I’m sitting at the far corner of a long, three-table arrangement in the middle of BlackStack Brewing on a Tuesday night. Liza Sterletske is in the spotlight seat, baseball cap with a big ol’ hop on the front panel, pulling beers out of a cooler bag and handing them out in every direction. She’s got 15-ish people seated around here, like disciples at the Last Supper, and now a veritable anthill colony of beer vessels are zipping around through the group. Whether it’s a glass or a cell phone, everybody is raising something.
“This is Liza’s world,” a guy next to me says.
In her role as District Manager for Lincoln Hospitality Group, Sterletske calls the shots at five restaurants in Minnesota and Wisconsin: a Grizzly’s and a Northern Tap House in Eau Claire; a Milwaukee Burger Company in Hudson; the Grizzly’s in Plymouth, and the soon-to-be-open Northern Tap House in Lakeville.
And as the Northern Tap House gets set to go live, she has been running the Twin Cities beer gauntlet like “Two Scoops” ran gauntlets on American Gladiators. She says beer-sharing events and brewery tours have been a nearly daily occurrence for her over the last six weeks. When I meet her that Tuesday night, she tells me about her visit to Lupulin Brewing the previous day – and the visits to OMNI Brewing after that, and the visit to 56 Brewing after that.
“Most people who open a brewery have such an interesting story,” she says. “I want to be able to tell that story and say, ‘I’ve walked the space and I’ve shaken hands with the brewer. This is their vision.’”
Just off Interstate 35 South on Kenrick Ave., behind a Citizens Bank and a few steps from a Caribou Coffee, the Northern Tap House is being constructed from the hollowed-out shell of an Applebee’s. The restaurant was originally going to open in Rosemount, in another recently-vacated Applebee’s space, but the team decided Lakeville was a better fit.
(In a not-completely-unrelated story, 2018 was apparently the best year since 1993 for Applebee’s.)
“Lakeville is very hungry for a new concept to come in,” she says. “I do feel that craft beer is built around community, and the ability to connect with others who love it is beneficial to us. I don’t call it marketing, I call it making friends. That establishes then the culture of what we’re trying to create.”
Craft beer was an acquired taste for Sterletske. A self-proclaimed “libationist,” she learned about wine at a very young age and let that steer her toward higher education in whiskey, tequila, and Prohibition-style cocktails. Meanwhile, she hated beer. It took a chance encounter with a bottle of Westvleteren XII to bring her around to it.
“I started drinking beer and I found out that not all beer is crap,” she says. “There’s a different style of beer for every person. Over time this became my passion and my love. I say for every customer that is a domestic drinker or likes imports and hasn’t ventured into craft, there will be a beer that will permanently change your mind.”
Sterletske grew up in Green Bay and jokes about getting kicked out because she wasn’t a Packers fan. Her mother trained with the New York Ballet and opened a dance studio, and Liza’s original plan was to help her mother expand the business for a year before heading off to college.
A part-time gig at Fratellos Riverfront Restaurant in nearby Oshkosh shook up her plans. She talks about discovering her “hospitality heart,” and eventually took a job as a training manager with the Bartolotta Restaurants. She worked with them for seven years before moving back home to help out her family.
She joined up with co-owners Kent, Kevin, and Matthew Letnes at Lincoln Hospitality a few years later – and if Pack faithful didn’t like her the first time, having one of her current employers on record calling themselves “Vikings fans running Packers bars” probably doesn’t help matters much.
The Letnes brothers all moved to the Twin Cities suburbs, and Sterletske draws up an image a lot of suburbanites know: the move out of the metro, growing the family, trying to find a ‘home bar’ you can get behind but languishing at a big-box bar and grill. She says the brothers had this same problem, so they made their own bars.
“We hired a couple of servers that used to work in the old building and I’m very excited for them to see how much it’s going to change,” she says. “It’s not going to feel like the [Applebee’s] at all. We took pretty much everything but the roof, the four walls and that’s it.”
Heading up the restaurant side of the Tap House is chef Shawn Cooper. Cooper was born in Arizona and lived in Las Vegas before moving to Minnesota at age 15. Cooper beelined for culinary school after graduation and the love of cooking never went away. After stints at Shakopee’s Stonebrook Golf Club, and Hinckley’s Grand Casino, he took the gig at the Northern Tap House to be closer to family.
I asked him if there was a big difference between leading a culinary program at a casino or golf club, versus leading that of a restaurant. Not really, he says.
“To me, in the end, it’s all just good food and good people,” he says. “It’s all about making people happy.”
The kind of atmosphere Sterletske wants her customers to expect when the restaurant opens is being lived out by the folks at this bottle share. The goal is to create a vintage sports bar atmosphere that’s welcoming to fans and families alike, she says. Ryan Knowles joins the team from Monello and will lead the craft cocktail program. Kristin Schumacher is running the show as general manager.
Sterletske calls herself “a connector.” Her social media presence and the attendance tonight seem to back that up. BlackStack Brewing founder and president Scott Johnson is there with us, as is a member of the 56 Brewing team. I wave off samples until a bottle of Forager Brewing’s Gummies Make us Likable finally breaks my defenses. I pour just enough to cover the bottom of a sample glass, tip it back, and yeah: making people happy.
Sterletzke has hinted at bottle-sharing events when the Tap House opens its doors.
“Beer sharing is all about bringing fun things to other people and being able to get somebody else to experience something,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if a bottle is rare. If somebody comes to my house and they haven’t had it and they want to try it, I pop it. People here are amazing and I feel like just like I would welcome them into my family in Wisconsin where I live, they’ve welcomed me with open arms here and it’s the coolest thing in the world. I’m so lucky.”
More information, including the opening date when it’s available, can be found at http://northerntapmn.com/.