After fighting tooth and nail to keep it, longtime bar owner lets go of downtown mainstay
Pete Paidar’s wild ride is over.
In his 16 years as owner of the Forest Laker, he experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Last month, he sold the business to longtime friend Chuck Wagner of Forest Lake.
Paidar has long been synonymous with the bar and restaurant. For years he spent nearly all of his waking hours there. He pumped most of his money into the business. He figures he’s personally worked on nearly every square foot of the structure in one way or another.
Until recently, selling or closing the business simply was not an option to Paidar, no matter how hopeless the situation. However, now 63, he recently came to grips with the idea that it would be in the best interest of the business and himself to transfer ownership.
For a man who has put everything into his business, the change of lifestyle won’t come easy.
“How do you get settled when you’ve spent 100 hours a week or 80 hours a week at a place for 16 years?” he says.
For a good five or six years, one of the most vibrant personalities of downtown Forest Lake had lost his edge. Paidar felt numb from depression, and especially from his medication for it. While he worked himself to exhaustion just to stay on top of some areas of his business, he was oblivious to others. A host of challenges, both self-inflicted and external, pushed even the self-described workaholic toward his breaking point.
You reap what you sow, Paidar says, and by 2012 he had harvested “a bumper crop of problems.”
It all came home to roost on a Friday in November, when the Internal Revenue Service showed up at 131 Lake St. N. and shut the Laker down. Paidar was en route from his home in Linwood when he heard the news.
“I had half a mind to just keep driving,” he says.
But he didn’t.
Paidar rolled up to the Forest Laker to find a full-blown IRS auction underway.
“It looked like happy hour out in the parking lot,” he recalls. “It was packed, like a Friday night.”
Federal agents sold all the food and drink on hand, and even the pour spouts from the bar’s tap.
Paidar’s survival instincts kicked in. With an agent on his arm, he called vendors to place orders. He stepped out to buy enough drink products for that night, returned at 6 p.m. with borrowed pour spouts and proclaimed that the Laker would open in three hours.
It did, and Paidar even fulfilled a catering order the next morning. Later on Saturday, he re-opened the Laker’s downstairs cocktail bar. By Sunday, the business was offering 95 percent of the food menu.
“I bounced back and it’s remarkable, the reaction from customers and the strength of the employees,” Paidar says.
Path to Forest Lake
Like many in his line of work, Paidar owes much of who he is, good or bad, to a background that is a story of its own. His grandfather, Emil J. Paidar, started a company that grew into the nation’s top manufacturer of barber chairs.
Living in Chicago, this meant tasting the good life: using fancy silverware and Emily Post-style etiquette at white-glove restaurants.
But Pete Paidar’s sister died when he was 11, then his father died when Pete was 21. Pete’s mom left him and his younger brother to fend for themselves. His brother got into dealing drugs by the age of 16, and, in the middle of such darkness, Paidar himself turned to a life of vice.
He recalls shoplifting cigarettes on the way back from church.
“I was a very depressed kid when I was young because my parents were never around and I didn’t make friends very well,” he says. “I changed. I got into alcohol and drugs and I came out of my shell…Let’s just say in Chicago I wasn’t shy about going out and partying.”
Eventually, his brother’s brushes with both the law and the unlawful pushed Paidar to seek an escape. He studied motivational materials that his dad sold in the final years of his life, set goals and moved to Minneapolis in the ’70s at the age of 28.
He bought a bar and sold it less than two years later for twice what he had paid. Then he traveled for six months.
“I literally did everything I set goals to do,” he says.
Paidar came back to the area around 1980 and got into cosmetics sales, then spent five years in Chicago before returning here for good around 1985. Once back, he ended up with Scholls Incorporated of Arden Hills. It was a successful partnership and the start of a strong friendship with Dan Scholl that continues to this day.
The wholesaling company did well, and Paidar held many important accounts, including Target and SuperAmerica.
“He just had a way, and [the clients] loved him,” says Scholl, recalling how Paidar relished the role of host: grilling steaks and giving pontoon rides for co-workers and clients.
As Scholl puts it, Paidar “saw the handwriting on the wall” as the industry changed and the era of mass marketing and super centers dawned. Paidar got out of that business and he and Scholl went into business together in Forest Lake as owners of The Shoreline on Third Lake.
Their attempt to fix up an establishment that had become a “bad neighbor” proved ill-fated, as they fought long and hard with the township over licenses and permits. A lawsuit ensued, the building burned to the ground, and bitter feelings persist to this day.
“If people have an attitude about me in this town there’s a reason for it,” he says. “I’ve been screwed many times in this town, but I’m a guy who dusts himself off and stands back up and comes back fighting.”
Paidar’s success in sales further honed valuable skills, but coming up empty-handed after years of work on the lakeside project left him with a bone to pick.
He bought Fast Eddy’s bar from another prominent downtown figure, Bo Bogotty, in December of 1996. The date of the sale did not scare Paidar: Friday the 13th.
Originally a hotel, the building dates to 1892, and had once been a nine-bedroom boarding house that rented by the week. Later, it served as a bowling alley and furniture store.
Given the location and high customer familiarity, Paidar saw great potential.
“We had a good thing, because this has always been a gathering place in town, going back as long as it’s been here,” he says.
Upon hearing of the facility’s heyday as the Forest Laker in the 1970s, Paidar resurrected that name.
Six months after buying the bar, he took ownership of an adjacent mini golf course on 100 feet of lakefront property. Another battle with the city ensued, as Paidar tried, unsuccessfully, to get a liquor license for a screened-in patio by the course. The city bought the property in 2001 and it today comprises part of Lakeside Memorial Park.
Meanwhile, the Forest Laker turned out $100,000 in sales in Paidar’s first year. That number jumped to $300,000 in year three, $500,000 in year four, $700,000 in year five and hit $1 million in the Laker’s sixth year. It rose again in year seven, but then Paidar, ever the gambler, could not leave well enough alone.
Spurred by bitterness from the failed development attempts, and flush with cash after inheriting $500,000 from his mother, he borrowed a bunch more and launched himself into an expansion in 2004.
“Now I’ve got money. I’m big and bad. My pride…” he says. “I was going to be the biggest, baddest, best. I was boasting, and things went very poorly for me as a result because I wasn’t living my life very well.”
The decision to add on turned out to be nothing short of disastrous. Paidar wanted to take a page from the mass-marketer model that drove him out of the sales business; he wanted the Laker to be everything to everyone. He added a game room on the second floor of the main bar, poured funds into a hefty kitchen renovation, and built three floors onto the back of the building to create a dining room, a bar porch and a martini bar.
The contractor fell way behind schedule. Construction was supposed to be finished by July of 2005. When progress ground to a halt, Paidar took on the work himself and cut deals with subcontractors.
Bogged down with the building project, he lost his grip on the day-to-day operations.
“Money went like flash paper,” Paidar says.
Besides construction payments, overpouring and other problems on the bar end sucked up funds.
“People were just giving the place away,” he says.
Paidar fired the contractor in July of 2007 and finished the project that November, more than two years after his original target for completion.
“I just kept hiring people and throwing money at it and selling my house and selling my rental properties just to keep it going and it just drained me,” Paidar says.
Scholl witnessed his friend’s fortunes change.
“He had a little old cash cow, the place to go in town at the time,” Scholl says. “It was just packed. A lot of times you couldn’t sit down in there.
“The construction, it just dragged on for so long,” Scholl continues. “People are creatures of habit. They just changed direction, then he just never got them back.”
Paidar’s grand plans for the Laker did not account for the minimum wage increases that hit back-to-back-to-back or the smoking ban.
Meanwhile, his private life mirrored the collapse of his business. He cheated on his wife, got divorced and entered a deep depression. Until he could not afford his insurance anymore, he was on medication that he says affected him just as negatively as the worst of the recreational drugs he used earlier in life.
“I contemplated suicide because of what I did with my family, because of what I did with my finances, because I just couldn’t fess up to all the problems I had,” he says.
Still, Paidar possessed two skills that go a long ways toward masking troubles: charisma and a dogged work ethic. Both would be needed in spades in the years to follow.
“I was doing everything wrong,” he says. “All I can tell you, simply, is that I created a perfect storm. So then I did what I was really good at. Scam, scam, scam to stay open.”
Paidar maintained a balancing act with a host of insurers, distributors, bankers, utilities and government agencies. Rarely was there enough money for them all, but Paidar learned just how much he could get away with from each.
“I only had so much,” he says. “But I did a damn good job of making a nickel a quarter, let me tell ya.”
Not that he was without a few close calls.
Toward the end of the renovation, he was given a 60-day deadline to finish the work before the Laker’s liability insurance coverage was pulled. A utility company once told Paidar he needed to pay $28,000 by the next day to avoid disconnection.
In early 2011, Paidar was so far behind on sales tax payments that he was sure the Laker was going down. He notified the city as such, only to be bailed out by his local bank.
“I had to get to the guy by 3 with the money so he could send a letter out to get it issued,” Paidar recalls. “That’s how close I came to closing, and that’s not the first time.”
The same bank trusted Paidar to the point where he says he was paying $200 a week on debt service of $8,800 a month. For seven years, he paid nothing but interest.
Paidar successfully warded off federal agents from seizing the property three times by coming through with last-minute money.
Certainly, there were many times he wanted to throw in the towel and declare bankruptcy. Instead, the father of two poured all of his resources into his business. He cashed in his life insurance policy and took out a huge mortgage.
“Everything I own is in this building now,” he says. “Everything.”
Often, it still was not enough. For four months, he drove a truck which could not run over 35 mph. At the Laker, a broken toilet and busted window went unattended.
He compares the financial problems to ice cubes in a funnel. You know each is melting, but you never know when the next will fall.
By last November, however, Paidar had been juggling so long that he was unfazed by the IRS incident. He knew the feds were closing in. He had worked out a payment plan with them a year or two earlier, but could not keep up. A collections process ensued, and he appealed to buy time. When the IRS first showed up that week requesting voluntary approval for the seizure, Paidar denied, so the IRS went to court to get permission.
When the agents left after the seizure, they unplugged the fixtures, turned off the lights and locked the doors. They explained to Paidar their rationale: most businesses in that situation never re-open.
Paidar, however, got a final word in with an agent.
“I said, ‘Hey, Dale, you better remember this: I’m the one in a million who’s going to succeed here.’” Paidar recalls. “‘I’m not in a position to take care of this [now], but I’m going to take care of this bill. I’ve just been waltzing with you. I’ve been dancing with you.’”
Paidar now regards the IRS seizure as a blessing.
“I was going to have to come up with a good chunk of money,” he says. “Guess what? They solved my problem for me.”
Even more importantly, it may well be what put his life back in order. He is in a healthy relationship with a woman who he says brought God back into his life. He also has reconnected with his daughters and three grandchildren. Though he lives in a “shack” and drives a junker of a car, he is at peace with himself.
“I’ve learned that I’m much happier with less,” Paidar says. “It really is that way.”
This new Pete Paidar is the result of soul searching, of being humiliated in full view of the public.
“It comes down to a very simple thing,” he says. “It was pride that got me into all this trouble, and it was pride not asking the people I know to help me, and it was pride that got me pissed off at the community.”
In the aftermath of the seizure, Paidar took to cleaning up the business. He took joy in varnishing tables and even in installing that new toilet.
“A hundred-dollar fixture I couldn’t replace,” he says. “And do you know how good I felt the day I replaced that thing? You just don’t know.”
The decision to let the Forest Laker go marked the most important step of the clean-up process, both for Paidar and for his business.
He assures he will remain visible. He will continue to own the building and looks forward to helping with fundraisers and other community events the business partners in.
Though his reduced role will take some getting used to, Paidar is ultimately content with how he left.
“How does it come out? It’s not what I envisioned it to be. Everything else I ever set out to do in my life turned out the way I envisioned it to be. So can I say I was entirely successful in my own mind? Maybe not.
“But then when I look at the magnitude of what I’ve done and what I learned, it was the best experience of my life, even having it strip me bare. Had it not done that, I’d still be living the material life that I grew up with, which means that I’m going to be one lonely [man]. And I learned that, and I know what’s important to me now.”