American Swedish Institute puts culture on the menu with its hot cafe Fika

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 5, 2013 - 7:17 AM

A restaurant can complement a museum’s vision while bringing in fresh faces — as the American Swedish Institute learned with its sizzling new cafe.


The American Swedish Institute’s new cafe, Fika, was such a smash that it scrambled to add seating. “We certainly see lots of regulars, but we’re also seeing lots of new faces,” said executive director Bruce Karstadt.

Photo: Courtney Perry • Special to the Star Tribune ,

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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.

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