Twenty years is a long time, but it goes by fast. For Jason Wussow, the last 20 years has seen him build Beaner's Central in an underappreciated part of town latte by latte, concert by concert, until it has become a fixture of the community. And now, he has decided to make a big change to the whole enterprise with a rebranding that will take his establishment into the decades ahead. This weekend, Beaner's becomes “Wussow's Concert Cafe,” and there will be two solid days of music to celebrate the name change and the last 20 years. It's been quite the ride for Wussow, one that he got on quite early in his life.
“I literally wanted to do something like this when I was 16,” Wussow said. He said that a coffeehouse in his hometown helped him catch the java bug. “I used to go there and I was so excited about coffee, and they started letting me make my own drinks.”
When he moved to Duluth, Wussow played in bands and worked in coffee shops. Eventually, he started thinking that it might be nice to join his two loves together. “I was planning this whole thing. I worked with the Center for Economic Development and saved money and got family investment and did a business plan,” he said. With a partner, he started looking for a building to house his concert cafe.
West Duluth eventually became the place Wussow landed. “We found a building, cheap,” he said, “and my parents helped, and my ex-partner's parents helped, and we bought this old building in '99, when I was 22, renovated it, and then opened, and no one came. Really.”
The cold hand of reality had intervened, right off the bat.
“We put the 'Open' sign up at six in the morning, and the first person came in at ten,” Wussow said. “We were dumping coffee. We didn't know anything.”
A discouraging start, to be sure, but Wussow was invested in more ways than one, so he stuck it out. But he had a lot to learn. “I didn't know anything about marketing or advertising,” he said. Little by little, though, word started getting around, and customers started showing up. “We started with two people,” Wussow said, “and then three and then four. It was so slow.”
The West Duluth location was part of the challenge. To Wussow, all of Duluth was the “city,” as he had come from Alexandria, and he wasn't yet attuned to the differences in all the varied sections of town. He had looked for space in the downtown and out on London Road. His choice to plant his coffee shop in West Duluth hadn't been a clever business move that identified an opening in a market — it was just the place that seemed like a good location, to him.
“I'm glad we picked West Duluth, because it really needed something fun and different,” Wussow said. “It needed some art, needed some some vegetarian options, needed a safe place for anyone who was a little quirky, you know?”
Rather than Wussow going to where he thought he would make the most money, he went where he thought he would be welcomed. Two decades later, it has proven to be the right choice. And now, with the revitalization of the nearby Lincoln Park area that has seen many eateries and breweries opening in recent years, Wussow thinks the tide could be turning for his neighborhood, which has opened its arms to places like the Zenith Bookstore and the West Theater, of late.
“I was talking to a bunch of customers who are getting apartments and were like, 'We're so excited — we're gonna be living right by you,'” Wussow said. “Some of my employees have bought houses out in Morgan Park and Gary and Riverside, because they're more affordable. There's a lot of 25- to 45-year-olds buying houses out west.”
Wussow's food-and-drink offerings have obviously been a huge part of his cafe's concerns, but he is also committed to offering live music as much as he ever has. His yearly “One Week Live” series always yields a companion compilation disc, and it has become a low-key documentation of the Twin Ports scene that is like a time-capsule of regional original music. This tradition grew out of something called “The Bash.”
“We had a bunch of bands,” Wussow said, “and I started bootlegging shows on cassette tape. After that first year, I put out a little homemade mixtape.” Each year, things got more and more professional, and Wussow today has a recording studio in his cafe's basement, where he can record the bands on his stage. Mason Jennings, Haley, Charlie Parr — they've all been through. “It's fun to take our favorite bands that aren't getting noticed and try to mix them with a couple bands that are,” Wussow said. “We just keep stirring the community up and see what we get.”
The name change, then. Twenty years ago, it seemed like a good name for a coffeehouse — to Wussow. But as time went on, he became aware that it was a problematic thing.
“In 2002, I was playing in Las Cruces, New Mexico,” Wussow said, “and it sucked, having a live 'Beaner's' CD on the merch counter.”
As time went on, the negative connotations of the name became more glaring. Wussow talks about having trouble with advertising, about being worried about insulting Mexican musicians who come to play his stage, about censored Google directions.
“I want to do this for another 20 years, at least,” Wussow said. “And I don't want another 20 years of explaining why this word is OK.”
Thus, Wussow's Concert Cafe is born. A fresh name for a place that opened on July 26, 1999. This weekend, the cafe holds a two-day music festival, one day of which will take place in the parking lot they share with Zenith Bookstore. Father Hennepin headlines Friday, and Parr and many others play on Saturday. “It's just a bunch of friends,” Wussow said.
He has made a lot of those over 20 years as a business owner in an under-loved part of town. Now, with a new name and a lot of hard-won experience under his belt, Jason Wussow is ready for the next challenge.
“I'm excited to move forward,” he said.
If you go
What: Wussow’s Concert Cafe 20th anniversary
When: July 26, 6-11 p.m.; July 27 noon-10 p.m.
Where: 324 N. Central Ave.
Cost: Free, open to the public
Acts: See list of performers in Best Bets on Page C2.