Something is (going) up at the once-blighted corner of Chicago Avenue and E. Lake Street.
John Wolf, the owner since 2000 of recently remodeled Chicago-Lake Liquors, will open early next year a $10 million-plus, 48-unit, studio-only apartment building on the southeast corner, as well as an expanded Los Ocampo Mexican restaurant.
The new restaurant will replace the smaller, crowded Los Ocampo that occupied the former one-story bank building since 2007.
Wolf is the great grandson of a Russian-Jewish immigrant, who a century ago was pushing a fruit cart in downtown St. Paul that eventually would become the Applebaum’s supermarket chain. Los Ocampo founders Armando Ocampo and his wife, Lilia Zagal, Mexican immigrants in the 1990s, have opened seven restaurant sites since 2003.
Their investment on the Chicago-Lake is believed the single-biggest private investment ever on the corner.
And it is the largest commercial stake in the neighborhood since the $190 million private-public redevelopment in 2005-2006 of the once-abandoned Sears complex, a block to the east. That is now the consolidated Allina Health headquarters, also near its flagship Abbott Northwestern campus. And the old retail store is now the bustling Midtown Global Market. They replaced in grand fashion the abandoned, chain-link ringed Sears complex after Sears split Minneapolis for the Mall of America in the early 1990s.
The area was a vital retail hub when Lake Street was the second-largest retail corridor in the Twin Cities after downtown Minneapolis, following World War II. That changed in the 1960s amid white flight to the suburbs and the development of shopping centers.
“I’m a believer in this neighborhood,” said Wolf, 53, who also owns an adjacent laundromat. “It’s a hidden gem. Powderhorn Park. East Lake. the Global Market. the Midtown Greenway. The hospitals. I’m trying to link the residential and the commercial.”
The five-level “Sophi” building, designed by DJR Architecture, features furnished studios of 460 to 547 square feet. Rents start at $1,450 per month, including utilities, a small gym and bike lockers. The 9-foot windows feature views of Midtown and Downtown. The Italian-made furniture balances form and function, including a bed frame that folds up into a set of bookshelves, revealing a love seat that turns the sleeping nook into a small living room. Open kitchens, granite countertops, in-unit washer and dryer and spacious closets and convertible, space-saving furniture make the units seem larger than they are.
Wolf is betting that urban professionals, at least some of whom do without a car, including hospital employees or extended-stay visitors, will pay for one-price living, including a co-working space in a transit-friendly, ethnic neighborhood that boasts restaurants, transit and bikeways.
Ocampo, 52, who employs 150-plus at his restaurants, expanded in 2007 to the former building at Chicago and Lake from his original hole-in-the wall restaurant in a then-tough neighborhood at Fifth Avenue and E. Lake Street.
Ocampo and Zagal left a region south of Mexico City to escape poverty for a promise of a new life in Minnesota. Ocampo started in 1996 making-and-delivering pizza at a St. Paul Pizza Hut and driving a truck. Wolf recognized the couple’s grit and vision, and financed Ocampo’s original Chicago-Lake restaurant.
Ocampo is doubling the size of the Chicago-Lake fast-casual bistro to a 4,000-square-foot restaurant in Sophi including 75 seats and a garage-like door that opens to Chicago Avenue.
The eatery focuses on burritos, tacos and other fresh-ingredient Mexican cuisine indigenous to Cuernavaca, the capital of Mexico’s state of Morelos.
“John gave us a chance in 2007 and he has been supportive ever since,” said Ocampo. “We were his only tenant in that building and we will be the ground-floor tenant in the new building.
“When I started on that corner, the neighborhood was bad. Drugs. Crime. Prostitution. It’s way better now.”
The Ocampo family is all over E. Lake. In addition to a small shop in the Global Market, they are investing about $2 million at Chicago-Lake and to buy and renovate a building at 15th and E. Lake, a half mile east of Chicago. It will be a catering kitchen and event center.
Meanwhile, Wolf has invested $1 million-plus to remodel Chi-Lake liquors.
Wolf is perhaps best known for his 2012 launch of Liquor Boy, the St. Louis Park liquor store that instituted everyday low pricing well before Total Wine & More landed in the Twin Cities. He sold at an unspecified profit in 2018 to an individual who was a supplier.
“The store has never done better, and it continued to grow every year,” Wolf said. “He [bought] it because it is very successful.”
Wolf instituted a high-volume-low price concept focused on a few dozen big-name brands. He opened near the St. Louis Park Costco, which also sells alcohol. Wolf’s prices were comparable to Costco. He also had more space and a broader choice of wine, beer and spirits.
“The Costco customer is my customer, but I wanted to offer more service, selection and refrigerated product,” he said.
Wolf excelled at transparent prices, focus and high traffic, Jennifer Scholler, past president of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, told the Star Tribune last year.
Wolf started out as an assistant to a professional sports agent after graduating from the University of Wisconsin 30 years ago. He built his own agency, including the likes of former NFL stars Jim McMahon and Deion Sanders. But the St. Paul native has retailing in his blood. As a boy he accompanied his grandfather to work at Applebaum’s. He said he loves to handle merchandise and chat with customers and employees.
Wolf added his family life has improved since he sold Liquor Boy, which required long hours. Now his focus is on his investment at Chicago-Lake.
“I’m building a ‘Class A’ building in an area where some can’t believe what I’m doing,” Wolf quipped. “Maybe I’m crazy. We’ll see.”
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144