What’s one way to draw crowds to your museum? Open a mega-popular restaurant.
Just ask Bruce Karstadt, executive director of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. When the institute opened a $13.5 million addition last summer, its new cafe Fika (pronounced FEE-kuh; it’s Swedish for “coffee break”) proved to be an instant hit. Here’s the back story.
Q: The Nelson Cultural Center was more than a dozen years in the making. Was Fika originally a part of the plan?
A: Absolutely. It wasn’t as though we designed the museum and addition and then said, “Oh, let’s talk about a cafe.”
Q: Why did the institute get into the restaurant business?
A: Because you want to offer multiple reasons for people to visit your facility. You want to keep them in your building, or on your campus, for as long as possible. And food is such an important part of our culture, as it is true for many heritages and cultures.
Then there’s the factor of wanting to maintain control over what is being presented and served. If you want to have high standards for your program and exhibition profile, then you want to maintain a similar standard with your food program, so that it is not dissonant with the overall experience that people are having.
Q: What kind of planning and research went into Fika?
A: There are a number of really fine restaurants and cafes that are part of museums in Sweden. They really understand that visitors need to have a beautiful place in which to sit and enjoy and gather after having come to the museum.
I visited museums in Sweden with the same general layout, where the front desk sat strategically at the lobby, near the cafe, near the gift shop, so that when you immediately walked in, you experienced a buzz, a sense of excitement. That’s what we wanted. And of course there’s the aroma of something nice being baked in the kitchen, that’s a pleasant first experience to have, too.
Q: Fika is almost a year old. Care to share its report card?
A: It’s meeting and probably exceeding our expectations in many ways. Our attendance is much higher than when we just had our traditional home in the Turnblad mansion.
We’re seeing that about two-thirds of the people walking in the door aren’t members; they’re new to us. Also, a higher percentage of visitors are coming more frequently than they have in the past. We certainly see lots of regulars, but we’re also seeing lots of new faces, and it’s fantastic. I have to think that a large part of that is due to the existence of Fika.
Another reason for its success is because we elected to own and operate it, and we encourage them to create a cuisine that is consistent with us being a center for Nordic culture. My advice — and this is not to be disrespectful to institutions that hire out and lease their restaurants — is to be sure that the cuisine is consistent with the profile of the host museum. If we didn’t have that autonomy, I’m not sure that people would understand that we have a unique cafe. We want it to be a special experience.
Q: Were you surprised by its immediate success?
A: The cafe was first designed for 35 or 40 people. We’ve already doubled the table seating and intruded into an area that was originally intended as a casual lounge for visitors, so in that sense we under-projected the popularity of the cafe.
You saw what we had before. Our small coffee shop in the basement of the Turnblad mansion was delightful. It was primarily volunteer-driven and lovingly presented. This is different, with a whole different set of challenges and opportunities. We could not have served 300 diners a day the way we were doing it before.
This is a new experience for us, and we really have to do a lot of careful business planning to make sure that it’s successful and that it becomes a more robust revenue stream for us. We’re also blending two different cultures that we’ve never blended before: the museum program side, and the cafe side. A considerable amount of conversation takes place in helping to train and educate the cafe staff about what is happening in the museum, and by the same token, the [museum] staff knows what we serve in the cafe and why we serve it, and how the café reflects upon the ASI experience.
Q: How did you find chef Michael Fitzgerald?
A: That was the bailiwick of my colleague Chad [Snelson], head of business enterprises and former owner of Gigi’s Cafe. He just asked around, and asked around, and asked around, and that path finally led him to Michael.
We didn’t have a formula that we were borrowing from another place. We wanted to create our own unique brand and experience. We may have had an idea of where we wanted to begin, and that was defined by our past experiences in a small and traditional setting. Then, after working with Michael and Chad, we began to see the possibilities and it began to take shape in a way that was probably different from what we had envisioned when we were starting out.
Q: It’s impressive that you manage to keep prices under $10. What’s on the menu?
A: I really love the idea that we reflect Nordic cuisine but do so while remaining true to local ingredients, which of course follows in the tradition of what is happening across the Atlantic.
Also, modern Nordic cuisine doesn’t mean that you have to have lingonberries in everything. It’s really the way you approach the blending of ingredients, and it’s about certain traditions of curing, smoking and pickling that are common and authentic, both to Scandinavia and to here.
We’re still serving meatballs, but if they go away — the way they did at the Bachelor Farmer — I’m sure we’ll have questions. But that will be OK. Not every restaurant in Sweden serves meatballs. But today I had a delightful smoked sturgeon-pickled-beets salad, and a smoked mushroom broth with garlic confit and poached egg.
Most Swedes and foreign visitors are astonished by portion sizes in America. It’s a baffling thing, so we’re trying to do the right thing. We want to be accessible and affordable, and that’s finding the right balance between staffing, ingredients and portion size. Besides, doggie bags are not common in Scandinavia.
Q: Where does the Fika name come from?
A: We have a number of native Swedes on our staff, and as we’ve always talked among ourselves, we’d say, “Let’s have fika at three.” That’s what you’d say in Sweden. It’s both a noun and a verb. It’s a fun title, and it also expresses the rationale of what the place is all about, which is gathering around food and drink among friends and family.
AMERICAN SWEDISH INSTITUTE
Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib