There is arguably no greater business of interest to the general public than restaurants and food. Its news is always the most clicked in the daily newspaper; chefs are among the biggest global celebrities and TV stars. Yet it is also one of the most misunderstood businesses. From pay practices to ownership structures to odds of success, restaurants exist and thrive on illusion—illusion often fed by mass media. We asked four influential local players to discuss the state of the business and whether it’s on a sustainable path or about to hit a wall. The discussion has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Gavin Kaysen is the Twin Cities–raised chef who accumulated Michelin stars working for Daniel Boulud in New York. He is now CEO of his own restaurant empire. He returned home five years ago to found Soigné Hospitality, which operates Spoon & Stable, Bellecour, and Demi. He was named James Beard Best Chef Midwest in 2018. (He was named James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2008, while in New York.)
Apple Valley native Ann Kim opened the unexpected Pizzeria Lola to great acclaim in 2010. She and husband, Conrad Leifur, followed it up with Hello Pizza and Young Joni, garnering her a James Beard Best Chef Midwest honor this year.
Restaurateur Tim Niver co-founded Town Talk Diner in 2006 and Strip Club Meat & Fish in 2008. His more recent creations include Saint Dinette, Mucci’s, and the recently closed Meyvn.
Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor. He has covered the restaurant business in the Twin Cities since 1991.
Tanya Spaulding is a principal at Shea, the Minneapolis–based architecture and design firm that specializes in restaurant design and operations and consults with many current and prospective restaurateurs.
TCB: One of the things we talk about incessantly in business journalism right now is disruption. Every industry, or most every industry, views itself as having been disrupted since the recession. Has the restaurant business been disrupted or is this one of the few that is still basically what it was a decade ago?
Tanya Spaulding: There hasn’t really been any big sea change though – has there?
Gavin Kaysen: I think the #MeToo movement has been a big sea change.
Spaulding: From [Shea’s] perspective, I haven’t seen the kind of sea change that swooped in and changed the industry as a fundamental whole.
Tim Niver: I think, having opened up a restaurant in 2006 and 2008, it was way different then. We didn’t think about social media as much. Word of mouth, right? Well, mouths don’t work the same. I think that things have changed, but we’re still looking at it all with some kind of wonder. Are service charges [coming]? How are we going to pay for health insurance? More and more, from our industry, I think we’re being asked to tackle the bigger problems. I think restaurateurs and people in the industry kind of innovate anyway. We’re the artists of the business world, in a sense, and we’re always doing something maybe just a little bit ahead of everybody else.
Ann Kim: It seems like guests feel like there’s a certain [price] cap they’re willing to pay for food. Not for fashion or a purse or a car. But when it comes to food, people have a certain mentality that food should be this price. This experience should cost this much. And that’s just not true. It’s hard to sustain an industry like this. You have to take care of your own people and that costs money.
Niver: One of the things we’ve been talking about a lot lately is convenience. Nobody really wants to wait in line. Because there’s so much more choice out there that if it’s not convenient here, I’ll find it convenient here. How easy is it to come and join me? Am I asking you to wait? I am. How long, what happens when you sit down? Am I thanking you for that? This convenience thing is something we’ve talked about a lot.
TCB: It’s a dichotomy between intense public desire and interest but a less forgiving attitude toward the business than a couple of decades ago.
Spaulding: They want everything on their own terms. Like Ann said, there’s so much out there right now—they have so many different choices—they want everything to be perfect in their dining experience. From the environment to the service to the food quality, they expect the highest levels, but they want it on their own terms. They want to make the environment as casual as they expect it to be or as formal as they expect to be. They want to make it casual, even if it is a finer dining experience. And they expect you, as restaurateurs, to adapt to that. So the [nuances] of finer dining or finer casual or all of those terms are getting blurred.
TCB: There’s a place I like to have lunch in downtown Minneapolis. It’s a pretty large, high-volume restaurant, and I was talking to one of the bartenders and she said to me, “If you were to walk back into the kitchen right now, you would not find a single ticket that didn’t have a modification on it. Everybody wants to customize what they order, sometimes even in ways with ingredients we don’t have on the menu.”
Kim: The thing is now that it is difficult to say no. I mean, there is this expectation that if I want a gluten-free option, if I want a vegetarian option, a vegan option, a dairy-free option, the expectation now is the norm is to be able to deliver that in order to compete; but also, I think, our philosophy is hospitality. We are in the industry to serve, but we’re also in the industry to serve those who are part of our team. And I think that’s where that break between what the guests expect and what they don’t realize—what it takes in order to give and service those expectations—is really high.
TCB: If there’s one thing that stands out as the most challenging aspect of the business right now, what is it?
Spaulding: Well, from the outside looking in—as a non-restaurateur who works with restaurateurs—I think what the general public really doesn’t have a grasp of how difficult it is to actually be successful economically in the restaurant business. They seem to see, “This is a busy restaurant; oh, they must be making so much money.” And we have a lot of people who come to us and want to get into the business because it looks like fun and it looks like people are making money. We spend more time trying to talk people out of it because it is so difficult.
Kim: If you want to make money, easy money, don’t enter the restaurant business. I’m sorry, it’s just not the way it is. Every day we have something that goes wrong—at least a dozen things. You know, not all major catastrophes, but that can ultimately affect your service for the day. And if the dishwasher doesn’t show up, if your sous-chef doesn’t show up, the show still has to go on.
Kaysen: I think one of the biggest challenges is retention and finding people. When I worked in the middle of Manhattan, it was still hard to find people. And I worked for a really, really famous [chef], and it was hard to find people for that restaurant. It just continues to get harder. I think that’s the way our business is perceived on the outside, with the hours being very difficult. I was at my son’s hockey game the other day, and I was talking to all these dads, and they’re like, “All the hours are so tough in your business.” And I was like, I don’t know, are they? I work the same hours you work; it’s just flipped hours. You get up at 5 in the morning and go to work; I don’t. Right now, I go to bed when you’re asleep. I mean, just flipping [but] it’s all the same.
Spaulding: Spouses really love that, don’t they?
Kaysen: I think the thing is that the business is perceived to be bad for you and daunting. If you take the last 18 months, there’s been a lot of really inspiring stories that have come out of it through mental health and awareness and the Anthony Bourdain suicide and all of these things that have come out. That has shed a whole new light on our industry. I can tell you, as a parent, I understand why it would be hard for you to say to your child, “Get into this business—it seems really rewarding,” when you’re reading about all of this. But it is very rewarding if you find the right people, if you find the right mentor to work under or the right group to work under, it is an incredibly rewarding business to be a part of.
There is an emotional profit to what you do. By going in front of a guest and watching their reaction when they get great food and great service and, ultimately, that genuine hospitality that you strive for every day–you see them smile and walk out with a smile. And you can’t help but feel very fulfilled by that experience. I’m not worried about me seeing it. I love it when the cooks can see it. I love it when the servers can see it, because the managers should always see it.
TCB: I was talking to Brent Frederick, who’s one of the co-founders of Jester Concepts, arguably the largest restaurant group run by millennials in town. He said he thought a third of the restaurants in the Twin Cities are losing money, a third are breaking even, and a third make money. And he said the people in this industry are too proud to acknowledge the fact that a majority of restaurants are not significantly profitable.
Niver: Don’t people know this already, honestly?
[The group disagrees.]
Niver: But after all these years, why isn’t it known? Because certainly they said, “Oh, that one closed. Oh why did that close?” Everybody talks about it all the time.
Kaysen: I think that’s one of the things that we need to be able to do better as restaurateurs is to communicate what it is that we’re doing. Take charity [dinners], for example. You give away a charity dinner for 10 people in your restaurant, and you take in $0 for it. Who pays for it? Who pays for the labor? Who pays for the food and for the wine? I would agree with what Tanya said: You walk into a restaurant that’s busy, and you’re like, “They’re printing money. Where’s the printer?”
Spaulding: And [they ask] “Why did this go up to $17 instead of $14?” I don’t think they would be more forgiving. I think that’s changed. I think [people] have such high expectations. I mean, it’s shifted in the last 10 years. People don’t eat at home anymore. They’re like me and go out six nights a week.
TCB: I don’t think it’s the restaurant industry that has driven this, I think it’s the media. We have elevated chefs or restaurateurs into these demigods and they’re celebrities now. When you guys read food magazines or turn on Food Network, do you ever just roll your eyes? Or are you like, “Hey, cool! Bobby is on TV!”
Gavin: No, because at the end of the day, I grew up watching Emeril. And Emeril sold his company to Martha [Stewart] for $50 million—God bless him. He created a business that worked and that sold. I don’t think I’m envious of that; I’m inspired by that.
TCB: I don’t mean envious. What I mean is this sense that the media has elevated chefs and certain restaurateurs to these celebrities, and the public thinks you own the restaurant, you cook the food, you design the walls. It’s like they don’t really understand the extent to which it is such a collaborative effort.
Kaysen: But I think that’s in every industry. There needs to be a name that people can associate with a brand, whoever that name is; there’s comfort to that.
Kim: I mean, 10 years ago I thought I was going to have a 20-seat restaurant. I was going to get up and make dough every day, make the pizzas, work the oven, work my guests, and do it all over again, day in and day out. Well, that has changed, obviously. We went from one restaurant to three going on four. I don’t make the food. My role has totally evolved and changed. I don’t work in the business, I work on the business in order to make sure that our team has the resources—emotionally, financially, mentally—so they can do what they do. That’s a different skill set. At first, it was really hard because I didn’t get into the industry to do HR or to do conflict resolution. I did it because I love to cook and I loved hospitality. We all love what we do, but now it’s different. If we get this quote-unquote “celebrity,” then bravo! Because you’ve worked hard to get there.
But I don’t want young cooks or young prospective entrepreneurs to look at this and say, “Oh, I could be a celebrity chef if I do this!” or “If I get on Guy’s Grocery Games or something I’m going to be a celebrity!” That’s just not the way it is. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s tiring. It’s a lot of stress. It’s a lot financially. There’s a lot of risk. It’s an investment.
Niver: A lot of times, I will literally be pouring somebody a water, and they’ll say “Oh, so you’re the chef!” “No, I’m pouring you water. I’m your server right now.” I do it all. I think people do want to associate that person with being a chef, that it’s that position that is the top of the line. I love answering “No, I’m your server.” The chef is a big part, but it’s also about this energy in the front. I’ve also found that people being interested in the front of the house has dissipated a little bit because you don’t see Top General Manager on Bravo, you see Top Chef. That’s way less interesting.
TCB: What is the easiest thing to mess up on the front end that will haunt your restaurant for the rest of its life?
Spaulding: The lease deal that you sign and the business deal you get into—and the amount of capital that you have to go into if you’re a first-time restaurateur in particular—is the thing that kills so many restaurants. It’s not just being undercapitalized. The infrastructure of putting a restaurant into a non-restaurant space is incredibly costly. If you sign a bad business deal and you have a space that you have to put full infrastructure in, that can kill your restaurant before you even open, before you even have a first draft of a menu.
Niver: It’s hard to estimate sales. You can put on paper whatever number you want, hand it over to a number of people, and say, “Oh, yeah, I can totally see this doing $2 million a year, no problem.” Well, I haven’t opened my door, I haven’t cooked a bagel or whatever. It’s a good guess, right? You think, “It’s a good guess. They’re doing that, aren’t they, over there? Aren’t they doing $2 million, $1.5? That place has been here for 20 years. This neighborhood is very supportive—no problem.”
We tried to, and it didn’t work in this last instance with Meyvn. You try to come in with a very conservative sales estimate so that you can build below it and say that this would work at a worst-case scenario. But, you know, things happen, like 60 days of tumultuous winter. I’ve never seen anything like that 60-day period since I’ve lived in this city. And we’re trying to build business in those 60 days. There was nothing to build, man. There was nothing going on. So we’re sitting there going, “OK, this isn’t exactly how we thought our first five months was going to go.” And, in all honesty, we almost still made it work. But we decided, looking conceptually, with Meyvn there were a lot of tweaks we were going have to make. Sometimes you’re fighting too many changes to have it be what you thought it was going to be. Then what are you doing? You’re just muddying things. So for us it was kind of like, “OK, we need to stop before we go too far and we can’t come back from a bad decision.”
TCB: You made a very cold-blooded decision. Was it a difficult decision to make? I mean, emotionally.
Niver: It’s still a hard decision. I’m dealing with that decision in my brain right now. I mean absolutely.
Kaysen: You know what’s interesting? In our business, the two things that are so [prominent] are shame and guilt. It’s two things that are surrounding us all the time. If you’re a chef and you leave before the service is ending, how do you feel? Guilty. If you take an extra day off, if you take a vacation, you feel guilty for it. It’s like what Ann was saying–there’s this association that as a chef you have to work all the time. And listening to Tim talk makes me think to myself, how many times have we heard of restaurants closing but you don’t ever call that person and say, “Offer me advice—what happened? Talk me through—I want to know what’s going on in your head.” Not only will that help Tim go through that, ultimately, you’re helping the business as a whole, and we’re all collectively making better decisions.
I think that’s something as a business we can do a better job at. We don’t need the media or the public for any of that. We just need each other. And building a community with one other is so powerful and so impactful.
Everything is on Instagram now. Everything is rateable right away. We think of restaurants as rateable, not restorative. I say to people, “Change the way you’re thinking. You can’t rate us moving forward. Just be restored. Sit back and relax. And the put the phone down.”
Spaulding: Tim, you should be applauded for what you did, because you made a very smart business decision in a time frame that you could recover from it. Many people don’t. Many restaurateurs don’t. They don’t pull the plug when they need to.
Niver: Thank you. It didn’t feel good. You can applaud for me, and it still doesn’t feel good. Right? Because at the end of the day, you still have to go do the work. I still have to look at my people and face my wife, my partners, the people that helped me start the dream. At the beginning it’s like, “Oh yeah!” You’re giving knuckles and high-fives and this is great. It’s always going to work at the beginning.
Kim: I would say, too, having gone into this industry pretty green, my husband, my business partner—we went into it not knowing anything. We shouldn’t have gone into it. The advice that I would give is, “Partner with someone or multiple people that you trust that have skills that you do not have, and as a matter of fact, that are much more talented than you are.” People just think, “If I can cook and I’m really an extrovert, then I’m going to run a successful restaurant.” No.
Kaysen: Watching the debate about tipping and hospitality charge and minimum wage, watching all of this debate happen from afar, it’s fascinating to watch because the real questions aren’t being asked. Which are “Can we talk about P&L’s? Can we talk about what it means to run a business?” But you have to ask the right questions first.
Kim: And that’s when we found out that most people didn’t realize that restaurateurs and chefs aren’t wealthy. They just assumed, “Oh, the poor server makes no money.” It’s like, “Are you kidding me? My servers make more money than anybody!” So people don’t have an understanding, and we do have to start talking, like Gavin said. To have knowledge is really powerful, and who can share that knowledge but the people who do it every day? But [it feels] shameful to [admit] “I don’t make my number, or I had to get rid of X people, or people aren’t showing up to my restaurants.” It’s like you failed, but everybody else is going through the same thing.
TCB: So let me jump into this labor discussion. The restaurant industry was quite demonized by the social justice community in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The industry is one of the highest utilizers of the minimum wage. I don’t know if there’s an industry that uses more minimum-wage employees, but they’re minimum wage tip-based employees, and the complexity of that is often hard to explain to people. As Brent Frederick said to me in the column I wrote about this, “I have servers making $75,000 a year. Do they need a $5-an-hour raise over the next five years? Or is it somebody in my kitchen who is already underpaid?” What does this industry need to do to get its message out? Because I’ve been talking to restaurateurs who aren’t in this room, who are saying in two or three more years, once the wage is up to $15, they can’t make money with their business model.
Kim: This whole thing came about because of equity, right? That we make things equitable for people who live in our city, who work, who are making minimum wage: It’s got to go up. And I was not opposed to that, but what really frustrated me was people who were coming up with this do not understand our industry. Like you said, they didn’t even understand what tip credit meant. They didn’t understand the dynamics of a restaurant and how it worked. So the ones who were making the most money in our industry got a raise and those who didn’t are staying at the same. It made it more inequitable for people in our industry, but there was zero understanding on their part.
Spaulding: And they weren’t listening. How many times was that explained? The people that made the decisions are the people who didn’t equip themselves with that level of knowledge. How can they say that they understand your business more than you all do? That was what was frustrating about the whole thing, being kind of in the middle of it—nobody’s listening.
TCB: What was interesting to me is this is an industry of liberally minded people, by and large. This is not an industry of fiscal or ideological conservatives. Yet it was, in many ways, target numero uno of the social justice community, and I was just shocked by the disconnect.
Kim: The servers deserve what they make, but the kitchen, they also deserve more. If you go to any restaurant these days and you have a really good meal, people will often leave above 20 percent because they think it’s going to go to the restaurant or the kitchen. It goes straight into the server’s pocket. Was the server a part of that experience? Absolutely. But the cook that cooked the food, the person that set up the dining room that made that experience happen, that’s all part of it. So I’d like to see it just change as a whole, not even talking about tip credit, but how this industry works. I think tipping is a real arcane model.
TCB: I was in Australia last summer and I remember going into a Neapolitan pizza restaurant and seeing a $21 margherita pizza. But in Australia everything is baked into the menu price–tax, living wage and health care for employees, etc. Suddenly it’s actually the same price I pay at home.
Spaulding: And how many consumers actually process it that way? No one, absolutely no one.
TCB: But that’s the problem. If you charge $21 and it’s an out-the-door price, people would freak. So that’s not happening. Instead service charges are coming to cover your increased costs, right?
Niver: I want to make sure everybody knows here that we’re already paying people the wage that’s going to be coming down the pipeline. The cooks are already making the money. They’re already doing it, so the only people actually getting raises right now are the servers. Because everybody else is making their $15 an hour, easy. All positions. So it happened naturally, without anybody messing with it. Now it’s messed with. Now the servers are going to get this. So we are stacking it. Now, when the economy tanks, because it will, we’re all stuck. People deserve their money, right? But there’s no ratcheting it back to make it work when the economy isn’t there for us.
TCB: So, let me ask a different labor question. [This industry] is known for the transience of its employee base. Has the industry done a good enough job in providing career paths for people?
Kim: We’re trying really hard to do that because that’s the only way we know how to sustain it. The young cooks who are coming in for experience are always going to want to go someplace else to learn or whatever, but for us the challenge is to find really strong leadership who will stay with us. Instead of just saying, “Oh, there’s opportunity,” we’re trying to actually create real opportunity, where they have room to grow with us; because that’s a challenge in this industry. So for us it really has to be what you can offer them as an organization: mentorship, education, opportunities that you may or may not get, a healthy working culture. Part of what we say is, “You must take two consecutive days off, just for your health.” We’re trying to build a culture that says, “We want you to look at it as a profession, something that is a noble profession that you’re proud to be in.” Because then it’s going to change the perception of people so they want to come into it. Some people just look at it like, “Oh, you know, the dirtbags go into food—those who didn’t succeed in college or high school; this is an alternative.” And it is an alternative–it’s an awesome alternative! You can actually have great mentors and go really far, and be really successful. It’s just something that we have to change, and we are starting internally with us so that we build this culture, and hopefully it’ll rub off and people will see that this is going to be the norm.
Kaysen: Part of it too is that we call it the “industry.” It should be called a profession. I consider myself a professional. I don’t know about you, but I spent a lot of money on making sure my coats are ironed and pressed and I look good in front of the guests every night and my shoes are polished. That’s a professional move. So to Ann’s point, if you look generationally, you think to yourself, “OK, the generation before me, the generation before that, Paul Bocuse basically took the chef out of the kitchen. That was the single movement of nouvelle cuisine, it changed the way we think about how food is created. Put on a plate, not on a platter; the chef goes out of the kitchens and parades around the room and gets to know the guests. That was a really strong movement.
Then you go down to the next generation. Because I worked for him, I’ll use Daniel [Boulud] as an example. What Daniel created to me was restaurants—17 of them, actually—where I can make a pâté en croûte on 64th and Broadway or I could make the same pâté en croûte at the American embassy in Beijing. It was the same recipe, but the second I walked out that back door of the restaurant, I was in a totally different cultural environment. He provided that opportunity for me, providing the opportunity to travel and live wherever I wanted to and open up restaurants all around the world.
So what is our generation going to do for the next generation? What are we going to create and leave for this profession? Maybe that’s pulling away from the thought of it being an industry. Maybe it’s us collectively making these small little shockwaves within our companies. We close our restaurant next Tuesday where we’re having a big event for the whole company. We bring in six speakers from around the country. It’s basically six TED talks, and we’re not talking about food, we’re not talking about cocktails. We’re talking about 401(k)s, we’re talking about addiction, we’re talking about mental health, we’re talking about life coaches. We’re bringing different people to say, “Look, the company has a 401(k). Put this much money away, because this is what it will gain for you in 20 years. I know you’re not thinking about it now because you’re making $15 an hour, but it’s really important for you to take $1 now and just set it aside.” I didn’t grow up in this profession with that. I grew up in this profession as what it’s perceived to be by a lot of the public, this really tough, edgy industry where you have to fight and scrap and get what you want from it. But it’s changed so much, and a lot of that has changed because we want to turn it into a profession.
Spaulding: A lot of the ways that you stay relevant goes back to labor. From a consumer perspective you can go to the bar and get the same bartenders—like I still see here from when [Spoon] opened—that gets guest loyalty. When you have constant turnover, that hurts your guest retention.
Niver: I have a different viewpoint. I love the transience of the industry, and I accept it wholeheartedly. I do feel like people are coming to pass through what we do; when they get here, they’re at one level, and when they leave they’ve gained from being there—hopefully it’s not just professionally but personally. Often people, while they’re working with us, there’s another goal for them. It’s not my goal. My goal is the service tonight–to make it lovely. And I will give you an excellent, fair, loving work environment while you do that. But I also expect you to have something that you really want to do that’s beyond me, so I can support that in you while you have this part-time job, I can support this idea that you are going to do way more than this for yourself, but this was a big part of your path to get there.
Nick Kosevich created Bittercube and Dan Oskey did Joia Soda after working for us. I get to be a part of these guys’ growth, these people’s growth, and to see them go and to help lift them off. I tasted Joia before anybody else in the Twin Cities, and I was like, “Dan, you gotta do this. You know? How do you not do this?” “Well, I am doing it.” And I’m like, “OK, cool. What do you need?” And he’s like, “Well, I need this job!” “OK, well, you know my standard. We keep it. I know what you need to do. Let me know what I can do to help you on your way.” It’s been a nice thing. Then some people, invariably, they don’t know what they want to do. So they have a good place to work while they’re figuring it out. I can give them direction, but people have to decide. I want them to have a place that’s worthy of their time.
Kaysen: We have this young man named Mohammad who runs the valet for Bellecour, and he’s great. He only works like three days a week because he goes to college. And one of our regulars came in, who happens to be a quite powerful doctor, and he’s like, “Where’s Mohammad? I love it when he’s here parking my car. He knows exactly where to put it.” We said to him, “He only works three nights a week because he’s trying to get into medical school.” Stops in his tracks. He’s like, “He’s trying to do what?” He says, “Next time Mohammad is here, make sure he sees me.” So, a month later, Mohammad is in medical school. Tim hits that right on. You will have people in your restaurants who are focused and driven to making this a career. Our job is to find that and to support that to do whatever we can so that they hold on. If they have something that they want to do beyond here, our job is also to do what Tim just said, which is to support them enough to where they can get to where they need to go.
Kim: For me, it’s really about if someone wants to make it a profession, is there a track that’s available for them? Versus “Now I have to leave and sell insurance.”
Kaysen: It’s the pay structure. A manager makes less than a server. Be a leader? You’ll make less. And you’re giving them a pay cut. So you can’t go to a server, now, and say to them, “You’re an amazing leader on the floor. I want you to be a leader in the company.” They say, “Great. What am I going to make?” “Well, you’re going to make this much less than what you’re currently making.”
TCB: I know of a larger restaurant group in town where managers work a 50-hour week and bartenders work a 25-hour week and make more than managers. I think those are terms that the average diner can understand.
So I want to move on to one more thing related to labor. One of the reasons I like writing about this business is that there are so many interesting people, so many creative people with a diverse array of backgrounds, skill sets. How did this industry become a home to as many inappropriate excesses as we’ve started to learn about in the #MeToo movement and how does it reform while not losing its distinctiveness as a workplace?
Spaulding: There are fewer layers of protection in the restaurant industry, so oftentimes it’s a chef-owner or a restaurateur-owner, and if that person is establishing the culture, if they’re abusive in some way—whether they realize it or not—who does the server go to? You don’t have the levels of protection in the levels of management because that’s not how the restaurant industry usually works.
Kaysen: I think that we’re not going to ever be that profession that is the beige cubicle farm. But we’re also not going to be the profession that we were a year and a half ago, when the [Mario] Batali stuff came out. So that shook the business up a lot, for the good.
TCB: Even up here?
Kaysen: I think everywhere. I don’t think there is any restaurant on planet Earth that can tell you that didn’t shake them up.. If they say it didn’t, I think they’re lying, because it makes everybody just look at what you’re doing differently and say, “How can we just be better at what we do? Even if we don’t do any of that, how do we just be better at what we do on a daily basis?” Because that’s, effectively, what you’re trying to do anyways.
Niver: I try to make a point to talk about how grateful I am that we have these work environments where if there was something that was wrong, these people would be leaving–but people stay. And [that means] we have a very safe place for people. That doesn’t mean things that are inappropriate aren’t said, because they’re always said everywhere. But it’s really nice to be able to work in a place where everybody feels safe when they walk in the door. We try to leave the rest of the world outside, you know? You come inside here and this is just work, and we can get along and we’re going to laugh and we’re going to have a good time; this is just work. Leave all the other stuff—all that other noise—out there; we take care of our own inner environment. Grateful to have good people—this is what everyone wants.
TCB: So, Tim, with Meyvn, you venture into the world of deli, historically the black hole of Twin Cities restaurants. Do you feel like, in hindsight that that is kind of a type of food that just doesn’t seem to work up here?
Niver: I think it works. I think everybody wants it. You can go to Cecil’s, where your server’s got his shorts on in the winter and comes and takes care of you and it’s always packed. I think delis work. I think there’s an inherent way that a deli needs to feel. To feel as though—and I don’t love the word “authentic”—but to have that authentic kind of feeling. We purposefully tried to not frame [Meyvn] as a deli but it didn’t work out. Our day-part was “Save big on your breakfast” joint, no matter what. That didn’t help. Our dinner food and menu, we rewrote it numerous times and started a three-course tasting menu for $30 to try to add real value to the finer aspects of what we did. But we just never got the rubber meeting the road on it.
I love the idea of a deli. Always. Having lived in New York, there was always one joint I went to. Got my sandwich four times a week and nothing could beat it. It just didn’t work out at night [for us]. You go in there and we were serving 400, 500 people during the day and some Saturdays. One day a week or two days a week it was awesome. Awesome. But hard to get people out every day, even into Uptown, for that. I’m amazed by the skyway and how many little places are actually like delis that aren’t delis in a traditional sense, and they’re packed, line’s out the door.
TCB: Gavin, New York and Minneapolis. How is being a restaurateur different in Minneapolis than in Manhattan? In terms of what people eat.
Kaysen: Just fewer people to cook for. The food is no different. I didn’t change any of how I create a restaurant, kitchen, a menu, talk to my vendors—I didn’t change any of that by moving to Minneapolis.
TCB: Thirty years ago, would that have been the same statement?
Spaulding: I think it has changed in 30 years because the guests have changed. The guests are more well-traveled, they are seeing the world. So their expectations are that the same level of quality and variety should exist here in Minneapolis, too. So I think the guests have changed, more than maybe the chefs.
Kaysen: I think that has also been a part of our generation’s movement a little bit. We’ve gone to the big cities like San Francisco, L.A., Chicago, New York, and then some people have moved back home or have moved to smaller markets because the rent is cheaper. There’s also a financial downfall to it too, because there are less people to cook for. I don’t have thousands of people walking past Spoon and Stable every single day, but I didn’t change. In fact, that was the first day of orientation, that was the first thing I said there to every single cook: “We will not change how we train our cooks. You can’t roll your pants up, you can’t wear a hat backwards. It’s going to be the exact same way that I’ve trained in New York, you’re no different than them.”
I think the vendors have changed. And I think what has made the vendors change is because of the guest. See, when the guests come to us as the chefs and as the restaurateurs and say, “Well, when I’m in New York I can get this type of”—I’m going to make it up—"cod or this deli sandwich,” or whatever, that inspires us to then go back to the vendor and say, “This is what the guest wants, and this is what we need.”
Niver: 30 years ago, you had Pronto. You had Manny’s Steakhouse—this is almost 30 years ago—you had very high examples here then. Then Food Network started. I’m serving people who have more types of knowledge about certain types of food, beverage, and wine than I do. They walk in and are like “Hey, is this from this and that?” and I’m like, “You know better than me!”
TCB: Gavin, this business seems different at the high end. I would describe the playground you’re in as the high end. Is it?
Kaysen: I honestly don’t know. I’ve only been in this playground. El Bizcocho in San Diego was the first restaurant I was the chef in. I was 24 years old when I got that job. I had no business getting it, but I appreciate them giving me the title. I didn’t have food cost [guidelines]. My job was to solely just win awards so they could sell hotel rooms. I never looked at a number in the three years that I ran that restaurant, and I spent more money than I probably ever should have, but it was fantastic.
TCB: It is different at the high end!
Niver: They didn’t tell you to stop?
Kaysen: They never told me to stop. They just said, “Keep going. Keep going. You’re selling room nights. You’re doing exactly what you need to be doing.” Then I went to Café Boulud. I ran Café Boulud for eight years. And that is a Michelin-starred, super-high-end restaurant. It’s one of Daniel’s babies. It is a math formula to the T. Everything about that space is built correctly. And we did really, really big numbers. We went through a really tough recession, like everybody did, but we didn’t feel it as much. We would always say, “Instead of our guests buying a $600 bottle of wine, they’d buy a $250 dollar bottle of wine– because they felt bad for buying a $600, not because they couldn’t afford to buy the $600,” so it’s a little bit different what we were dealing with up there.
Spoon and Stable to me, I don’t consider it high end or fine dining. I just look at it as running a business. How do I make the margins work? How do we turn a profit? And then how do we use that profit for our good, for the business, and for the restaurant? And it all comes down to the deal. What New York taught me, what Daniel taught me—Daniel was my Ph.D. in this business. There was a moment when Café Boulud was being renovated, and I was given a budget to fix the kitchen. I sat down with Marcel, the CFO at the time, who had been with Daniel for 24 years, and he’s like, “Here’s the numbers—this is what you have to hit.” And I said, “Marcel, you’ve never shown me a P&L. I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I don’t even know what the end number is to hit.” And he’s like, “Really?” I said “Yeah.” So he sat me down; every day we’d go through this P&L. We’d go through all of the numbers and I would understand how to manipulate this to change that to adapt to that food costs, change that labor cost and what it meant.
So then that restaurant basically doubled in revenue by the time I left. And it was because we took on a lot more. It was room service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We did breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And we had a full bar and lounge, and it still had to be Michelin starred. And by the way, we didn’t hire anybody. We kept the same labor force that we had before, when it was only lunch and dinner.
How do you make all that happen? For me, that’s what I love about this business, that there’s a million problems that you come up to, and I love problem-solving. I love finding out what the issues are, figuring out ways to make it better, how to make it happen, how to shift it, and how to make it better for the people who are working through that. I was given the keys to that restaurant. It said “Boulud” on the name, but it could have said my name. I ran the restaurant as if I owned it.
So when I opened up Spoon, it was no different. I walked in the doors and did the same exact thing there. There’s a lot of things that we all do behind the scenes that nobody will ever see. And we will never tell the media. [We’re] making the food scene better for you. You just don’t actually know it, and we’re not going to tell you about it. Because it’s what makes us who we are, and that’s a part of our magic. If there’s one thing we can hold onto as restaurateurs, it’s a little bit of that magic.
TCB: Are you talking about chipotle ranch?
Kaysen: We just pour it into your water.
TCB: In 1980 I was 17 years old and we got in the car, I lived in suburban Chicago, and I was told by my mother were going downtown to try something new. It was the month pesto came to Chicago, or to my parents’ awareness. That was the first time I really ever saw food trends driving behavior. Now, food and restaurant stories go to No. 1 on the Star Tribune, New York Times websites. Do any of you have a sense—maybe Tanya, you especially—what is it about restaurants that has captured the imagination of everybody?
Spaulding: What has shifted over the last 10 years is dining is a form of entertainment. People go out for fun to a restaurant. And it is a couple times a week; it’s not once a month. It’s part of getting out. It’s part of meeting people. They love eating and drinking, as a consumer activity. I think the restaurant industry is entertainment, and restaurants are entertainment for people.
Kim: And why we eat now is different from 30 or 40 years ago. When I was growing up, we never went out to eat. Now, because of social media and all these distractions that we have digitally, in the age of engagement, we’re the most disengaged society ever. And I think what restaurants bring to us is engagement. We actually get to sit around a table and talk to people and celebrate and laugh and drink and eat and yes, we have our phone and we’re taking Instagrammable photos. But we’re there together to engage with one another. I think that’s a big part of why people now choose to go out and eat, outside of grabbing something to eat over their kitchen sink. It is about being together.
Spaulding: That’s a perfect point, because people don’t engage anymore. You mention money. I think a lot of the dollars that used to be saved or go to consumer goods now have been reallocated to restaurants. People go out to eat, and they have money to do it, or they’re allocating the money to do it.
TCB: I have noticed—some of this is social media-driven and internet-driven—but we’ve sort of fetishized new foods and new food ideas. Montreal bagels, Roman pizza. Is that a positive trend or is it a kind of a mania that afflicts?
Kaysen: If people ask you, “Hey, what’s the trend?” Well, if I say it, the trend is already over.
Kim: And none of these things are unique or original. Pizza is not original. Roman pizza has been around forever. Kimchi, fermentation—people have been fermenting food because they had to, and all of a sudden this a new thing? We were putting kimchi on hot dogs and burgers before it ever became a thing because that’s the way we liked to eat it when I was growing up in Apple Valley.
Kaysen: If you open up a restaurant, no matter what the business plan is, you will inevitably get the Instagram crowd to come the first month, six weeks, whatever, and they’ll leave. But they’ll put up posts and do their thing. I eat at Pizzeria Lola all the time. My son walks in and they give him a cookie, and he’s so excited. That’s the thing. At the end of the day, there are trends, but what makes the guests go back to the restaurant on a consistent basis is what Cheers had right in the sitcom. You go where everybody knows your name.
Spaulding: A restaurant that we go into, they have the Champagne sitting on the bar before we take our seats. Tell me that I’m not going back there again.
Kim: That’s hospitality.
TCB: We haven’t really talked about that. Can hospitality be taught or is it something you either understand intuitively or you don’t?
Spaulding: I think you have to understand it intuitively.
Gavin: You have to be a nice person, first of all. Start there.
Niver: Or fake it well …
Spaulding: [Shea has] access to a lot of people who either do or don’t start a business in the restaurant industry. For the ones who don’t have some level of authentic hospitality as part of their core … one case story is someone who came in from a business standpoint thinking “Restaurants are a business, so I don’t need the hospitality side of it. Just run it by the numbers and it’s going to be successful.” You have to have some inherent hospitality there and you can build on it. But if it’s not there and it’s not authentic, that culture doesn’t spread itself into your restaurant.
Kim: Think of In ‘n Out Burger. The fries suck. But the reason it’s so fascinating to go there is because it’s clean, the staff are happy; [it’s] something about that hospitality. I know nothing about them, this isn’t a plug for them. But the way they’ve executed it makes someone feel this experience of getting a burger and fries is something really original.
TCB: The art part of this business, the culinary creativity, has always been interesting to me. But there’s nobody who doesn’t have a cauliflower side dish on the menu right now. Five years ago there was no cauliflower in the restaurant. Why does that happen? Especially for chefs who tend to think of themselves as original and artists. How does that conversation go? “We need a cauliflower dish on the menu”?
Kaysen: Art versus commerce–you gotta make money. I mean, cauliflower is delicious. I’m glad the guests are ready to eat it now. That’s the thing. You can put things on the menu because you know they’re also going to sell. And there’s things that you can put on the menu that don’t sell. I just know that you have to be cognizant and you have to watch that. For me, as a chef, what I do a lot of the times is I stare and watch people eat, all the time.
Spaulding: That’s not creepy at all.
Kaysen: They don’t know. But I watch them eat. I want to see what they’re doing. I’m like, “Why don’t they eat that? Why do they eat that but then they don’t eat this on the dish? What is it they didn’t like? Is it consistent that people aren’t eating that thing off the dish? What is it about that?” Go to the dish pit. Watch what’s happening in the dishwashing area. See what’s being cleared off on a daily basis. You want real numbers? Go watch the dish station. See what’s happening. See what they’re throwing away on a nightly basis. And you’ll change your menu based off that. Why do I do that? Because I’m in the hospitality business. If the guest wants X, Y, and Z, I should serve that, and I should figure out a way to do it and make it delicious.
TCB: So you figured out how to make cauliflower taste good?
Kaysen: You can make a deep-fried tire taste good. And cauliflower. It’s no different.
Kim: It’s just about understanding flavors. I think that’s something that takes a long time to teach: taste. Home cooks oftentimes can follow the recipe, but the lemon, the acid will be off.
Kaysen: The biggest difference between home cooks and restaurant chefs is acid, vinegar, and salt.
Kim: They don’t know how to tweak those things.
Kaysen: It’s crazy. I’ve got 20 types of vinegar at home.
Spaulding: And that’s why we don’t cook at home.
TCB: What’s the No. 1 modification that you guys hear when you’re around the line? Is there just one that seems to be the most?
Niver: Spice is the other thing. Any kind of real heat in this town, people are like, “Oooooh …”
Kim: People think our fennel sausage is spicy. I’m like, “What?” It’s like, dude, you don’t even know. But [that’s] my palate. You don’t want to ask me if something is hot. Nothing is hot enough for me.
Niver: We have a matrix of all the dishes. You want to make sure right? So they pull out the matrix. Last week I had a guest sit down and hand me their allergies. On top of the page was “no’s,” bottom of page was “yes.” And I’m like, “Thanks.” She wanted to talk about it a little bit. I’m like, “Ah, we’re good. We got the list, right?” Take it to the kitchen: “Don’t mess this up.”
Kaysen: I want to understand, do you really not eat garlic? Or do you just want to avoid eating garlic? Will it make you sick? Or do you just not like the taste of raw garlic in your mouth and you don’t want bad breath? Let’s talk it through. We can do it, but I just want to know where we are here, because it will modify certain sauces and broths and things. You’re about to do 16 courses, so where are we at here? Then usually it changes. I’m never doing it in a way of saying, “I don’t believe you.” I’m just trying to let you understand how we make this experience the best for you. And if somebody gives you a list, it makes it quite easy, because then it’s like, “Here it is. It’s black and white. This is my list.” To be honest, we’ve had people at Demi give us a very long list, and we’ve had to say to them, “We literally can’t cook for you. We really appreciate you making a reservation. There’s nothing we can do, there’s nothing.” It’s an impossibility.
Niver: And that doesn’t happen much. We try to do our best to work it out, of course. But some things are like, “Well. I have this salad for you.”