It is a hot and sunny day in downtown Minneapolis. The restaurant patios along Sixth Street have customers even at mid-afternoon. In the center of the energy is an oasis of quiet and refinement, Murray’s Restaurant. On this afternoon a large party has gathered at the back of its plush mirrored dining room, not for a celebration, but to reinvent the business.
The principals of Minneapolis architectural firm Shea Inc., including founder David Shea and his chief lieutenant, Tanya Spaulding, are briefing two generations of the Murray family—seven of them this afternoon—on proposed changes to the 66-year-old restaurant. Drawings are circulated, costs discussed, carpet and fabric samples examined for how well they hold up to meat grease and garlic toast debris.
There is a seriousness and wariness in the air. This will be the first major rethinking of Murray’s since 1984, an eon in the restaurant business. The changes will be costly, some of them risky, and a few might strike Murray’s habitués as radical. In July, the restaurant closed to begin its remodeling. It will reopen shortly after the Labor Day weekend. (Sadness attended the beginning of the remodeling work with the passing of Pat Murray, the restaurant’s paterfamilias, on July 30 at age 72.)
Jill Murray, who manages the restaurant some evenings, tells a story of a couple who recently came in. They ogled the hushed dining room, with its beveled mirrored walls, plush curtains, 1940s light fixtures, and art in elaborate frames. They related how much they loved the room, how wonderful it was that the iconic space was untouched by time.
“I thanked them and asked if it would be two for dinner,” Jill says. “They said, ‘Oh, no, we just ate [next door] at Oceanaire.’ But they said they planned to return in the future and hoped we never changed.
“We told [Shea], ‘No sacred cows,’” she continues. “The last thing we want is to become a museum.”
The Price of Longevity
Murray’s is one of the oldest restaurants in the Twin Cities, and certainly the last remaining of a class of fine dining mainstays that dominated the town in the decades after World War II. What Art and Marie Murray began in 1946 two successive generations have maintained.
Best known to Twin Citians for its historic turquoise façade with a giant image of the restaurant’s iconic “silver butter knife steak” (so tender it could be cut with a butter knife), the rest of Murray’s has not been as static as those Oceanaire diners believed. Murray’s 1984 renovation changed the layout of the restaurant, and a cosmetic re-do in 2006 took the quirky pink color scheme to beige.
But what has not changed about Murray’s is its Old World formality, on display at only one other Twin Cities restaurant, the elegantly modern La Belle Vie (which pays most of its bills with its more informal lounge business). Tablecloths cover tables even at lunch, male employees wear ties, and the staff displays an officious reserve that evokes a more gracious time.
“We’ve been accused of being stubborn,” says Jill Murray, 45, “but we understand that if we didn’t make changes the business would take on a negative trend.”
Murray’s faces the same dilemma as any heritage business navigating a generational changeover in customer base and its attendant changes in tastes: how to maintain the core assets while reinventing what no longer works. It’s the same challenge faced by WCCO Radio, the Minnesota Orchestra, and urban businessmen’s clubs.
“We know who we are and we know who we’ve been,” says Tim Murray, at 51 the oldest Murray sibling and the de facto public face of the restaurant. “The old guard knows who we are, but we need to make a better connection with new customers.”
The Quest to Go Private
Tim Murray says the restaurant’s best years in his memory were in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with another peak around 2001. The restaurant did a robust business at lunch and dinner, weeknight and weekend. Post-9/11 and during the more recent entrenched recession, business trends have featured a decline in convention traffic, which had sustained weeknight and bar business, and a slump in corporate spending, the foundation of lunch business.
“Years ago we were packed every day at lunch,” Tim Murray says. “Lyon’s Pub is always full now. People are rushed and they are looking for a casual setting. I’d like to see us get that business back.” As for dinners, “we’d like to be full every night; we know there are places that are full every night.” Murray’s does the vast majority of its dinner business on weekends.
The business, the family insists, remains profitable, and 2010 and 2011 were up years, which allowed them to dust off plans for a renovation and rebranding they have been discussing with Shea since 2000.
“What made Murray’s had been watered down,” says Shea’s Spaulding. “In the last two remodels they lost some of that great 1950s and 1960s DNA. The sign outside says it all. There was more color, more texture.”
“The whole effort starts,” says David Shea, “with preserving and enhancing the things that make Murray’s Murray’s.” The changes are motivated by a specific business imperative: “I get four or five calls a week from customers in search of a private dining venue,” says Tim Murray. Many are corporate or special occasion group diners. They are primed to spend, often with relative abandon. “And it breaks my heart, but I have to turn them away.”