Wes Burdine Q&A

November 25, 2019
Wes Burdine runs Minnesota's liveliest queer soccer bar.

“Regularly someone will come up to me and introduce themselves and say how long they’ve been coming to the bar and thank me for keeping it a queer bar. That’s really humbling and intimidating. I was just someone with an idea.”

When did you get the idea of taking over the former Town House Bar and rebranding it Black Hart?

Years ago, when I was living in Milwaukee, I would go to a bar called the Highbury to watch soccer. It had such a unique personality and the idea was just stuck in the back of my head. Then when I knew where the MNUFC Stadium was going to go, I started to think more seriously about it. There would be a soccer bar eventually and I had worked service industry jobs all my life as the other thing I do.

How did you decide on the name? 

I wanted the bar to have a certain feel and the name was more about the phrasing than anything else. I wanted a singular image — like a deer — which a Hart is — and an adjective. So I had this notebook of phrases like the Painted Saint or the Red Lion. Generic things like that. Then Black Hart felt good and The Black Hart of St. Paul really stuck out as sounding great. It was just about how it sounded.

As a famous soccer fan — you’re the co-founder of the soccer podcast FiftyFive.One — how exciting was it for you that your establishment would be seen as a go-to place for Loons fans? 

Yeah, it’s a dream in some senses, but making the thing you love a job is also a two-edged sword. One thing that has always been important to me is creating a unique soccer culture in Minnesota and giving people spaces to do that. So I created a game-day zine for years and would try to host weird parties. But yes, being able to see a huge crowd of fans sing “Wonderwall” in the bar is amazing and life-affirming.

Town House Bar has a legacy as a beloved gay bar. When you took over you were clear that Black Hart would still be considered a gay bar and still be hosting drag shows, but adding soccer to the mix. Has that turned into something fantastic?

It hasn’t always been easy. I knew how terrible the idea of a straight man buying a gay bar and adding sports would sound. Hell, I would have been pissed myself. But it was important to me that we add soccer to the many things already going on at the bar. It would just add to the culture. And that is still a work in progress. But there are nights where you watch a crowd of soccer fans fresh off a Minnesota United win and they find themselves at a drag show and yeah, it’s an amazing alchemy. Neighborhood bars are different from all these new taprooms and cocktail bars; they’re places where you meet all sorts of people. That’s what I want this bar to do. I look out and I see a great amount of diversity — racial, economic, sexual-orientation, and everything else. It’s crazy to think how uncommon that is in the Twin Cities.

How did you go about acquiring the bar? Was it a long process?

Yes. Absolutely. I came to it with no money and just ideas, so it took a long time for me to just find people who believed in the idea. Then it took me a while to make sure the plan could work. Multiple times I thought it was dead and it ended taking three years.

You were able to spruce up the place with the help of a $100,000 Neighborhood STAR grant. Did that cover most of the expenses or did you also bring in outside investors and/or boot-strap it yourself?

There was a lot of outside investment, but the St. Paul’s STAR grant is an amazing resource. A lot of these buildings in St. Paul need work and having those funds meant that we could do more than just work on basic aesthetic fixes.

Are you still writing music?

I wish. A few years ago I had kids and was working a job I didn’t love and realized that I needed to simplify rather than being a guy with a job, a podcast, a band, kids, and a soccer website.

You also have a Ph.D. in English literature. Any plans to host literary events at the bar?

I would love to. We’ve hosted some live podcasts, but no book releases or literary readings. I’m definitely open to the idea, but I always hesitate on ideas unless I can imagine them fully through on how they’ll be a success. Point me to all your literary drinkers, though. I want them.

What is your favorite part of running a bar?

This sounds made up, I know, but regularly someone will come up to me and introduce themselves. They’ll tell me how long they’ve been coming to the bar and thank me for keeping it a queer bar. And that’s really humbling and intimidating. I was just someone with an idea and quickly I had it burned into my brain that this was a cultural institution and I had better not fuck it up.

What’s next for Black Hart?

What’s next is trying to grow Midway. As the neighborhood gets younger and more diverse, most people are still going out of the neighborhood to hang out with friends. It’s not easy to get people to change behavior, but the biggest target has been convincing people they should get off work, take the train home, and stop in for a drink with a friend.