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Cheeseburgers, fried chicken and pizza are easy to come by on W. Broadway in Minneapolis, but developer Stuart Ackerberg wanted to attract a different kind of restaurant to his Five Points building.
Something with slow-cooked, nutritious food. A place where families could sit down, workers at the neighborhood nonprofits could enjoy a nice lunch, and suburbanites could head for a drink after catching a show at the Capri Theater down the street.
But after three years of working to attract a restaurateur who shared his vision, Ackerberg has instead agreed to lease space in the century-old building to Northside Achievement Zone, a nonprofit whose mission is to boost school performance in the poorest segment of Minneapolis.
"It's a great opportunity to have this, but it's certainly not what we originally envisioned," he said.
As Minneapolis pushes to draw people and development to the struggling North Side, a difficult question among some business and government leaders has been how to attract higher-quality restaurants to an area dominated by low-end food. City records show that north Minneapolis has more than three dozen restaurants, most of them serving fast food. About a third are chains such as McDonald's, Burger King and KFC.
"There are so many businesses the North Side has real deficiencies in," said Dean Rose, who is planning a housing and retail development near Five Points. "We need a good sit-down restaurant ... that's healthy and fresh, a place you can sit down and relax and feel comfortable."
Rose, who is partnering with developer Steve Minn, said he hopes to make a restaurant part of the project.
Yet even as supporters maintain that the demand is there, restaurateurs are not exactly racing to supply it.
The kind of restaurant that is not a franchise "feels very vulnerable in coming to an unproven marketplace," said City Council Member Don Samuels, who represents the area. "Even if demand is there, they're not confident enough at this point. ... It's perceptions of safety, it's the reputation."
The city "felt if we drew the housing, we could bring the customers in, then everything would fall into line, but it's not happening as fast as we want it to happen," said Samuels, whose wife, Sondra, is CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone.
North Side resident Ken Powell is one who would like to see more healthful dining-out alternatives. Powell tries to stay away from high-cholesterol and fried food, but he lamented that "the choices here are slim."
A study by MJB Consulting in 2007 determined that about $7.8 million spent at sit-down restaurants by people who live on and around W. Broadway went to establishments outside the area. The report, which examined how to revitalize the North Side, said that market provided one of the larger opportunities to recapture lost dollars.
A foothold in neighborhood
A mile north of Broadway, at the intersection of Penn and Lowry, Darryl Weivoda runs the Lowry Cafe next to his hardware store.
When he inquired about a loan to start the restaurant, the banks "weren't real excited about it" and wanted to charge him a "crazy high" interest rate, he said. So Weivoda took out a home equity loan and last summer opened the cafe, which serves pork chops, meatloaf and salads.
Nearly a year later, the restaurant is not breaking even. But Weivoda is standing firm. "I kind of look at it as ... Do you want to get in when [the price is] low and establish it and be here once [the neighborhood] is developed, or do you want to wait around and see if it gets developed?"
Dennis W. Spears, artistic director at the Capri Theater on Broadway, said that a lot of people who attend shows there are looking for a place to eat and drink afterward, and they can do that at the Lowry Cafe.
"We're hoping that with the redevelopment on the North Side that there's more that will come over here," said Spears.
One of the people who declined the opportunity to do business in the Five Points building was Kim Bartmann, whose restaurants include Bryant-Lake Bowl and Red Stag Supperclub.
"The investment required by me wasn't necessarily borne out given the risk, because in a place where ... there's not much, why isn't it there? And who's going to be the first one to go?" Bartmann said.
Bartmann said she is still interested in the idea of a restaurant on the North Side, but doesn't know the area well and cautioned that many are still scared to go there. "I think there are plenty of people in that area to support a sit-down restaurant, it's just finding the right level of investment to make it work," she said.
Ackerberg also drew interest from Marzell Harris, who wanted to open a Louisiana Fried Chicken in the building. But Ackerberg and Harris said they did not agree on the menu for the restaurant, which offers a more upscale version of fast food similar to Boston Market, with dishes such as gumbo and po'boys. The developer wanted healthier food and a bar.
Harris decided to open his business elsewhere on Broadway about a year ago. The place drew customers from the suburbs, and Harris believes there is a market for good restaurants on the North Side. But he closed last month because his location was not visible enough and is looking to move it to northeast Minneapolis.
Ackerberg said that the Five Points development was also unattractive to those in the restaurant business because the building lacks a kitchen, requiring an even greater investment.
Still, he said, a neighborhood with such a void normally would have people jumping at the opportunity to fill it.
"So there's no question that the stigma -- although I don't know if it's real -- of north Minneapolis has caused some operators to not be interested."
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210