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Ring of Fire

How a “band of misfits” turned Hell’s Kitchen into one of the nation’s most successful restaurants



Joe Treleven

(page 1 of 2)

Ten years ago, Mitch Omer stood in the filthy, old restaurant in downtown Minneapolis that would become his own place, Hell’s Kitchen, with a snarl on his face and a hammer in his fist. His knee was shattered from a motorcycle accident. His brain was awash with chemicals (“I was recuperating on a diet of Oxycontin and red wine,” he says). At nearly six-and-a-half-feet tall, with long, white hair and the girth of an industrial mixer, he looked like Thor’s unreliable father.

This dump was getting to him. He had slaved over stoves for decades. Now, having sold a house, a car, and two beautiful motorcycles to start his own restaurant, it had turned out to be a rattrap. The oven door had come off in his hand the first time he opened it. The grease in the range hood was so thick that it resembled a slab of tire tread. The ductwork would all have to go. In fact, the city engineer who condemned the ductwork had just fled under a barrage of Omer’s F-bombs. “It was like, sonofabitch!” Omer recalls. “Everything was coming apart at the hinges.”

Omer let the hammer fly. Who knows what he was thinking. Omer is bipolar, the kind of guy—before he discovered the right mix of pharmaceuticals to rein in his highs and lows—who would buy a $3,500 gun on a whim, who would marry a 16-year-old girl when he was 21, who would compulsively eat until he weighed 400 pounds, maybe 450. Who was counting? (Bariatric surgery, in 1999, brought him back to a husky 270.) At his lowest point, as a security guard on Waylon Jennings’s 1981 tour, he discovered a kid trying to steal the band’s equipment and nearly beat him to death.

He wasn’t thinking of his third and current wife, Cynthia Gerdes, the founder of Creative Kidstuff, whom he had met online two years earlier. But as the hammer sailed toward the rear of the restaurant, suddenly he was thinking of her—Gerdes and several friends from the store had painted a large, extravagant mural there. When Omer called Gerdes later that day, he told her the good news first: the hammer hit a pillar instead of the mural. The bad news: the restaurant was falling apart and so was he. In a fit of self-loathing, he called her “the next ex-Mrs. Omer.”


On a weekday afternoon, Omer and Gerdes slide into a booth in the space that Hell’s Kitchen moved into four years ago, a Dante-esque series of basement dining rooms and bars (less than two blocks from the original location) comprising one of the largest restaurants in the Twin Cities, above or below-ground. Their marriage is good and so is business, which has thrived despite Omer’s three visits to treatment centers and Gerdes’s ongoing panic attacks: $6 million in revenues last year from about 304,000 meals. In one recent month, 5,700 reservations were made, more than any other independent restaurant in the country, according to their reservation service.

Omer didn’t see it coming. He had trouble seeing past the five-fold increase in rent. “I walked in here when it was empty and I just about cried,” Omer says, slamming a Red Bull. “I thought, ‘What the fuck have I gotten myself into?’”

“What the cuss,” Gerdes interjects with a smile. “We’re going to have a swear jar here today.” Omer laughs. “No, we’re not,” he says, and orders another Red Bull.

Though Hell’s fled its former home in anticipation of a major development next door, the restaurant was ready to move. It was busy for a place with demonic décor; very busy for a place that only served breakfast (it now offers breakfast, lunch, dinner, weekend brunch, a full bar, and live music). “The tickets,” Omer says in kitchen parlance, “were coming down like snow.”

No one saw that coming. There wasn’t even agreement on the concept. From the beginning, Omer and Gerdes have had a couple of minority partners: Steve Meyer, who has cooked with Omer for decades, and his wife, Kim. The couples, by all accounts, could hardly be more different. When Kim heard what Omer wanted to call the restaurant, she cried. When it was time to hire employees, she and Steve cornered Omer and Gerdes—moments before opening the door to candidates—and described their ideal server: no more than three piercings, no visible tattoos, khakis, belt, black shirt. Gerdes panicked. “We forgot to discuss this!” she says. Omer flipped out. “We’re Hell’s fucking Kitchen!” he remembers thinking. “We want tattoos, we want piercings!”

It’s not hard to figure out who prevailed: if you were to melt down and sculpt all the metal in the faces of the restaurant’s 140 employees and spread all their tattoos out on canvas, you could fill a small gallery. But it’s no gimmick. “I didn’t even see this,” Gerdes says, reaching over to finger her husband’s button-down shirt collar, shredded as though masticated by rodents. “I don’t tell him what to wear, that’s just him. I don’t give a rat’s ass.” She looks at Omer adoringly. “We’re kind of a band of misfits,” she says.

Gerdes is a native of Puerto Rico, unabashedly ADHD, and a whirling manifestation of all that implies: up at 4 a.m. and working until 10 p.m., seven days a week. Short with thick curly hair, the Costello to Omer’s Abbott, she is a savvy, nurturing executive who ran both Hell’s and Creative Kidstuff until 2004, when she sold the latter. She calls her employees her kids, like a den mother of the damned. “Mitch is the first person I took a chance on,” she says, and there have been many more.

No one is guaranteed permanent employment at Hell’s, Gerdes says, not even Omer. (This isn’t heaven, after all.) And there have been mistakes: the first person hired to manage the new space gave the employees a hard time, and they got revenge by photographing him drinking on the job. He was fired. Others who missed work or drank on the job have been let go, too, including a dreadlocked, combat-boot-wearing woman who happened to be the most productive server at the old space before calling Omer from Montana, strung out. But she was brought back eventually. Hell’s has a second-chance policy: if you’re fired, you can reapply in three months, assuming you’ve pulled yourself together. “Sometimes,” says Gerdes, “you just need your ass handed to you.”

Cyla Harrington, a young breakfast host, couldn’t get her ass out of bed. Due in at 6 a.m., she was late so often that she was fired last December after less than 10 months on the job. “It had to be done,” Harrington admits. She was told to take a break, figure some stuff out. What she figured out was that she really missed Hell’s. “Everyone there has his or her own story and quirks,” she says, “and we’re all straight-forward with each other.” She reapplied three months later and was rehired—as an evening host.

Omer is obviously no softie. The B-29 of F-bombers, he’s shown rude customers the door and greeted new hires with a curt “Don’t fuck up,” though in both cases he’s simply being sincere, laying out the deal. There’s a line and, in Omer’s place, Omer gets to draw it, using loyalty and kinship as his guide. For years, Omer had his staff throw meals together for a homeless man who hung out near the old location, and just in case anyone thought this was a suggestion instead of an order, Omer taped a sign in the kitchen: You will feed him. Omer and the guy had gotten to talking, and Omer realized that they had once spent some time together—or rather, did some time together. In jail.

Omer gets up from the table and snags another Red Bull from the bar. Somewhere in the bowels of this basement is Hell’s latest big hire, though he never actually applied for a job; a man who had just gotten his posterior out of prison: Pat Forciea. Gerdes can’t recall why, one day last summer, she found herself thinking of Forciea, a marketing whiz who served six years for fraud, theft, and forgery before returning to the Twin Cities in 2010. It might have been Charlie Sheen’s meltdown, she says. But she sensed from Forciea’s story that he, like Omer, was bipolar and she invited the men to meet. It wasn’t an interview, but a kind of blind date, and just as awkward.

Omer happens to have a considerable collection of fossilized dinosaur feces and when he presented Forciea with a piece of prehistoric poop in a gesture of friendship (“This is good shit,” Omer said), Forciea was taken aback. These people, he thought, are a consultant’s nightmare. But he began offering marketing ideas anyway. Having helped to engineer Paul Wellstone’s 1990 Senate victory, he knew something about misfits. Truth is, he was charmed.

Forciea, who is now Hell’s marketing director, is keeping a low profile these days, trying to focus on his teenage son and daughter and not dwell on the past. He asked not to be quoted. But he can’t believe his luck. He never expected to be around people like Wellstone again, he says, the sort whose bigness of heart belies a razor-sharp acumen and who buck you up just because. Nursing an iced tea one afternoon at Hell’s, he became watery-eyed when describing the supportive camaraderie around the restaurant, as though here below the streets, in the underworld, was where true redemption could be found.
 

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Sponsor: Studio Z
Telephone: 651-755-1600
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Prepare for an extreme camp experience! Campers will spend mornings riding Segways, playing relay games and learning safety skills and techniques. In the afternoon, campers will get to cool off and...

Cost: varies

Where:
Erik's Retreat
3420 Heritage Drive
Edina, MN  55435
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Sponsor: Erik's Ranch & Retreats
Telephone: 612-401-3080
Website »

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Is your child a budding geologist, an animal lover or the next Picasso? Our exploratory day camp features a week of exciting activities including a visit to the Enchanted Rock Garden, spending time...

Cost: varies

Where:
Erik's Retreat
3420 Heritage Drive
Edina, MN  55435
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Sponsor: Erik's Ranch & Retreats
Telephone: 612-401-3080
Website »

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Opening Reception with the Artist: Thursday, August 16, 6 - 8 pm St. Croix Valley-based fiber artist Mary Giles works with metal and linen to create organic sculptural forms evocative of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Textile Center
3000 University Ave SE
Minneapolis, MN  55414
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Sponsor: Textile Center
Telephone: 612-436-0464
Contact Name: Jenny Jones
Website »

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A national marketing research firm seeks Men and Women, ages 18+, for an upcoming Paid Focus Group on Shopping. This study will take place the week of July 27th at various times in Minneapolis....

Cost: Free

Where:
, MN


Sponsor: Focus Pointe Global

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The St. Catherine Choral Society invites area singers to audition for membership in preparation for their 2015 – 2016 season.  Auditions will be held at St. Catherine University,...

Cost: Free

Where:
St. Catherine University
2004 Randolph Ave.
Saint Paul, MN  55105
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Summer Group Show 2015 Featuring the artists of the Kolman & Pryor Gallery: Betsy Ruth Byers: Painting Kate Casanova: Mixed Media and Sculpture Jim Dryden: Painting Jil Evans: Painting...

Cost: Free

Where:
Kolman & Pryor Gallery
Studio 395, Northrup King Building
1500 Jackson St. NE
Minneapolis, MN  55413
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Sponsor: Kolman & Pryor Gallery
Telephone: 612-385-4239
Contact Name: Anita Sue Kolman
Website »

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July 25 & 26th, 1 p.m. - 4 p.m. July 29 & 30th, 4 p.m. - 8 p.m. Scratch a design into the vessel that will produce your own cast iron sculpture. Each summer Iron Artists from...

Cost: Fees for sand mold: $30/small, $45/medium, $75/large

Where:
Franconia Sculpture Park
29836 St. Croix Trail
Shafer, MN  55074
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Sponsor: Franconia Sculpture Park
Telephone: 651-257-6668
Website »

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The tool set for communicating with your customers has changed for the better. Social media plays a large role in customer service, sales, and marketing – and it is growing faster than any...

Cost: Free

Where:
Checkerboard Strategic Web Development, Inc.
350 W Burnsville Parkway
Suite 350
Burnsville, MN  55337
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Minnesota Fringe Festival is proud to present our 174 acts, performed by both local and international touring artists. Our artists perform at 11 different theaters and 9 site-specific locations....

Cost: $14/single ticket + one-time purchase of a $4 Fringe button

Where:
, MN

More information

Summer Faire Announces Its 2015 Season! The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes’ popular summer concert series is back- better than ever! Don’t miss FREE live music from talented local...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Shoppes Central Courtyard
I-94/I-694 at Hemlock Lane
Maple Grove, MN
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Sponsor: The Shoppes
Telephone: 763-488-9965
Contact Name:
Website »

More information

Bollywood Dance Scene, creators of 2014's best selling MN Fringe show, return with a bigger, bolder Bollywood dance drama of original storytelling and choreography. Packed with exciting...

Cost: $14 with a $4 Fringe button

Where:
Rarig Proscenium Theater
330 21st Ave South, Second Floor
Minneapolis, MN  55455
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Sponsor: Bollywood Dance Scene
Telephone: 612-782-9836
Contact Name: Carillon RoseMeadows
Website »

More information

All Originals Jazz Series presents dā-kə-bro̵̅o̅-dā: Kevin Daley, guitar; Dave Brattain, saxophones; "Pooch" Heinie, bass; Dave Stanoch, drums. All Originals is a weekly jazz...

Cost: $10

Where:
Studio Z
275 E. 4th Street, Suite 200
St. Paul, MN  55101
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Sponsor: Studio Z
Telephone: 651-755-1600
Website »

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Opening Reception with the Artist: Thursday, August 16, 6 - 8 pm St. Croix Valley-based fiber artist Mary Giles works with metal and linen to create organic sculptural forms evocative of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Textile Center
3000 University Ave SE
Minneapolis, MN  55414
View map »


Sponsor: Textile Center
Telephone: 612-436-0464
Contact Name: Jenny Jones
Website »

More information

The St. Catherine Choral Society invites area singers to audition for membership in preparation for their 2015 – 2016 season.  Auditions will be held at St. Catherine University,...

Cost: Free

Where:
St. Catherine University
2004 Randolph Ave.
Saint Paul, MN  55105
View map »

More information

Summer Group Show 2015 Featuring the artists of the Kolman & Pryor Gallery: Betsy Ruth Byers: Painting Kate Casanova: Mixed Media and Sculpture Jim Dryden: Painting Jil Evans: Painting...

Cost: Free

Where:
Kolman & Pryor Gallery
Studio 395, Northrup King Building
1500 Jackson St. NE
Minneapolis, MN  55413
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Sponsor: Kolman & Pryor Gallery
Telephone: 612-385-4239
Contact Name: Anita Sue Kolman
Website »

More information

THE SUMMER SLAUGHTER TOUR 2015 Skyway Theatre: ARCH ENEMY BORN OF OSIRIS VEIL OF MAYA THE ACACIA STRAIN OBSCURA AFTER THE BURIAL CATTLE DECAPITATION BEYOND CREATION  IMMORALIS...

Cost: $25

Where:
Skyway Theatre
, MN

More information

Come join the battle July 31-August 2! Somerset Amphitheater will host the Border Battle Weekend on its newly improved festival grounds. The event is an extension of the popular Border...

Cost: $20-$35

Where:
Somerset Amphitheater
715 Spring Street
Somerset, WI  54025
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Website »

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Summer at the Civic: Free Friday Concerts Patio and Grill open at 4pm, Happy Hour 4 – 6pm, Music at 5:30 – 9pm Free admission.  Rain or shine. Fresh food & cold drinks....

Cost: Free

Where:
Rochester Civic Theatre
20 Civic Center Dr. SE
Rochester, MN  55904
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Sponsor: 507 Magazine
Website »

More information

Minnesota Fringe Festival is proud to present our 174 acts, performed by both local and international touring artists. Our artists perform at 11 different theaters and 9 site-specific locations....

Cost: $14/single ticket + one-time purchase of a $4 Fringe button

Where:
, MN

More information

Summer Faire Announces Its 2015 Season! The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes’ popular summer concert series is back- better than ever! Don’t miss FREE live music from talented local...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Shoppes Central Courtyard
I-94/I-694 at Hemlock Lane
Maple Grove, MN
View map »


Sponsor: The Shoppes
Telephone: 763-488-9965
Contact Name:
Website »

More information

Join love-struck Aladdin on a treacherous journey to find a lamp like no other.  Jewels come to life in a deadly display of balanced precision, a whirlwind of demonic Jinns practice their...

Cost: $15.00 - $40.00 on sale Monday, June 29

Where:
Circus Juventas Big Top
1270 Montreal Ave.
St. Paul, MN  55116
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Sponsor: Circus Juventas
Telephone: 651-699-8229
Website »

More information

Princeton Speedway is a 1/4 mile clay banked oval located in Princeton, Minnesota inside the Mille Lacs County Fairgrounds. The dirt flies here on Friday nights throughout the summer months. On...

Cost: prices are adults $12, Senior and military are $10, and 7-17 year olds are $5

Where:
Princeton Speedway
1400 3rd St. N
Princeton, MN
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Website »

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Hydrive Shows and Skyway Theatre present: BOOMBOX CARTEL ARYAY MicDaddy Rare Kandy THE BOYS ARE BACK IN TOWN Friday, July 31st The Loft @ Skyway Theatre 9pm 18+ $15...

Cost: $15

Where:
The Loft @ Skyway Theatre
711 Hennepin Avenue
Minneapolis, MN  55403
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Telephone: 612-333-6100
Website »

More information

Stop in to Day Block Brewing on Friday July 31st for an evening of live music from local artists Fairfax, AK and Bre Lewis Band.  Music starts at 10pm and there will be a $5 cover charge.

Cost: $5

Where:
Day Block Brewing
1105 Washington Ave S
Minneapolis, MN  55415
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Website »

More information

Death can be scary. So can clowns. But what if they weren't? Clown siblings Victoria, Frank, and Mango mourn the loss of their mother by daring to find joy. It’s OK to laugh at this...

Cost: $14

Where:
Illusion Theater
528 Hennepin Ave, 8th Floor
Minneapolis, MN  55403
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The Dirty Girl Mud Run is a 3.1 mile(ish) obstacle course run for women and women ONLY! If you’re an uber cross fitter looking to make your weekend more challenging, Dirty Girl Mud...

Cost: $55-$65

Where:
Pinehaven Pumpkin Farms
28186 Kettle River Blvd. North
Wyoming, MN  55092
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Sponsor: Human Movement Management
Contact Name: Carson Morford
Website »

More information

Enjoy this unique riding experience on the Mesabi Trail, NE Minnesota's premier paved bicycle trail. The tour is designed for serious riders and families alike, choose from four different...

Cost: $45 individuals / $90 families (kids ride FREE)

Where:
Mesabi Trail - Coleraine to Eveleth
P.O. Box 139
Virginia , MN  55792
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Sponsor: Great River Energy, Mesabi Trail, Ampers
Telephone: 877-637-2241
Contact Name: Ardy Wilberg
Website »

More information

Dash for the kids of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Join the World’s Largest Running Series as a St. Jude Warrior! Warrior Dash is the ultimate event for the thrill-seeking...

Cost: Multiple Entry Point Levels

Where:
Johnson Creek
Johnson Creek, WI  53038


Telephone: 952-893-0442
Contact Name: Matthew O'Shea
Website »

More information

Learn how to make smarter investment decisions and take control of your financial future   Invest a few life-changing hours in our Power Trading Workshop, where you’ll learn:...

Cost: Free

Where:
Online Trading Academy
7900 International Drive Suite 170
Bloomington, MN  55425
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Sponsor: Online Trading Academy
Telephone: 952-814-4410
Website »

More information

Come experience a day full of diverse brass music from mariachi to swing! This year's festival features twelve phenomenal bands from the region. Audiences of all ages will get to...

Cost: Free

Where:
Bridge Square
Intersection of E 4th St. and Division St.
Northfield, MN  55057
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Sponsor: Vintage Band Festival
Telephone: 507-645-7554
Website »

More information

Tires Plus will welcome customers and guests for an exciting community event including:   •Fun activities with Boys & Girls Club kids from Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin...

Cost: Free

Where:
Tires Plus
580 W 79Th St.
Chanhassen, MN  55317-9530
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More information

In a Reiki II session, the student is given the first three Reiki symbols. Students will learn about: • the Power symbol • the Mental/Emotional symbol • the Distance symbol...

Cost: $175.00

Where:
Rising Sun Reiki Studio
4180 West Broadway
Suite B3
Robbinsdale, MN  55422
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Sponsor: Rising Sun Reiki Studio
Telephone: 612-940-5851
Contact Name: Cyndi Stavrou
Website »

More information

Do you like a morning run or a leisurely walk? Looking for a great reason to be active? Participate in the 3rd Annual BBBS 5K Run/Walk! Enjoy the views and natural beauty that Fort Snelling...

Cost: $30 Individual $45 Match Rate

Where:
Fort Snelling State Park - Beach Area
101 Snelling Lake Road
St. Paul, MN  55111
View map »


Sponsor: SNAP Fitness

More information

Opening Reception with the Artist: Thursday, August 16, 6 - 8 pm St. Croix Valley-based fiber artist Mary Giles works with metal and linen to create organic sculptural forms evocative of...

Cost: Free

Where:
Textile Center
3000 University Ave SE
Minneapolis, MN  55414
View map »


Sponsor: Textile Center
Telephone: 612-436-0464
Contact Name: Jenny Jones
Website »

More information

Artist from around the world converge at Franconia to create cast metal sculpture and we invite the public to participate in this unique art-making process! Witness artist working a furnace that...

Cost: Free

Where:
Franconia Sculpture Park
29836 St. Croix Trail
Shafer, MN  55074
View map »


Sponsor: Franconia Sculpture Park
Telephone: 651-257-6668
Website »

More information

HazelFest, presented by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, is a day-long chemical-free community festival that features bands, recovery speakers, exhibitors, food trucks, and family...

Cost: $15-$25

Where:
Hazelden Campus
15251 Pleasant Valley Rd.
Center City, MN  55012
View map »


Sponsor: Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation
Telephone: 763-300-1218
Contact Name: Jeannette Cleland
Website »

More information

Nershfest. It’s music. It’s friends. It’s a Minnesota summer day. It’s also the name of the Minneapolis-based music festival featuring local live music, craft beer and great...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harriet Brewing Company
3036 Minnehaha Ave
Minneapolis, MN  55406
View map »


Sponsor: Nershfest
Telephone: 336-402-2439
Contact Name: Griffin
Website »

More information

Captain Terry will hold a public cruise this Saturday August 1, 2015. 12:30pm - 2:30 pm

Cost: $14

Where:
Lady of the Lake Docks
8 Water Street
Excelsior, MN  55331
View map »


Sponsor: Lady of the Lake
Telephone: 952-929-1209
Contact Name: Terry Jungers
Website »

More information

Come join the battle July 31-August 2! Somerset Amphitheater will host the Border Battle Weekend on its newly improved festival grounds. The event is an extension of the popular Border...

Cost: $20-$35

Where:
Somerset Amphitheater
715 Spring Street
Somerset, WI  54025
View map »


Website »

More information

The fourth Kräftskiva! festival will bring The Bachelor Farmer and Marvel Bar out onto the streets of Minneapolis for the evening – shutting down 2nd Ave North alongside The...

Cost: $20

Where:
The Bachelor Farmer
50 2nd Ave N
Minneapolis, MN  55401
View map »


Sponsor: The Bachelor Farmer
Telephone: 612-206-3920
Website »

More information

Minnesota Fringe Festival is proud to present our 174 acts, performed by both local and international touring artists. Our artists perform at 11 different theaters and 9 site-specific locations....

Cost: $14/single ticket + one-time purchase of a $4 Fringe button

Where:
, MN

More information

Summer Faire Announces Its 2015 Season! The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes’ popular summer concert series is back- better than ever! Don’t miss FREE live music from talented local...

Cost: FREE

Where:
The Shoppes Central Courtyard
I-94/I-694 at Hemlock Lane
Maple Grove, MN
View map »


Sponsor: The Shoppes
Telephone: 763-488-9965
Contact Name:
Website »

More information

Join love-struck Aladdin on a treacherous journey to find a lamp like no other.  Jewels come to life in a deadly display of balanced precision, a whirlwind of demonic Jinns practice their...

Cost: $15.00 - $40.00 on sale Monday, June 29

Where:
Circus Juventas Big Top
1270 Montreal Ave.
St. Paul, MN  55116
View map »


Sponsor: Circus Juventas
Telephone: 651-699-8229
Website »

More information

The Oratorio Society of Minnesota is proud to announce the concert GREAT OPERA CHORUSES, which will be presented by the Society’s Summer Chorus, a festival chorus of 150 singers, and a...

Cost: $10-15

Where:
Ted Mann Concert Hall
2128 S 4th St
Minneapolis, MN  55455
View map »


Sponsor: Oratorio Society
Telephone: 612-432-7398
Contact Name: Matthew Mehaffey
Website »

More information

Stop in to Day Block Brewing on Friday July 31st for an evening of live music from local artists Fairfax, AK and Bre Lewis Band.  Music starts at 10pm and there will be a $5 cover charge.

Cost: $5

Where:
Day Block Brewing
1105 Washington Ave S
Minneapolis, MN  55415
View map »


Website »

More information

Death can be scary. So can clowns. But what if they weren't? Clown siblings Victoria, Frank, and Mango mourn the loss of their mother by daring to find joy. It’s OK to laugh at this...

Cost: $14

Where:
Illusion Theater
528 Hennepin Ave, 8th Floor
Minneapolis, MN  55403
View map »

More information

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