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Matt Lokowich was one of those fortunate souls who discovered his calling early in life.

He took his first job washing dishes at Calhoun Beach Club in Uptown at age 14 and became a fixture in the Twin Cities bar and restaurant scene, going on to work at Minneapolis mainstays like Williams Pub & Peanut Bar and Liquor Lyle’s. Thirty-five years later, Lokowich, who died unexpectedly in his sleep July 16, is best known as the always-gregarious founder of the successful Bulldog bar chain and co-owner of northeast Minneapolis German restaurant Gasthof zur Gemutlichkeit.

“He was kind and so generous; I’ve heard so many stories of people who got their start from Matt,” said his brother Mark Lokowich. “It’s pretty evident that he loved people. People loved him. There’s a lot of heartache on this one.”

The cause of death is still unknown. Lokowich was 49.

Friends and family of Matt — or “Matty,” as they affectionately called him — best remember his dry and indefatigable sense of humor. At a wedding reception, he once joked to a friend that “God did not intend for humans to dance.” When a solicitor called the bar, he’d instruct his employees to tell them he was dead. He was always ready to “roll out the barrel of fun.” When he proposed a cheers, he’d say “Happy Birthday,” even if it was no one’s birthday at all.

“If you needed to cry, if you needed to laugh, if you needed a partner in crime — he was there,” said Courtney Briden, a friend and former co-worker.

Matt got the idea to start his own business through conversations with his father, Carl Lokowich, with whom he spent countless days fishing off their boat on Lake Minnetonka.

“Matt and I were like the best of friends,” Carl said. “We were together all the time. I bet we hung out six days a week, every week.”

The two frequently went out for hot dogs together, and Matt lamented that Minneapolis lacked a restaurant that served hot dogs and good beer. With his dad’s help, Matt bought a building on the 2500 block of Lyndale Avenue and started what would be the first of four Bulldog bars (Matt sold the Northeast location several years ago). The anchor of the menu was Chicago-style hot dogs and — long before the craft beer craze hit Minneapolis — a deep selection of Belgian-style beer.

What Matt lacked in business experience he made up for in his learned knowledge of the industry and tireless work ethic. He spent most waking moments in the bar and the rest in an apartment above it.

Matt often hired his friends or people he knew needed a break. Co-workers and regulars inevitably became like family. He enjoyed good beer and nice restaurants, and would often take his colleagues out to fancy dinners and pick up the tab without a second thought.

He’d give his friends the shirt off his back — or, in one case, buy the shirt off someone’s back. It was around 2009. Matt and Josh Dykhuis, a longtime friend and bookkeeper for the restaurant, frequently engaged in rivalry over football. A true Minneapolis boy, Matt was a Vikings fan. Josh favored the Packers. Shortly after the Vikings signed former Packers quarterback Brett Favre, Matt spotted a bar patron wearing a Favre Vikings jersey. He bought it off him for $300 and gave it to Josh as a joke.

“That’s the kind of man he was,” recalls Dykhuis. “I treasure that jersey and have never worn it. I always tried to convert him to the green and gold, I like to think that I was close.”

On Monday, friends and family gathered at the Bulldog in Uptown to pay their respects. It was a bittersweet night.

“People cried. People hugged. People laughed and told Matt stories,” said Briden. “That was Matt’s home.”

Around 6 p.m., they turned down the bar music and toasted to Matt. When they lifted their glasses, they said, “Happy Birthday.”

Friends and family will hold a memorial service from 3 to 7 p.m. July 25 at Gasthof’s, 2300 University Av. NE., Minneapolis.

Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036