“We have a bunch of stuff going on.”
That just might qualify for the understatement of the year.
It’s from Stephanie Shimp, co-owner of the Blue Plate Restaurant Co. — that’s the Highland Grill and Groveland Tap in St. Paul, the Lowry, the Freehouse and the Longfellow Grill in Minneapolis, the Edina Grill in Edina and 3 Squares in Maple Grove — and she’s not exaggerating.
First up: the company has just signed a lease on the former Brasserie Zentral space in the Soo Line Building (pictured, above) in downtown Minneapolis.
The 5th-and-Marquette spot is being converted to the Mercury Dining Room & Rail.
“We’re sticking with what we do best, which is creating a neighborhood spot,” said Shimp. “There are a lot of apartments in the area — Nic on 5th, 4Marq, not to mention all the apartments above the restaurant in the Soo Line Building — and we want to snag all of those people, and all of the office workers. Other than the skyway, there aren’t a lot of affordable dining options in that area.”
The restaurant will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, as well as a “strong” happy hour.
“We’re still working on the menu, but it’s going to be approachable, comforting Blue Plate fare, not dissimilar to what you see at the Lowry and the Freehouse,” said Shimp. “You’ll see an egg salad sandwich alongside steak frites, or a fish special of the day.”
Shimp and co-owner David Burley are making slight revisions to the space.
“It’s such a beautiful spot,” said Shimp. “We want to brighten it up, and increase the size of the bar. We want to bring in a more energetic vibe.”
(The name’s “Rail” is a nod to both that expanded bar presence, as well as the building’s railroad roots). The open kitchen will remain, as will the kitchen counter and its ringside seats.
Next door, the former Foreign Legion is being remade as Shindig Events Center. A slight renovation (which will include moving the front-and-center kitchen to a more discreet location) will reconfigure the space to allow for events for up to 130 people.
A second kitchen, in the basement, will serve as a Blue Plate menu laboratory. (Four-star, fine-dining Zentral closed in January, and casual Foreign Legion followed in April; both were operated by Meritage co-owners Russell and Desta Klein).
Opening date? September, following the company’s 12-day stretch at their wildly popular Minnesota State Fair venue, the Blue Barn, where Shimp reported 2015 sales of 22,000 chicken-in-a-waffle entrees and 20,000 corn fritters.
That’s not all. The company’s remake of its former Scusi — which closed in March — has passed new milestones.
There’s a name: Bottle Rocket. And a vague opening date: a few weeks after the Mercury’s debut. The restaurant will serve lunch and dinner daily, along with weekend breakfast.
“The renovation is pretty much done, we’re just waiting on the liquor license,” said Shimp.
There’s more. Blue Plate is purchasing a 53-acre farm near New Prague, Minn., about an hour south of Minneapolis.
"It's something that I've wanted to do for a long time," said Shimp.
It’s a long-term project, one that will initially supply the company’s restaurants with fresh produce (“We’ll be sitting around the table with seed catalogs this winter, asking our chefs what they want us to grow,” said Shimp) and possibly hops for the brewers at Freehouse, as well as turn into an agriculture-culinary internship program, a la the Green String Farm and Institute in Petaluma, Calif.
There are other possibilities: The farm’s barn could be converted into an events center, and its outbuildings will provide much-needed storage space (patio furniture, for example) for the company’s restaurants. Shimp and Burley are signing the purchase papers on Friday.
“Yeah, we’re really in growth mode,” said Shimp, rattling off a few other details. For the first time, the company has hired a full-time Human Resources staffer (“We have 600 employees, so we figured that it was about time,” said Shimp) and after years of officing out of the basement of the Highland Grill, Blue Plate will soon have an honest-to-goodness corporate headquarters, leasing space in the North Loop near its Freehouse restaurant.