Safety Dance: Seven’s Extraordinary Measures to Keep the Peace

How the downtown Minneapolis nightclub remains an island in a sea of violence.

“Call me,” the text read. “People need to understand what’s happening down here.”

It was summer 2020, and all of Minneapolis was on the razor’s edge. I didn’t call. Then another text came at the holidays, followed by a meeting at a baroque downtown condo after Christmas.

“You think last summer was violent. Mark my words, next summer will be even worse,” my host predicted. I told him if his prophecy came true, I’d tell his story. So here we are.

__________

Seven managing partner Ken Sherman, security staffer Yves Spies, and director of security Bull Reynolds
Seven managing partner Ken Sherman, security staffer Yves Spies, and director of security Bull Reynolds (L to R) late on a weekend in July.

“This is a city run by gangs. The only thing a bad guy is afraid of is a badder guy.”

That’s Ken Sherman talking. He sent the texts, too. Sherman, 70, is not your archetypal Minneapolis businessman. Tan, compact, jacked, frequently sporting a scowl, he’s been a part of downtown for decades. He’s been in the security business (and maintains the physique), the restaurant business (remember the Pickled Parrot?), the real estate business (he was one of the largest property owners in the Warehouse District), and the nightclub business (Cowboy Jack’s in Apple Valley, currently). And he is majority owner and managing partner of Seven Steak and Sushi, a multilevel restaurant and nightspot on Seventh and Hennepin.

The ex-New Yorker washed ashore in Minneapolis in the mid-1970s but has resisted our folkways. Sherman doesn’t mince words. He has no stomach for the indirect, euphemistic verbiage integral to talking about downtown Minneapolis, either.

“Ken is how we sort of all wish we could be,” says Dermot Cowley, owner of O’Donovan’s downtown and, as of late, also Sherman’s general manager at Seven. “He is straightforward. He has a big heart. And he doesn’t suffer foolishness.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

A beacon of class

Seven opened in 2007, a venture of hospitality entrepreneur David Koch and partners who were riding a wave of acclaim from Bellanotte, the Warehouse District hotspot that became the nighttime hub of professional athletes, musicians, and their entourages. It introduced the nightclub staple known as bottle service to the Twin Cities, among other things. Seven followed, a steakhouse and sushi emporium for the same moneyed audience seeking something more glam and energetic than Murray’s or Ruth’s Chris.

Sherman describes Koch as a larger-than-life entrepreneur: “David was good at mixing with pro athletes and music stars. He had a folder of celebrity clients at Bellanotte, and [Seven] became the place to be.”

It worked for a while, but Koch’s empire eventually ran aground. Acrimony, lawsuits, innuendo followed. Seven owed a lot of money in taxes. A receiver was appointed. And Ken Sherman, who had a history in both restaurants and nightclubs, bought it at auction in 2017. “It was generating good volume but losing a lot of money,” he recalls. “Management had lost control, and I figured with some discipline it could be a nice little business.”

But by then, Hennepin Avenue and the Warehouse District were changing. The celeb clientele had moved on. The neighborhood was ominous after dark, as police stopped tamping down bad but not criminal behavior. Dinner business was done by 8 p.m. After events and concerts, rather than hanging out, “people just rushed to parking lots,” observes Sherman, who realized basic management controls were not enough to make Seven a winner again.

So he hired local celeb chef Sameh Wadi to make Seven’s menu sparkle. “I thought I could upgrade food and clean it up, and we’d be in business,” he says. “It didn’t really work. I didn’t fully understand what the business was about. Competing with the steakhouses is difficult. So I decided to focus on nightlife.” He closed the sushi bar and invested in the rooftop, sound system, and music.

If you’re wondering why a 70-year-old white man wants to deal with the tsuris of a downtown nightclub in an era of racial tension and civil unrest, you’re not alone. Before Cowley went to work for him, “I asked Ken, ‘What’s your angle?’ [I think it’s that] it feels like Vegas here every night. He loves the action.”

Sherman might have gotten more action than he bargained for.

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Shifting Sands

About six years ago, Sherman began liquidating real estate in the Warehouse District: “I sold my holdings because I could see what was happening.” Commercial tenants were leaving, fed up with employees being assaulted coming to or from parking lots, and the menacing aura of adjacent nightclubs.

“Downtown has everybody who does business there crazy-nervous,” says Cowley, who opened O’Donovan’s 22 years ago. “The question with downtown: Is it even worth doing anymore?”

Yet in this environment, Sherman quixotically bought Seven because he needed something to do. “I wasn’t going to move in with Jerry Seinfeld’s parents at Del Boca Vista,” he jokes, “and I’m not hanging out at Oak Ridge with the other old Jews.”

By 2017, Seven’s clientele, once one of the more diverse in the city, had become substantially Black, a customer demographic that was not resistant to downtown and seemed to have a sentimental affinity for his spot.

“[Seven] gave us what we needed. They showed our community love and respect,” says Pamela Weems, owner of Minneapolis-based marketing company Love Promotions. “It’s not common here for a white-owned business to cater to a diverse customer. But this has always been a place we could go. You feel safe at Seven.” Weems says she’d love to see it restored to its exalted perch of the early years, when she held all her personal celebrations there.

“To the average white person, these are businesses,” explains Taylor Smith, one of Seven’s managers who supervises its security team and asked that TCB not use his actual last name as a condition of the interview. “But Seven is a symbol in the Black community.” (All of Seven’s security team are Black.)

The descent

Sherman has no objection to Seven again becoming the hub of athletes and local celebrities it once was, but the trend lines are moving in the opposite direction. The first flower of the current chaos occurred in 2019, when two people were wounded in a late-night shooting at the Crave rooftop two blocks down Hennepin. “We said enough is enough,” recalls Smith. “It’s not just shots fired. [There were] rapes, guys thrown over balcony rails. We said, ‘That shit ain’t coming here.’ ”

“We will not allow anyone to get hurt in Seven,” adds Sherman. “Taylor watches the door and Bull runs the inside [security]. He is very good. But everything starts at the door. You can’t let a problem in the building. We had to fortify our door. We started wanding, pat-downs. But we did not see a lot of weapons.” (Bull Reynolds is Seven’s director of security; he also asked we not use his real last name.)

By early 2020, Sherman felt he had effectively recalibrated to reflect the changes in the Warehouse District. Then came the pandemic, and downtown emptied; then came the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing civil unrest and unease. In the handful of summer and fall months Seven was able to operate in the early pandemic, more ominous signs appeared.

“This is a city run by gangs. The only thing a bad guy is afraid of is a badder guy.”

—Ken Sherman, managing partner, Seven Steak and Sushi

“Pre-George Floyd, people were better behaved,” Smith says.

“They were not agitated, looking for a fight,” says Reynolds.

“And pre-George Floyd, the police department was still present,” says Sherman. “You’d see them on Hennepin. We’d employ off-duty cops. Now an off-duty cop is worthless; the bad guys know they won’t do anything.” (Off-duty cops do not intervene but act as a deterrent because of their presence.)

The 2020 civil unrest downtown put Sherman and his security team on edge. They assumed Seven—with its floor-to-ceiling windows, large alcohol inventory, and luxe fittings—was a target.

“I called my attorney,” Sherman says. “I said, ‘My guys don’t want to board up. So I gotta have Taylor and a couple guys outside with guns.’ And he says, ‘He can fire [a weapon] to defend himself, but here’s what it’s going to cost you: a quarter million [dollars] for the criminal trial and $150,000 for the civil trial. Are you prepared to spend 400 grand to get Taylor out of jail?’

“Was I prepared to do it? Yeah,” continues Sherman. “Did I want to do it? No. So I called Taylor and said, ‘Do what you f-ing gotta do.’ Because I really don’t like being pushed around.”

“We had to spend several nights [outside] to protect the building,” says Smith. “Seven is a symbol. Once you see the flag on the ground, something changes. So people had to guard the businesses where Blacks hung out, because they were symbols. We could not board the windows. It would have said we’re weak, we’re not tough as we seem. When you drive by and the whole city is under siege and Seven is sitting here pristine, glowing, clean, you know, ‘OK, somebody’s protecting that place.’ ”

four images of Seven Steak and Sushi
Seven manager Taylor Smith (left) with security staffer Seke.

Upping the ante

After Seven survived the civil unrest and the pandemic shutdown, it had to move forward, but the dynamics were precarious. The big challenge was weapons, which Seven security increasingly found on patrons as they tried to enter the building.

“Folks would come in during dinner hours [when Seven does not search diners or do pat-downs], they’d plant bullets, knives in the seats,” says Reynolds. “We’d find guns in the bathroom garbage. A game of hide and seek.”

Sherman thought his business was perhaps being staged as a venue for conflict but learned otherwise. “We had customers at the door and they were clearly gang-affiliated,” he says. “They had an attitude, and we didn’t want to let them in. I said, ‘Here’s the deal, guy: If you’re carrying a gun, it’s because you’re planning on shooting someone or you’re worried someone is going to shoot you.’ And the guy says to me, ‘Where we live in north Minneapolis, everybody carries a gun.’ And he was not stroking me. Carrying a gun for him is no different than carrying a cell phone for you.”

Smith nods. “Before Covid,” he says, “we had a more civil, mixed crowd. Our crowd now is 80-85 percent African American, a large percent is involved in various street organizations, and that changes the entire dynamic for security. We get out of here at 2 [a.m.] on Sunday and have meetings until 6 [a.m.] with different crews to find out who’s into it with who, who can come in, and who cannot come in. It was really sensitive, because people were emotionally charged—[they’d say] ‘we gonna get this motherf—.’ Well, we need to agree that it won’t happen a block either way of Seven.”

Sherman says it did not cross his mind to close. “My first security job was in the late 1960s,” he recalls. “My philosophy is if there’s a problem, you go to the problem and take care of the problem.”

“It’s an ever-changing environment,” explains Reynolds. “We ask people. Then we tell them. Then we make them. We rarely [have] to ‘make them.’ ”

Taking care … of the problem

At 11 p.m. on a random Saturday this summer, a line of a dozen or so people are waiting along a velvet rope to be vetted by security and enter Seven. Guests pass six separate security personnel to get into the nightclub. The dining room is mostly empty, but it had been jumping since 5 p.m., servers say.

The rooftop is divided into two areas, a louder side with a DJ, dance area, and banquettes reserved for bottle service groups, and a more sedate side where small groups of mostly women sit at tables. A decibel meter monitors the sound levels. Around midnight, the spaces tend to activate and are crowded with groups dancing and twerking. Security shadows a sloppily drunk man wandering around. His friends assure them they will keep him close, but Sherman instructs security to stay closer; the only leash at Seven is a short one.

Pre-pandemic, Seven was already spending heavily on security. As of last summer, that budget doubled and now runs well over $1,000 a night. “We have 13 to 15 people on any given weekend,” says Sherman. “Our job is to keep everybody safe. If you and your wife come in here, I expect you to be safer than anywhere else in Minneapolis.”

Sherman says his security team recruits from gyms, martial arts studios, boxing rings. “We’re very nice, but we’re thorough. If there’s a fight in here, we’re gonna win. My insurance premiums have not risen in four years.”

“We’re extracting six to eight guns every night before people come in,” says Smith. “You are totally protected. We have zero tolerance, from the curb to everywhere inside. I cannot afford to have a firearm go off in here.”

“We do everything discreetly,” says Reynolds. “But if my guys are suspicious, have a bad feeling, we go deeper. I’ll remove people from the rooftop. If we find anything, they’ve got to go.”

The complexity of the threats is constantly evolving. Reynolds says that “a foldable Glock” is now on the market. “It can go in your shoe. It can fit in a makeup case.”

In harm’s way

Seven does not just have a primarily Black customer base; its employees are primarily Black as well. Though Sherman is not exactly woke on issues of law enforcement, his staff is intensely loyal to him and to the establishment itself.

“I have 80 employees; most are persons of color,” says Sherman. “I put them in decision-making positions.”

“We’re not tokens,” says Smith. “We’re not sweeping floors, mopping. He’s gruff like sandpaper, but his businesses are run by people of color. He’s extremely fair. He wants an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. There are no other downtown business owners doing that. So people of color respect that. … [Activist] Nekima [Levy Armstrong] will be here on her birthday. She’s like, ‘I never met a cat like him.’ He’s well known in the Black community.”

Sherman is not an absentee owner, living in a suburb. He lives downtown. He is present in Seven. And he understands the experience of his staff. “Once you get in trouble as a person of color, no one will ever hire you,” he says. “I will. And I know to sometimes expect a struggle. But their environment is so different. Many of my kids, no one in their family works. They come in smelling of weed. But weed in the Black community is like drinking coffee for whites.”

“He puts up with a lot. More than I would,” says Cowley. “I’ve seen him buy clothes for an employee. Fire, then go back and rehire. He’s very patient. He has years invested in these kids. He is not willing to let them go down without a fight.”

The Continental

When conditions in Minneapolis deteriorated, Sherman and his security crew determined it was insufficient to stop all weapons at the door. They needed to be proactive, keep fights and warring crews from destroying the business’s comity. That work is done long before guests reach a metal detector.

“It’s not common here for a white-owned business to cater to a diverse customer. But this has always been a place we could go. You feel safe at Seven.” 

—Pamela Weems, owner, Love Promotions

“It’s pretty simple,” Sherman explains. “You have people running around with beefs with each other. And there are no police. It could end up in a very difficult situation. We preempt that by making sure that if group A has a big issue with group B, group A doesn’t show up when group B is here.”

“We know who the bad players are, and we know what goes on in street organization politics,” says Smith. “Say two crews are beefing, and they going to shoot it out downtown. If they eat at Monarch, they could just shoot it out at Monarch. But at Seven, you’re going to behave. So we convene a sit-down, and once you make an agreement with us, you gotta live up to that agreement. We have to sit-down all the time.”

“The way it goes, I see people by themselves or in their group,” says Reynolds. “I text you, ‘We need to talk.’ It can be after we lock up here, but it doesn’t take place here. We have those conversations elsewhere. Seven is The Continental in John Wick. There’s no violence here.

“I utilize the chain of command and have the proper respect,” he continues. “You can never take sides. You’re working for an agreement that you don’t handle your business within a block of here.”

Sherman says Smith’s and Reynolds’ histories in the so-called street organizations are crucial to their role.

“Once you’ve been involved in the streets, the whispers don’t stop just because you have a different kind of job,” Reynolds says. “The streets talk. The volume of beefs are extremely high. It’s summer.”

When Sherman hired Smith in 2017, such a role was irrelevant. “Didn’t have to do it three years ago,” Smith says, “because the beefs wasn’t coming downtown.” Now it’s intelligence gathering and diplomacy rolled into one, and they cannot afford a week off.

What concerns Smith and Reynolds most are the “cliques,” ad hoc groups of young men not accountable to the longer-standing organizations. They regard the cliques as the source of most of the mindless violence throughout the city, and they are particularly difficult to regulate.

“These shooters, they wake up at 3[p.m.], pop a molly, two blue dolphins [ecstasy], drink a Red Bull with Patrón, that’s breakfast,” says Smith. “They cannot function without it. They might eat some fast food once a day. These kids are rail thin, their stomach is touching their back, their faces are sunken in, their eyes are bugged out, and they’re smoking high-powered weed all day.”

Their threat is solely in the weapon they carry. “They’re not strong. They aren’t built to fight. They need the gun because physically they can’t fight,” says Reynolds. “They’re not gladiators, trust me.”

The force is not with you

If you’re a resident of Woodbury, Eagan, or Mound, perhaps you’re asking, “Why don’t they call the cops?” The refrain downtown is universal: “What cops?”

“For the past 18 months, we haven’t seen a police presence, beat cops around,” says Joe Berg, owner/operator of Empire Entertainment, which operates the Exchange, Alibi, and Pourhouses in downtown and Uptown. Most are basically adjacent to the downtown precinct house.

Berg says he still sees a benefit in hiring off-duty cops at $75 an hour, and despite the city’s depleted force, they’re available. An off-duty cop sits in front of Union at 8th/Hennepin late on weekends, but that did not deter shots from being fired in the intersection over several recent weekends, nor an imbroglio involving a customer tossed from Union with a weapon (that Smith says he was asked to help defuse) that drew a half-dozen on-duty police cars.

Union owner Kam Talebi says the officer’s presence conveys a message of “care” to customers, because “late night, there is a lack of presence of police. The streets are not being monitored as we’ve historically seen.”

“We’ve been out here six weekends on the rooftop so far [this summer],” adds Sherman, “and I haven’t seen a cop on Hennepin on patrol one time.” When he calls, the results are unpredictable. “A convicted felon with a gun broke our windows last summer, the cops pulled up, and they cited our security person for not wearing a mask outdoors.”

“The guy was smashing our windows as [police] rolled up,” Smith recalls. “They didn’t arrest him.”

Sherman has recently diversified out of downtown Minneapolis, opening a Cowboy Jack’s nightclub in Apple Valley. “You know what the cops do in Apple Valley?” he asks. “Something!”

The long, hot summers to come

For businesses like Sherman’s and Cowley’s, the downtown calculus is becoming increasingly fraught. PPP money and other forms of aid helped keep them alive, but the future is exceptionally murky, with a daytime workforce and nighttime entertainment clientele yet to return, and a depleted and reluctant Minneapolis police force. In a year, things will be clearer on the worker front. As for policing, no one knows.

“Here’s the new reality: The police aren’t coming,” says Cowley. “Can you exist in that environment?”

As for Sherman, he says he’d be out of business if he hadn’t reoriented away from food toward nightclub. He says the shooting in June, when a University of St. Thomas student was killed by a stray bullet on First Avenue, did not dent his weekend business, but Seven is only open four days a week, and a silent downtown (as of mid-July) means there’s not yet any event business or after work happy hour/dinner clientele.

Sherman is asking deep existential questions about his capacity to attract business in a racially polarized and often violent downtown. “I love my staff; I enjoy being here,” he says. “A significant number of white Minnesotans will put a self-righteous sign in their front yard, but will they socialize with Black people?”

Table full of drinks
A 2 a.m. table at Seven.

Sherman conveys antipathy for sociopathic cops like Derek Chauvin, but he is equally contemptuous of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and the City Council for their anti-police rhetoric and defunding efforts, which he believes have demoralized decent cops and left neighborhoods at the mercy of nihilistic young men. “All it has done is hurt the Black community, made our jobs difficult, and sent our customers to the suburbs.”

His left- and right-hand men lack the luxury to look beyond the city’s borders, so they play the hand they’ve been dealt. “We have to have hope,” says Smith. “What is the alternative? This is where we live.”

Hope tempered by pragmatism, that is. “You gotta handle your own business in this city right now,” says Reynolds. “And if you can’t, you’re lunch meat.”

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