Restaurant Alma served its first dinner on Nov. 4, 1999. It’s a significant date in Minnesota culinary history, because in the intervening years, Alma (the name is the Spanish word for “soul”) has grown into one of the region’s top-rated restaurants. Alma has also physically expanded, adding a casual cafe and a small hotel in 2016. Here, chef/owner Alex Roberts discusses his start as a dishwasher, the joys of leadership and the challenges of running a nationally recognized standard-bearer.
Q: How difficult is it to maintain a standard-setting restaurant?
A: Thank you for using the term “standard-setting,” and not “institution.”
Q: Alma is only 20. Fifty years is an institution, right?
A: “Standard-setting” is great. That’s something we can accept. I won’t lie. At times, it’s exhausting. And I’ll be honest and say that I’ve had some challenges over the last few years that have pushed me to the level of my abilities and my training in terms of raising capital, or managing relationships with investors, or legal issues. Fortunately, I’m a person that likes a certain level of intensity to find meaning in what I do. It motivates me, and restaurants will always give you plenty of intensity.
Q: At this stage in your career, do you spend any time in the kitchen?
A: When I do, it’s the best. When one of my chefs is working too much and gets off center, he says that the best thing he can do is go and play hockey, and not think about anything else. When I’m cooking, I don’t think of anything else. I frequently do private parties, and I work on menu and recipe development, and it’s those times that I get a chance to focus, and that’s just one of the most restorative things for me. It reminds me that I made the right decision in my life. I’m a lifer. I love this profession. I don’t like the CEO role as much as the chef role, but I know that the CEO role is every bit as important, and I’m learning to love it. But I don’t love it as much as I love cooking.
Q: On opening night, 20 years ago, did you think that Alma would be around in 2019?
A: No, and a couple of years in, it looked like we might cut our losses and quit. It has never felt easy, it has never felt sure, it has never felt like I could take it for granted. You have to go back to Minneapolis at the time. Back then, dinner was a celebratory experience that you pushed to the weekends. No one was dining on Tuesday. So you kind of survived Monday through Wednesday. You might pick up business on Thursday and Sunday, but most of it fell on Friday and Saturday. It took a long time before we had a booked restaurant on a weeknight. That was years in the making.
Q: What was your first restaurant job?
A: I started washing dishes when I was 15, at a place called Capers in southwest Minneapolis. One night, someone didn’t show up, and the chef asked, “Can you boil pasta and make tomato sauce?” The next day I came in and I was told that I had a new job. I’ve been working in kitchens continuously since then.
Q: You spent nearly six years working in top New York City restaurants before moving back to Minneapolis. What drove that decision?
A: By that time I was seeing what an enormous undertaking it would be for a 27-year-old kid from Minnesota to obtain funding and navigate real estate in New York City. And I knew that I wanted to work for myself. So I called Jim Reininger, my former boss at Lowry’s [the former Minneapolis restaurant where Roberts had cooked for several years], and I said, “Hey, I want to move back to Minneapolis, and do you want to open a restaurant with me?” We’d developed a friendship, and Jim is a true entrepreneur. It was maybe a five-minute conversation, and he said, “Sure, why not?”
Q: How quickly did Alma come together?
A: We looked at maybe 25 properties over five months, all over Minneapolis-St. Paul. I was a kid with nothing to my name. Lucky enough, some family members and a person I’d catered for were willing to invest in me in the form of a private loan, and Jim brought his money. With those investments, we were able to qualify for a small bank loan, and Alma was born.
Q: When did Jim leave?
A: His last day was New Year’s Eve 2007. Now we’ve been open longer without him than with him. But without Jim, there would be no Alma. He taught me so much about operating a business, about the importance of resiliency and the value in being a competent generalist.
Q: What do you recall from those early menus?
A: Back then, there was a lot of price sensitivity to eating out. And if you weren’t French, or Italian, or whatever category, people had a hard time grasping what you were. Seasonal cooking, contemporary American cuisine, that wasn’t even a thing. Now it’s a category that everyone understands. So we started out a la carte, and really affordable. We were doing things that weren’t found on almost any Twin Cities menu at the time: short ribs, lamb shanks, chorizo with clams, liver pâté, salt cod. We did them because they were inexpensive. We also had this amazing clientele. They were well-traveled people who were interested in the world of food, and they wanted to go to a place that reflected that interest through a modern American lens. They were pushing us, in a way.
Q: How did Alma’s three-course menu format come about?
A: We saw the limitations of our small kitchen. When we did three-course menus on special occasions, we saw how that made our kitchen work better. Over time, the three-course format started to rise in popularity and the kitchen started to flow really well.
Q: How do you compete against all the hot newcomers in the market?
A: Danny Meyer [the New York City restaurateur and founder of Shake Shack] once said that being successful isn’t about being the best. Obviously, you have to do something really good, and really compelling, but it’s really about being people’s favorite. That’s our job, to figure out a way to be people’s favorite, or one of their favorites.
Q: Alma employs 115 people. What does leadership mean to you?
A: I look back and I think of all the people who gave me the opportunity to fail so that I could learn, all the guys who gave me the chance to do jobs that I wasn’t quite qualified for, and all of the people who believed in me. We’ve carried that on here. That’s why we have two people who have been here with me for 19 years, and someone who just left after 17 years, and many more who have been here more than a decade. I’ve learned that if you hire passionate, good people, trust their potential, and give them a chance to develop, they will gain talent that far exceeds their mentors. It’s thrilling to witness and an honor to be part of that development.
Q: What is it like for you when people say they want to be Alex Roberts when they grow up?
A: I’ve heard it a few times, and, honestly, I don’t even know what that means. Is it the perception of what you’ve accomplished, or is it simply longevity? And, hey, 20 years is a pretty big deal. Not many restaurants make it to 20 years, and thrive at 20 years, that’s an important thing to add. Maybe it’s because it looks like I’ve figured out something that works. But we also struggle with the same issues that every other operator struggles with to adapt and evolve.
Maybe it’s a nod to some of the awards we have received [Roberts was named Best Chef Midwest by the James Beard Foundation in 2010], or maybe it’s an acknowledgment that we have a version of excellence here at Alma that is compelling enough to people to include us in the group of restaurants that are considered excellent in what they do. There are so many versions of excellence.