The reincarnation of Jade Fountain

Former West Duluth Chinese restaurant reopens as craft cocktail/tiki lounge

by Jim Lundstrom

Kai Soderberg is looking forward to his reboot of the Jade Fountain as a craft cocktail/tiki lounge. Photo by Jim Lundstrom.

On Friday the grand old Jade Fountain reopens its doors to the public, but as a craft cocktail bar, not a Chinese restaurant.

Duluth native Kai Soderberg returned recently after working elsewhere in the hospitality industry with the idea of finally opening his own place and contributing to the culture of his hometown.

He realizes it’s problematic to open a new bar during a pandemic, but, he said, “I have to do this. Maybe it’s ill-advised. It probably is. But I was at the point in my life where I wanted to do something on my own.”

That idea really took fruition when Soderberg and his wife, Mariah, were planning to move to the East Coast to further their careers in the hospitality industry, but first they stopped in Duluth to visit, and they saw a house they liked in their price range, and suddenly the idea of starting a business here instead of working for someone else somewhere else sounded more appealing.

“So we decided to invest here instead of rent in Washington, D.C., where rent is crazy,” he said.

Their new home is right in the West Duluth neighborhood where the Jade Fountain sits at 305 Central Ave.

“From the first time driving by Jade Fountain, I thought it would make a nice bar,” Soderberg said.

The building has been around since 1897, operating first as a hotel and café. The Jade Fountain restaurant opened in 1968 and operated under that name with two different owners until 2015, when the restaurant was sold to Bill Kalligher, owner of the next door Italian restaurant Ganucci’s. Kalligher attempted to run both eateries, but within six months of buying the Jade Fountain, decided to close its doors, and at first had plans to expand Ganucci’s into the closed Jade Fountain.

So when Soderberg met Kalligher to tell him he wanted to open a craft cocktail bar in the Jade Fountain, he gratefully agreed to lease the building to Soderberg.

“The wallpaper is what kind of got me. I’m all in now,” Soderberg said, referring to the elaborate red and gold look that seemed to be expected of Chinese restaurants at one time.

Soderberg said Kalligher is working on a small plate menu of what he describes as “Midwestern Chinese” dishes, including wings, crab Rangoon, egg rolls tha twill eventually be available for purchase with your drinks.

“Although we’ve been closed for a long time, we’ll probably get some people who come for takeout,” Soderberg said, adding that he expects some families to show up as if it were still a Chinese restaurant. “It’s not an environment for kids.”

The pandemic has slowed plans down some, but it also gave Soderberg the opportunity to create a memorable space. He had help from a former customer at one of his past Duluth gigs was as bar manager and lead bartender at the speakeasy-inspired The Rathskeller.

“I had a regular at The Rathskeller, Paul Durham, who used to own Strange Boutiques in uptown Minneapolis,” Soderberg said. “I told him about this place. He checked it out. He helped me with the build out. He was going to do just a simple thing, and then COVID began and the shutdown became evident. We got more into it.”

Now Durham’s influence can be seen throughout the bar and lounge areas, with details both Oriental and Occidental to catch your eye and keep the conversation going.

“We want you to come in here and forget what time it is, what day it is, what year it is, and what city you’re in. Travel across the space-time continuum with us for a miniature, affordable vacation for your senses,” Soderberg said in a press release on the opening. “So in that sense, there is no better time than now to open.”   

Soderberg said it was while working in fine dining in Portland, Ore., that got him interested in the deep worlds of wine and craft cocktails.

“You can never achieve perfection,” he said. “There are so many areas you can delve into. Wine is an unbelievably, deep, deep world you can never really master.”
Asked if he has any drink specialties on the menu, he said, “I’m going with the place. I don’t personally have a favorite drink. For me, there’s a drink for every occasion.

This is a ’70s Chinese restaurant, so some ice cream drinks like grasshoppers, brandy Alexander’s and my own ice cream drink with Vietnamese coffee, vodka, Kahlua and ice cream. No cutting corners. I’m using actual cognac for the brandy Alexander, and a lot of it. It’s substantial.

“We’ll have tiki drinks, too – pina colada, mai tai, a Dark and Stormy with my own ginger beer. I’ll have a couple of classics, some low-alcohol spritzers and cherry cobbler, and a good non-alcoholic menu, too. Sobriety is an important thing for a lot of people. This menu is pretty streamlined because I don’t have much of a staff at the moment. I’ll be running a skeleton crew at the moment, until I see what kind of following there is here.”

Soderberg realizes that to some his dream might seem crazy, specially in this troubled time, but he remains upbeat about the vision he has for the Jade Fountain and its place in Duluth.

The plan is to keep guests safe the best they can by keeping capacity limited (don’t worry, it is a very spacious building with a liquor license that extends to the courtyard.) and batching cocktails in a sterile environment before they open. This also makes for a faster, delicious cocktail. As things get a little safer, they will start to have more live music and other events.

“I’m hoping (for opening day) for everybody to have a great time, including myself,” he said. “That’s the dream of the whole thing. I’m not doing it for money, obviously. I want to know, first of all, that I can survive, and then I want to have a good time. Really, having a good time should take precedence.

The hospitality industry in this town was growing quite a bit. Duluth is seeming more and more attractive, and I think it’s going to grow. If there’s one place to be during the pandemic, I think it’s here.”

The grand opening is Friday, Aug. 7, at 7 pm, and after the Jade Fountain will be open from 5 pm to 2 am Tuesday through Saturday. They are also open to private gatherings. For more information, email events.jadefountain@gmail.com.