Duluth’s first and only LGBT+ bar and nightclub is changing hands.
Owner Alvin Berg put the Flame Nightclub up for sale earlier this spring. The Flame opened in downtown Duluth seven years ago as a counterpart to the Flame Nightclub in Superior.
The buyer is Justin Vranish of Duluth, who until recently was general manager of Black Woods Grill & Bar in Two Harbors and has had a long career in bar and restaurant management.
Vranish has entered into a purchase agreement to buy the Duluth Flame, 28 N. First Ave. W., for $790,000. The sale is expected to close Sept. 4.
Berg, 59, also owns Luxury Imports & Auto Sales on Miller Trunk Highway in Hermantown, and he said owning a car dealership and two bars simply had become too time-consuming. He previously had listed the Duluth Flame for sale in 2016 but in the end decided to keep it for the time being.
“I have three businesses,” he said. “(The dealership) started out three or four years ago as more of a hobby. Next thing you know, I bought 5 acres on Highway 53. We're building a brand-new facility; I’ve got full-time employees. So, I just created a whole new full-time job for myself.
“And the bar business — as rewarding as it can be, it does take a lot out of you,” Berg said. “And I’m not as young as I used to be.”
Vranish, 37, is a 2000 East High School graduate who managed bars and restaurants in Minneapolis and Las Vegas before returning to Duluth seven years ago.
He’d always wanted to open his own bar, he said, and the Flame caught his eye.
“I saw it in the paper multiple times, and I always just was intrigued by it,” he said. “So, finally, I reached out to the realtor, and we went for a tour, and I just fell in love with it. It’s a beautiful establishment.”
Vranish said he doesn’t intend to make significant changes to the Flame.
“I'm not coming in to rebrand or change the legacy that Alvin has set,” Vranish said. “It is great to have this kind of establishment in the community.”
In 2006, Berg and his husband, Vince Nelson, opened the first Flame Nightclub in Superior in the old Louis’ Cafe space on Tower Avenue. Berg, who grew up in Hibbing, had managed the now-closed JT’s Bar & Grill in Superior for 11 years and owned rental properties in the city.
The Superior establishment became a mainstay in the LGBT+ community and served as an alternative to the venerable Main Club.
At the time, Superior had a lock on the Twin Ports’ LGBT+ nightlife. For one, the liquor licenses were cheaper than in Duluth, Berg said.
But, he said, Superior also had a reputation — and the scene to back it up.
“Superior was always known as the party town,” Berg said. “There were so many bars, there was a little bit of everything. And because of the shipping business and the trucking business, there were people in and out of there all the time, spending money.
“Superior had everything you want. If you want country, rock, blues, gay, whatever.”
A first in Duluth
Once upon a time, Duluth and its leaders were seen as less welcoming to the concept of a gay bar, Berg said.
"A lot of people would say that they wouldn’t dare try to open a gay bar over here, because they thought that the city would try to prevent them from opening or would shut it down,” he said. “And I think that's not where we are today. In the past 20, 30 years, I have seen the LGBT community really move forward. There's still a long ways to go … but things have moved forward.”
And so, six years after opening in Superior, Berg and Nelson made history when the Flame opened as Duluth’s first gay bar in July 2012.
Then-Mayor Don Ness was supportive, though Berg said he initially questioned the need for such a space in Duluth.
“I remember Don Ness asking me, ‘Alvin, is there really a need for a gay bar? Because everybody just goes everywhere now.’” Berg said. “At the end of the day, there is a need, because you want to be able to hold hands with your partner, dance, maybe kiss, and you really can't do that (at) some of the straight bars.”
Superior Flame to stay
Berg had planned to sell both the Duluth Flame and the Superior Flame, but in the end he decided to keep his original Superior bar.
“Everybody has asked me to please keep it open,” he said. “That’s kind of the ‘Cheers’ bar. It’s the neighborhood bar where everybody knows everybody, and it’s truly more the gay bar than the Duluth one.”
While the Superior Flame has more of that low-key, neighborhood-bar feel, the Duluth Flame is glitzier, more upscale, with a black and dark-cherry décor under 12-foot industrial ceilings painted black that contrast with expansive brick walls.
Downstairs, the Bottoms Up Lounge offers a cocktail-room vibe on Fridays and Saturdays.
Vranish wants to open the lounge during the week, and he envisions it as catering to a downtown work crowd during happy hour.
“With Black Water closed right now, we have a major bar downstairs that I think that a lot of people do not know about,” he said. “Let’s get it out to the workers downtown. Stop in and have a martini, have a classic cocktail. … So, I'm trying to bring a different spin on downstairs.”
While Berg and Nelson sought to create a gathering spot in Duluth for the LGBT+ community, they wanted a clean, friendly, fun club where all people feel comfortable and everyone is treated with respect.
“I opened it with the intention of a diverse crowd,” Berg said — and that’s something Vranish wants to highlight even more.
“I think by titling it as LGBT-friendly, that comes across a little bit better,” Vranish said.
“We’re not going to have one demographic; we want everyone welcome. It's a great place for everyone to go out on Friday, Saturday night. It's been a huge hit, (and it’s) the top nightclub in the Twin Ports.”