Spud Jr. Owner Justin LaRocque Talks His Business, Historic Building & More – Grand Forks Herald
EAST GRAND FORKS — The Grand Forks Herald sat down with The Spud Jr. owner Justin LaRocque for 5 Questions this week to talk about his business, the historic building it’s housed in and more.
Q: Where does the name The Spud Jr. come from?
A: It’s from the original Spud bar that existed in East Grand Forks, and I believe it was (in) the 70s and 80s. There (were) a few different places, so it stemmed from a conversation with one of my friends, because his store was located behind the last place the Spud operated, and it was near the Louis Murray Bridge. So he joked about opening a small little dive bar, right at that store location and calling it The Spud Jr. because it was right behind the last location. But one thing led to another and the building we’re in was rented out, and what started out as an occasional visit was why I wanted to go see it, as I’m a bit of an old building enthusiast . I love this character and this story, and I had never been there. And when I saw the signed lease on it, I just called the landlord and said, “Hey, I just wanted to take a look. I’m not really interested in doing anything, but would you mind showing me? And he said, “Sure, I’ll meet you there in 20 minutes.” A walk through, and he told me everything that was included in the building. I said, “Jeez, maybe I could do something with that.” So it just worked.
Q: What impact did the story of the building have on what you did with it?
A: The building itself, I guess if it wouldn’t have been a restaurant just before, and some of the equipment, and the layout and the things that were there already established – if that isn’t Had it not been so, we probably wouldn’t have seen it come to fruition. So everything kind of lined up nicely for that to happen. Although, for about two months after we opened until now, it’s been quite a struggle with COVID. It was quite an interesting undertaking.
Q: What changes did you make to turn the space into The Spud Jr.?
A: Cosmetics – paint, bathrooms needed redoing, kitchen needed a complete deep clean and there was hardware that needed replacing. We demolished and rebuilt the bar itself just over the existing footprint, then installed a secondary faucet system to go from six faucets to eight faucets, then some small equipment upgrades really made up the bulk of it . Like I said the footprint itself was there so we pretty much used it as it sat with just a few small improvements to modify it and make it our own, especially from a decoration.
Q: What inspired the inclusion of the mobile library?
A: So the building next door, the girls who were at the yoga studio, decided not to renew their lease, which would have been, I think, just a few months after the first closings (COVID-19). It was around summer (2020), and it sat empty for about a year. I always knew, and you can see, that the buildings were (connected) when it was Blarney Mill in the late 90s, so there (were) two areas, if you look the wall, which were bricked with new brick that did not match the existing old Chicago style brick with which the building is erected. And knowing that, it was always kind of like, “Well, I wonder if we could do something about it.” We didn’t want to make it bigger from a seating perspective, because our kitchen isn’t big enough for that, and we never really envisioned the business going that way. But we thought, “How interesting would it be to add something to the company without making it a full extension of The Spud Jr.?” So while he was resting and the ideas were coming and going, at some point we thought, “Well, it’s cool to do golf simulators and have a side business of golf simulators where we can still serve him food and drinks? “Well, that kind of thing went by the wayside, and then we thought about ax throwing, and that kind of thing went by the wayside, which was a good thing because Downtown Ax opened up a few time after. One idea would turn into another and turn into another, and we were like, “Well, I don’t know about that.” And then the idea of using it more as a multipurpose event space that we could attract all different types of events and then use it as a space for some of our own if we wanted to create different types of performance events. And then from there it went to, “Well, why don’t we adapt it to a comedy club, and then let the other events fill in around it, and we’ll use it as much as we can? “So once we did that, we thought, ‘Okay, we liked that idea. We need a name. While we were doing kind of a ghost kitchen concept of a smoking room that we would call the prohibition smoking room, and when we thought about opening the door, we said, “Well, how are we going to separate it, everything keeping it connected?” And then we found the bookcases in the basement that were used when the owner of this building lived downstairs for a while, so he had bookcases to do that so that you couldn’t see where those doors were patched in. So we found them, and we said, ‘Let’s put them on a farm slider, and that will really fit the theme of prohibition, and I think that will tie it all together together.
Q: Why did you decide to start hosting comedy shows and local events?
A: One of the main statements I still hear to this day is that people say, “There’s never anything to do in Grand Forks,” and I laugh, because there’s a ton of stuff to TO DO. I think maybe one thing we could do better as a community is, and I don’t even know if we can do better – maybe we already do it well and people just don’t pay attention – but if we could figure out a way to really bring all of these things together in one place where people could check them out, it might be a little easier for people to find things. But if you want to find something to do every week, whether it’s weekends or weekdays, there are things to do in this city. So that was just a way for us to say, ‘Well, how can we establish more of the foot traffic that comes here that can help complement our business, while also giving them a reason to come to East Grand Forks that don’t necessarily regularly in Grand Forks? We know comedy at a time when it was the old Peanut Gallery in the Westward Ho was quite popular. And since Dreamers stopped doing it at the Ramada, it doesn’t really exist anymore. So we thought, “Well, why not start there?” I kind of hooked up with a girl from the (Twin Cities) who knew a lot of different comedians, and we were just like, ‘Let’s give it a try. I mean, we have space. Let’s give it a try.” And so far so good. It hasn’t been great. We thought we might be building last spring where we could last all summer, but we tried a show at the beginning of June, and it basically failed. So, at this point, I still hear a lot of people saying that A, doesn’t even know The Spud Jr. exists, and B, really doesn’t know that The Spud Jr. ban exists, and C, had no idea there was comedy that we did on a fairly regular basis. So it’s probably up to us, too, to not really spread the word as best we can. But really , what happens with the room, with the comedy (and) with the events is really going to depend on how many people might attend.