A longstanding and memorable building in downtown Brainerd, a noted stop in the movie "Fargo," has a new life in a departure from its past.
Sage on Laurel, the new restaurant in the former Blue Ox Bar, officially opened Friday after a major renovation. Owner Sarah Hayden Shaw saw the building's potential beneath layers of past lives, although she notes people thought she was a little crazy when she first started on the project. People asked her why she wasn't opening her restaurant in Baxter instead of downtown Brainerd. Thursday, she took a quick break and sat at one of her penny-topped tables and watched people on Laurel Street through the restaurant's windows. She pointed out the activity and foot traffic on one of Brainerd's main streets.
Inside, Shaw's goals were to bring back the tall, grand ceilings and create an open, airy feel inside by welcoming natural light.
"It's been a really fun project," Shaw said. "... I'm very happy how it turned out-the feel of it-now that it's complete."
Shaw admits reclaiming the longtime bar was a challenge and others may have decided it was simply easier to demolish the building than save it. Shaw said the building was in rough shape, damaged by a roof leak that had gone on for 20 years. That damage was nearly enough to warrant demolishing the building. The interior was gutted. Shaw said she filled 13 dumpster with the debris. Two apartments were renovated and quickly rented on Sage on Laurel's second floor.
Shaw said the building is iconic and a longtime fixture in Brainerd. Her research found its numerous lives through the years as a drugstore, an auto parts store, a café, a bakery and since the '60s several bars, including Essers Bar, King Soloman's Mines, The Red Velvet and of
course The Blue Ox Bar.
"Even the people who loved the Blue Ox will be glad to see it has a new life," she said.
What Sage on Laurel offers
There were rumors Sage on Laurel is an Italian restaurant. It's not.
"It's a really creative menu with a lot of global flavors and also some standards," Shaw said of the restaurant's menu. "We wanted to do something unique and creative."
Lunch includes paninis and burgers. Already popular, Shaw said, is a honey, basil, chicken panini. They also have a curry chicken panini, salad menu and a walnut/wild rice burger, marinated veggie sandwich with walnut/red pepper dip. For vegetarians there are numerous options.
"We also have a bison meatball sub, which is pretty fabulous," Shaw said.
Sage offers walleye and steak dinners in addition to chicken tikka masala and a green curry. Fred Stumbo is the restaurant's executive chef. Other items include pumpkin pancakes, lefsa brunch, locally sourced breakfast meats.
Shaw said meal pricing with sandwiches in the $10-$12 range is competitive noting the gourmet selection. Local craft brews from Roundhouse Brewery and Jack Pine Brewery are on tap as well as a house wine and organic wines. Shaw has a focus on local produce and products, especially seasonally, including a plan to source bread from a Fergus Falls bakery.
The restaurant will be able to seat 100-they are starting out with fewer tables as they open to be able to handle the early crush of demand that comes with a new eatery-and Sage has a reservable meeting room for 15 to 30 people, which can be used for restaurant seating when not reserved. Reservations are also taken for restaurant seating as well for those looking to bring in a group or looking for a table at a specific time. The restaurant hired about 20 employees for its lunch and dinner service, which is offered every day but Sunday when there is no dinner. On weekends, the restaurant will serve a Saturday and Sunday brunch.
This is Shaw's first restaurant. Her background is more in the remodeling and building trades.
"I've also kind of been a foodie," she said. "Ever since I've lived in Brainerd I have felt like we really needed a nice gourmet restaurant in downtown Brainerd. I just felt like it would change the feel of the place if we had that and then I just decided I had to do it myself."
Next spring, a patio seating expansion is planned into the parking lot next to the restaurant. Shaw owns a third of the parking lot closest to the building.
And the new life for the Blue Ox Bar isn't the last renovation Shaw has planned.
New future for former Iron Rail
The Shaws are also closing soon on a purchase of the former Iron Rail saloon, a large corner building just down the street from their new restaurant. Shaw said the goal is to renovate and bring the building back to its historic feel. They plan to lease out the building. While they aren't sure what tenant or tenants may want to be part of the Iron Rail's new future, they are sure of one thing-it won't be as a bar.
"We want to bring it back to a nice historic feel like this but we'll be leasing it," Shaw said.
They will also be remodeling the nine, mostly one-bedroom, apartments in the former Iron Rail with the majority available for new renters. Shaw said there will be a sizable asbestos abatement to take care of right of way and then the remodeling will begin in earnest.
"I'm just really excited to be part of what I'm seeing as a revitalization all along Laurel Street," Shaw said.
She noted the addition of the Crossing Arts Alliance and renovation of the Phelps' building to the east and other work in downtown Brainerd as well as businesses that have been part of the area for decades like The Gallery, Northwind Grille, Coco Moon or Bridge of Harmony.
"Up and down Laurel, it's a great place to be right now," she said.
The sense of revitalization is part of what prompted Shaw to want to tackle the former Iron Rail. She said the timing was right with the completion of Sage since she had a great renovation crew. Early plans are to create either space for one tenant or possibly as many as three in the Iron Rail building.
With other new, expanding and existing restaurants now in downtown Brainerd, Shaw said that only helps the whole.
"The more there is, the more people think of downtown Brainerd as a place you go to dine and to get entertainment and to shop-the more there is down here, the better for everybody that's down here. ... It's definitely a helpful thing not a harmful thing."
Shaw said Thursday's soft opening was going well. As with any new restaurant, the soft opening was helping staff work on speed and putting the plan into working with customers in real time.
"Everybody seems to love this place when they come in," she said. "The feel of it, the historic parts of it are fun for people."
It's all part of providing people with a new reason to come downtown
"There is a lot of great stuff going on down here," Shaw said.