger and cleaner and better-dressed by the day. It was a sunny place, all blond wood and white paint, with coffee and Wi-Fi strong enough to fuel “remote work” before anybody even used the term.

Also on 3rd Avenue, on the other side of Washington, was Bev’s Wine Bar, opened in ’95, a low-key hang with a loading-dock patio that was a throwback to the neighborhood’s industrial roots. Here you could sip a rosé and nibble on a baguette and a cheese plate without feeling the unnecessary pretension that was sometimes served with rosé and baguette and cheese. You only felt assured that there wasn’t a cooler spot to meet friends for an after-work drink.

But the soul of the neighborhood could be found on a weekend night at Jetset, the 1st Street gay bar Kirihara opened in the summer of 2001. With its big front windows and tasteful little neon sign, Jetset ushered in a totally fresh aspect of the gay experience in the city—it signaled a new spirit of transparency and openness. It was first and foremost a space for the LGBTQ community, but its stylish low white leather banquettes were open to anybody who wanted to dress up and hang out. And its dance floor could go as hard as any Madonna remix being spun by J.R. Kennedy, Kirihara’s best friend and Saturday-night DJ.

And no matter which spot you were at, or which time of day, there was Kirihara himself, behind the bar, wearing a fresh Yankees cap tipped to the side of his head, giggling at something one of his employees had just said. He was in his mid-50s and still carrying himself with youthful style and energy—an empowered multi-hyphenate: a successful homosexual-Japanese-American-from-East-Bloomington dude made good.

He was proven right, after all—the North Loop pioneer turned poster child for the rebirth of cool downtown. In 2017, Mayor Betsy Hodges declared June 29 Peter Kirihara Day, and 300 people came to a party at the Ford Center thrown in his honor by the Pohlads. Jacob Frey, at the time the North Loop area’s city councilperson, mused to the Star Tribune that Kirihara’s influence on the neighborhood should be compared to the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the movie goes from black and white to color.

But every golden age must degrade to silver and eventually maybe something less precious, and only a year after Peter Kirihara Day, it was obvious that the North Loop’s alchemy was in heavy flux. In 2016, his super supportive Jetset landlords sold their building in order to finance their retirement and subsequent move to Italy. His new landlords didn’t want a loud club on the first floor, so in 2018, Jetset threw itself an epic going-away party—I’ll never forget listening to “Ray of Light” as the entire dance floor spilled out onto the patio on North 1st—but Kirihara never felt like he was done.

He quietly assured his community that he and his partners planned to reopen soon enough somewhere nearby. And a year later, he signed a lease in the basement of the Hennepin Center for the Arts. He broke ground in late 2019, starting work on what was to be a six-figure build-out, but in the spring of 2020, COVID destroyed his plans as quickly as it did everybody else’s. Not long after, with his two remaining restaurants closed and a statewide stay-at-home order in place, his Chicago-based landlord at Moose and Sadie’s refused to cut him any kind of a break, and he was forced to shutter on the cusp of its 30th anniversary.

Just like that, Kirihara was down two-thirds of his entire North Loop enterprise. When COVID peeled the emerald curtain back, fate was looking less like a fairy godmother and more like a flop-sweaty dude in a wig and a tight green suit.

Now that he’s 57 years old, nobody would give it another thought if Kirihara stayed at his impeccably appointed Cedar Lake home with his successful real estate agent partner, Bruce Erickson, and just continued to dote on Navy, the red Doberman familiar to anybody who ever visited his coffee shop (a huge black-and-white portrait of Moose, the original Doberman, kissing his original business partner’s niece, Sadie, hung on the coffee shop’s wall).

And yet, this spring, Kirihara plans to forge ahead with the resurrection of Jetset, this time in the space that used to belong to another dearly and recently departed nightclub, Honey, on East Hennepin in Northeast, in the building next to Kramarczuk’s. When I meet with him at the new spot on a cold January day, he is working on the build-out with Erickson—the two of them fidgeting with light carpentry while jamming to dance music on a remote speaker.

“It’s become kind of a DIY project,” he jokes. “What’s cool is we made our point, and now we’re going back underground!”

He’s wearing dark-framed glasses with a Snoopy “Joe Cool” sweatshirt and new Nikes. No hat today, revealing a full head of hair that’s gone a distinguished gray. He shows me around—where people will eat and drink, where people will dance—as he explains why he thinks the city at large and the gay community specifically still need Jetset.

“I don’t know about you, but during COVID, I was like, ‘Bruce, we have to reopen—I don’t want the highlight of our week to be who’s hosting the new Saturday Night Live,’” he says. “I feel like the city needs Jetset—and I need Jetset.”

So where does Peter Kirihara’s drive come from? Maybe we should just ask the same question we asked of the North Loop—when did he initially figure out who he could be? To get a better grasp on this, Kirihara suggests I meet his “little mom,” 91-year-old Lucy Kirihara, a retired schoolteacher who lives in the East Bloomington house Kirihara and his two older siblings grew up in—a dark brown rambler on a corner lot.

Lucy and Mikio, Peter’s father (who passed in 2017—his friends called him Mickey), bought the house a decade after World War II. Over apple turnovers and coffee in the open kitchen that Mickey, an architect, designed for her, Lucy explains the circumstances of buying the house.

“The owner asked the people around here, ‘Would you mind the Japanese?’ and they said no, so he sold it to us, which was really nice of them,” she says. “They were always nice neighbors.” She pauses. “They’re all dead now.”

Lucy says her family never considered adding much punctuation to their identity—never saw themselves as Japanese or even Asian American really; they were just Americans. Even though she was an internment camp survivor, as were her parents and her two older sisters and the husband she would meet at the University of Minnesota.

Lucy’s parents ran a boarding house in Portland, Oregon, before the U.S. government issued Order 9066 and the family lost everything.

“You could only take what you could carry,” she says. “It was really sad.”

Starting in the spring of 1942, they spent three years displaced in Idaho, surrounded by barbed wire, eating terrible food, under an armed U.S. Marine guard. There was a clause that allowed college students to leave the camps on a special exemption, and when her older sister Esther was admitted to Macalester College, she left for St. Paul.

When they regained their freedom after the war was over, the entire family joined Esther in Minnesota. Lucy enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where she met Mickey. The two of them started a family and bought their house in East Bloomington.

Peter discussed the stereotype of the academic expectations of the Japanese American family—the idea of the “model Asian,” really.

“They’re all doctors and lawyers and dentists, right?” he says. “Well, this is why: They didn’t have any option.”

And the next generation internalized this lesson as well: Lucy’s first son, Jay, was a very accomplished student. Or, as Peter says, a nerd.

“My brother was the guy who tested 99th percentile all the time,” he says. “Always the smartest guy in the room.”

Peter knew academics wasn’t going to be the same differentiating quality for him.

“So, I made friends,” he says. “I was popular.”

Lucy says she should never brag about her own kid, but she was impressed by Peter’s ability to build a social network from a young age.

“He was always picked for everything: captain of the patrol in junior high, he was picked for Raider of the Year,” she says. “Then in junior high school at Oak Grove, he was student council president.”

Lucy knew that these social skills would translate into some kind of success.

“I always thought Peter would be a lawyer, because he knows how people feel,” she says. “He’s sympathetic and people like him.”

When I call up Peter’s older brother, Jay, he corroborates his mom and brother’s account.

“I’ll never forget this story,” he says. “When you’re a little kid, you’re in grade school and you get your little class pictures and then you give them to your friends, right? So, I remember Peter had a stack of 30 pictures of girls in the neighborhood. And I had maybe five pictures of my guy friends and one picture of my sister, Jan, right? It was evident that Peter was different, in a cool way.”

After high school, Kirihara planned on studying at the University of Minnesota, just like his older brother and sister  and parents. But once there, he wanted a different experience—he wanted to join a fraternity.

“I pledged a house that’s 125 guys; they’re all white,” he says. “I know it sounds shallow and weird, but you feel like, ‘Oh, they want me to join the fraternity—and there’s no other person of color in this fraternity except me. They accepted me.’”

Kirihara felt part of an aspirational class of rich kids.

“They all spent their summers on boats on Lake Minnetonka,” he says. “And that was kind of fun! You didn’t see that growing up in tract housing in East Bloomington.”

Kirihara says Greek life was never anything but a great experience, “but then you do realize, ‘I’m living this life, but I think I’m gay.’”

After college, Kirihara got a job as a designer at Aveda Corporation, working for the eccentric stylist guru Horst Rechelbacher.

“Horst was crazy,” he says. “He called me by my middle name because his son was named Peter, so he said, ‘We can’t have two Peters.’ And so I was ‘Tatsuo,’ which was crazy. But it just opened up a whole new world.”

Part of that personal expansion was his first boyfriend: the star Aveda stylist Denny Kemp.

“No one knew I dated Denny,” he says. “We never went out, because I was in the closet.”

Kirihara says he first realized he was gay when he was a teenager, but he never acted on his feelings, and he was in his late 20s before he finally came out, first to his two best girlfriends, and then to his family.

“It was a big deal because you’re living a lie. You’re not telling your best friends, because you’re afraid of how they’re going to react,” he says. “And of course they knew. When I finally told them, they said, ‘Thank you for finally telling us.’ But it’s different than it is now. Kids that come out in junior high or high school, I’m so envious, because they have so much more support. They don’t have to be as afraid about getting beat up.”

His brother, Jay, remembers Peter gathering the family together on a Sunday.

“When he told us, he’s crying and my mom was freaked out because she was afraid of AIDS, and AIDS felt like a death sentence at the time, and my sister was very concerned too,” says Jay. “And my dad still had this macho Japanese thing in him, right? He wasn’t able to process it.”

Mickey ending up abruptly leaving the gathering to take a walk around the block.

“I was really disappointed in him at that moment because he was thinking about himself when he should have been thinking about Peter,” Jay says. “It was a really selfish thing, and my father was not a selfish man. Later on in life, he was marching with the Gay Pride flag. [Our dad] had completely changed his perception, but Peter was always the same guy.”

In 1991, Kirihara opened Moose and Sadie’s with an Aveda packaging designer colleague turned friend, Lisa Chen. Chen and her husband had just had a baby girl, and she was looking for a job that wasn’t beholden to the mercurial whims of an Austrian hairstylist. So, Kirihara and Chen made a field trip to her hometown of Seattle to check out a burgeoning coffee chain called Starbucks, and they bought an expensive Italian espresso machine and started sourcing beans.

From the start, Moose was a family affair: Kirihara’s mom and his sister, Jan, volunteered every Sunday morning. Mickey, recently retired from his architecture firm, washed dishes on Tuesdays. And more often than not, Jay could be found hanging out at one of the tables, cracking jokes. Kirihara treated the rest of the staff like they were all living in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house back at the U, taking them on big group trips to Lutsen and Chicago and Las Vegas.

By 1998, Kirihara was out and proud and had dated a series of cosmopolitan men that he remains friends with to this day, but he had yet to find a solid partner. Then he met Bruce Erickson. Erickson was a kind of hipster Kenwood dude, a skateboarder and longtime employee of The Alt who had started his own snowboarding clothing business.

“I remember my friend really wanted to set me up with Peter,” Erickson says. “And I thought, The coffee house guy? Doesn’t he have a family, with a little girl and a dog?

But Kirihara and Chen didn’t share the family, of course (and by ’98, they didn’t even share a coffee shop—Chen wanted to move back to the West Coast to take care of her mom, so Kirihara bought her out). Erickson reluctantly agreed to go to Bev’s to meet him and thought he was cool and cute in person, and although it was a little awkward that first night, they’ve been a gay power couple for 26 years running.

It was after one of Kirihara and Erickson’s first dates that Kirihara got the idea for Jetset. The two of them had gone to the Twin Cities Gay Film Festival for a screening of Beautiful Thing, a well-regarded British coming-of-age film.

“The movie was just a great feel-good movie—so we come out and we feel good,” Kirihara remembers. “And so we just want to have a drink in a gay bar, but it’s not like it’s Saturday night and we want to go to The Saloon. So, we end up at the Town House in St. Paul, and anyway, no knock on the Town House—I used to go to their Two Step Night—but it’s not very nice, you know? I was, like, ‘God, why isn’t there an option that’s actually nice?’”

“Peter wanted a place where you could dress up,” Erickson says.

There was a gay couple who were regulars at Moose who owned a building on 1st. Peter approached them with his idea for a new kind of gay bar, and they went for it. Susan Liesch, Kirihara’s wine rep at Bev’s, agreed to come in as his business partner. And after a trip with Erickson to New York to watch U.S. Open tennis— Kirihara is a huge Djokovic fan (but with the whole vax scandal still hot, he says, “I can’t even talk about it”)—they had a name.

“We’re sitting up there,” Kirihara remembers, “bright blue sky and all these jets keep going up. And I go, ‘Jet.’ And honest to God, Bruce goes, ‘Set.’ And we’re going, ‘Jetset! Jetset Bar.’”

Jetset opened in the summer of 2001, and for exactly one summer, it did really well. But then 9/11 happened, and their momentum was lost.

“Honestly,” Kirihara says, “it did OK, but for a while it was kind of a snooze, wasn’t it?”

It took some time, but eventually Jetset found itself, and its soul could be found on its dance floor. In its early days, music was confined to the background. Kirihara wasn’t focused on dancing. “It was more of a lounge,” he says. “Too much furniture.” He was working with some experienced house-music DJs, but nothing had really connected with the neighborhood yet. But when his regular Saturday-night DJ needed a Saturday night off, one of Kirihara’s newest hires, J.R. Kennedy, volunteered to take it on. And Kennedy played a high-energy, crowd-pleasing set mixing diva favorites like Madonna, Beyoncé, and Lady Gaga. Then he added a video projection system that he used to project film clips from gay icons onto the blank white walls. The other DJs bought in, the word spread, and Jetset’s crowd got a little bit bigger, a little bit younger, and a little bit more diverse, while remaining a safe place primarily for the LGBTQ community.

So can that energy be generated again across the river, in a new neighborhood? Kirihara is betting on himself and his team. He’s basically getting his band back together: Kennedy, now a licensed barber at MartinPatrick3, is returning as Jetset’s resident DJ. Liesch is coming back as his business partner and the scene’s den mother. And Kirihara will be back behind the bar.

“I don’t have a day job anymore,” he says with a smile. “So I can work as late as I want.”

Jetset is reopening because he thinks this city’s gay community still wants a place that doesn’t try too hard while giving them exactly what they want. “We deserve another cool option,” he says.

“Look,” Kirihara says, “I’m so lucky to have J.R. as my best friend. I’m so lucky to have Bruce. And Susan. I love my family. I’ve always said that the best thing I do is surround myself with really good and positive people.”