So I’m in a bar on Franklin Avenue. There’s a popcorn machine by the door and a row of black vinyl stools by the bar. The carpet has seen better days — and a lot of spilled Miller Lite since those days. Nearly all of the other patrons are guys and, truth be told, there are a fair number of beer guts in here. One of my companions has a platter of wings. The other is polishing off a fairly standard club sandwich.
Me, I’ve got a whole Star Prairie trout, delicately battered and fried with the head still on. It’s stuffed with mushrooms and cranberries and served on saffron-yellow rice.
One of these things is not like the other.
If you last set foot in Tracy’s Saloon about five years ago, you surely remember the Miller Lite and the wings and the carpet, probably a full ashtray or two. A lot has changed since then — and I don’t mean just the smoking ordinance.
In 2006, Sanjaya Wanduragala heard through the grapevine that Tracy’s owners were looking to sell. Owning a bar had been his cubicle-escape dream since his days in business school. So he called his wife Debra and friend Robert Erickson. And you know how one joking “Hey, we should buy it” leads to a laughing “Yeah, right,” which leads to a Small Business Association loan application? No? Well, that’s what happened.
So the Wanduragalas and Erickson found themselves the owners of a bar that had been serving working class folks and students in the Seward neighborhood since 1979. They wanted to put their own mark on the place, but, says Sanjaya Wanduragala: “We didn’t want to insult or scare away people. This place is going on 31 years and we want to respect the clientele who have been loyal to it. Anything that was a good seller we kept and tried to make better.”
So, rather than tossing out the menu and beer list on the first day, they started a quiet evolution. They cut down the long, redundant sandwich list. They switched from frozen burgers to hand-formed patties, bought right when they need them from the butcher down the street. They switched from a butter-margarine mix to a 100-percent butter coating on the wings.
Then the bigger changes started about two years ago. Wanduragala added more ambitious plates to the menu, like that Star Prairie trout. (The fish itself was cooked perfectly, by the way, but the sweet cranberry-mushroom stuffing was a bit much for my taste.) Hungry bar patrons can now dig into a Wild Boar Shepherd’s Pie or elaborate grilled skewers with steak, chicken, shrimp, and vegetables.
Wanduragala came to Minnesota from Sri Lanka with his family as a child, so there are some Asian influences in the new menu, including a red curry he learned to make from his mother, a plate of mild gingery-coconut noodles with fat shrimp, and a perfectly spiced mulligatawny soup. “I put the red curry on the menu because I like it, but I didn’t expect it to sell well,” Wanduragala says. “But it’s one of our bestsellers. To someone like me, that makes sense, because curry is the perfect thing to go with beer.”
While most bar menus would have to boast “Sysco” when listing the origins of their food, Tracy’s menu tells you the eggs are from Larry Schultz, the chicken from Gerber Farms, and the cheese — well, it’s from Wisconsin, but isn’t most cheese from Wisconsin? (Speaking of cheese, the Summit and Furious Cheddar Soup is such a fantastic idea. I wanted to love it. But on the day we tried it, it was overpowered with white pepper and, sadly, starting to split a little bit.)
Wanduragala says the menu at Tracy’s had to change not just because he wanted it to, but because it’s what eaters — and drinkers– demand these days.
“There was a time in the ’90s when you could have a bar and serve frozen mozzarella sticks and that was fine. But now the audience is getting more aware of food,” he says. “I do believe the industry is changing and we could have done well [with Tracy’s] if we didn’t change anything for five years or so. But I want to be here 20 years. Long-term, if we didn’t adapt to the changes in the general culture, the bar would have suffered.”
Whether the actual clientele is changing at Tracy’s, Wanduragala can’t say. But he does know their taste in beer has done a 180: In 2006, Miller Lite was the top-selling beer, with Summit IPA as a very distant second. Last fall, Miller Lite was still number one, with Summit and Surly Furious tied for second. Just before I talked to him last week, Wanduragala had again checked the beer sales: Furious had pulled significantly ahead of Miller Lite.
Wanduragala’s plans for the future include a few more tweaks to the menu, including more regional items. He’d love to add to the beer selection, but will have to solve some space issues first.
But one thing he won’t be doing is ditching the Totchos — tots buried under nacho toppings. “I naively came in and said, ‘What is this? This is an abomination!’ But people like it. I’d probably hang from a tree if I got rid of the Totchos.”
Bar in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis
2207 E Franklin Ave
Minneapolis, MN 55404
OWNER / CHEF: Sanjaya and Debra Wanduragala and Robert Erickson / Sean McDonald
Kitchen Closes 1 Hour Before Bar
BAR: Beer + Wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $7-13