After co-helming two music-centric Twin Cities bars that have stood the test of time — out of four attempts, not bad! — Jarret Oulman's timing on the White Squirrel Bar was immediately put to the test. As in, within an hour or two.
The purchase date on the historic building that houses his new W. 7th Street bar was March 6, 2020.
"Right after we signed the deal is when they announced South by Southwest in Austin was canceled," Oulman recalled. "Then later that day, Minnesota's first [COVID-19] case was confirmed."
So the new bar they had hoped to open by summer 2020 is finally opening Tuesday, one summer later.
Co-owner of the 331 Club in northeast Minneapolis and the Amsterdam Bar & Hall in downtown St. Paul, Oulman had the wherewithal to roll with the unexpected delay and use it as an opportunity.
"It gave us plenty of time to do exactly what we wanted with the place, and to do it right," he said.
What Jarret and his wife, Dani Oulman, wanted to do with the White Squirrel Bar was simple. Literally, "simple" was the first word that came to mind.
They wanted to open an unfussy, low-key, cozy little bar somewhere in the historic neighborhood where they're raising their two kids.
In their nine years there, the Oulmans have seen the blue-collar W. 7th area 2 miles southwest of downtown St. Paul grow into an artsy, creative community via the development of the Schmidt Artists Lofts and Keg & Case Market — both housed in former Schmidt Brewery buildings just a block from the White Squirrel, 974 W. 7th St.
"We love it here and wanted to contribute something special to the neighborhood," said Dani, who also runs an aromatherapy business upstairs from the bar.
The idea is that conversations, live music and other intimate events will be the White Squirrel's main attraction, instead of the bar itself being the star. But the work they did is quite impressive.
Polished pine glows in the floors and bar amid the dark-green walls and artisan tile, all evoking a North Woods vibe. The light fixtures over the bar are shaped like eggshells from a bird's nest.
Thus, the bar's namesake might feel at home there.
"Everyone in the neighborhood calls him Kevin," Jarret said of the real albino rodent, whose longevity and frequent sightings have Oulman believing "there might actually be more than one Kevin."
Back to its roots as a saloon
Originally built as a saloon in 1888, the two-story building has gone through many incarnations in its 132 years. Its past lives include a store, a barbecue restaurant and, most recently, office space for the Fort Road Federation, a neighborhood organization.
On the outside, the place looks big. Its slanted front side presses into the street corner at an angle like a schooner cutting through waves.
Inside, though, the bar is remarkably small and cozy, with four booths up front, a long bar and two bathrooms in the middle, then a wraparound seating area in the back that looks onto a small, square, 331 Club-sized stage.
Capacity inside the bar is only 56 people, though a sizable stone patio out back that abuts a firehouse adds room for about 25 more. Five booths inside the front entrance feature vintage tables from the Modern Cafe, where the Sheridan Room is now (also operated by the Oulmans).
The White Squirrel's small size is part of what endeared the place to Jarret and Dani, who dreamed up the bar after closing the much larger and more food-driven Como Dockside, in St. Paul's Como Park.
"We wanted to get away from food and bigger things and really just whittle it down to the things we love to do most," Jarret said.
Their still-gestating plans for live music include a lot of intimate jazz gigs and singer/songwriter-style sets for free on weeknights, with "some noisier stuff" and cover charges on weekends.
Laura Westley-Williams, who has worked at all the other Oulman establishments, will oversee talent booking. St. Paul music fixture Martin Devaney will curate monthly gigs under his Pig's Eye Records banner.
Another well-known man on the scene, Jarret's dad, Jon Oulman — hairstylist, gallery owner, entrepreneur — will not be formally involved with the White Squirrel Bar as he is at the Amsterdam and 331.
"This is our first venture on our own," Jarret said, but then added that Jon "has still been super-helpful doing dad sort of things."
Those tasks included sanding the bar and making mixtapes to play on the vintage Crown 800 reel-to-reel tape machine that makes a cool ornament behind the bar.
Reflecting on all the work, Jarret said, "I think we had the perfect location. And then — thanks to all the unforeseen time we've had to put it together — we wound up with a place that in our eyes is pretty close to perfect."
White Squirrel Bar
Where: 974 W. 7th St., St. Paul.
Hours: 2 p.m.-2 a.m. daily starting Tuesday.