After a year that caused many of Minneapolis’s restaurants to shutter their doors, first because of COVID-19, then due to the social unrest unleashed by the tragic murder of George Floyd, one thing is clear, “the city’s landscape is going to look quite different,” said Jonathan Weinhagen, President and CEO of Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce. “Many restaurants that have closed their doors in March 2020 have already announced they won’t be reopening.”
Talents making Minneapolis restaurant scene buzz with excitement are names like James Beard award winning chefs Gavin Kayson and Isaac Becker in the hip North Loop, in South Minneapolis Jamie Malone emerged as a rising star with her award winning Grand Café, and Top Chef alumni Justin Sutherland, chef/owner of Handsome Hog, has had a big culinary influence on St. Paul, just to name a few.
Of these chefs, during the pandemic, Malone closed Grand Café and launched Keep It Grand, to-go gourmet meal kits, Sutherland closed Public Kitchen + Bar and relocated his Handsome Hog, Becker closed Birch Steak and Pizza, Kayson had to close Bellecour Bakery’s original location and reopen it inside Cooks of Crocus Hill cooking school. Becker and Kayson’s other restaurants remain open. “I’ve been writing restaurant obituary after restaurant obituary for months,” said Rick Nelson, Star Tribune’s restaurant critic.
Erik Forsberg, restaurateur and board member of the MPLS Downtown Council, shares his three downtown locations are still closed. “You have a city where the majority of people working downtown don’t live downtown and they’re scared to come back. I’ve diverted a lot of our resources to new suburb stores now.”
Weinhagen estimated that downtown Minneapolis now sits at around 15% occupancy, which is pushing a lot of the restaurant activity to the suburbs. “We’re seeing more significant investments happening now right outside of the city. Chef-driven concepts are opening in areas that you would typically see family chains.”
No surprise. Minneapolis has come a long way from its meat and potatoes, midwestern fare of yesterday. Noted Nelson, “The reserved Scandinavian DNA has fallen away a bit, and as other immigrant cultures moved in there’s a much more adventurous, culinary curiosity that’s benefited this region.”
Forsberg credits the rise of the Food Network and travel as some of the driving forces behind the city’s food-driven mindset. “They want local food, they want good food and they want something new all the time.”
Nelson shares, “We’re blessed to have an incredible agricultural ring around the city. You can drive 25 miles outside of downtown and you’re in some of the country’s best agricultural regions, where farms are producing some of the finest ingredients in the United States.”
Nelson cites Southeast Asian cuisine among the city’s most exciting, naming chefs like YIa Vang, Christina Nguyen and Ann Kim who won a James Beard award for Best Chef. “There’s much more of a global flavor here than there was 25 years ago.”
Which restaurant groups hold sway in the city? According to Forsberg, “Oceanaire seafood restaurant chain has sort of been the granddaddy here. D’Amico & Sons have been very forward-looking with their fast-casual concepts.” Groups like Jester Concepts and Blue Plate Restaurant Company are part of the new wave of restaurateurs that are significant players.
While people are keeping close to home, some of the towns now humming with activity include Wayzata, west of the metro, the West End in St. Louis Park, minutes from downtown, Maple Grove, north of St. Paul. These are becoming dining destinations. Forsberg is building a new restaurant in Stillwater, a bedroom community east of St. Paul and his restaurant in Rogers has been doing well. “It’s typically a blue-collar town and there’s fertile soil there. If you build it, they will come.” As far as real estate prices, Forsberg said, “Rents are not that much different from downtown, where you can pay close to $26 per square foot.”
Yet, for all the talk about downtown’s struggles, both Forsberg and Weinhagen predict it will have a strong comeback. “While the city has been very transient up until recently, thankfully we put the money we did into housing development. The residential base that’s there has been supporting downtown’s hospitality business through all this. Had this been five or ten years ago, it would be far worse than it is.” Weinhagen said, “Restaurateurs that have been sitting on the sidelines are beginning to talk in ways they haven’t been talking in the last eight or nine months. We are beginning to see a rebirth.”
Some indicators of downtown’s revival include the Dayton Project. A remake of the famed building located in the heart of the city, will feature a 45,000 square foot food hall being curated by Minneapolis-based chef and TV personality Andrew Zimmern and Robert Montwaid, co-founder of New York City’s Gansevoort Market. Plus, Gavin Kayson announced he will be creating two restaurants for Minneapolis’s first Four Seasons Hotel, set to open Spring 2022.
Super’s TFS Read on Minneapolis:
Hottest Restaurant neighborhoods: North Loop, Wayzata, West End in St. Louis Park, Maple Grove and Stillwater
Chefs that are Cooking: Gavin Kayson, Isaac Becker, Jamie Malone, Justin Sutherland, Ann Kim, Yia Vang and Christina Nguyen
Key Restaurant Groups: Oceanaire, D’Amico & Sons, Jester Concepts and Blue Plate Restaurant Company