Mackenzie Pub celebrates 30 years in the theater district

by Sheila Regan, Minneapolis – special to Hennepin Theatre Trust

For 30 years, the MacKenzie family have been serving up American hospitality with a Scotch flavor at MacKenzie Pub, located next door to the Orpheum Theatre. The bar has a homey and comfortable vibe amidst the bright lights of downtown, and nurtures its relationships with loyal customers even as it navigates large crowds coming in for theater and events. Here’s an interview with Brian and Debbie MacKenzie about their business, their memories, and what makes MacKenzie’s special.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Debbie and Brian MacKenzie

Sheila Regan: So let’s start with introductions. Can you boy say your names and something about yourselves?

Brian Mackenzie: My name is Brian Mackenzie. I’m the creator and curator of Mackenzie Pub. We’re in our 30th year now. It’s been quite a ride.

SR: Where are you from originally?

BM: My family is from Minneapolis. I grew up in the western suburbs. We moved to Maple Grove in the 1970s. We’ve been here my whole life.

SR: And how about you Debbie?

Debbie Mackenzie: I’m Debbie Mackenzie. We will be married 40 years in September. He’s third generation [bar/restaurant owner].

SR: Brian can you share a little bit about the family legacy in the restaurant business?

BM: Well, I get back to my grandfather Cliff Mackenzie. He got into the restaurant business shortly after getting out of the war in the 40s. And he also started vending an amusement company at that time called Superior Music Company, which was basically the family business for years. I worked there summers while I was in school. When I graduated from high school, I went to work full time at Superior Music Company.

At that time, my grandfather owned a couple of restaurants in the Minneapolis area. It wasn’t long after that, my father got into a bar over on the West Bank at 901 Cedar Avenue. It was called the Golden Leaf bar. He bought into that with a partner. Then shortly after they bought it, they changed it over to Whiskey Junction and built a pretty pretty memorable legacy.

10 years into that, my grandfather, who was an owner operator at the Speakeasy, which is what Mackenzie was prior, was getting up in age. The building needed some work, the bar needed some work. It was just time. The Orpheum Theatre renovation was just wrapping up to its current iteration. So the city approached my grandfather and just said, Hey, we need to tidy things up a little bit. He didn’t have the energy to tackle that. So he and my father devised a plan where [my father] Gary would take over operations here. Shortly after that, my father enlisted my help. I was working construction jobs at the time. So it played in well. We ended up closing the doors here in October of ’93. We were Closed for the winter of 93/94 than reopened in May of 94.

SR: And Debbie, for you, how did you enter this picture?

DM: I do the accounting and help wherever.

BM: Debbie worked a little bit at Whiskey Junction, also doing accounting and bookkeeping over there. So we just kind of knew if anybody was nervous about taking on this new project, it was definitely her. We had two young boys at the time. She spent a lot of lonely nights at home with our two sons, while I was here working open to close 5,6,7 nights a week.

SR: Did you come to see that this was a good decision?

DM: Oh, yeah. Once we got through rebuild and opening the doors. It was tough at first, but yes, definitely. It was his passion.

BM: We started to build a name for ourselves. In the early years, we actually had a stage with a jazz trio that played here on weekends.

SR: Who was in the jazz trio?

BM: It was kind of a who’s who because Whiskey Junction had live music seven nights a week. Some of the musicians that played there and other places around town collaborated with this trio together. So we got Billy Franze, who was a guitar player, Steve Cherewan on the Hammond B-3  organ, and then we kind of had our regular drummer—Gordy Knutson. But when he was touring with the Steve Miller band, they found other local greats to sit down. And we’ve had everybody from Eric Gravatt to Michael Bland, who was Prince’s drummer. It was a really fun time. That got us on the map as far as being a new place downtown with music because there wasn’t a lot of music downtown. There definitely wasn’t a jazz place.

1922

1940

1989

SR: Anything you could say about the history of this building?

BM: Well, the best we can find out, it was built 1899 or 1900. It’s been a number of things over the years. We were here 20 plus years before the Orpheum Theatre was built. So if you look at some of the brickwork, you can see there were windows on the wall on the Orpheum Theatre side. So when they did build the theater, they ended up closing those windows off. Through the years, it’s been a couple of cafes, a couple of bars, just a number of things in its history.

SR: How would you say the vibe shifted after the Orpheum came in?

BM: During Broadway runs, especially Disney runs, it’s busy. These long runs— it’s like five weeks of the State Fair. We are busy six nights a week. And it’s grueling. We’re coming out of the crud— as I like to call the 2020— and a couple years after that— Staffing has been challenging downtown. Population has been challenging. We’re still missing our downtown workforce. So that’s a whole other story. But along the way we’ve ebbed and flowed with what goes on here. Unfortunately, the live music fell by the wayside. It was a great way to get us started. But we just slowly started seeing after two or three years, our crowds peaked early and then kind of just hit a wall. We were seeing we were busier on nights that didn’t have music because people just wanted to come and hang.

It’s a very live building with all the brick and hard surfaces. So when the band was playing, it was loud. But people loved it. We  still get calls. Asking when we’re having music playing. It’s been 25 years since we’ve had live music.

SR: Are you guys theater fans?

BM: We’ve seen a number of Broadway shows that come through, for sure. I have to admit, early on, I didn’t anticipate how the theater would affect our business down the line. It’s been positive, absolutely, all along. Now it’s more important than ever. With the downtown traffic, we wouldn’t be here without them.

SR: Debbie, do you have a favorite show?

DM: Phantom of the Opera, and Lion King are my two favorites. I’ve seen the two multiple times. The first time they were here— they were just like…

BM: Mind blowing. Nobody’d seen anything like that on stage before.

SR: When you saw Phantom, did you know about the chandelier?

DM: No.

BM: We kind of went in as newbies.

SR: Have you had many folks from the touring groups that come into the bar?

BM: Occasionally, we’re fortunate enough to get a signed poster from them. We’ve had everybody from Robert Goulet, who later actually performed on stage with our jazz trio a couple of nights. Ned Beatty pretty much lived here when they were in town for Showboat. We’ve just seen a number of people coming through. They make it their own place when they’re in town.

DM: Which is great.

BM: Then the crew and the traveling crew come back time after time. Some of them we’ve known for 20 plus years. We’re happy to see them, they’re happy to be back in Minnesota and Minneapolis. So it’s been quite a friend building.

SR: Do you guys have favorite show posters that you’ve collected?

BM: Each one has their own little story. We’ve got a couple more that we’ve got framed up upstairs, so we’re going to have to find some more room on the walls somewhere. The customers love it. The cast and crew that come back in following years after they’ve been here. They’ll see the poster and point it out, like oh there that was here last time. That one I signed. So it’s really special.

SR: Any movie stars come through?

BM: Christina Applegate, she was in town for a Broadway show. She had a few dirty martinis here on more than one occasion. [She played the lead in Sweet Charity in the Pre-Broadway run in 2005).

SR: How did it happen to start having people sign posters?

BM: One just appeared, and we kind of took that and ran with it. We just befriend some of the crew— and they will make sure one way or another we’ll get a signed poster. Those are very special.

SR: Is there a Scottish community in the Twin City that is drawn to this bar?

BM: There is a very big Scottish community. They like to think we’re a little more of a Scottish pub than we claim to be. Our tagline is an American bar with a Scotch flavor. So I mean, first and foremost, we are an American pub, but we pay a little homage to our roots with some special maps that my grandmother actually curated. Those have been hanging since we opened. So we’re gonna get the crest and a few things like that, which are fun. But at the end of the day, we’re still an American bar with a Scotch flavor.

SR: Any, any favorite memory over the years?

DM: There’s been a lot over the years. I think just the friends, the relationships.

BM: That goes to staff too. We’ve had amazing staff over the years. My manager/bartender today has been here— I think we hired him two and a half months into being open. And he’s still here. So George has been here for almost 30 years, his anniversary will be in June, when he was hired. So he’s been a great friend. But most of our staff tends to stay.

SR: Why do you think that is?

BM: I like to think it’s because of the family atmosphere. At the end of the day, it’s still work. There’s things that need to be done, but we do it in a light-hearted way, a supportive way. I like to think they can call on us if there’s an issue or problem.

SR: Are you guys Cleveland Browns fans? Or how did that all happen?

BM: To be honest, yes, we are Cleveland Browns fans. But as it was, the core group of the Browns’ backers actually started meeting at Whiskey junction over on the West Bank. When my dad sold Whiskey Junction, the new owners didn’t see the value in supporting that club. So the first weekend of that football season, the group showed up to Whiskey Junction to watch the game and they were told at that point that we are now a Minnesota Vikings bar. And thank you, but no, thank you. So some of that crew were already customers here that we knew well. They made a quick phone call on a Sunday morning and we said “come on down.” They’ve been here ever since, going on 20 plus years of that group coming in here. It’s a great bunch, very dedicated to their team. We’re fortunate to have them here.

SR: Do you ever have to explain to people that didn’t don’t know?

BM: Most people ask during the football season. They come in and want to watch. What do you mean, you know, the Vikings on TV? You can watch the Vikings game anywhere. We tried for 10 years to get a Vikings crowd in here. Sundays were quiet until we tapped into this out of market crowd. There’s a number of places around town that cater to that outer market crowd because those crowds want to get together with their friends and they want to root for their home team. So we just explained it that way and people understand. They ask, how did you settle on Cleveland? They chose us, really. We were accommodating from day one. And they have been a faithful bunch and made a lot of good friends. That’s basically what this business is based around: making more friends.

Did the Twins haven’t any impact on business?

BM: Yes, we definitely saw an uptick when the new ballpark was built, when they moved over from the Metronome, and that continues to this day. It kind of ebbs and flows with the team.  Similar to the Timberwolves. We’ve had some great years with the Timberwolves, we’ve had some that people would like to forget, but we’re rallying the wolves this year, and it’s a lot of fun.

What happens now?

BM: I guess just kind of keep moving forward. Build the business back to where it was, prior to 2020. Just work it as long as it’s fun. It’s still fun. So keep doing what we’re doing. We were hopeful that maybe one of my sons would be interested in possibly coming in, but it’s not looking that way at this point. They’ve got great careers and starting families. They lived the early years as children and now they have nine to five jobs and have their weekends off.

SR: How about you, Debbie? What do you see for your future?

DM: Well, till he’s ready, just keep doing what we’re doing.

BM: My father’s still alive. So we still give him weekly updates on how things are going. He’s not in the best of health at this point. But he’s still very interested and loves to hear stories of what happens here on a day to day basis.

How did you two meet?

BM: Through friends. I was in high school in the Maple Grove area, she went to high school in the Wayzata area. So there was some crossover there, we weren’t too far apart, just started doing good things together with that whole circle of friends. One thing led to another and after a few years we decided to make it official.

SR: What do you want people to know about the Mackenzie’s story?

BM: We’re a small joint and a very close community and staff circle. Everybody here gets along well, and when they’re not working together, they’re usually out together. So we like to say we we help build friendships and relationships here with our customers and our staff.