Pint-Sized Empire

Kieran Folliard’s Cooper brings perfect pints, fine fare, and room to relax to the west metro

Kieran Folliard doesn’t want me to call his newest pub, the vast and mirrored Cooper in St. Louis Park, an addition to his empire. “Oh no—no, no,” he corrects me. “I wouldn’t call it an empire. I’d call it a loose gathering of drinking establishments.” A loose gathering, like England, Canada, and Australia are? I mean, the Local, and now Cooper, are two of the biggest bars in the Twin Cities, and when Kieran’s (his first bar) relocates to the vast Bellanotte space in downtown Minneapolis, it too will be one of the biggest bars in the Twin Cities. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if you told me Kieran’s loose gathering of drinking establishments pour such an ocean of Guinness that the noble liquid is no longer measured in liters, but as a tide.

Have you ever been to one of Folliard’s pubs? If not, you don’t get out much. The first of the loose gathering was born on March 16, 1994—the day before St. Patrick’s Day. (If all goes according to plan, the new location will open its doors on lucky March 16, too.) It was called Kieran’s, and it opened in an out of the way corner of downtown Minneapolis, yet soon made a name for itself as a place that perfectly mixed both Guinness and, though this feels hokey to say, friendliness. Even though Kieran’s was located in a dull office tower, it felt companionable, relaxing, and real. The next of the loose gathering was the Local, smack dab on Minneapolis’s most storied downtown street, Nicollet Mall, a pub the size of a smallish ocean liner which, with its cozy labyrinth of intricately carved dark-wood nooks and booths and snugs and private corners (and its reputation for selling the most Irish whiskey in North America) immediately became one of Minneapolis’s signature drinking establishments.

The Local, if anyone remembers besides me, featured both an Irish fine-dining restaurant and a lower-priced pub when it first opened. Though the food was often excellent, the public strongly came down on the side of beer and pub grub. And so the formula that Kieran Folliard would use to open the next of the loose gathering was born. The Liffey, near St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, opened as a spiritual and conceptual twin of the Local: lots of woodwork, perfect Guinness, a simple menu of fried things and sandwiches, the whole place as cozy as a rocking chair by a warm fire in winter.

A few weeks ago, the newest jewel in the crown opened in what seems like an unlikely spot: a new St. Louis Park strip mall, across from several big-box stores like Costco and Home Depot. My first impression of Cooper was shock. The room is all mirrors overlaid with curling art-nouveau moldings—was this French? This was nothing like the other members of the gathering. However, once I was seated, I began to see how very much like the other bars it was. Woodwork, moldings, filigree, etched glass, and brass are quilted together to create a space that feels human-sized and old and just right. There’s Guinness as chill as the moon on a fall night and bar food that could be better but is quite good enough. More important than any of that, there’s an atmosphere that just feels right: friendly, unobtrusive, relaxing, simple, and nice.

The servers and managers are largely responsible for this. Servers with a busy section literally run in their effort to get you a beer, as if the pleasure of your evening is as urgent as a fire. Managers drag tables over if yours gets crowded. One night I watched a hostess search high and low for a patron whose table had come available, working slowly and steadily around the bar until she found the woman. It’s the kind of attention that makes you feel cared for and lets your stress drift away.

How was the food? Fine. My favorite thing to eat was the “wee burgers.” They’re better than the full-sized burgers, mainly because the slightly sweet slider buns wrap around the well-charred patties to create a perfect, devourable roasted-to-sweet ratio. Everything else I tried was good enough, but little better. I liked the Irish smoked-salmon plate, which is served simply with grilled brown bread, sour cream, capers, and onion. I thought the braised lamb shank with lots of boiled potatoes was exactly what you get in Irish pubs: well-cooked, essentially unseasoned peasant food, very good when you’re hungry but not too noticeable otherwise.

The only truly bad dish was the Sundance salad, dressed in an avocado-and-walnut vinaigrette which was far too sweet. Desserts, like an individual chocolate cake served in a sea of raspberry coulis, or the plain-to-the-point-of-disappearing bread pudding, were generic and uninspired.

Still, despite the lackluster food, I feel unabashedly positive about this place. It’s just so utterly relaxing. As I relaxed at Cooper, I wondered what makes Folliard’s many pubs so pleasant to be in, not just for me, but for the literally tens of thousands of Minnesotans that filter through them every week? I spoke to Folliard on the phone at length in pursuit of the answer. I think I found it. The key to their success lies entirely in the least-heralded of restaurant qualities: management.

Folliard, now 54, opened his first pub after a successful career at a company that matched executives with start-up businesses. In lieu of cash, the company took much of its fees in stock. This experience led the Irish born-and-raised Folliard to a different way of thinking than most restaurant owners when it came to looking at employees as assets of, as opposed to cost-centers of, the company. Benefits are beyond rare in the food-service industry, but Folliard provides them to all full-time employees: health, dental, and a 10-percent 401k match. Many bartenders, servers, and back-of-the-house people (tech guys, bookkeepers) have been at the restaurant so long they have earned ownership stakes in their various pubs. And that’s what makes a server literally run to fetch your beer: They’re running because they own the place, at least a little, or might soon.

“I worked in the corporate world long enough to know that when people talk about mission, it’s almost always BS,” Folliard told me. “But I did have a mission when I opened my first pub, and I had it from day one: It’s respect and value and beauty. Treat the customers with respect, but also your vendors and your fellow employees—you cannot work anywhere in our pubs if you don’t treat your fellow employees with great respect. I don’t care if you’re the best chef in the world—someone in the kitchen who does not treat the dishwasher well cannot work with us.”

And that, dear readers, is how you turn a loose collection of drinking establishments into a benevolent empire.

1607 Park Place Blvd., St. Louis Park
Open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.