The building at 220 Lowry Avenue NE was a neighborhood gathering place long before Market Bar-B-Que hung its beckoning neon pig over the front entrance.
According to Minneapolis building inspection records, the land was first occupied by a 14-ft. by 24-ft. single-family dwelling built in 1889 by Anton Knudson, who, in subsequent years, added a summer kitchen, hen house and barn. In 1909, a storefront and flat concrete foundation was added to the building. Ole Erickson added on to the store in 1914, and it became a modest corner grocery store, one of many that dotted Northeast Minneapolis.
On May 3, 1918, Erickson was granted a license to sell fruits, vegetables, soft drinks and ice cream at the store. That same year, Peter Biernat, a Polish immigrant, acquired the building. On November 29, Biernat was granted a license to sell meat; it cost him $83. He received a second license to sell fruits and vegetables for a cost of $90.
Born in 1888 in Poland, Biernat emigrated to the United States in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1911, he married another Polish immigrant, Victoria Wasik, who had arrived in the U.S. in 1908 and moved to Minneapolis in 1909, where she lived with her brother Matthew and his family. The wedding took place at Holy Cross Catholic Church, 1621 University Avenue NE.
Holy Cross became a spiritual center for the Biernats. It was the church where they baptized their children, married and held funerals. They buried their dead in St. Mary’s Cemetery in South Minneapolis.
The Biernats had six children. Two died before the age of five. Their eldest son, Frank, was killed in Luzon, Philippines, near the end of World War II. Tadeus (Ted), who was born the year the store opened, returned from the war and joined his father in the grocery business.
The Great Depression began 11 years after Peter started his business. “These were challenging economic times,” said former Third Ward Council Member Joe Biernat, one of Ted’s sons. “Close to 50 percent of the commerce at this store was by way of my grandfather letting locals charge groceries interest-free with no payment schedule.”
According to Walt Sentyrz, who was quoted in a 1996 Star Tribune article eulogizing Ted Biernat, “He dumped out thousands of unpaid IOU slips when his business closed.”
When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Biernat expanded the building to 218 Lowry Avenue, which is now the front door for Market Bar-B-Que. He applied for an off-sale liquor license and was one of the first licensed liquor stores in Minneapolis. For many years, Biernat’s and Sentyrz were the only stores in Minneapolis licensed to sell groceries and liquor, a distinction that Sentryz carries to this day.
Running a small grocery store back then ran the same risks as today’s convenience stores. In 1944, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported a robbery on the premises. Peter was awakened in the middle of the night by a robber who took $13 out of the till (about $187 in today’s money, still a sum hardly worth taking). It wasn’t the only robbery at the store. Twenty years later in 1964, James Whitney took $40 from Ted Biernat and fired a shot at a beer truck driver who tried to chase him. Over the years, Joe Biernat said, the family-owned store was robbed 11 times.
Ted ran for office in 1948 and served in the Minnesota House from 1949-1956. His civic-mindedness rubbed off on his sons. Len served in the House from 1997-2004, and Joe was on the Minneapolis City Council for ten years. The boys and their four siblings grew up in the house at 224 Lowry Avenue that’s just one foot away from the store building. The home was built by Peter Biernat’s brother Michael.
In the 1960s, Joe said, “The butcher shop went away and the family brought the liquor to the 220 side of the building and made the 218 side the new home of Biernat’s Dairy Store.” Ted came up with an interesting division of labor at the store: He ran the liquor store side and his wife, Sophie, ran the Dairy Store.
After Sophie’s death in 2005, Linda Skwiera Johnsen wrote in an online obituary page, “In my mind, Sophie and Mrs. [Dorothy] Leary will always be behind the counter at the dairy store and I am choosing what to buy from all the candy, or playing HORSE in the back of the store, and Ted is on the liquor side. It would be nice to have life that uncomplicated again.”
Joe became the third-generation owner of the building after he graduated from college in 1979. He closed the dairy store and renamed the business Biernat’s Wine Cellar and Imported Beers. He lived upstairs in an apartment that is now the private catering room for Market Bar-B-Que. He ran his operation with six Edison alumni.
He shut the business down in 1986 and sold the building to the Minneapolis School of Massage and Bodywork. In 1999, building was occupied by J & JD Enterprises and the massage school. The school later moved to the California Building at 81 Lowry Avenue NE and is now closed.
“For a short time,” Biernat said, “the building was owned by Leslie Bock, owner of Psycho Suzi’s, followed by a family from Wisconsin that had hoped to put in a dance studio.”
The old building got a new lease on life last year when father and son team Steve and Anthony Polski purchased it and converted it to a restaurant. Biernat said, “I enjoyed reminiscing with Steve about being raised in a family involved in business. Steve had to endure the old traditional ways of his father as he grew the business; I had to do the same. Now it is Anthony’s turn to usher in a new entrepreneur generation.”
Anthony Polski and his wife, Whitney, have one more thing in common with the Biernats. They live in the neighborhood, and have already been involved in the Bottineau Neighborhood Association.
Hennepin County property records
Hennepin County Library Digital Collections: Minneapolis Building Permit Index Card Collection
Proceedings of the City Council of Minneapolis, Vol. 44, 1918
Hamilton, James, “Tales of Bottineau,” Bottineau Neighborhood Association, August 2002
Findagrave.com, Memorial 141618436
Minneapolis City Directories
Minneapolis Star Tribune, Feb. 27, 1944, Aug. 8, 1945, Nov. 21, 1948
Minnesota Legislative Reference Library
Below: The Biernat family at the butcher counter in their store at 220 Lowry, in the late 1920s are shown top. (Photo courtesy of the Biernat family) Ted Biernat was featured in a Star Tribune ad for a new commercial freezer; they were a little bulkier back then. (Photo sourced from Hennepin County Library) Ted Biernat with the last customer to check out at Biernat’s Wine Cellar and Imported Beers. (Photo courtesy of Joe Biernat) The building in mid-renovation before it became the Market Bar-B-Que restaurant. (Sourced from Google Earth)