News from the Northland: Nokomis Restaurant & Bar in Duluth, a bright spot on that city's dining scene and a major culinary destination for Twin Cities tourists, is calling it quits.
“It has been a good run,” said chef/co-owner Sean Lewis (pictured, above). “I think we’ve made the culinary scene a little bit brighter. We had seven great years, and we’ve decided that it’s a good time to finish, and go out while we’re on top.”
Retirement -- for co-owners Sandy Lewis and Rondi Erickson, Lewis’ grandparents -- is the primary reason behind the closing. “They’ve got a personal bucket list that they’ve worked out,” said Sean Lewis. “They want to travel.”
The restaurant, a former supper club, is located on the old Lake Superior-hugging highway between Duluth and Two Harbors.
The dining room's lake views (pictured, above) are ridiculously scenic, and the restaurant’s warmly contemporary look is the work of its fourth partner, Jennifer Lewis, Sean’s spouse and an interior designer.
The closing will definitely have an adverse impact on the Duluth dining scene, at least from this critic's perspective; Lewis' adventurous and imaginative cooking has always been a reason to head north to Duluth.
“When we started, we saw a need for more of an upscale cuisine, with wines and service to match,” he said. “I think we’ve made a pretty good impact with both locals and non-locals.”
Agreed. Fortunately for Duluth diners, the Lewis family is staying put. Sean Lewis has already finalized his next venture, but isn’t ready to release specifics, only to say that it’s a project that’s going to require a major makeover.
"I love the area, and it's a great place to work," he said.
The good news is that Nokomis is going to keep cooking through Oct. 28th, giving Twin Citians an additional opportunity to head north for a fall colors appreciation visit.
“The leaves are at full peak right now,” said Lewis. “It’s gorgeous up here.”
The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner through Oct. 14, and then Wednesday through Sunday through lunch on the 28th. The adjacent wine shop is cutting prices by 20 percent on all bottles of wine, beer and Joia soda.
A popular Duluth institution is branching out to downtown Minneapolis.
Rod Raymond and Tim Nelson, co-owners of Duluth's landmark Fitger’s Brewhouse, are purchasing the historic North Loop building that last housed Trocaderos (107 3rd Av. N.) and plan to open a branch of their 19-year-old brewpub. “Our goal is to bring a taste of northern Minnesota to the heart of downtown Minneapolis,” said Raymond.
So far, not a lot of details, in part because the opening won't happen until late fall or early winter. “What we do know for sure is that it’s going to be a neighborhood place, like the Brewhouse,” said Raymond. "We're going to have some fun with it."
Fitger's Brewhouse co-owners Tim Nelson (left) and Rod Raymond.
The basic plan is to feature six to eight house-brewed ales, along with food and live music, in a dramatic setting; the brewery will be built around the former Trocaderos stage, and the roomy music listening room is going to be re-christened the Beer Hall. “We’re going to rock out right in the brewery,” said Raymond. “You’ll be able to hear an eclectic mix of music while you’re sipping one of our blueberry porters or our Starfire pale ale. It’s going to be great.”
One tiny hitch: The brewery won’t be up and running for the first six months of operations, thanks to the high demand -- and subsequent long waiting list -- for brewing equipment. Until then, the bar will import Fitger’s brewmaster Dave Hoops’ top-rated Duluth-made ales. “You can count on Dave Hoops to put out some pretty damned good beers,” said Raymond. “And we’re going to have guest taps of all the locally made beers that we love -- Summit, Fulton, Surly -- so we’ll be a full ale house when you get there.”
(In the Small World Department, Hoops' brother Michael Hoops is head brewer at Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis).
Brewmaster Dave Hoops.
On the food side, there’s not a lot that has been figured out, although Raymond said they’ll offer many of the beer-friendly classics served in Duluth, including Fitger's famous wild rice burger.
“We’re also going to do pizzas,” said Raymond. “And we’re going to have to have some nice macaroni dishes.”
That’s because the building -- parts of which date to 1892 -- is where James T. Williams developed quick-cooking elbow macaroni, later manufacturing it under the Creamette name.
Why Minneapolis? “Tim and I just think that Minneapolis folks appreciate what we do in Duluth,” said Raymond. “Their message is clear: Let’s get that great beer down here.”
The duo also own Duluth’s popular Burrito Union restaurant and Redstar nightclub. Last year they opened Tycoons Alehouse & Eatery, a few blocks west of Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth’s former city hall, a building that also coincidentally dates to the 1890s. “We opened them so that we could sell more beer,” said Raymond.
As for the new Minneapolis outpost, Raymond said to expect to see a "warehouse/industrial" look replace the blandly suburban remnants of Trocaderos (Locus Architecture of Minneapolis is designing the space's reinvention), along with some lively outdoor seating, possibly even a rooftop component. “We have to figure out if that’s practical and doable,” he said. There’s no name yet, either.
“Keep in mind, this is a work in progress,” said Raymond with a laugh. “Who knows? Tomorrow we could be a lutefisk restaurant.”
The landmark Burch Pharmacy building at Franklin and Hennepin avenues on Lowry Hill in Minneapolis has just landed a shiny new tenant: A restaurant by Isaac Becker, his wife Nancy St. Pierre and their business partner Ryan Burnet, three of the forces behind the insanely popular Bar La Grassa.
They're calling it Burch, and it's going to be a steakhouse. “But it won’t be your average steakhouse,” said Becker. “It sounds weird when I call it that, but I just that I can’t think of any other way to describe it without using that label.”
There will be beef, yes, all kinds of it. Becker is promising a variety of cuts in a range of sizes and prices.
“And we’ll have prime, grass-fed and grass-fed with a corn finish,” he said. “My goal is to find the best beef in the country. I can’t commit to just locally sourced beef, there isn’t enough variety, and I don’t know that local producers can keep up. But there is a lot of great beef out there, and the goal is, if you want grass-fed, we’ll have it, and if you want prime, we’ll have it. It’s kind of like how you want your eggs done. People are specific. They want what they like. I know I do.”
But he’s also pledging to cater to diners who aren’t interested in a medium-rare porterhouse. “We’re not going to offer a token piece of halibut," said Becker. "We’re going to offer a lot of vegetables. We want it to be a destination for people who don’t like beef.”
Running the show will be chef Danny Del Prado, a Bar La Grassa veteran who has spent the past several years working in Portland, Ore. “Having him coming here and doing this was a big victory for me,” said Becker. “With Danny signed on, I’m not as nervous or as scared about it.”
Julie Snow Architects of Minneapolis is designing the project, which has a vague late-2012/early 2013 opening date. The restaurant will cover most of the drug store’s street-level footprint, with a 100-seat dining room and bar and an open kitchen.
The limestone-lined basement will house a small kitchen equipped with a wood-burning oven (“All of the food that we serve in the basement will come out of that oven) for a casual, neighborhood cafe-style 50-seat bar and dining room.
And yes, the name is Burch, as in the former Burch Pharmacy, which closed in 2010 after an 80-year run. “We’re sticking with Burch, although everyone called it Burch’s,” said Becker. “I called it Burch’s. When people answer the phone, they’ll probably say ‘Burch’s,’ but it doesn’t matter, we’re going to keep it as it is on the sign, and that reads ‘Burch Pharmacy.’”
That busy Franklin-Hennepin intersection has particular significance for Becker, winner of last year’s Best Chef: Midwest accolade from the James Beard Foundation. He once lived in the apartment building across the street from the former drug store (“It’s where I bought my shampoo and toothpaste,” he said) and spent five years cooking next door at the former Lowry's (now Rye Deli).
“I mean, this is my intersection,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve been driving past that place for the last two years thinking, ‘What a great space.’”
Diners interested in a Burch preview need look no further than the 112 Eatery. On the first Tuesday of every month, Becker is offering a four-course dinner for $50, and using each course as a test-drive for possible Burch menu items. Reservations are essential.
As for the future of the building's famous -- or is that infamous? -- street-level billboard (the oft-vandalized one featuring real estate agent Cotty Lowry, which has graced the structure's south facade for years), that's up in the air.
"No one really knows," said Becker with a laugh. "Some people want to keep it, some don't. I don't have a preference. Ryan said that Cotty is a really nice guy, so I wouldn't be surprised if it stayed."
Parasole Restaurant Holdings announced Sunday that, effectively immediately, Il Gatto restaurant in Uptown has closed.
The closing was prompted because "Il Gatto was unable to align the economics of operating the restaurant with the cost of occupying the premises," said Kip Clayton, vice president of marketing and business development for Parasole, in a press release.
Gift cards to Il Gatto will be honored at Parasole's other restaurants. For a complete list of its restaurants, go to www.parasole.com.
"We were very sorry to see it close," said Clayton, who noted that Parasole will try to relocate Il Gatto staff at its other restaurants and bars.
So how much did the investors of “America’s Next Great Restaurant” put up for three locations of Soul Daddy restaurant, including the Mall of America? Let’s add it up.
Steve Ells, one of the four judges in the NBC reality show and founder and co-CEO of Chipotle, put up $220,000, according to the Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. proxy statement at the Security and Exchange Commission, filed on April 6, 2011, and reported in Portfolio.com and reposted by Minnesota Business Journal this week. Chipotle put up $2.3 million. The other investors, who presumably matched Ells’ investment, would have brought in equal amounts, which would have made the judges’ investment $880,000, suggests Portfolio.com. Together with the Chipotle money, the total investment would have been almost $3.2 million.
Soul Daddy was run by ANGR Holdings, LLC (ANGR, the abbreviation for the TV show, was used on Twitter as a #hashtag for comments about the program). According to the SEC filing (see page 56), Chipotle contributed its $2.3 million to ANGR Holdings in exchange for an equity interest in the business. Chipotle also noted its intent in 2011 to purchase Steve Ells’ interest in ANGR Holdings and to pay him $220,000 for it (his earlier investment). Steve Ells, in other words, wasn’t expecting to be a personal investor in ANGR, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. This risk was one for Chipotle to bear. No details on if that was true for the other judges: Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia or Curtis Stone, pictured here with Steve at the left.
The $3.2 million should have been sufficient money to keep three restaurants going for three to six months, according to restaurant experts interviewed by Portfolio.com. But ANGR Holdings kept two of the restaurants going for only six weeks and the Mall of America restaurant open for eight weeks. Today the MOA restaurant site has been boarded over and appears as one more anonymous wall (see at right).
So what was going on? While the business experts scratch their heads over the figures that don’t add up, we speculate that there was something else besides small crowds that prompted the closing of the restaurants.
Namely, that the NBC show on which the restaurants were based was not renewed for a second season, due to poor ratings. The show was dropped before the restaurants even opened. No second season meant no hype, no nine weeks or more of national advertisements under the guise of “programming.” Had there been a second season, the restaurants would have certainly stayed open – because otherwise the TV program would appear to be a failure.
Let's look at some other questions viewers had. Restaurant experts – and even the casual TV observer of the show – were surprised that the winner would open three successful restaurants simultaneously, in different cities across the country, no less. Few restaurateurs would try that unless they had a successful chain already behind them. So why three restaurants for NBC? Hello, this was a made-for-TV prize. With the scale of today’s reality TV programming, a single restaurant simply wouldn’t have been big enough, not only for the participant in the competition but for the TV viewer.
As for Jamawn Woods, at left, the winner of the TV competition, national reports seem befuddled by the amount of involvement he had with ANGR Holdings. Was he struggling alone, as some speculated, to keep three restaurants afloat? First, let’s keep in mind that Jamawn found out he won only two weeks before the restaurants opened. (NBC filmed alternate endings to the show. The final three contestants spent 10 months in limbo, unaware who had won.) Clearly, Jamawn was not a partner in setting up the restaurants, beyond some of his initial recipes and ideas expressed during the TV show. (A wild rice salad was on the Soul Daddy menu. What soul-food restaurant offers wild rice? That idea definitely did not come from Jamawn.) From start to finish, Jamawn's involvement spanned 10 weeks.
In a news story by National Restaurant News, which quoted the Star Tribune that Jamawn was taken by surprise by the closing of the first restaurant, a spokeswoman for ANGR Holdings “corrected” the report that questioned Jamawn’s involvement. “The decision to close the restaurant was made by the investor group as a whole, which Jamawn is a part of,” she said.
Well, definitely not a partner in decision making. In my early conversation with a clearly shaken Jamawn -- before he was silenced by ANGR Holdings -- he was stunned by Soul Daddy’s first closing in New York City. A few hours earlier he had put in an offer to buy a home in Lakeville (a suburb in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area), and I chatted with him then about the joys of living in Minnesota. When I called a bit later to ask about the rumors of the NYC closing, he had just received an email that announced the NYC restaurant was to close. Yes, an email. That’s not “partnering” in decision making, by any stretch of the imagination.
As for his role at Soul Daddy, Jamawn was in a management training program at the MOA restaurant. He was learning how to run a restaurant – because he did not know how. Jamawn did not indicate to any of the managers at the MOA store that their store was closing. In fact, Jamawn was creating new menu items for the store (hot yams among them, in response to criticism that there was too much cold food on the menu) and was in Detroit to receive recognition for the restaurant when the MOA closing was announced. For all practical purposes, Jamawn’s role with the restaurant was as its promoter and as a management trainee. Earlier interviews indicated he would be a minority owner in ANGR Holdings.
In an interview at his MOA restaurant, Jamawn told the Star Tribune that he had taken a year-long leave of absence from Chrysler in Detroit, where he had been a forklift operator. TMZ reports that a Chrysler spokesperson said Jamawn was welcome back. "He is still a part of our family."
Jamawn is not talking with the press these days, but judging from the comments from supporters on Twitter, Facebook and on blogs, NBC and the judge/investors (Steve Ells, Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia and Curtis Stone) aren’t looking like innocent bystanders. Criticism trends toward the notion that Jamawn was used for the benefit of a TV show.
His back story may have softened the hearts of the judges (he was making wings and waffles from his Detroit home when he was unemployed) and he may have been the most amenable of the three finalists to dramatically adjust his restaurant concept. In the end, though, his dreams were dashed – and he came close to buying a house in a city where his business had closed. Would you do that to a business partner of yours?
As a blogger on FastCasual.com said, “The real story is how Jamawn Woods was, in essence, taken advantage of for the purpose of theater.”
It may be awhile until we hear from Jamawn. The contract that contestants had to sign left them little wiggle room for comments – or for that matter, even talking casually with the investors should they bump into them socially, e.g. no high-fives for contestants who bumped into Bobby Flay at a party.
Still, other contestants are biding their time until they can legally open their own restaurants, which appears to be post-July. More on that later.
For now, though, we’re missing the voices of Steve Ells, Bobby Flay, Lorena Garcia and Curtis Stone, who are suddenly silent, though they were eager to talk when the restaurants opened. These four – and the NBC/Magical Elves team that produced the show – forgot the most obvious investment of all: the investment in a person’s life. “America’s Next Great Restaurant” wasn’t an episode of “The Amazing Race” or “Wipeout,” or for that matter “The Bachelor.” This show dealt with the business hopes and dreams of real people, who we got to know over the course of nine weeks.
Jamawn Woods deserved better. Once the show was not renewed, nothing short of wild success would have saved the concept. Steve, Bobby, Lorena and Curtis should have the dignity to offer their condolences. For Jamawn, the collapse of Soul Daddy was a death in the family.
FOR COMPLETE COVERAGE OF "America's Next Great Restaurant," see www.startribune.com/nextgreat
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