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Pioneer Profiles: Blue Ox finds its niche through music, food

Michelle Soltis, proprietress of the Blue Ox Bar and Grill in downtown Bemidji, is excited for her third summer season at the venue. monte draper | bemidji pioneer

BEMIDJI - Villella's Bada Bing!, a notorious sports bar that opened in the Union Station building in June 2008, closed one year later, leaving the space open for the second time in three years for prospective restaurateurs.

Michelle Soltis, along with her brother John, quickly took the opportunity to bring a fresh new concept to the area, opening Blue Ox Bar and Grill.

The Soltis siblings moved from Fargo, N.D., to Bemidji and started work on the building in May 2010, opening just two months later in time for the summer tourist season.

"There was a lot of work, so it was just initially, 'Get the place done so we can hurry up and open for summertime'," said Soltis. "But we definitely knew we wanted music and the stages, and wanted to bring some life back into this building."

John moved back to Fargo for health reasons last year, but Michelle continues to run the Blue Ox, and doesn't plan to leave the building or the city any time soon.

"I love this town," Soltis said. "There's a lot of art and music and theater, just a lot of cool things going on here. And it feels like the Blue Ox has found its niche."

The Blue Ox has area residents and visiting patrons streaming through its doors, certainly, and continues to thrive thanks to its emphasis on not only an extensive food and drink menu Soltis has forged, but on bringing a variety of music to its indoor and outdoor stages.

Shmuel Tjader, originally from Bemidji and who began his relationship with the Blue Ox through setting up shows there while living in Minneapolis, is now the Blue Ox's go-to guy. Aside from helping Soltis with new drink specials, menus and the popular 2-4 a.m. late-night (or early morning) breakfast menu, Tjader has brought in several local and non-local musical acts to breathe new life into the venue.

The first show Tjader threw at the Blue Ox was in September 2010, with Omen, Illuminous 3, himself and Wide Eyes, which was also the first time he saw the building under Soltis' management. He liked the atmosphere, and continued organizing shows at the Blue Ox while living in Minneapolis, up until his recent move back to Bemidji.

"The staff and management were really cool, and it blossomed into a working relationship really quickly," Tjader said.

Working with Soltis through 2011, and then officially going full-time last month, Tjader has taken to filling gaps in the schedule and responsibilities formerly held by John Soltis and other staff members.

Before Tjader took on his current position, several well-known local acts, including Uncle Shurley, played there. But now music has become the centerpiece of the Blue Ox, and both Tjader and Soltis agree that music is a major factor in how the Blue Ox has thrived in a building where others have failed.

"I try to keep the music as diverse and as fresh as I can," Tjader said, "And I think that's huge, because you get different people coming in on a regular basis. That helps us stay open right there."

Compared to the music scene he left in Minneapolis, Tjader says Bemidji offers bands and musicians the opportunity to perform for relatively large crowds regardless of their notoriety.

"It is a really small market, so we're not jaded by the scene, and we're probably a little less snobby," he said.

The Blue Ox's summer music lineup is set, with their Cinco de Mayo show being a notable one. Tjader himself (under the name Shmuel) will perform, along with Omen, Duende and Wide Eyes. The outdoor patio will host several shows, as well, and will have tented seating.

"We're hoping the public will take a chance on a band they haven't heard of before this summer," Tjader said. "It's worth supporting the local scene, as well as the Blue Ox."

Soltis is currently fine-tuning the drink and food menus for the summer season, and both she and Tjader are particularly excited about the new late-night menu.

"Every Friday and Saturday from 2-4 a.m., we roll over from booze to bacon," Soltis said. She instilled the late-night menu to keep people who've been drinking from driving, and to give patrons of her business and others downtown a chance to sober up before heading home.

The Blue Ox Happy Hour will have new specials in the evening in conjunction with food menu, and a lighter lunch menu will be coming along within the month. Coming up Easter Sunday, the Blue Ox will host an Adult Easter Egg Hunt. The Tribe and Big Cats! will be playing Saturday night.

Soltis is also working with local theaters to plan several dinner theater events at the venue.

"We don't want to just cater to the nightlife, the 10 o'clock and beyond crowd," Soltis said. "We want to hit some families and do some things that all ages can enjoy."