After a prolonged soft-opening last month, the new “rock & roll cannabis lounge” The Zen Arcade makes its official opening this week, inside the same building as the Hook & Ladder Theater and Lounge and literally right next door to the former building that housed the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct, which was torched in the uprising following George Floyd’s murder in 2020. 

A new Minnehaha Avenue location for the precinct was only recently announced, a timeline that stands in sharp contrast to that of The Zen Arcade, which in short order has risen from the ashes of the tumult and pandemic toward a new legal weed future.

“Three guys with no money somehow pull off a store in a city that pays $100 million a year on a police settlement and can’t figure out how to rent a bulldozer,” cracked Chris Mozena, the Hook’s co-founder/executive director who has co-founded The Zen Arcade as a separate enterprise from the Hook with partners Mark Walztoni and Jesse Brodd. 

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“It’s amazing, actually, with everything that’s happened that we persevere, and the expansion is really exciting,” said Walztoni. “In my mind, I’m not sad the cops are gone from next door. They were not a helpful presence to begin with. Hopefully they’ll figure out what to do with that space. We’d love to have something that fits in with the sort of theater district that we’re hoping this area becomes.”

MinnPost photo by Jim WalshThe Zen Arcade is located next door to the shuttered former Third Precinct building and inside the same building as the Hook & Ladder Theater and Lounge.Launching the same year Minnesota legalized recreational marijuana, The Zen Arcade is a good example of the entrepreneurial spirit fueling the new homegrown industry and joins a growing list of area cannabis-themed businesses. It’s positioned in the vibrant Minnehaha Avenue district that includes the Hook, Moon Palace Books, Arbeiter Brewing Company, Ricardo Levins Art Studio and Store, and D&J Glove Repair

“Because we have built-in entertainment foot traffic in this building, it seemed natural to do a music-oriented THC- or canna-lounge,” said Walztoni. “A rock & roll cannabis lounge, there isn’t anything really out there in the market like that. All the other places listed are small storefronts that are more like cigarette and tobacco shops. 

“But we want to bring a whole experience to coming here. We want it to be the place where people stop on Fridays to get their weekend supplies, but we also want it to be a really chill place to hang out, look at records, have something to eat. A lot of people that don’t drink alcohol, they don’t really have a place to hang out like that. So the idea is to create a space that is a little bit insulated from that kind of alcohol-based behavior and entertainment.”

“Over the last few years, and it’s probably been going on for a decade or more, consumption trends are changing with younger demographics,” said Mozena. “They’re particularly doing less alcohol and are more interested in the THC beverages and options, and there are a lot more NA (non-alcoholic) drinkers. Here what we’ve seen is an initial wave of THC curiosity, and we’re still in that wave right now.”

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Hemp-derived THC edibles and beverages became legal in Minnesota in 2022, and the Minnesota Legislature legalized marijuana this year. While homegrow, possession and use of marijuana is already legal, non-tribal retail sales aren’t expected until spring 2025.

Part indie record store and DIY speakeasy, The Zen Arcade provides hemp-derived THC snacks, cookies, drinks, Heggie’s pizza, and their own house gummy brand, Yummi Life, the merits and potency of which all three owners are adept at schooling newbies in. A new two-player video game console with 5,000 vintage games is slated to adorn one wall, and customers are encouraged to browse the vinyl and commandeer the turntable, all of which adds to the free-flowing nature of the venue. 

“So far, it’s been really, really well-received,” said Mozena. “By definition, an arcade is a collection of arches and different activities under those arches, and that was part and parcel the inspiration, along with one of the greatest records ever to come out of this city.”

That record would be “Zen Arcade,” the 1984 Husker Du album that chronicles a loner’s struggle with his inner and outer world and was buoyed by Husker classics “Pink Turns To Blue,” “Turn On The News,” “Never Talking To You Again,” and “Something I Learned Today.” Spin magazine ranked it No. 4 on its list of top 100 alternative albums, it landed on numerous best-of lists in the ‘80s, and it remains inspirational today — especially on Minnehaha Avenue.  

“This record was hugely influential to me. I grew up in a small town in Iowa, and whatever the first SST record I got had the mail-order mimeograph paper in there, and I sent away for this thing and it came with that poster in it,” said Mozena, pointing at the vintage “Zen Arcade” poster hanging on the wall. “I know I’m not alone by a longshot with this record, but it was transformative for me personally. One of my good friends from Iowa, when we were kicking names around, kind of suggested that it might be a winner. So we did it; we want to embrace that history and that wall is kind of going to fill up with local music. 

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“We were lucky enough to be friends with [late Husker Du singer/drummer Grant [Hart], and host farewell shows to him at the Hook, and [former Husker Du bassist] Greg Norton and his band Ultrabomb played their first show in the U.S. here.”

MinnPost photo by Jim WalshA poster of Husker Du’s 1984 album “Zen Arcade” hovers over the proceedings at the Zen Arcade in Minneapolis.“We do really love Husker Du, like most Minnesota music lovers do and so we wanted to have a nod to them as well,” Walztoni said. “It’s kind of a criss-cross between the music and the THC, and people will recognize the name. It’s not like we’re a store that just sells Husker Du pirate T-shirts, we’re not trying to take advantage of anybody. We just really love the local music scene; the ‘Mats, Huskers, Babes, everybody like that. So we’re trying to pay homage to that.”

MinnPost photo by Jim WalshThe Zen Arcade features vinyl records and CDs for purchase and playing and highlights the work of DEMO (Diverse Emerging Music Organization).It’s been a long haul, but with The Zen Arcade opening its doors this week, the owners envision a bright future.

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“Jesse and Mark have put a ton of heart and soul and time into this, from painting to lighting to merchandising. There’s been a ton of effort — with no budget,” said Mozena. “One of the things that’s in development right now is the designation of the outdoor smoking lounge on the patio area.”

“We’re optimistic someday that we’ll get a retailer micro license to be able to offer (cannabis) flower and concentrates,” Mozena added.

“Support local, local, local, that’s the concept,” said Walztoni. “Eventually we’ll morph into a dispensary down the road, but for now we’re happy to be here as a canna-lounge. Small shows here, live programming on Saturdays. Local jewelry, local artists. Fill it up with activities. Everybody who’s come in so far is really excited about the vibe, they’re happy that this kind of market is going to be available for them. So, it’s a very encouraging sign that it’s going to be a good place to hang.”

MinnPost photo by Jim WalshWalztoni helping a customer perusing The Zen Arcade’s house brand gummies, Yummi Life.
 Launching the same year Minnesota legalized recreational marijuana, The Zen Arcade is a good example of the entrepreneurial spirit fueling the new homegrown cannabis industry.  Read More