While most winter-exhausted Twin Citians will remember Sunday as the day that the temperature hit a downright balmy 64 degrees, many diners and restaurateurs will recall it as "Fork the Fire" day, when thousands of dollars were raised to help the owners and employees of Blackbird and Heidi's, the two southwest Minneapolis restaurants destroyed in a devastating blaze on Feb. 18.
Along with two standing-room-only events -- one at Mission American Kitchen, the other at Cafe Twenty Eight -- more than 60 Twin Cities restaurants pitched in, donating a portion of the day's sales, dedicating the proceeds of particular items, running raffles or conducting other fundraisers. It was an unprecedented display of generosity and support for two of their own, and diners responded in kind, with many restaurants reporting busier-than-normal Sunday sales.
Cafe Twenty Eight owners Linda and Todd Haug opened up their Linden Hills restaurant to a $25-a-head open house, with Blackbird chef/co-owner Chris Stevens and his cooking staff -- Adam To, Dan Manosack and Chris Buren -- in the kitchen. More than 200 people showed up to enjoy pulled pork quesadillas with a sweet pear sauce, fiery peanut noodles topped with fried eggs, duck egg rolls and beer from Surly Brewing Co. The amount raised? More than $5,000.
"This is really crazy," said Stevens. "How awesome is it to live in this town, where all these people, all these restaurants, come together? It's insane."
Gail Mollner, Stevens' spouse and business partner, said she was impressed by event co-organizers Desta Klein of Meritage and Molly Broder of Broders' Cucina Italiana and Broders' Pasta Bar. "The fire only happened three weeks ago," she said. "Look at this," she said, gesturing to the packed house.
Stevens said the event gave him and Mollner some much-needed closure. "It's like the funeral is over now, and today seems like Day One, when we can move forward and work to reopen," he said.
At another gathering
Meanwhile, at Mission American Kitchen, owner Anoush Ansari was playing host to chefs from a dozen restaurants as they fed more than 600 guests and raised upwards of $12,000. Heidi's co-owners Stewart and Heidi Woodman started their afternoon at Mission before whirlwinding through Il Gatto, Sea Change, Meritage, Heartland, the Strip Club and Restaurant Alma.
"We really wanted to get around and thank as many people as we could," said Stewart Woodman. "It's all been so overwhelming, but we're certainly in awe of the way people have responded. There is definitely a generous spirit within the restaurant community, but this community is something else. I've lived in New York City and Paris and Vancouver and Montreal, and I've never seen an outpouring of support like this."
Sameh Wadi of Saffron Restaurant & Lounge, who was serving a tantalizing combination of lobster and preserved lemon, said he jumped right in when he got the call to help. "When I heard about the fire, I cried," he said. "My entire life is in my restaurant, and this situation could happen to any one of us. I told Stewart and Heidi, 'Can you believe this, some of these people don't even know you, and they're here.' But that's our industry."
Thomas Broder of Broders' Cucina Italiana and Broders' Pasta Bar was busily piling fantastic Iowa-made prosciutto and fruity fresh-pressed olive oil on flatbread. "It's cool to see all of this competition come together," he said. "Especially considering the tough year that we've all had. That's really beautiful, to see the love."
Meanwhile, more than 60 restaurants -- Mancini's to moti-i, the Red Stag to Rinata -- were kicking in, one way or another; the organizers purposely creating few guidelines to encourage as many restaurants as possible to participate. Meritage was selling wine -- and vodka, in the form of cocktails -- donated by suppliers, and its staff donated its salary. Restaurant Alma and Brasa in Minneapolis were contributing 40 percent of the day's tabs. Butter Bakery Cafe was passing along proceeds from all eclair sales. The Birchwood Cafe took a multipronged approach, passing along 100 percent of the sale of donated beer, wine and coffee to the Fork the Fire fund, along with 50 percent of the sale of brunch and dinner specials using donated beef from Thousand Hills Cattle Co. Owner Tracy Singleton also turned over 10 percent of the restaurant's overall sales for the day.
Darren Ennis, owner of the Sample Room, called Fork the Fire a "win-win situation." As his northeast Minneapolis restaurant donated 10 percent of its Sunday proceeds -- and raffled off gift cards -- Ennis found a number of new customers walking through his door for the first time.
The total amount raised wasn't available by press time, but the figure will be posted on the Fork the Fire website (www.forkthefire.org) and updated as donations come in, said Klein. Proceeds will be split evenly between the two restaurants, and the fund will be administered by a neutral party: Broder and well-known diner Sue Macdonald.
Dividing the funds
Where will the money go? One targeted use is helping employees -- particularly front-of-house staffers -- who have suddenly found themselves minus a steady paycheck. The Blackbird cooking staff is already working elsewhere -- To is at Sea Change, Manosack is at Lucia's Restaurant and Buren is at Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant -- but "finding jobs waiting tables isn't as easy as finding cooking jobs," Stevens said. "This [money] will help them with a transition." The rest will probably go into the rebuilding effort, if not at the restaurant's burned-out location then somewhere nearby. "We're not sure how the insurance is going to play out," he said. "We have to rebuild from scratch, and some of that money can fill that gap."
Ditto the Woodmans. "We'd like to reopen Heidi's and we're working on a schedule to make that happen this year," said Stewart Woodman. "We don't have any information about the status of the building at 50th and Bryant; that's an open equation. Getting back to work is all we're focusing on right now."
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757