The chef/owner has big plans for his 17-year-old Restaurant Alma, converting an adjacent coffeehouse into a casual, all-day cafe and adding a six-room hotel upstairs. While the staff prepared dinner, Roberts recently took a few moments to provide a few details.
Q: Let’s start with the hotel. What’s going on?
A: The hotel is a natural extension of our hospitality, but it took me a while to see it as a possibility. I just assumed that the upstairs would be a rental space. But then I was up there and I was like, “Let’s bring some life to it. What’s a creative application?”
My office is up there, so I spend a lot of time up there, and the light is really nice, and the ceilings are high. And I started thinking about my time in Italy, and all the little inns, and the restaurants that had inns above them, maybe five or 10 rooms. Then I heard about Longman & Eagle in Chicago, so I went down and spent a few nights and saw how great that operation is, how simple it is, and I said, “We could do that.”
The “doing it” has taken 18 months, but we’re there now. I feel like I’ve been the boy who cried wolf a bit, but it looks like we’ve finally crossed the line.
We’ll have small rooms that will feel more like a well-appointed guest room than a generic hotel room that is one of 200.
We’ve rezoned the property to be able to accommodate a full bar — so full liquor zoning for uses in the hotel and cafe — and it looks like I’m at about 99 percent with the financing. It looks like we’ll start construction in April, and if all goes according to plan we should be open by mid-October.
Q: And people used to say, “Where is Alma?” No longer, right?
A: This neighborhood is to downtown Minneapolis as Brooklyn is to Manhattan. This is our Brooklyn, this east side. I have that on the glass next door, “East Minneapolis.” It was called East Minneapolis for a long time. I put it on the glass because it’s time to claim it as its own amazing neighborhood.
This is the first neighborhood of Minneapolis, and it’s unbelievable how much development is going on, and the number of people who are moving in. I feel really good about it.
Q: What can people look forward to, cafe-wise?
A: It’s going to have a day menu and a night menu. Essentially it will be brunch and dinner, every day. That day menu will have breakfast items and lunch items, because I’m the guy who wants to eat dinner for breakfast. We’ll also have waffles and pancakes and all the egg dishes. We love eggs, so we’ll serve them all day long. There’ll be coffee and pastries and baked goods that you can order at the front grab-and-go counter, and the whole room will be anchored by a bar, so you can sit and plug in your laptop and have a bite to eat. There’ll also be full table service.
Q: Is there a role model somewhere?
A: I’m looking to some of the great cafes in Paris. I don’t know if I can even come up with names, but they’re the restaurants that fill up in the morning — with people coming in for coffee and pastry, or a breakfast — and then they continue to do business all day, and then at night, at a different price point. They have a relevancy all day long.
What we see here in this town, generally, is that the places that really thrive in the day seem to really struggle at night. I’m trying to create a new definition of what a cafe is. I want to create one that has a relevancy from the moment we open until the moment we close.
It’s tricky, but that’s what it takes. You feel that it’s your place, whether you’re stopping by for eggs in the morning, and a cocktail and a meal — or a drink and dessert — in the evening.
Locanda Verde and Lafayette, Andrew Carmellini’s places [in New York City], they have this relevancy all day long. There’s a place in Philadelphia called High Street on Market, and Runner & Stone in Brooklyn, they have a very similar vision.
As for Alma, it’s time to freshen it up. We have to step that up a bit because of competition. We’ve had enough Chipotle comments about our ductwork and lighting, and they’re right. Touché.
Q: What’s your biggest business challenge? Dealing with rising wages? Finding qualified staff? Increased competition?
A: We’ve been able to raise prices to deal with the minimum wage, and all of our customers haven’t gone away. My restaurants have experienced year-over-year growth for 16 years. I’ve been lucky — or you make your own luck, to some extent.
One thing is to see what’s coming, to know where your complacency is. I read this somewhere, and I agree with it: The No. 1 reason for complacency is success.
We’ve done well, and we’ve been received well, but that doesn’t mean that that’s what’s going to continue to happen. I just want to be positioned where I can create a business where the greatest number of people can thrive within it.
Q: How many people work at Alma and the two Brasa locations?
A: We have 165 total between the three restaurants.
Q: Do you ever freak out, thinking, “I’m responsible for the livelihoods of 165 people”?
A: Here and there, but I’m not such a tightly wound person. I’m not a worrier, I try to step away from fear and choose a thought that’s more about the possibility. I see having 165 people as an enormous opportunity to develop something special and create a culture and an organization where they’re learning, and they’re thriving. That’s the key. We have these amazing brains in our heads, and that’s one of my disciplines, to choose the thought that’s more about the possibility.
Q: When staffers leave and open their own restaurants — I’m thinking of Nightingale in south Minneapolis, and Lyn 65 Kitchen & Bar in Richfield — how does that make you feel?
A: So proud. That’s what you hope they do; I love it when people go off and open their own places. It’s a reflection on how we do things here, and that starts with me.
I have the responsibility to set the stage for everybody else’s role, and their success in that role. When I go to one of those places, or see a photo of something they’re doing on social media, and its derivative from Alma, I see that as a great thing.
The great chefs of the world, they all learned from somebody, and you oftentimes see that family tree of cooking. I worked for David Bouley, and he spent time with Paul Bocuse and Roger Vergé.
You can see that locally with certain relationships, whether it starts with Jay Sparks, or Tim McKee, or Isaac Becker, or Steven Brown, and of course Gavin [Kaysen]. I think it’s wonderful.
Q: Alma opened nearly 17 years ago, which makes you something of a dean of the local dining community. What’s your assessment of the current restaurant scene?
A: I think it’s amazing. I’m glad to be a part of it, and glad that my restaurants are still respected and seen as relevant by a good number of diners. This is an amazing time to go out and eat. Yes, there has been some retreat from fine dining and formality, but that’s a nationwide — and worldwide — phenomenon. But it’s great to see chefs flex their muscles in casual cuisine.
Q: There has been a string of high-profile closings over the past year. What’s your take on that?
A: The nature of dining is changing. Some big trends have affected things. [New York City restaurateur] Danny Meyer saw that; he has really led the casualization of dining. I knew that when I started Alma that I wasn’t going to touch formal dining, not that I necessarily have the skill or ability for formal dining. In this era, the kiss of death can be the perception that you’re formal.
But on some level, as restaurants age, there is this challenge to stay relevant, because tastes change. The reasons that people are going out are changing. Some of the more formal, old-school restaurants can lose their relevance if they don’t change a bit.
All of us know that the bourbon cocktail and the cheeseburger have had a real renaissance. A lot of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, they don’t want five courses. They want the flexibility to order what they want, they want something that’s familiar to them, even if it’s an $18 burger and a $12 cocktail. It’s amazing that it’s not a price thing. It’s about what it is, and how it’s presented.
Q: Does this mean we’ll be seeing a double-patty cheeseburger at Cafe Alma?
A: I’ll just say that a burger will make an appearance. Burgers are great, we all like them. I like them. But I do think that, at some point, people will get bored with them.
I also have a huge respect for cocktails. We’re working with Bittercube right now; they’ll be leading our full bar program. I hope that we’ll get a chance to work with them at Brasa, too. I don’t like this criminalization of alcohol. We should be able to have a rum punch, a bourbon punch or a spiked soda at Brasa, along with beer and wine.
Q: How do you explain Alma’s longevity?
A: If Alma was a 110-seat restaurant, I don’t know that we’d still be here. Alma is a 60-seat restaurant, and that’s one reason why we’ve been able to make it through a couple of recessions and continue to thrive all these years.
The relevancy and resiliency combination are maybe the biggest challenge for restaurants. Being a great restaurant isn’t always about being the best, or about this or that award. Ultimately, it’s the idea that, when people think of where they want to go out, they say, “Hey, that’s one of my favorites.”
Q: Do you spend any time looking at the Brasa and Restaurant Alma commentary on Yelp and OpenTable?
A: Someone here on the staff checks it frequently. I look, on average, about once a month, to get a sense of the general reception. Looking at it too much is like looking at your phone too much, it’s just not healthy. I try to stay focused on my own actions and behaviors and what we’re bringing to the community, rather than what other people are saying.
Q: I’ve always marveled at how you’ve coped — thrived, really — with the close cooking quarters at Alma. Are you looking forward to gaining some more elbow room?
A: We have a very limited facility at Alma; there are just two stoves, a little broiler and some tabletop induction burners. We don’t have a convection oven. To be honest, the constraints around the space have forced us to be creative and collaborative to make it work. It’s a real dance, but it can also yield great things.
I actually have a concern about the new space, that we might lose some of that connection, some of that urgency. But we have to improve our facility to compete. We have a hard time keeping up, and I know we can do better with more equipment.
Q: You’ve said that one of the reasons to expand is to create opportunities for your staff. Can you explain that?
A: I’ve been working here for 17 years. Of course, as you get older and you keep doing the same thing, your sightlines become limited.
But these talents within my business, it’s their time to be recognized for their contribution to this restaurant, and to food in general in this city.
People like Carrie Riggs, our pastry chef and lead baker; Lucas Rosenbrook, chef de cuisine at Alma; and Matthew Sprague, who is the sous chef here at Alma and will be the chef de cuisine at the cafe. They’re all very talented people in their own right. We have that on the hospitality side, too, with James Hirdler, and his vision for wine.
There are a lot of people here who are passionate about what they do, and they’re bringing their ideas, and their excitement. They’re essential in making sure that the next 17 years are as good as the first 17.
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib