This story of evolution, innovation and ambition begins 2 ½ years ago, with the purchase of a nondescript, century-old building in downtown Robbinsdale.
Two buildings, actually, sitting side by side and directly across the street from Travail Kitchen & Amusements. The restaurant’s three chef/owners — James Winberg, Mike Brown and Bob Gerken — purchased the real estate with the thought of relocating their nearby pizzeria, Pig Ate My Pizza, from its leased storefront.
Unfortunately, the buildings’ dilapidated state proved to be too great an obstacle. But in a glass-half-full moment, that situation eventually triggered a plan. A big one.
Demolish the buildings. Collaborate with a Minneapolis architecture firm (Peterssen/Keller) that specializes in high-end residences and create a metamorphic new home for Travail. Convert the current Travail into a roomier location for Pig Ate My Pizza, then add a brewery.
“We’re taking everything that we’ve done for the last eight years and rethinking every aspect of our business,” Brown said. “We’re graduating them into completely different worlds.”
This third, highly refined iteration of Travail (the first opened in 2010 and is now home to Pig Ate My Pizza; the second — and current — iteration followed in 2014) will take a divergent path from the rest of the local restaurant scene.
“Our goal is to open a two-star Michelin restaurant,” said Brown, referring to the exacting French rating system; currently, the Midwest’s only Michelin-rated restaurants are in Chicago, including three-starred Alinea and Grace and two-starred Acadia, Oriole and Smyth. “That’s the world that all three of us came from, that has always been our foundation.”
The restaurant, where chefs double as servers, has built its considerable reputation by combining craft and imagination with wit and a frat-rat-like energy, flipping the formal tasting menu experience into an infectiously entertaining culinary vaudeville.
When Travail (the name was inspired by a brand of chef’s apron) debuted in 2010, Winberg, Brown and Gerken didn’t have children, or mortgages. Eight years later, all three have both.
“We’re just more anchored now,” Brown said. “We were a garage band then. ‘Let’s rock,’ you know? But the party that we throw at Travail no longer matches our personalities. I hate using ‘grown up.’ We’re evolving, we’re maturing. And our fan base is on the same trajectory that we’re on. The people who loved Travail from the start, they’re eight years older, too. They’re growing up.”
Taking theatrics to new heights
That mind-set is at the root of Travail 3.0. Diners will continue to purchase prepaid reservations for a tasting menu experience, but the details will be far more lavish: a single seating, available four nights per week for 40 diners, at $150 per person.
(Currently, Travail’s traffic is roughly double that figure, at prices ranging from $78 to $119, spread over two nightly seatings, Wednesday through Saturday.)
“It’s going to a dinner party,” Gerken said. “We want to transport people. You’ll have the whole space, for the entire night. Eat and drink as much as you want. Stay as long as you like.”
When they enter from the back of the building, diners will encounter spaces that flow into one another on two levels, with features such as massive double-sided fireplaces, undulating plaster ceilings, a rooftop patio with a protective retractable awning, a showy first-floor kitchen and large doors that double as semi-transluscent partitions.
“The minute you step on the property, the experience starts, and you’ll begin moving through the space,” said Gerken. “We want this to be a really creative way to express a restaurant, as a way to take people on a different kind of journey.”
The subdued environment will find room for typically playful Travailian touches: a ceiling peppered with knives, a stairway with a user-activated audio component (“You take a step and a voice could whisper, ‘You’re going to be eating chanterelles,’ ” said Brown with a laugh), wall projections with images specific to that evening’s dinner, chefs composing dishes at communal-scaled tables.
“It’s going to be like a black-box theater,” Brown said. “The whole building is a stage, and we can do whatever we want in it. This is as far down the rabbit hole as we’re ever going to take it.”
Chefs will greet guests at the door with a nibble, or a drink, and belongings will be stored in lockers. Then the fun begins, with the evening’s diners split into manageable groups, each led by a chef.
“Maybe for the next 40 minutes, we’ll take you through the experience of duck,” said Brown. “There’ll be two ducks. One has been roasting over the fire; the other was prepared a different way. It’ll somehow involve a duck press. And at the end of those seven courses, those 10 people will have consumed those two ducks. And then we’ll go on.”
And on. And on. The courses will continue, “until we’re done,” Brown said.
A second phase of the project will involve finishing the basement into a speakeasy, one that’s open to the public. It’s one of more than 40 strategies they’ve brainstormed to keep the building busy outside those 40-person ticketed evenings. Morning yoga. Weekend brunch. Movie nights. Chef throw-down competitions. Paella on the rooftop patio at $20 a head. Private parties.
“We want to activate the space as much as possible, and keep our chefs as activated as much as possible,” Brown said. “This is like designing the home that you’ve always wanted. We’ve had eight years of discovery to create something as refined as possible. The longevity of this, the timelessness of this, that’s going to compel us to keep pushing forward.”
Pizza and beer
Travail’s new home opens up an opportunity in its current four-year-old space: a roomier new abode for the trio’s fun-loving, lines-out-the-door Pig Ate My Pizza.
At 96 seats, the new pizzeria will be nearly twice the size of its predecessor. The plan (devised by RoehrSchmitt Architecture in Minneapolis) is to add garage-style doors to the building’s N. Broadway elevation to draw the outside in (“like those guys who sit in their garage,” said Gerken) and separate that front dining room from the rest of the space with a screen.
The bar — and Travail’s chef-driven cocktail program — will remain, and the considerable increase in kitchen space will allow for the creation of an extensive small-plates menu. A prepaid ticketing program will permit larger groups to access tables, a near impossibility in the current space. And yes, the restaurant’s beloved and oh-so-Travailian “hot tub” booth (forged out of an actual hot tub) will make a triumphant return.
“The energy of the old Travail will now resonate in this new Pig Ate My Pizza concept,” Brown said.
The final flourish? House-brewed beer, the work of Travailians and fanatical home brewers Andy Goettsch and Nate Moser.
“Andy and Nate brew really great beer, and we’ve always wondered, ‘How can we help you guys with this?’ ” Brown said. “We ended up connecting it to Pig Ate My Pizza, because it’s already so connected to beer already. Chefs brewing beer, it makes total sense.”
On the horizon
The timetable is somewhat complicated, but here goes: Construction on the new Travail should begin next month. The restaurant will leave its current home at the end of November, and reopen across the street in mid-March 2019 (expect to encounter Travail pop-up events during those in-between weeks). Pig Ate My Pizza will remain in its current storefront through January 2019, and reopen two months later in its new location.
There’s more. The first phase of Travail’s remake isn’t taking place in Robbinsdale. Instead, the chefs are converting a tiny building in northeast Minneapolis into a takeout/delivery venture — led by longtime Travailian Kale Thome — that they’ve christened Minnesota BBQ Co. (816 Lowry Av. NE., Mpls.).
“Kale is very interested in giving barbecue a little bit of a Minnesota twist,” Brown said. “Taking products that are natural to Minnesota and making vinegars out of them, for example. It’s going to be about the craft of barbecue.”
The goal is to have the place open by August.
As they’ve done in earlier projects, the chefs are handling much of the construction work themselves, with a small difference: Following their new Robbinsdale projects, they’ve tapped a design professional, architect Joy Martin of Minneapolis, to help transform the 700-square-foot structure into a smoked-meats citadel.
“She’s very creative and thrifty about creating space where there really isn’t any,” Gerken said.
Because the two soon-to-be-demolished buildings are considered blighted, the project will receive public funding from the city (via tax-increment financing), along with a Hennepin County grant for costs associated with outdated utilities connections.
In 2013, Travail launched an early crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter, a wildly successful online effort that yielded an astounding $255,669.
This time around, the chefs are skipping Kickstarter (“it would be redundant,” Brown said) in favor of raising capital through a direct route: Travailian memberships. The goal is to raise $150,000.
“Obviously, we have a connection with people, we have a tribe,” Brown said. “We want to capitalize on something that worked, but we don’t want people to feel like a membership is a donation. We want people to feel that they are part of something. We want them to feel an interaction.”
Their memberships will offer a laundry list of perks (previews to quarterly ticket sales, VIP entry to the annual Travail summer party on Robbinsdale’s Crystal Lake) and items of measurable value (everything from a beer with each visit to Pig Ate My Pizza to four quarterly dinners for two at Travail), available at three levels: $300, $1,000 and $2,500.
“For some people, it’s going to be a no-brainer,” Brown said. “They know they’re going to eat here four times anyway, so why not become a member and get all of this other stuff, too? We want to turn this into something that is ours, and not Kickstarter’s. We can keep you forever if you’re our member.”