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The Spud Jr. owner Justin LaRocque on his business, its historic building and more

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 sits in and more.

Justin LaRocque The Spud Jr.jpg
Justin LaRocque, owner of The Spud Jr., was interviewed for 5 Questions this week.
Jacob Holley
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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 sits in and more.

Q: Where did the name The Spud Jr. come from?

A: It came from the original Spud bar that existed in East Grand Forks, and I believe it was (in) the 70s and 80s. There (were) a couple of different locations, so it derived from a conversation with a friend of mine, because his shop was located behind the last place where the Spud was operating, and it was over by Louis Murray Bridge. So he joked about opening a small little dive bar, right in that shop location and calling it The Spud Jr. since it was right behind the last location. But one thing led to another and the building that we're in came up for lease, and what started as just a casual viewing was the reason I wanted to go see it, because I'm kind of an old building buff. I like that character and history, and I'd never been in it. And when I saw the lease sign on it, I just called the owner 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 over there in 20 minutes.” One walk through it, and he told me everything that was included in the building. I said, “Jeez, I might be able to actually do something with this.” So it kind of just worked out.

Q: How did the history of the building impact what you did with it?

A: The building itself, I guess if it wouldn't have been a restaurant right before, and some of the equipment, and the layout and the things that were there already established – if that hadn't been the way it was, we probably wouldn't have seen this come to fruition. So everything just kind of lined up pretty nicely with it for it to happen. Although, from about the two month mark after we opened until now, it's been quite the struggle with COVID. It's been a pretty worthwhile venture.

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Q: What changes did you make to turn the space into The Spud Jr.?

A: Cosmetic – paint, the bathrooms kind of needed an overhaul, the kitchen needed to be completely deep cleaned and there was some equipment that needed to be swapped out. We tore down and rebuilt the bar itself just on the existing footprint, and then installed a secondary tap system to move from six to eight taps and then just some small equipment upgrades was really the bulk of it. Like I said, the footprint itself was there, so we just pretty much utilized it as it sat with just some small upgrades to kind of tweak it and make it our own, especially from a decor standpoint.

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Q: What inspired the insertion of the moving bookshelf?

A: So the building next door, the gals 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 (COVID-19) shutdowns happened. It was about the summer of (2020), and it sat empty for about a year. I’d always known, and you can see, that the buildings used to be (joined) back when it was the Blarney Mill in the late 90s, so there (were) two areas, if you look at the wall, that were bricked up with new brick that didn't match the existing Chicago old-style brick that that the building is erected by. And knowing that, it was always kind of, “Well, I wonder if we could do anything with it.” We didn't want to expand it from a seating standpoint, because our kitchen’s not big enough for that, and we never really envisioned the business going that way. But we thought, “How neat would it be to somehow add to the business without making it a full on extension to The Spud Jr.?” So, as it sat and as the ideas came and went, at one point we thought, “Well, how cool to be to do golf simulators and have a secondary business of golf simulators where we can still serve some food and drinks to it?” Well then that kind of went by the wayside, and then we thought axe-throwing, and that kind of went by the wayside, which was a good thing because then Downtown Axe opened shortly thereafter. One idea would spin into another and spin into another, and we were like, “Well, I don't know about that.” And then the idea of using it as more of a multi-purpose event space that we could attract all different types of events and then utilize 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 kind of tailor it to a comedy club, and then just 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, “Ok, we liked that idea. We need a name.” While we were doing kind of a ghost kitchen concept of a smokehouse that we’d call the Prohibition Smokehouse, and when we thought to open up the door, we said, “Well, how are we going to separate it, yet keep it connected?” And then we found the bookcases in the basement that were utilized when the owner of that building actually lived on the main floor for a while, so he had some bookcases to make it so you couldn't see where those doors were patched in. So we found those, and we said, “Let's put them on a farmhouse slider, and it will really fit with the prohibition theme, and I think it'll kind of tie it all together.”

Q: Why did you decide to begin hosting comedy shows and local events?

A: One of the main statements that I still to this day consistently hear is people saying, “There's never anything to do in Grand Forks,” and I laugh, because there's a ton of things 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're already doing it well and people just aren't paying attention – but if we could figure out a way to really kind of bring all those things to one place where people could check on them, it might be a little bit easier for people to find the things. But if you want to find something to do every week, whether it be the weekend or during the week, there's things to do in this town. So this was just a way of us saying, “Well, how do we further establish the foot traffic that comes over here that can help complement our business, yet give them a reason to come to East Grand Forks that they don't necessarily have on a regular basis in Grand Forks?” We know the comedy at one point when it was the old Peanut Gallery in the Westward Ho was pretty popular. And ever since Dreamers stopped doing it at the Ramada, it really hasn't existed. So we just thought, “Well, why don't we start there?” I got kind of connected with a gal out of the (twin cities) that knew quite a few different comedians, and we just said, “Let's give it a shot. I mean, we’ve got the space. Let's try it.” And thus far, it's been okay. It hasn't been great. We thought maybe we were building to a point last spring where we could sustain through the summer, but we tried a show in early June, and it basically flopped. So at this point, I still hear a lot of people that A, don't even know The Spud Jr. exists, and B, really don't know that the Prohibition Room exists, and C, had no idea that there was comedy that we did on a fairly regular basis. So that's probably on us too for not really getting the word out as best as we can. But really what happens with the room, with the comedy (and) with the events is really going to be driven by how many people would get to attend.

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Jacob Holley joined the Grand Forks Herald as its business reporter in June 2021.

Holley's beat at the Grand Forks Herald is broad and includes a variety of topics, including small business, national trends and more.

Readers can reach Holley at jholley@gfherald.com.Follow him on Twitter @JakeHolleyMedia.
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