After 23 years, Black Dog succumbs to the fallout of COVID-19.

The sudden closing of Black Dog Cafe in Lowertown this month has not only left a vacancy in the storefront at 308 E. Prince St., but a feeling of emptiness among the artists and art aficionados who frequented the space. Black Dog, they said, played an invaluable role in the growth of the music scene in Saint Paul as well as that of the visual arts.

“It was the cornerstone of the Lower­town arts community,” said Highland Park jazz guitarist Joel Shapira. It was the epicenter of live music in the neighborhood, he said, citing the Saturday Night Jazz series that ran weekly at Black Dog for over six years. “It’s a huge loss for musicians, artists and Saint Paul,” he said.

Owned by siblings Sara, Stacey and Andy Remke, Black Dog opened in 1998 as a coffee shop before growing into a cafe and wine bar as well as a popular venue for live music and art exhibits. In 2019 Black Dog enjoyed its best year ever, according to Sara Remke, “then COVID hit.” While Black Dog survived the initial state-mandated shutdown in 2020 and rebounded with a strong summer in 2021, COVID-related staffing shortages and resurgent fears of the Omicron variant finally did it in.

“We were never meant to be a takeout place,” Remke said. “We were a place to go to talk and listen.”

Remke praised her staff. “They were fantastic,” she said.

Black Dog Cafe
Black Dog Cafe owners and siblings Sara, Andy and Stacy Remke posed in their Lowertown establishment during a live performance of jazz back in 2014. Photo by Brad Stauffer

However, COVID cut into their ranks, and staff shortages coupled with supply-chain issues had Sara and her siblings scrambling. They found themselves cooking and bartending at times, “and those are very demanding jobs,” she said. As 2021 came to a close, “the universe was telling us what to do,” she added.

The Remkes notified patrons about the closing with a January 2 Facebook post. Since then, “musicians from England, France and Germany have been sending messages, and countless musicians from the Twin Cities have been telling us what an incredible space this was,” Remke said.

“We tried to have a space where people could be themselves and express themselves,” she said. “It was important to us to make a place where every kind of person could be at home. People came in to see world-class music. Neighbors came in to grab a coffee. We ran it out of love. We didn’t get rich, but it gave us a rich life.”

A six-year run for Saturday Night Jazz

Jazz trumpeter Steve Kenny said his life was made immeasurably richer by Black Dog. “A few months after the Artists’ Quarter closed downtown in 2014, I hatched the idea for a Saturday night jazz series,” he said. “I approached eight venues with the proposition of having every Saturday night devoted to a curated show featuring the best available jazz musicians. I wanted to make the show a doubleheader with an opening set by a lesser-known or youth group and then a set by the week’s featured artist or ensemble. I was going to emcee the show, promote the show, pay for all the musicians and not charge the venue at all or perhaps only a slight honorarium.”

Remke was the only one who even considered the idea, Kenny said. “I give Sara much credit for sharing the vision with me for what became Saturday Night Jazz at the Black Dog,” he said. “The series ran for 327 weeks and really helped solidify Black Dog’s reputation as a jazz venue.”

Big supporter of visual arts and the spoken word

“It’s all very heartbreaking,” said Macalester-Groveland artist Amy Clark about Black Dog’s closing. “Sara gave me my first solo show in 2004, which started my whole journey in Lowertown. Sara and I hosted many years of art shows for the Saint Paul Winter Carnival. I could always depend on Sara, Andy and Stacey to be open to any crazy idea and lend a hand in any way they could.”

Black Dog was also a big supporter of Saint Paul Almanac and hosted many of that publication’s art shows, readings and spoken-word performances. “No matter what creative endeavor you were embarking on, Black Dog was there cheering every­one on. It’ll be hard to replace it,” Clark said.

“Black Dog was magic,” said Lowertown artist Lisa Mathieson. “It was a hub for artists, and everyone who went there came away with lifelong friends. Black Dog was a unique place for a specific time. We should never forget what it did for Lowertown.”

—Anne Murphy

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