In the North Loop’s red-hot restaurant scene, the news generally moves in one direction: another opening. And another one. And another one.
Not this time. Sapor Cafe and Bar (428 Washington Av. N., Mpls., 612-375-1971, www.saporcafe.com) co-owners Julie Steenerson and Tanya Siebenaler have announced that they are closing their 15-year-old restaurant.
“We fulfilled our dream, and now we’re thinking ahead to the next chapter,” Steenerson said. “We want to control our own destinies. And the idea of having two consecutive days off? Wow. That will be really interesting to experience.”
For members of the Sapor Fan Club (count me a charter member), there is one glimmer of sunshine. The restaurant is shutting down at the end of June, when the partnership’s lease comes to an end, enough notice to longtime customers who might want to enjoy one last dinner — a roasted beet pizza, smoked pulled chicken with maple-glazed yams — before the end.
“We’re not slap-a-sign-on-the-door-in-the-middle-of-the-night kind of people,” Steenerson said.
Hardly. With her eagle eye, boundless energy and textbook Minnesota Nice manner, Steenerson’s hospitable presence blossoms across the understated Sapor dining room in ways that few Twin Cities restaurants can match. That explains why the restaurant garnered a James Beard semifinalist nod for Outstanding Service in 2013.
In the kitchen, Siebenaler quietly channels her roving curiosity for global flavors (“sapor” is Latin for “taste” or “flavor”) into her highly appealing menus. For the past eight months, she has been exploring the nuances of smoke and Southern American cooking, converting her kitchen into one of the city’s great unsung barbecue joints.
For years, both women have mastered the figurative art of pulling rabbits out of hats. Between the two of them, they oversee just 10 (overwhelmingly long-term) employees, an extremely lean business model.
“We bootstrap it here,” Siebenaler said. “It’s amazing when we go to other places and see all the staff they’ve got, and we think, ‘That would be so easy.’ ”
That the two are North Loop pioneers almost goes without saying. Here’s how long they’ve played a key role in the area’s transition from dusty, semi-industrial backwater to one of the Twin Cities’ most active real estate markets: Steenerson, in her capacity as a founding member of the neighborhood association’s board of directors, chaired the committee responsible for forging the North Loop name.
Fifteen years ago, the area wasn’t crawling with loft condos and apartments, style-conscious shops and a skyrocketing restaurants-per-capita arithmetic.
“We would wait and wait and wait for anything else to come along,” Steenerson said. “We were like, ‘Come on, come on.’ ”
Building owner Judy Galbraith, publisher of Free Spirit Publishing, said she is actively seeking another restaurant tenant for the Sapor space.
“It has been great to have them with us, and we will miss them,” she said. “We have several interested restaurateurs, but we haven’t signed a contract.”
Let the speculation begin.
No plans yet on a farewell, except for the final night.
“We’re reserving that for the people who have supported us for 15 years,” Steenerson said. “We’re blocking out the book for them.”
This much they do know: Both Steenerson and Siebenaler are exiting the restaurant industry.
Professionally, it’s all Siebenaler has ever known. Thirty years ago, when she was a teenager, her first job was washing dishes at Jax Cafe in northeast Minneapolis.
“And I’ve never done anything but restaurant work ever since,” she said. “I basically grew up in the kitchen, starting at the bottom and working my way up.”
No longer. In the fall, she plans to study welding and metalcrafting at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
“I’ve always liked making things,” she said. “It’s a craft, like cooking, and I’ll still be in a creative field.” And she’ll still be cooking. “Three meals a day, I imagine. At home.”
Although she could probably make a fortune teaching Hospitality 101 courses, Steenerson’s plans are more fluid.
“I like working with creatives, just as I have for the past 15 years, and I’m exploring where that will take me,” she said. “I’m excited about finding my next career.”
Fortunately, a tiny piece of Sapor will live on. Bar manager Toph Heubach and chef Noah Miller are collaborating to launch Bark and the Bite, a food truck focusing on smoked meats and Southern classics. It’s a spinoff of Project BBQ, the deeply flavorful in-house smokehouse venture that Siebenaler and Miller have been running, pop-up style, from the Sapor kitchen since October.
“It’s exciting to watch them get excited about it, the way we were excited when we opened the restaurant 15 years ago,” Siebenaler said. “We’ve had a good, solid run, and we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
Farewell, Sapor. You will be missed.