Al’s Place Brings Back Capone Era in Style
There’s no door handle on the outside door, just a small window that slides open so a pair of shifty eyes can peer out. If you want to cut to the chase, just mention you’re in the market for some furniture and the door will open to reveal a steep staircase. At the top is Al’s Place, a 1920s-style speakeasy, where the servers have names like Smiley and Carrie the Canary, and on Friday and Saturday nights a torch singer clutches an old-fashioned floor microphone as she sings seductive songs. A smoke machine pumps out a lingering haze to emulate the smoky atmosphere of the original speakeasies, without the carcinogens. And rest assured, the liquor is legal.
The furniture ruse to gain entry, by the way, is a wink to Chicago gangster Al Capone ‘s legit business, a furniture store.
The club, which has been open a little over a year, transformed the underutilized event space for Stanley’s Northeast Bar Room in Minneapolis. Three years ago, General Manager Kelli Holloway approached the management team with her vision for turning the space into a speakeasy based on the infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone.
Smiley (Al’s servers go by their “stage” names) serving the Caesar salad.
“We were like, you’re crazy, that’s not going to work,” said David Benowitz, COO of Craft and Crew, the company that owns Stanley’s and a number of other bar/restaurants. But Holloway was persistent, and eventually she won them over to the tune of a significant investment in the space. Benowitz and Luke Derheim are the operating partners for Craft and Crew and the owners of Al’s Place, along with David’s father, Steve.
Holloway says she came up with the idea a couple of winters ago when she was shoveling off the sidewalk behind Stanley’s and noticed a faded plaque on the wall that said Al’s Place 1949.
She’s always had an infinity toward, Al Capone, although that’s not who the original Al’s Place was named for, because her great-grandmother ran off with Capone’s gang and her family never heard from her again.
“I put together a proposal on how to pay for it by tripling my brunch business (at Stanley’s),” she says. “Our menu had 12 things and it wasn’t good …I’d worked for Hell’s Kitchen (in Minneapolis) and that’s what I consider brunch.”
They revamped the menu, but what gave brunch a boost and Al’s Place some notoriety is that she started a “Secret Breakfast Society.”
She told regulars on the QT that Stanley’s was going to open a speakeasy upstairs, and they could get in on the action and have their names in the secret society roll book if they invited five people to brunch.
To make it appear official, Holloway bought a black leather-bound book and when she heard someone had recruited members for the secret society, she’d tell a server to go over and play along: “She’d go over to their table and ask, ‘you got a guy?’ and they’d answer, ‘I got a guy,’ and she’d say, ’Who’s your guy?” The “guy’s” name and contact information was entered in the book, which then became her contact list. Everyone on the list received texts from Al Capone with offers.
For the first 50 people guests recruited, they could receive their own gangster name and a free bottle of champagne for the table. For 100 names, guests received VIP status, as well as free appetizers and a trip to the front of the line on busy weekends.
“In my mind, the speakeasy
Kelli Holloway, left, who created Al’s Place, a speakeasy based on the Al Capone legend, considered it fate to host one of Al Capone’s relatives, Deirdre Marie Capone, who wrote a book about her notorious uncle.
couldn’t advertise,” she says, because it deviated from the authenticity. “So this was our advertising.”
Six months in, she adds, they had to bite the bullet and consider that word of mouth wasn’t traveling fast enough. Holloway wrote a “heart-felt message” to Capone’s grandniece, Deidre Marie Capone, author of “Uncle Al Capone—The Untold Story from Inside His Family,” and invited her to a book signing at the club. “I sat in Al’s booth and drank with her ‘til 1 a.m.,” she says about the guest appearance.
The logo came about when they found one of the original Al’s Place matchbooks. “Al’s Place” is even written in the floor tiles in the restrooms.
The attic space is perfect for a cramped, smoky speakeasy with old-world glamour. A chandelier hangs over a secluded half-circle banquette on a pedestal, called Al’s booth. In addition to the outdoor entrance, guests can enter secretly through a photo booth in the bar area of Stanley’s. The interior entrance makes it ideal for Minnesota winters, so no one has to wait outside for a table, Derheim says.
The partners brought in an acting coach to work with the servers and bartenders to develop a character who can verbally spar with guests. On the night we visited, our server, Smiley, was fairly new. He wore a white short-sleeved shirt, bowtie and a butcher’s apron. Jill, who was too new to have a gangster name yet, was shadowing him in a sparkly gold and silver sequined dress. Smiley—they don’t like to break character and tell you their given names—had done some acting in high school and when he saw the ad on Craig’s List was intrigued. The staff at Stanley’s, for the most part, aren’t interested in going upstairs to be a speakeasy server, Holloway says.
Friday and Saturday nights, after things heat up a bit, servers have been known to dance with the guests, some of whom dress up in period costumes, and make drinks tableside from a rolling cart with a horn like the one Harpo Marx used to honk.
The cuisine is Italian, of course, and the dishes are based on Al Capone’s mother’s recipes, such as the Tomato Soup Spice Cake. “They used tomato soup because they were short on butter (during prohibition),” Smiley explained. And although it doesn’t sound like it, the cake was tasty.
The menu is “wildly different” from the sports bar below Al’s, Derheim says. Check averages for a two-top are in the $60 to $70 range, Benowitz adds. There’s a separate, kitchen upstairs, about 12-by-12-feet, just enough space for two to three people to cook in. A large bar runs along the side wall, tucked under the eaves.
While the partners have no plans to open a second Al’s Place at this time, Derheim and Benowitz are in the process of opening The Block in St. Louis Park, a full-service restaurant and bar with a 112-seat dining room and 50-seat patio off Hwy 7. The city council approved the conditional use permit in early November, according to the city’s website.
Benowitz, whose father is 100 percent owner of Craft and Crew, said he grew up in the bar business and never wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. “I was fascinated by hotel management,” he says. In 2004, however, his dad bought what is now The Howe and three months into it asked Benowitz to help him add food to the mix. Derheim was hired in 2007 for operations and marketing, and the two, who are around the same age, grew the business together.
Under Craft and Crew’s umbrella are The Howe Daily Kitchen & Bar; The Bar Draft House; Pub 819; Stanley’s; and Stanley’s on Wheels, a food truck.
With Al’s, however, they set up a different ownership model, with each of the three partners owning a third.
Holloway, they both said, is amazingly creative. In addition to Al’s, she was the one who came up with their popular dog menu on the patio. But that, as they say, is a tale for another time. You can read about it in our January issue.