Battle of the Butchers

Can two very similar versions of the same restaurant coexist in downtown Minneapolis, or will only one sausage and whiskey king survive?

If you were to type “butcher” into Google Maps in these parts, the first two suggestions would be restaurants, not butcher shops. They are the new iterations of the quasi-legendary Minneapolis restaurant, Butcher & the Boar, which closed in 2020. Folks might be confused, as one restaurant carries the original name, while another is at the original location.

If you’ve already had the valet park the car before you realize your reservation is actually at the other, it’s a short, though gritty, one-mile walk. But the restaurants have so many similarities, down to the penny coated floors and the beef “long ribs” on the menu, that you might just ask if the one you’re already at will squeeze you in.

Confronted with this dilemma, one might ask how the city of Minneapolis, blessed as it is with innovative dining, ended up with two restaurants specializing in $18 bespoke sausages and a whiskey list longer than your arm.

The answer is an inevitably meaty tale, full of characters, ego, ambition, and that age-old confidence that comes from an idea too good to fail—even though it already did.

Left to right at The Butcher's Tale: general manager Chad Waldon, chef Peter Botcher, Kaskaid COO Dave Sincebaugh
Left to right at The Butcher’s Tale: general manager Chad Waldon, chef Peter Botcher, Kaskaid COO Dave Sincebaugh

The OB

The history of the mid-century low-rise at 1121 Hennepin Ave. goes back over 70 years. At one time it housed the family office of philanthropist T.B. Walker (Walker Art Center). It had served as an office building most of its life when Doug Van Winkle bought it and its adjacent parking lot in 2008 and 2011, spending $3.7 million, planning to develop mixed-use residential.

That didn’t last, though, and Van Winkle, an attorney and CPA, teamed up with Tim Rooney, a one-time Manny’s server who redeveloped the Chambers Hotel for Ralph Burnet in the mid-2000s and then began opening restaurants. They pivoted to a hospitality play. (Tim’s brother Chuck was the third partner, and in an interview, he described Van Winkle as the business’s managing partner, while his brother was “the face” of the restaurant.)

“Tim wanted to open a Germanic sausage-oriented restaurant,” recalls Peter Botcher, one of Butcher & the Boar’s founding chefs. Botcher had worked at Fatted Calf Charcuterie in Napa Valley and had become proficient in sausage making, a semi-lost culinary art. The partners brought in Jack Riebel, then cooking at The Dakota, as executive chef and partner. “Jack and I suggested a Texas emphasis and barbecue,” recalls Botcher. The German emphasis faded and the Butcher & the Boar concept jelled.

Left to right at Butcher & the Boar: chef/co-owner Mike DeCamp, culinary director Wyatt Evans, chief manager/co-owner Brent Frederick
Left to right at Butcher & the Boar: chef/co-owner Mike DeCamp, culinary director Wyatt Evans, chief manager/co-owner Brent Frederick

The restaurant opened in 2012 and was an immediate sensation for its innovative menu, deep whiskey program, and loud, sausage party vibe. Van Winkle cites the Standard Hotel in Manhattan as a primary influence.

Star Tribune restaurant critic Rick Nelson called it a “pathbreaking new downtown Minneapolis restaurant, where Riebel and colleague Botcher are deftly galvanizing a flurry of culinary forces—Southern regional cooking, Minnesota’s German-American heritage, barbecue, the snout-to-tail phenomenon, and the gastropub movement—into a previously unimaginable but instantly coherent whole. There is nowhere else like it.”

Unless you stuck to sausage and Cokes, it was easy to run up a Manny’s or Cap Grille-style tab. But the crowds came and did not abate. Chad Waldon, who moved from Manny’s in 2015 to become assistant general manager, describes the Butcher customer as male and in possession of an expense account.

A tented beer garden came a year or two after opening, with a less expensive menu, which drew Target employees at happy hour, downtown workers who didn’t want to fight rush hour, and private parties. “We did a million-plus [dollars] in events most years,” Waldon says. During his tenure, he recalls Butcher averaged $8.5 million in annual revenue, which would have ranked it in the top five local restaurants.

Riebel didn’t stay long, selling his stake in the restaurant in late 2013. He ultimately became chef for the reboot of the Lexington after a couple unmemorable stops. (Riebel died in 2021.) Upon Riebel’s departure, Botcher became executive chef, then departed in 2015.

That same year the partners opened 4 Bells, a 400-seat Low Country seafood restaurant in the old Joe’s Garage off Loring Park. Its long and costly renovation proved a millstone. In 2016 the partnership sold Butcher’s building for $6 million to an Arizona-based real estate investment trust, STORE Capital, and leased it back for 15 years. The hefty sale price included $3 million for fixtures and equipment.

They have the meats: sausages and long rib on the grill at The Butcher’s Tale
They have the meats: sausages and long rib on the grill at The Butcher’s Tale

Tim Rooney died in 2017. In 2019, Van Winkle ventured out of town, to the red-hot food city of Charleston, South Carolina, where he opened an iteration of Butcher in the affluent suburb of Mt. Pleasant. But the only restaurant in the group that was thriving was the original.

“The company was using its profits to fund 4 Bells and Charleston,” infers Dave Sincebaugh, COO of Kaskaid Hospitality, which operates Crave, Union, BLVD, Brit’s Pub, plus Burger Burger and Cowboy Jack’s at MOA. The company has thrived as a second-generation operator of concepts it didn’t birth.

4 Bells never gained the kind of traction that Butcher did and closed at the dawn of the pandemic. Van Winkle shuttered Butcher & the Boar just before Labor Day 2020. “With our location, and people’s reluctance to come downtown, we were not able to operate Butcher as a takeout-driven restaurant, and our cash position was not great, with opening Charleston three months prior to the pandemic,” says Van Winkle. (Butcher Charleston closed in 2021.)

Read more from this issue

It had been a good run for the original, eight years of high seven-figure revenues. But a restaurant built on Target corporate events and large parties of diners sharing big-portioned food was not optimal in a respiratory pandemic and the difficulties in Loring Park and Charleston had drained them of capital to ride things out. The original Butcher died as collateral damage.

But could it rise anew?

“We thought it could be a good fit with our company. It was a like-minded operation,” says Jester Concepts’ Brent Frederick. “We took notice,” when Butcher & the Boar shuttered. They weren’t the only ones.

Battle for the Bones

It was common knowledge in the restaurant community that the partnership behind Butcher was struggling. “We had heard they were behind on bills,” says Brent Frederick, chief manager/co-owner of Jester Concepts, which operates PS Steak, Borough, and the Parlour bars. He relates that Butcher was not viewed in the restaurant community as a failed concept, but a victim of external factors.

“We thought it could be a good fit with our company. It was a like-minded operation,” says Frederick. “We took notice” when it shuttered. They weren’t the only ones.

“We liked the concept,” says Kaskaid’s Sincebaugh. “It was the best whiskey program in the state.” Kaskaid, like Jester, did a lot of business in downtown Minneapolis and was not scared off after civil unrest and work-from-home left the center city much emptier.

STORE reached out to Kaskaid founder Kam Talebi about the space. He and Frederick began separately kicking Butcher’s tires in late 2020. The pandemic had not precipitated a recession yet operators with capital could snag restaurants with troubled balance sheets for a song.

Competitors watched with interest. “They’re both good operators,” says Phil Roberts, co-founder of Parasole Restaurant Holdings (Manny’s, Pittsburgh Blue, Salut, Good Earth). “It’s an approachable concept with high check-averages, but fundamentally simple food.”

Both Jester and Kaskaid decided to resurrect B&B, unbeknownst to the other. STORE controlled the lease. A bankruptcy trustee had inherited responsibility for mortgaged assets and the interests of creditors. And there was the Intellectual Property, or “IP,” things like the name, concept, and recipes.

There was also several million in debt, “and a lot of creditors,” says Frederick. “We figured out who owned the IP”: not the bank, but Van Winkle and Chuck Rooney, and “they were open to selling it.” (Van Winkle and Rooney created a separate trademarks company and Jester licensed the rights to the Butcher name in Minnesota.) Frederick assumed once he controlled the restaurant’s name, the rest would fall into place.

Talebi’s legal team was working a different path, talking to the landlord and trustee who inherited the secured assets. The creditors believed they owned Butcher’s intellectual property.

Talebi assumed the receiver and landlord were key. In early 2021, Kaskaid came to an agreement to lease 1121 Hennepin and purchase the assets and intellectual property.

“We knew [Kaskaid] was looking at the space,” says Frederick. “When I learned what [Talebi] wanted to do, a mutual friend set up a call. [Talebi] thought he owned the name. He was upset.”

Talebi and Frederick realized the issue could only be settled in court and such an effort would be long and forestall either from moving forward. Each hoped the other might relent.

Litigation was of no use to Frederick— it was clear Kaskaid had the lease and property. But ownership of the name was in dispute. Talebi decided he held the most relevant pieces and could open much sooner than Jester. Kaskaid let the name go. Essentially, they had split the baby, though the creditors still believed they owned Butcher’s name and IP.

“We didn’t rethink our plan when we learned they had the site,” says Frederick. “We felt we were the right group to resurrect the vision. … Manny’s moved, Oceanaire moved. We saw a great parking lot, a great neighborhood by the freeway, Target Field.”

The other side was similarly satisfied, they say. “We believe the concept works regardless of the name,” explains Sincebaugh. One upside, he suggests, is a newly named restaurant might not carry the sour legacy of default from customers who lost event deposits and gift cards in the original Butcher’s bankruptcy. (Butcher 2.0 subsequently offered to honor them.)

Chart showing how two Twin Cities restaurants divided up Butcher & The Boar.

The Tale

The competition went public in early 2021. By May, Kaskaid had reopened at 1121 Hennepin as The Butcher’s Tale. The company spent over a million dollars refreshing the space, which had received minimal investment in the years its owners were focused on external growth. The new ownership added brighter paint, bits of floral upholstery, and chandeliers to lighten the room and make it less intensely masculine, though it feels fundamentally similar.

Chad Waldon returned, as general manager, and Peter Botcher as executive chef. Jester boasts that it possesses Riebel’s original recipes, but the blunt Botcher notes, “I perfected those recipes 12 years ago.” Botcher shifted his beef to Minnesota Angus and diversified the menu with seafood and steak, hoping to broaden the restaurant’s appeal. Over the ensuing winter, Kaskaid renovated the beer garden to operate year-round.

“We felt we had unfinished business,” says Waldon. “To bring our culture back was incredible. Our institutional knowledge is so deep.” He says 80–90% of the new restaurant’s opening staff were veterans of the original B&B.

The challenges Butcher’s Tale faces have little to do with its name. “Shoulder hours and happy hour business is half of pre-2020,” says Sincebaugh. “There’s no line of Target employees waiting for the beer garden at happy hour.” Expense accounts and business travelers, a major staple of the old revenue mix, are a sliver of the new one.

“Business doesn’t just show up anymore, we have to work for it,” says Botcher. “No one ends up here by accident.” (Google Maps might disagree.)

Their business plan is to focus on downtown residents, suburbanites looking for a fresh steakhouse experience, pre-theater and event visitors, private functions, and special occasions. Business has been robust over the last two years, despite the high check-average and lack of high-rollers. “We believe there is value in the experience,” says Sincebaugh, “but we don’t expect people three times a week.”

The long rib with tortilla slaw (top) and green chorizo sausage with tortilla gravy at Butcher & the Boar
The long rib with tortilla slaw (top) and green chorizo sausage with tortilla gravy at Butcher & the Boar

B&B 2.0: Location, location, location

Just as Butcher’s Tale is not mourning the loss of the old name, Butcher & the Boar is not mourning the move a few blocks north, even though even greater distance from the original site might have worked to its advantage. The North Loop is home to most of Jester’s restaurants, and it knows that customer intuitively.

“Butcher’s closing left a void,” says Frederick. “We had people begging us to reopen in the west suburbs. But this concept was born in Minneapolis and it needed to stay in Minneapolis. It’s a symbol.” Butcher & the Boar 2.0 opened in February, 21 months after Butcher’s Tale.

Jester took over what was generic office space a block off Washington Avenue; the build-out was elongated because it lacked the typical infrastructure of a restaurant. The location is one of the few in the North Loop with its own parking lot. Industry sources believe the company spent over $5 million. Frederick would not confirm, but did note, “It was more than we budgeted. It was our most expensive build-out. But we projected it would be our highest-volume restaurant.”

Like the original, B&B 2.0 contains multiple venues, all rather dark, clubby, and masculine: a main dining room with open kitchen, a separate bar, private dining space, the “Char Bar”—a cloistered bar with its own small menu—and in 2024, a seasonal patio.

Frederick emphasizes his belief that his restaurant more thoroughly embodies the spirit of the original. Jester owns Riebel’s recipes (though it’s not using many) and family members of the deceased founders are involved.

“Jack was a dear friend,” Frederick notes. “His wife, Kathryne, worked at Borough for nine years. Jack came by a lot. We share his chef-driven mindset. Kathryne is an investor. Chuck Rooney is an investor.”

Jester is known as a more food-first enterprise than Kaskaid. That ambition is part of their appeal; veal sweetbreads and terrine were not in the old Butcher’s lexicon. “We have a lot of culinary prowess,” says Frederick of his food teams, under the leadership of chef/co-owner Mike DeCamp. “We grew up in this industry. I was a bartender for 10 years. We loved Jack, loved the concept. The soul is here.”

(Star Tribune restaurant critic Jon Cheng was not impressed, calling it “the tail end of a calcifying franchise,” in a review dated June 22.)

In practical terms, Frederick says, “we have familiarity [with the old restaurant], but we won’t copy. We have the grilled oysters, the long rib, the sausages. But our salads, fish, cocktails, they’re all completely different.”

The obvious question: can two high check-average restaurants executing the same rather specific concept thrive less than a mile and a half from each other? In no normal competitive environment would this occur.

The end game

The obvious question: can two high check-average restaurants executing the same rather specific concept thrive less than a mile and a half from each other? In no normal competitive environment would this occur.

Why did it happen? Why didn’t one of the combatants bow out? “You always have to believe you are good enough to win,” says Parasole’s Roberts. More pointedly, said a source with decades of experience in the local restaurant trade, “these operators are egotistical enough not to be concerned.”

If Frederick and Talebi gambled correctly, they will need to nearly double the revenue that one restaurant did in 2019, in a downtown with a lot less to offer high-end restaurant companies than it had five years earlier.

From an overhead standpoint, Butcher’s Tale has an advantage. Its cost of entry was low—a bit over $1 million. With B&B having spent multiples more than that, it will need to generate close to $10 million in annual revenue to justify its front-end costs. Is Minneapolis a $15 million to $20 million grilled oyster and bourbon market?

“Both restaurants are super-busy,” says Tanya Spaulding, principal at Shea, which helped design the original and Jester’s successor. And their similarity has benefits, she notes: “The attention one gets is probably good for both.”

“Competition is not as relevant as you think,” says Roberts. “We didn’t worry about whether there was another Italian restaurant nearby when we opened a Buca. We looked at things like demographics, parking, whether it was an up-and-coming area.” He notes that downtown Minneapolis, even after all it’s been through, still has five high-end steakhouses closer than the two Butchers, just as it did in early 2020.

“All we’ve seen is growth since we’ve opened,” says Sincebaugh. “We had an awesome Q1. None of our team left [to work at Butcher & the Boar].” The Butcher’s Tale is not back to $8.5 million in revenue but believes that benchmark will eventually be reached.

Butcher & the Boar has been packed in its first 90 days, and Frederick says he sees no sign of a cooling restaurant economy.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he notes. “We build to last. I hope we can co-exist.”

Van Winkle still believes in the concept too. He’s retained the rights to Butcher outside Minnesota and foresees perhaps licensing or partnering on the concept in other “tier-2” cities, places like Scottsdale or San Diego.

One thing the privations of the pandemic did was remind restaurants that their fates are intertwined. “This is a hard business,” says Sincebaugh. “I wish us all nothing but success.”

The Butcher’s Tale (left). Butcher & the Boar (right) Photographs by Haley Friesen