Just in time for the Super Bowl, Fig + Farro is debuting next week in the Calhoun Square space that was the longtime home of the former Figlio. Since that restaurant closed in 2009, three others — Il Gatto, Primebar and Parella — have come and gone.
In advance of their Jan. 24th opening, co-founders Michelle Courtright and Thomas Dambrine, along with creative director Ellen Hughes, offered a quick tour of (and some fascinating insight into) their vegetarian restaurant and bar. Here are 10 highlights.
1. Before you ask, they’re all aware of post-Figlio “curse,” and they've dealt with it ("We sage-ed out the ghosts," said Hughes witha laugh) because they chose this address for a reason.
“I had looked around quite a bit, and couldn’t get my vision into any of the spaces,” said Courtright. “But when I walked in here, I could finally visualize everything that I’d been thinking about. That’s important. When you want to create something, you don’t want to put too many roadblocks in front of where you’re going. I kept resisting this space. And Calhoun Square, that’s not my vibe, although it used to be a very independent place. For 25 years, Figlio was the best hangout; it was a wonderful place. Getting that warmth back, that sense of community, that’s important to us. It’s also important that this is an independent restaurant. We’re not P.F. Chang’s. We want to get this place back to that local element.”
2. The business has a serious mission.
“It’s about showing people that changes in their diet can help decrease their carbon footprint,” said Courtright. “Getting people to eat less meat, we feel, is the easiest way to address climate change. Most people don’t know this, but food production is the largest contributor to greenhouse gases, it exceeds all forms of transportation, combined. Really, it’s individual decisions that we make are the way that we as a country can take down our carbon footprint.”
3. The restaurant’s business model isn’t standard operating procedure.
“We’re trying to flip the familiar restaurant model, which is all about high turnover,” said Courtright. “We’re offering a $500 stipend per month for health and dental, and $15 an hour. We’ll have pooled tips, so the front and back of the house will be tipped evenly. And half the company’s profits will be disbursed between the employees. It’s very much in line with the cooperative method.”
“Profits will be disbursed every quarter among all full-time employees,” said Dambrine. “The key thing is that we have, I think, just one employee who is not full time. Everyone else who has joined this team works here full time. That way, they can take advantage of the benefits. I think it’s fairly unusual in the restaurant world for the full team to be full-time employees and be eligible for benefits.”
4. The target customer extends far beyond strict vegetarians and vegans.
“We’ve looked at the statistics,” said Courtright. “The numbers vary slightly on Wiki, but they say that about 4 percent of the population is vegetarian, and even less are vegan. But plant-based diets are becoming more popular, especially as people are learning more about climate change and how meat is mass produced. So people are coming to a greater understanding, and our goal is to meet them where they are in the process. We don’t want to preach. We want to be open to everyone, especially meat-eaters. We want to show them that they can have this really delicious comfort food. It’s not exactly health food. There are a lot of decadent dishes here. We just want to show them that there’s an accessible way to eat less meat. That’s the main goal: to get people in here who are traditionally used to eating meat.” (The menu includes dishes along the lines of wood-fired goat cheese with cranberry chutney on dark rye bread, leek latkes with chive sour cream, mushroom-butternut squash-spinach lasagna, shakshuka -- pictured, above, in a provided photo -- vegetable-hummus tartines, crepes and a couscous porridge).
5. Vegans will feel at home.
“Probably half of our amazing staff is vegan, so there will be many items on the menu that will be vegan-friendly,” said Courtright. “Some will be vegan upon request. We are decidedly vegetarian, that’s where our line is. I don’t want this to sound bad, but we’re not about the fake meats of the world. We’re a very vegetable-forward restaurant. We’re about things that bring comfort, things that taste good. Easy, straightforward things. A lot of what we do is just staying true to the vegetable, letting it speak for itself. I read somewhere that this is the Year of the Vegetable. Yes! The experience is also important. Everything is served in shared plates. We’re encouraging guests to order two to three items per person, and share a little bit of everything. Wine will be served in carafes. It will feel like a communal table.”
6. The wine program is strictly all-barrel: four reds, five whites and a cider imported from Brittany. And going all-barrel isn't easy.
“A lot of water goes into making wine bottles, and there’s a lot of wasted water involved in that production,” said Courtright. “In addition to that the carbon footprint of shipping heavy bottles is also impactful. We want to find the lowest footprint in everything that we do. We’re sourcing our produce as locally as we can — we’re using Co-op Partners for our vegetables — because reducing waste in transport is really important to us.” (That's the bar, pictured, above). “There’s really nothing easy in what we’re doing,” said Dambrine. “It would have been even less easy if we’d done this two or three years ago, but today there are so many more choices; the keg wines segment is growing by leaps and bounds.”
7. The bar is concentrating on a dozen beers from three local breweries.
“Everything that we do here, we want to align with our mission,” said Dambrine. “But we don’t want to be preachy. Everything has to be delicious first. It’s not like, ‘Oh, this is healthy; this is good for you.’ First, it must be delicious, and then of course it must be all of those other things. Our beers are coming from only three partners: Finnegans, Indeed and a small start-up called Broken Clock Brewing Cooperative. They’ve only got five brews, and we’ll have all five of them. We’ll be kind of their beachhead in the Twin Cities.”
8. Oh, and all spirits are regionally produced, from a half-dozen distilleries.
“That’s part of our anti-restaurant theme,” said Courtright. “We consciously decided to select only regional spirits. We’re not going to have the Absoluts of the world.”
9. Repurpose, recycle and reuse are the words driving the restaurant’s design.
“It’s interesting because when you’re looking for second-hand stuff, you can’t just Google your specs of exactly what you want, and order them,” said Hughes. “You have to go out and look, and you don’t always know what you’re going to find. These tables came from all over the city. It’s all a little random, a little funky. That’s from a Spanish immersion school. That’s from the old Nye’s. That’s from a garage sale. We have these fantastic woodworkers; they put new life into old things. And we have really cool stories for all the objects.” (That's a recent friends-and-family test dinner, pictured, above, in a provided photo).
“This is the first time I’ve designed a restaurant,” said Hughes. “I have a background in graphic design and product design, I’ve never done a whole lot of interior design. The decor is from a lot of things from around the world. I feel like we’re making an ‘anti-restaurant,’ that’s a term that we used for a while. It’s very dinner party-style, which means that we want the space to feel more like a house. It’s 150 seats; it’s a big space. We’ve partitioned it into different rooms, so it’s not such a huge open space. I like that there’s a more formal area up front, that there’s a Moroccan seating area — it’s floor seating (pictured, above, in a provided photo) — and that there’s a little lounge area near the kitchen. The rugs are really cool. There’s this little rug shop in a strip mall in Golden Valley. His name is Mo. He’s moving, and he had all these ripped-up, sort-of destroyed rugs. They’re totally trashed, but in a good way.”
10. The original Figlio wood-burning oven is still on the premises (pictured, above, in a provided photo), and it’s playing a key role in the kitchen.
“We’re going to have a nice sumac pita,” said Courtright. “It’s actually a combination of pita and naan. It’s this warm, delicious, lovely bread that’s perfect for sopping up sauces. I can’t wait for people to taste it.”