Daniel Del Prado’s Growing Culinary Empire
Sept. 8, 2:23 p.m., somewhere in Edina
Daniel Del Prado is lost, in a manner of speaking, in his black Porsche Carrera, on a road behind Washburn McCreavy off Hwy. 100. His Maps app is confused. “I never been here,” he says. “What is this?”
“Edina,” I suggest.
“Yeah, of course,” he says.
We arrive at a squat 1960s office building behind the funeral home that you’ve probably driven by a million times. Up the elevator, we pause at a small office with “Huntington National Bank” on the door and knock. Inside the tiny space are three 40-something men, casually dressed. Informal pleasantries are exchanged.
The men are the principals of Design by Committee, a boutique firm that “helps businesses address problems creatively,” explains partner Ben Hertz, a Del Prado advisor who met “DDP,” as many refer to him, during the development of Burch Steak, where Del Prado cooked for several years.
“He calls me all day,” says Hertz. “‘Where do I get a car wash, Ben? Where do I get a sport jacket?’”
Del Prado (“of the prairie,” en inglés) needs a name for the restaurant he is designing to replace Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis’ North Loop. Hertz helped with the branding of Martina and Colita back in 2017.
Design by Committee, whose partners boast an eclectic pedigree that includes Target and Animales Barbecue, is curating a palette of scraps and ideas from which the essence of the Argentinean restaurant will emerge. The names list started as 70 different terms on a PowerPoint deck. Many are crossed off now. Del Prado (“Dani” to friends), likes names with a historical feel, evoking the natural world, that sound cool. Each name has a story associated with it that include fonts and images.
As the group converses, Golden Poppy and Oleander are dismissed from the list of finalists.
A two-word name draws heavy interest, which would be a pivot for Del Prado’s oeuvre of single-word-ending-in-“a” restaurants. They decide to lose an ampersand. “Ampersands, that’s 1995,” says a voice behind me. Next comes a “vibe check.” Swatches of colors and fonts appear on the screen. Ochre seems to be in the cards.
Forty minutes and we’re out, late for the next meeting, wondering how you get on Hwy. 100 northbound.
The man, the mystique
In 2013, Daniel Del Prado was making $12 an hour as a line cook in Portland, Oregon, preparing to move to Minneapolis to reunite with operating partner Isaac Becker as executive chef at Burch Steak.
By 2023 he will have four times the businesses in Becker’s stable, but is less known than any number of local chefs.
Part of that is because Del Prado hates making himself the center of his restaurant brand. He does not employ a PR company and will not overtly market, he says. “I spend the money on overstaffing,” so his customers get great service. He’s not exactly an enigma, but the reticence has its advantages.
“There’s a mystique about him,” says a member of the DDP Restaurant Group leadership team, who is close to Del Prado but wants publicity even less than he does. “Too much attention exhausts curiosity. It keeps intrigue high.”
Del Prado certainly is the man of the moment in food. By next summer he plans to have 12 concepts operating in the Cities (see chart, below); six years ago, he had none. He currently employs 600 people, and his stable of venues generates annual revenue of nearly $40 million, including those at his consulting gig reconcepting the F&B spots at the Rand Tower Hotel.
Read more from this issue
Daniel Del Prado’s Restaurant Empire
2023 restaurant, Excelsior (Partnership with Z&H Hospitality)
Café Ceres, Armatage and Linden Hills (Minneapolis)
Cardamom, Walker Art Center
Martina, Linden Hills
Rosalia, Linden Hills
Bachelor Farmer site (2023), North Loop
“My places are for people who want to be seen.”
“My main focus is growth,” he says.
“We receive endless cold calls from investors, landlords, developers,” says the DDP insider. “It’s unrelenting, really.” That’s what happens when you take over Upton 43 and increase revenue fourfold. When you take over Kado No Mise’s main floor and do it again.
“People don’t appreciate how he’s impacted the food community,” says close friend and industry veteran Bill Summerville, who worked with Del Prado at La Belle Vie and briefly at Martina/Colita/Rosalia.
Yet within the trade, questions arise about the speed and trajectory of Del Prado’s rise. Rarely if ever has a local restaurateur operated 12 concepts, and those who have approached that rarefied air did so with a corporate structure and layers of vice presidents. Del Prado operates two separate universes of restaurants (Wayzata and Minneapolis). He uses a small cadre of trusted managers and informal advisers like Hertz, who describes DDP Restaurant Group as “a new-school restaurant company.”
Yet there are risks. “At his level [of ambition] you can’t own and not operate,” explains Becker, who co-owns Bar La Grassa, Snack Bar, and 112 Eatery. Restaurants of the sophistication of Del Prado’s can’t run on autopilot; their customers are too discerning, meaning the chef must be hands-on, as Becker is. Del Prado agrees: “Absentee ownership is the No. 1 reason restaurants close.”
Del Prado’s motto is “Food and service over systems,” trying to eschew corporate trappings. “Once you are corporate you are done.” But therein lies the paradox.
“If you look at it historically when a chef/restaurateur hits nine to 13 restaurants, they either implode or explode [upward],” says the insider. “Then it’s ‘How do you create a structure without changing the essence of how it’s run?’”
If “Dani” is to become a household word on the prairie, those are the challenges he must navigate.
4:28 p.m., Central Street, Wayzata
We are headed toward Del Prado’s western division, where he operates two restaurants, Josefina and Macanda, and is developing a third in Excelsior, in partnership with Aaron Switz’s Z&H Hospitality (Agra Culture, Sotarol, Yogurt Lab). Del Prado has a 20 percent stake in the restaurants, but no liability, as he describes it.
His presence is required nonetheless. “I drive so much because I like to show up,” he notes. “It’s important.” Despite this, the plastic factory covers remain on the Carrera’s floor. We arrive at Macanda, Del Prado’s fourth stop of the afternoon.
Macanda, in the Wayzata Boatworks, overlooks Lake Minnetonka, and the patio is filling for happy hour. Del Prado walks through the kitchen looking at food on the “pass,” chatting with the staff in Spanish. He is genial, lacking the intensity we associate with the prominent chefs we see in documentaries and TV programs.
“Dani is an amazing CEO,” says Hertz. “The wizardry of great corporate leadership is being a professional outsourcer. Bad CEOs are too hands-on.”
Macanda’s kitchen contains two large Argentinian wood-burning parrillas (grills), gas burners, a flattop grill, and numerous deep fryers. The ambience is hot and focused, but not tense. His chef, Steve McMullen, inspects dishes before they go to tables. He instructs the line cook preparing salmon to pile herbs over it.
“I like my chefs on expo for things like that,” says Del Prado.
The road north
Del Prado, 45, grew up in Buenos Aires in a single-parent home. Money was prominent by its absence. He remembers no Christmas presents some years or making do with a gift of socks. “I come from poverty,” he says. “I am terrified of not having money, having my businesses in red ink.”
He left home at 13, took a job in a local advertising agency, and arranged his own housing. He described in a Mpls.St.Paul magazine profile how he became enamored with Pearl Jam and the surfing/skateboarding/snowboarding aspects of the punk scene. He joined a band at 15 with friend Facundo DeFraia (owner of Boludo, in Minneapolis). A few years later, in 2000, they were invited to a wedding in Miami, couldn’t get time off, quit their jobs, and left Argentina; they liked the U.S. and decided to stay. The lack of snowboarding in South Florida drove them to Vail, where they got nighttime restaurant jobs so they could spend days on the slopes.
In 2005, Del Prado fell in love with a girl and followed her home to Minneapolis, and they married. (They subsequently divorced.) He began cooking locally at Solera and then joined the opening crew of Bar La Grassa in 2009, where he met Becker. The marriage took him to Portland, Oregon, but he returned to Minneapolis in 2012 to help Becker open Burch in 2013, where he was executive chef until he
departed in 2017.
Del Prado credits Becker for much of his success, describing his approach to restaurants: “I copy Isaac and [wife/partner] Nancy, then add my spin.”
He left Burch to open a restaurant at 54th and Penn in Minneapolis with investor John Gross. It was to be authentic Texas barbecue, a rare commodity in these parts—Del Prado purchased $90,000 in smokers for the project—but on a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, he realized it wasn’t the food he was meant to cook. The restaurant became Colita, but ultimately opened second to Martina (then Upton 43), when Gross cut ties with chef Erick Harcey and hired Del Prado to re-concept what was a Nordic fine dining eatery.
In 2020–21, as other chefs pulled up their awnings, Del Prado set out more shingles. Martina begat Rosalia, the pizza restaurant next door, whose expansive patio was the hit of the pandemic. He created Sanjusan to save Gross’s exquisite, but too large, Kado No Mise in the North Loop; opened Café Ceres in the old Penny’s Coffee in Linden Hills; and went into Bellecour (Wayzata), abandoned by Gavin Kaysen, with Josefina. Macanda and a second Café Ceres near Colita opened this year.
Creating eight original food concepts in five years is no small feat, but doing it during the crushing weight of a pandemic—where customers were often absent and economics nightmarish—is another thing entirely.
Relentless (in a nice way)
Entrepreneurs as ambitious and dogged as Del Prado typically get mixed reviews. The intensity repels as many as it attracts, tempers flare, criticism festers. But the reviews on Dani are not the abusive anecdotes that make eater.com and The New York Times salivate.
“He’s incredibly thoughtful and caring,” says Summerville. “And actually quite shy, but in a charming way.”
“I’ve never known anyone who works as hard as he does,” says Becker, who notes that Del Prado didn’t take a day off for months after Burch opened, not wanting the Monday team to be in the kitchen if a critic came in.
Del Prado is known to be an exhaustive student of food. He worked at Penny’s by day to learn the coffee shop business while he cooked at Burch at night. He underwent demanding WSET Level 3 training till he understood wine as well as almost anyone in the Twin Cities save the legendary Summerville.
“He rides the balance between familiar and things people don’t know they want,” says Summerville. “He understands food and flavor as a science.”
He also pays his success forward. When DeFraia came to the Twin Cities from Seattle where he had settled to help Del Prado open Martina, “Dani said I can work at Martina for 18 months and then ‘You’ll be ready to be on your own,’” DeFraia recalls. Del Prado subsequently found a landlord for DeFraia’s solo effort at pizza and empanadas, Boludo, which now has two Minneapolis locations.
Del Prado believes the profession does little to help chefs advance—“There are no resources, no shared information, no culture of learning”—so remedying that is a focus of his time.
Yet he is the antithesis of the town’s other hot chef, the toast of the North Loop, Billy Tserenbat, who can be found holding court at his namesake restaurant Billy Sushi. “Dani’s introspective,” notes Summerville, who frequently eats dinner with Del Prado at one of their homes. “He’s always reading.”
One of the things Del Prado reads is Yelp, specifically diners’ experiences in his restaurants. “I believe in democracy,” he says. “Those reviews matter.”
There is one aspect of America that Del Prado does not care for: our litigiousness. He lives with an existential fear of a courtroom. “I’m cautious,” he says. “I use a lawyer for everything. I don’t want a lawsuit to bring me down.”
Winter is coming
1:03 p.m., Martina, Linden hills
Del Prado is sitting in the dining room at Martina dressed in a black T-shirt, high-water black slacks, and black, low-cut slip-on shoes without visible socks. He is with his kitchen Cabinet, the five staff who help him manage his Minneapolis businesses. They are looking at budgets and preparing for summer’s end. They discuss the atypically low check averages at Cardamom (less than 60% of his other restaurants), the modern Middle Eastern restaurant he manages at the Walker Art Center. They discuss ways to speed up service at lunch, the pros and cons of opening only five days a week during winter, and the quirks of a restaurant in a museum. “It’s not our core customer,” he notes.
“Dani can get bigger, a lot bigger.”
—Advisor Ben Hertz
Winter is the slow season at all his Minneapolis restaurants. The lack of patio capacity combined with snowbird travel and weather-related fluctuations in demand means business drops 40% to 50%. Del Prado is strategizing about retaining key staff with so much less business. Ideas are tossed around, including offering meal kits through a website called Table 22. “You make your money in summer,” he says, “and try not to lose it in winter.”
His Café Ceres coffee shops are a particular focus. Pastry making has been outsourced to Rustica because it was losing money. Del Prado wants to expand, but the stores do 20 percent the revenue of his restaurants, “so it is hard to focus on them.” The team goes over the budgets line by line. They’re surprised how well packaged potato chips are selling and wonder if they should add more snack foods.
Most notable at the meeting is Del Prado’s engagement with budgetary minutiae and the lack of men in the room. Del Prado’s core management team is entirely female. “I communicate better with women,” he says.
Even more atypical is Del Prado’s focus on the economics of restaurants, given his background as a chef, who tend to be creative right-brain types. That’s what makes Del Prado such a hot commodity right now: His restaurants win.
“I’ve never met anyone with Dani’s operational understanding. Front of house, back of house, he’s gotta be the only chef who likes to get up at 6 and look at last night’s P&L on a granular level,” says John Gross, Del Prado’s former partner in his Minneapolis restaurants and now his landlord.
But you can’t cut your way to profits, and Del Prado’s genius lies in the kitchen. “Dani knows food. He knows what people like, how to organize a menu,” says Summerville. “As soon as [the Rand Tower Hotel] announced he had taken over their food operations, business doubled.”
Del Prado is also intensely involved in the way his restaurants feel and how that sensibility overlays the food. “He’s very design forward,” Gross says. “He changed Martina and Colita’s menu based on the design we had.”
More than that, he’s aware that there’s a fine line between comfort and style, and tries to err just over the style border. “I always think of my girlfriend and her friends and the people they bring that put their meals on Instagram,” says Del Prado. “Will this be a space they like? My places are for people who want to be seen.”
Tower of frustration
3:42 p.m., Rand Tower Hotel, downtown
Earlier this year, Del Prado agreed to manage foodservice at the Rand Tower Hotel in Minneapolis. The gorgeously reimagined Art Deco tower has struggled to attract guests and diners since its opening in a deserted downtown in 2020. It’s a fee-based consulting arrangement for the chef. Del Prado can’t lose money, but he nonetheless tries to be on-site every day.
This day his staff is discussing a desperate need to find workers, which is inhibiting food and beverage operations. It’s difficult to attract seasoned servers to a hotel with no track record and few customers. He and his team at Rand are hoping cold weather and the seasonal closure of patios will drive customers to sample Bar Rufus and displaced staff to the yet-to-open cocktail lounge Miou Miou and restaurant Blondette. His team is planning a pop-up event to create buzz and discusses which food writers to invite.
Del Prado envisioned the consulting gig as easy, but the staffing problems and postponements have him embarrassed and reeling. “Consulting is hard for me, because I realize I can’t let go of things I can’t control.”
When the world shut down in 2020, Del Prado, like many in the intense and social restaurant industry, felt it keenly. “The pandemic scared me, I was depressed” by the isolation, he notes. But where many of his competitors stayed home, negotiated rent abatements, and filed for government aid, Del Prado decided to build. “I opened new concepts to keep my mind busy,” he says.
Those concerned that DDP has grown too big, too fast, had best avert their eyes, because the watchword is more. The Rand concepts will open late this year. Next year it’s North Loop and his restaurant in Excelsior.
Rumor has it that Gavin Kaysen tired of the demanding and capricious Wayzata customer—and their teenagers, who made up most of his staff. Del Prado’s Lake Minnetonka experience has been different. “I like rich people. I don’t mind doing business in Wayzata,” he says. “My customers are not being hurt by rising dining costs or coming less often.”
In Minneapolis, Del Prado and John Gross are unwinding their partnership. Del Prado bought Gross’ stake in Martina, Colita, and Rosalia, while divesting his stake in Sanjusan to Gross. The two say they remain cordial.
“I wanted to be with an operator who wasn’t involved in so many projects and things,” says Gross. “It’s just not my way.” Del Prado, for his part, felt that as his prominence and popularity grew, the terms of their partnership became skewed.
“Dani felt it had become inequitable and used his leverage to move away from it,” says Hertz.
His new partnership at the old Bachelor Farmer is with Ryan Burnet (Barrio), who got to know Del Prado when Burnet was the lead investor at Burch. Burnet says he and Del Prado formed a deal before he bid for Bachelor Farmer’s building, which was in demand. “I paid more than I wanted to,” says Burnet, who is confident Del Prado’s Argentinian concept for the space will cover the mortgage. His confidence comes from an appreciation of Del Prado’s “depth of understanding of all the facets of a business, cause and effect, the big picture.”
Del Prado says he “tries to partner with people who make me grow.” One of John Gross’ philosophies was to own the real estate in his restaurants, and Del Prado has become a convert. “If you own the building,” Del Prado observes, “it’s a very lucrative and safe business.” Del Prado is in the process of purchasing the space for one of his Southwest Minneapolis eateries (he won’t say which one), and his majority/minority stake in the Bachelor Farmer project includes an equivalent stake in the building.
And yet he picks up the pace. “It will be hard for him to slow down,” says Summerville. “He works superhard and superfast, because he’s always afraid of losing his job.”
Hertz has a vision that extends beyond real estate. Many miles beyond, actually. “Dani can get bigger, a lot bigger,” he says. “I am working with him to identify [another] top 20 market that’s as savvy about food, but with more consumers.” Hertz can see DDP Restaurant Group with an equally large collection of restaurants in Charlotte, or Phoenix, or Miami.
For the boy from Buenos Aires who left home at 13, tired of being scared and poor, it would be the ultimate bulwark against the tides of fate.
“It’s a scary business, but I think I am good at it,” Del Prado says. “I love capitalism. I love Adam Smith.”