Biz Beat

One of Modesto’s most iconic institutions was just sold, but its jerks live on

Terry Sparks, middle, and Al Clark, left, talk with manager Diane Marcuerquiaga at Minnie’s in Modesto on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018.
Terry Sparks, middle, and Al Clark, left, talk with manager Diane Marcuerquiaga at Minnie’s in Modesto on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018.

It’s the end of an era at Minnie’s, but don’t worry it looks like its jerks are here to stay.

One of Modesto’s most iconic restaurants and bars was just sold after 55 years of ownership by the Mah family. The distinctive tiki-themed Chinese food establishment first opened in 1955 at the base of McHenry Avenue. Since then it has become one of the city’s longest-running family owned eateries known for its eclectic decor, which includes black velvet nude paintings of Polynesian women and ancient dollar bills stapled to the walls, and its strong drinks — particularly its signature pink cocktail known as the “jerk.”

An ownership change permit posted in Minnie’s front window late this week lists the new owner as Splash Bar, Inc. According to the California domestic corporation registry, the owner of Sacramento-based Splash Bar Inc. is Trelawny J. Bruce. His company runs bars and nightclubs in Sacramento and San Jose which cater largely to an LGBTQ clientele. Some of his other properties include Badlands in Sacramento and Splash Video Dance Bar in San Jose.

This will be a rare major ownership change in Minnie’s almost 63 years of continuous operation. The move comes after longtime owner Stuart Mah retired at the beginning of the year and sold the property and business. His family bought Minnie’s in 1962 from its original owners, Hop Louie and his wife Minnie Woo — the spot’s namesake.

After news of Stuart’s retirement and Minnie’s sale began to circulate just before the New Year, a post on the Minnie’s Facebook page sought to quell anxieties. It reads, “To our Minnie’s Family: Your continued support is appreciated. As usual, RUMORS are flying!! MINNIE’S IS NOT CLOSING!!!!! Stuart IS retiring and we will change ownership soon. Further details are not available to you because WE don’t know what, if any, changes are going to occur. Please stay patient and don’t panic. We will let you know as soon as we know. AGAIN, we are not closing and we, very much, appreciate your continued support.”

The new owner completed escrow this week and has met with staff. The restaurant and bar had been closed since Monday for inventory. A subsequent Facebook post promised it would reopen on Friday and that “the new owners are excited to begin a new adventure with our beloved Minnies!!” Indeed the lights were back on Friday evening and manager Diane Marcuerquiaga confirmed the bar would be open through the weekend.

Marcuerquiaga also said the new owner plans to keep the current staff, many of whom have been with Minnie’s for well over a decade — if not much longer — including its veteran bartenders Sheri Midori Perry and Jozi Olguin.

The sale marks another chapter in the often colorful history of the property at 107 McHenry Avenue. According to Modesto Bee archives it was built in the early 1910s as a six-room bungalow family home and remained a private residence until about 1940. Then it began renting rooms as a boarding house and continued to do so until the Woo family purchased the building in 1954. Before that it also briefly housed a doctor’s office and the short-lived Tea Time Gift Shop.

The Woos celebrated the grand opening of Minnie’s Restaurant March 29, 1955. Advertisements in The Bee at the time touted its “Chinese and American foods of distinction” and an “atmosphere redolent of the languorous Trade Winds.” Then in the early 1960s the Woos sold to the Mah family, and in turn opened up The Islander Chinese restaurant in Stockton. New Minnie’s owners Kwock Nan Mah and his wife Eleanor Mah immigrated from China in 1950 and worked at various Chinese food establishments before buying the Modesto site.

They ran the restaurant until 1975 when Kwock Nan passed away and his sons, Peter and Stuart, took over. Elder brother Peter became the face of the restaurant for the next nearly 40 years. It was also Peter who created the infamous “jerk,” a potent concoction made with sherbet, light and dark rum and a splash of 151-proof rum poured down the straw. The legend goes that in the mid 1980s he mixed up the drink to silence two particularly obnoxious customers, hence the name.

Peter passed away unexpectedly just before Christmas in 2013 after a bout with pneumonia. His younger brother Stuart, now 58, took over after his death and ran it until its sale this week. When contacted, Stuart declined to comment on the sale or his retirement.

After news of the sale and retirement broke, fans of Minnie’s expressed sorrow and congratulations online. Many hoped the place would keep is tiki charm. Regulars also expressed strong support for its long-serving staff.

As someone who has spent more than a few nights inside Minnie’s darkened walls and had more than a few jerks on its bamboo-thatched patio, I can say it would be a shame to make wholesale changes to this funky, familiar valley institution. There’s a reason I named it one of the Top 10 most iconic places to eat and drink in Modesto last fall. But, if the new owner feels like refreshing and reinvigorating the establishment, I’m all for it. Aging gracefully is great, but sometimes an old dame could use a nip and a tuck or a lift and a scrub — especially one whose bones are well over 100 years old.

So long live the jerk. Rude customers, well, that’s another matter.