Josef Harris and Liz Gardner have turned their side gig — Bodega Ltd. — into a multidisciplinary firm that's growing as it creates "worlds" for restaurants and other clients.

Harris said he and Gardner launched Bodega, specializing in creative direction, branding, interior design, social media and photography, in 2014 "to find ways to make things we were passionate about outside of the job."

The couple left their jobs, his in public relations and social media and hers as a magazine creative director, when they got in the way of Bodega projects.

"For us it's about how do we create things that are real and connected to a true concept that's an extension of our clients," Harris said.

That means taking a "super relational" approach with clients through frequent dinners, texting at all hours and, in the case of chef Erick Harcey fishing trips to talk over ideas for his new Upton 43 restaurant.

Bodega has done creative direction, photography and consulting for Esker Grove, the new Walker Art Center restaurant, and branding and interior design for Gem Salon and Spa in St. Paul, Harris said.

It's also designing Salty Tart's new bakery and doing public relations for Otabo while helping the Minneapolis-based footwear manufacturer develop other brands and products.

Harris and Gardner are renovating a Minneapolis building where they plan to live, work and perhaps have an art gallery or retail space, the reason behind the Bodega name.

Q: How does Bodega differ from other agencies?

A: Most creative firms like to take on more clients and bigger clients. We'd rather just take a handful and make them awesome and charge a bit more so we can dive in. What everyone's craving now is an actual story to connect to, not to be sold something.

Q: How does Bodega work with clients?

A: When we work with clients from the beginning to build a brand that is super integrated, that is our bread and butter. Where we get frustrated is when we are asked to do one thing in that swath because then nothing's connected. We usually turn down projects if we're hired for just one aspect, or we ask for the opportunity to show our ideas for other parts so we can make a true impact.

Q: Is that a tough sell?

A: It's a tough sell sometimes if you're working with a larger company. When it's a small or midsize company, then it's easy because they're more like, "I have to have a partner in this scary thing I'm doing for the first time."

Todd Nelson