The Birchwood Cafe is celebrating its 20th anniversary next weekend. How time flies.
Especially for co-owner Tracy Singleton. The casual restaurant, a longtime leader in the local-sustainable-organic movement, can trace its roots to a small inheritance that Singleton received from her late grandfather when she was in her mid-20s.
“It was something like $10,000, which seemed like a lot of money at the time,” she said with a laugh. “It was like, ‘Wow, I’m rich.’ ”
Her responsible side was leaning toward buying a house. “But I also thought it would be fun to open a business,” she said, and probably a restaurant.
After all, the lifelong Minneapolitan — Washburn High School graduate, University of Minnesota political science major — had worked in the industry since she fibbed about her age (she was 14, not 16) and landed a job at Zantigo, a career move that was trailed by a series of server positions at the Ediner, Ol’ Mexico, the Loon Cafe and the Best Steak House.
By the late 1980s, she was a server at Lucia’s Restaurant, a job she cherished for five years. For someone who had worked only in gruff, male-dominated environments, Lucia’s was a world apart, one that made an indelible impression.
“I’m just so grateful to Lucia [Watson, the restaurant’s founder],” said Singleton. “Lucia’s was such a different paradigm from my previous experience of how a restaurant was run. I was used to mean bosses, and being berated. I thought that was normal. But Lucia’s was so collaborative, and people were nice to me.”
Raised on Hamburger Helper and Cool Whip, Singleton also discovered — and embraced — a radical new way to eat.
“I’d sit down for the staff meal, and it was real food, it had been made from scratch, using fresh ingredients from local farmers, and I felt so good after I ate it,” she said. “That sounds so basic now, but it was so transformational for me.”
Conversations with her Lucia’s colleagues led her to an opportunity: She would purchase a commercial building — and an adjacent home — in the foreign-to-her Seward neighborhood and act as a landlord for a bakery/coffeehouse. The low-risk plan suited her just fine.
“What did I know about running a restaurant?” said Singleton. “I had absolutely no business skills.”
The sellers were Cy and Del Bursch. Cy’s parents founded the Birchwood in 1926 as a dairy, selling just-bottled milk and freshly churned butter to the neighborhood.
Cy took over his parents’ business, eventually converting the building into a neighborhood convenience store and running it until he was ready to retire. Singleton bought it on a contract for deed — for $40,000 — and picked up the house — where she is now raising her 6-year-old daughter, Lily — for $60,000.
“You could do that back then,” she said.
When one of the deal’s principal players backed out at the last minute, Singleton took a leap and became a 50/50 business partner with baker/chef Susan Muskat.
Armed with a $90,000 small business loan — and principles they’d absorbed under Watson’s tutelage — the duo spent months rehabbing the store into a coffeehouse with a modest kitchen.
The Birchwood Cafe not-so-quietly debuted in 1995. The plan was to be open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., serving muffins, cookies, scones and a small array of soups and sandwiches. That lasted roughly 72 hours.
Demand was so great and so immediate that a full-fledged, three-meals-a-day restaurant was born — correction, improvised.
In a kitchen designed to suit a coffeehouse’s modest requirements, Muskat made it work, slowly but surely ramping up the menu’s scale, while Singleton watched over the front of the house. The partnership lasted eight years, ending with Singleton buying Muskat out.
“And then I had the hardest year of my whole entire life,” said Singleton. “And I learned, a lot. If you’re going to own a restaurant, you need to figure these things out.”
After sort-of running the kitchen — something she had never done — an exhausted Singleton slowly began to delegate, but not before seriously considering throwing in the towel. The next phase of the restaurant’s metamorphosis had begun. As it happens, few restaurants that last as long as the Birchwood also evolve as much as the Birchwood.
“Our evolution has been in response to the changing world around us while keeping to our ideals and principles,” said Singleton. “And if you’re not changing, you’re dying, right? We just keep refining what ‘Birchwood’ means.”
Eight years ago, a transformative figure made a less-than-auspicious entrance. Marshall Paulsen showed up looking for what he thought was a trial run for a kitchen job.
For Singleton, the timing was lousy. She had fired her chef the previous evening, and was in no mood to deal with some random guy appearing, unannounced, outside her walk-in cooler.
Faced with Singleton’s barely disguised animosity, Paulsen didn’t blink. “Does this mean the chef’s job is open?” he asked.
The St. Paul native put his nose to the grindstone and eventually won Singleton over, pushing the kitchen’s ambitions to dynamic new levels.
Changes have also occurred in the back office. Two years ago, after a decade of calling the shots, Singleton took on a new business partner. He’s Steve Davidson, and he brings decades of managerial and hospitality know-how from his previous career at D’Amico + Partners.
Physical shifts were in the works, too. A much-needed and long-planned renovation and expansion finally came to fruition 16 months ago, funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign that drew a phenomenal $112,126 from 980 backers. Those figures are a testament to the restaurant’s deep community roots.
Other numbers are similarly impressive. A network of several dozen Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa family-owned farms supply the restaurant — and its 70 employees, a vast increase from the original four back in 1995 — with eggs, meats, fish, grains, fruits and vegetables.
A thousand diners can walk through the doors during the 13 hours that constitute a busy Saturday, and roughly one in 10 will order the menu’s top-selling item, the savory waffle; since reopening on May 20, 2014, following a three-month construction hiatus, Paulsen and his crew have sold 24,526 renditions of the camera-ready dish.
Aside from enjoying its position as an essential Twin Cities dining destination, what’s admirable about the Birchwood is that Singleton has long used it as a platform to practice what she preaches, channeling the restaurant’s resources into creating healthier foods in public school cafeterias, advocating for GMO labeling, sponsoring film screenings and discussions, organizing “crop mobs” that lend a hand — literally — to local farmers (and hosting a drop-off depot for a half-dozen community-supported agriculture programs) and being an industry pacesetter in the fields of composting, recycling and renewable energy.
The restaurant also acts as the home base for hundreds of cyclists. The Birchwood Racing Team started when an injury forced fitness-minded Singleton to trade long-distance running for cycling. Eighteen years later, hundreds of cyclists can be seen pedaling all over the region in their distinctive Birchwood branded cycling gear. It’s an innovative form of marketing, although Singleton said it didn’t start out that way.
“I just wanted someone to bike with,” she said.
Another happy aspect of the birthday celebration is the launch of “The Birchwood Cafe Cookbook” (University of Minnesota Press, $29.95), although it’s more coincidence than actual planning that connected the two.
The book has been in the works for years — it predates Paulsen’s 2007 arrival — delayed by babies (both Singleton’s and Paulsen’s), and the expansion’s lengthy planning and construction process.
But it’s here. Or, it will be, when it’s released next month. Printed alongside peeks into the lives of some of the farmers supplying the restaurant, the book’s 120-plus recipes are organized by season and run the gamut of B’wood favorites, including home-cook versions of savory waffles, hand pies, turkey burgers, pizzas, broccoli salad, breakfast scrambles, heirloom tomato-sweet corn BLTs, chocolate crinkle cookies and vegan, gluten-free doughnuts.
“It’s a cookbook that’s meant to be used, really used, at home,” said Singleton. “It’s going to be fun to finally have it out there after all of these years.”
What’s next? After an everyone’s-invited block party on Sept. 13, and a book launch on Oct. 22 (and then a nap), Singleton said that it’s another 20 years of “Good Real Food,” the restaurant’s longtime mantra.
“This place has been a source for food, and for community, and for goodwill, long before I was born,” she said. “The cafe makes up only 22 percent of the life of the Birchwood name. I often wonder if the Birchwood sits atop some especially fertile ground, or a magic well that unicorns drink from, given how blessed we’ve been in our 20 years here. We haven’t set out with some grand plan, but instead, we’ve been responsive and adaptive and sensitive to the larger movements around us, speaking out on issues when they matter to us and to our community.”
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