In the vast north quadrant of Minneapolis, where the dining-out choices are little more than Burger King, McDonald's, Little Caesar's and KFC, the people behind a small start-up are hoping to make a big impact.
When Gullah Grub Cafe opens at 1200 W. Broadway in August, it will be the next step in an continued revitalization of the troubled West Broadway business district by Catalyst Community Partners, a nonprofit group devoted to putting dilapidated historic buildings back into productive use.
"We're a nonprofit, but our job is to stimulate the market," said president Sue Wollan Fan. "We recruit businesses or start them ourselves and then transition ownership to locals."
The $3.5 million project involves three adjacent buildings, which have housed a mortuary and a day-care center. When construction is complete, the buildings' upper floors will be devoted to leasable office space, and the 40-seat cafe will share ground-floor space with Kindred Kitchen, a commercially licensed work space and business incubator for caterers and local food-product entrepreneurs. Outdoors, a large kitchen garden will provide a steady supply of herbs and vegetables throughout the growing season, and a spacious 60-seat patio will stretch along Broadway.
The restaurant's concept was created by Shea Inc. That's a familiar name to regular Counter Intelligence readers, and it's not that I've become an adjunct to the considerable Shea marketing machine; it's just that the influential Minneapolis design and consulting firm has its fingers in all kinds of pots. No wonder Catalyst turned to them.
"They wanted a Southern cafe for the North Side," said principal David Shea, noting that the restaurant will also serve an educational purpose. "Rather than learning how to flip burgers at Burger King, kids from the neighborhood can work at the restaurant and learn real culinary skills."
Catalyst is also at work at Penn and Broadway, converting the former site of Delisi's restaurant into a much-needed new home for 89.9 KMOJ radio. A block east of the Gullah project, Catalyst recently brought the neighborhood a locally owned coffeehouse, Bean Scene Too (1101 W. Broadway, www.beanscene.net).
The Gullah are a distinct, heritage-minded group of African-Americans living in South Carolina and Georgia's Lowcountry coastal regions, the area where the menu finds its inspiration. Since a chef isn't attached to the project -- yet -- it's hard to know exactly what to expect, food-wise, although Shea's prototype emphasizes basic and beloved low-country classics: she-crab soup, shrimp and grits, catfish with okra, skillet cornbread, black-eyed pea cakes, sweet potato pie and more.
"No one is doing this style of cooking in the Twin Cities," said Shea. "We want the restaurant to connect with the roots and history of the people living on the North Side, but also draw diners from elsewhere in the city."
The plan is to serve an affordable lunch and dinner daily, as well as weekend brunch. "We polled people up and down the avenue and asked them for feedback," said Wollan Fan. "Within 24 hours we had received more than 100 responses. The overwhelming response was, 'Please give us a place where we can have a meeting, meet for dinner, have a glass of wine before going to the Capri Theater -- something that is fresh and flavorful and clearly not in the deep-fried fast-food range.'"