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.”
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.”
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.”
See, Murray’s has no private dining space, a veritable requirement for high-end restaurants today. Ironically, in the 1984 renovation, several small spaces that could be used for that purpose were removed. “Now we’re going full circle,” Tim Murray notes. The plan is to wall off the portion of the dining room on the bar side of the restaurant with movable dividers that can create one or two private rooms, or leave the dining room completely open on nights that demand it.
The renovation, which will cost up to $600,000 and be bank- and SBA-financed (“We never recommend a restaurant finance a major project out of cash flow,” says Spaulding), is expected to show an immediate return. “I think there’s the potential to see a 20 to 30 percent [jump in revenues], and 50 isn’t out of the question,” Tim Murray says.
“Private dining space is a no-brainer,” says Shea. “It reduces the vastness of the space. The dining room will never feel empty.” (Lack of the buzzy energy that a full dining room brings is a turnoff for diners.)
The other way the restaurant can beef up revenues (and profitability) is through an increase in bar business. The current Murray’s bar has a dated quality, evoking neither classic 1960s appeal nor a contemporary vibe. “Murray’s also suffers from subpar liquor sales,” says Shea. “Renovation of the bar will attract younger customers, who drink more.”
Murray’s bar was shortened in 1984, when the three-martini lunch decades came to a close. When new smoking rules went into effect nearly a decade ago, most drinking bars further atrophied. Shea’s renovation will restore Murray’s horseshoe bar, while adding tables to trade on the current trend of bar dining. Drinking is far more social in today’s restaurant world.
Alcohol is key, because a quasi-steakhouse like Murray’s has some of the highest product costs in the hospitality business. “Our food costs make this a difficult business to make money at,” says Jill Murray. Volume helps, but when 80 percent of your food sales are beef, so do the high margins that alcohol sales bring.
The private dining gap is easily addressed, but the generation gap cannot simply be addressed with a bigger bar. “We’re pushing them on a lot of fronts,” Shea says. “A distinct bar menu with lighter, shareable food. New signature dishes in the main room. I’d like to see the tablecloths off the tables at lunch. Ultimately they have to succeed in creating an experience that draws people. Steak is not enough today.”
The bar changes are relatively radical, and Murray’s dining room will feel quite different as well. But there is recognition that Murray’s cannot merely re-cover chairs and change some lighting.
“The most daunting challenge we have in that regard,” says Shea, “is the restaurant’s overall formality.” Jill Murray says many prospective customers ask to eat in the bar because they feel out of place. “Diners who aren’t dressed to the nines don’t feel comfortable in our dining room,” Tim Murray adds.
Shea says his confidence “is very high. The family is willing to evolve and work with us.” And even as he asks the Murrays to contemplate what seem like dramatic changes, Shea says that he has to “practice restraint.”
“Most designers would take everything out,” Shea continues. His team’s plan is to instead harvest the period lighting from the dining room to use in the bar, to reframe historic photos and original art, and to evoke the dining room’s curved soffits in the new bar. Finally, the bold colors on Murray’s façade will show up in the restaurant.
“They are keeping what’s special and energetic,” says Jill Murray, “but replacing what’s tired. We’re pleased they haven’t gone too far.”
Murray’s considered other ideas before settling on Shea’s plan. The family seriously evaluated entreaties from development company Hines to relocate to what is now the Oceanaire space in 50 S. Sixth St. when the building opened in 2001 (they could not agree on terms). A subsequent move to the ex-Goodfellow’s and Forum Cafeteria space in City Center was also discussed. The sale of the family-owned Murray’s building would have facilitated either move.
But ultimately, Shea says the process helped the family come to the conclusion that Murray’s iconic façade is essential to the restaurant’s visibility—and its longevity. “Murray’s is smart as hell to do this,” says Phil Roberts, chairman and CEO of Parasole Restaurant Holdings, whose Manny’s Steakhouse is regarded within the biz as among the top-grossing restaurants in the Twin Cities. “What Murray’s needs to do is go back to the symbols and touchstones of an era, while not staying ‘your father’s restaurant.’”
Tim Murray knows he is late to the party. “If I had known the economy was going to collapse,” he says, “we would have done this six years ago.”
But Roberts, who does not consider Murray’s a direct competitor, credits the Murray family with grasping an essential lesson about the value of a brand. “I failed to recognize the brand equity we had in 27 years at [now closed] Figlio, and we threw the baby out with the bathwater.”
The Murrays never had that option. They are not a concept factory nor do they aspire to operate multiple eateries. They own a family business in a competitive, trend-driven trade and must adapt or perish.
Siblings Tim, Jill, and James Murray
“We’re called to carry on this tradition for the next generation of our family and the next generation of our guests,” says Jill.
When Murray’s reopens after Labor Day, there will be a rush of free media and hordes of samplers. Tim Murray is even considering doing some marketing to get the word out. In the end the family hopes that amid the whirlwind of new décor, ambience, and menu items, one classic offering still resonates.
“People bring us their most special moments,” Jill says. “They want to feel cared about. We care. Our staff cares.”
“There is a Murray here 99 percent of our opening hours,” Tim says. “We love this business. We’re sincere and we’re genuine. We’re the real thing, and we’re rebranding to reacquaint people with who we are.”