The 27,000-square-foot Leader department store in Cambridge, Minn., has sold a lot over the past century: boat motors, skis, furniture, fabric, and, of course, men’s and women’s clothing. One thing it hasn’t: Swedish meatballs.
Cambridge native and acclaimed Twin Cities chef Erick Harcey changed that today when he opened Willards, a full-service restaurant in what used to be the women’s department of the store.
Along with his business partner Grant Johnson, Harcey — the chef behind two now-closed Minneapolis restaurants, Victory 44 and Upton 43 — bought the 100-year-old shopping emporium from Johnson’s uncle this summer.
Other than cosmetic changes to restore the building’s original grandeur, Harcey and Johnson are attempting to keep the Leader the community linchpin it’s always been. But with one major addition.
“It’s intentional dining,” Harcey said of Willards, which is named for Harcey’s grandfather, also a Cambridge restaurateur. “We’re going to pay all the same respects as a fine dining restaurant, but it’s a more casual, comfortable atmosphere.” The restaurant serves brunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday (133-135 Main St. S., Cambridge, 763-689-5600, willardsmn.com).
At Victory 44 in north Minneapolis, Harcey coined the “Perfect Burger,” and that’s one of two dishes he imports to Cambridge from that restaurant. The other is Devils on Horseback — bacon-wrapped dates. From Upton 43, the former Linden Hills contemporary Swedish restaurant that is now Martina, he brings his Swedish meatballs to Willards.
Otherwise, expect hay-roasted pork chops, trout and salmon, and other “seasonally driven, Minnesota, Swedish-type cuisine.” And cocktails designed by Tattersall.
In the back of the store, a cafe called the Parlor will serve coffee, pastries and egg sandwiches starting at 7 a.m.
Harcey expects Minneapolitans will make the trek of about 45 miles to eat at Willards and do some shopping, too. After all, he made the drive daily when both Minneapolis restaurants were up and running.
“It’s like driving from St. Paul to Wayzata,” he said. “I’ll make the food worth the trip.”
After closing Upton 43, which was the Star Tribune’s restaurant of the year in 2016, Harcey planned to reopen it in the North Loop. But after a year off, spending time with friends and family and coaching his kids in sports (he has four boys), he realized “I can’t give this up. I’ve got to be home more.”
Harcey grew up knowing the Johnson family, which has owned Leader since its start in 1918. A chance reunion with Grant, a restaurant manager, at an event at the Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis is what set the acquisition in motion.
Neil Johnson, the previous owner and Grant Johnson’s uncle, calls their serendipitous meeting and subsequent purchase the “miracle on Main Street.” He had been nearing retirement and had no plans for what would happen to his family store. Now, it enters its fourth generation of Johnson ownership.
But in the age of Amazon, isn’t buying a department store risky business?
“We did a lot of digging around on it,” said Harcey, who worked at the Leader when he was in high school. “We were happy to see how well a lot of independents are doing. And I think it’s because in this day and age, people want service. They want to be taken care of, and they want people to know their names. We are trying to get away from what is a department store and be more boutique.”
Neil Johnson insisted that two of the staffers who have been with the store for decades keep their jobs.
“I told my buyers they’d better listen to them,” Johnson said. “Because [Harcey and Grant Johnson] know the food business, but they don’t know retail.”
It might seem like a big jump from running two restaurants to owning a whole department store, but Harcey doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s a lot like a restaurant,” said Harcey, a self-professed fashion lover. “You’ve got to bring in and move product, and you’ve got to create something people want.”
As for Harcey’s previously announced plans to revive his restaurant empire within Twin Cities limits? Don’t hold your breath.
“I don’t think I’ll be back,” he said. “I’m loving this too much.”