On a recent sunny weekday, Brian Ingram's faith in St. Paul was on full display.
At the Gnome Pub in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood, patrons basked on the restaurant's remade deck. A mile away, they savored pancakes and sipped mimosas at tables on a blocked-off street in front of Hope Breakfast Bar. And a mile farther down W. 7th Street, cooks at the huge open hearth at Woodfired Cantina prepped for the happy hour and dinner crowds.
During a year that snuffed out dozens of Twin Cities restaurants, St. Paul's dining scene has been buoyed by Ingram's optimism and opportunism. Hope had been open less than a year when the pandemic struck. Ingram went on to buy and repurpose the former Happy Gnome on Selby Avenue and then the former In Bloom and Sweet Science Ice Cream spaces at Keg and Case Market.
Now that customers are returning, Ingram's cause-supporting restaurants — they donate 3% of profits to charity — show no signs of slowing down.
"I just thought in my brain that this was the time for someone like me to get in," he said of his bullish entry into St. Paul. "The time was now."
A flipping start
Ingram, 50, has been in the restaurant business since he was 14, working after school and on weekends at Flip's Fly-In Coffee Shop at the airport in Anchorage, Alaska. Calling himself "the worst student on planet Earth," he loved whipping up omelets and flipping pancakes. At 16, he enrolled in a culinary program. At 18, he was rumbling into California on a beat-up Honda Hurricane motorcycle. The bike died in a Walmart parking lot. But his career was born.
"I'm a line cook that literally got a break," he said of a résumé that includes stops in New York, Las Vegas and Chicago.
Over the years, he learned how to negotiate leases, order supplies and launch new concepts. He graduated from smaller restaurants to big-money national operations. He got married, became a father, made a lot of money — then lost his marriage and employment and had to start over.
"I was the worst husband and the worst dad on the planet," he said of a first marriage that ended when his wife took the kids and left. "I was not always a good human and I kind of bought into my own hype."
After his divorce, Ingram returned to cooking — at a resort in Las Vegas, riding his bicycle to work in the desert heat. Then he started rising again, designing restaurants that included New Bohemia Wurst & BierHaus, which at one time had seven Twin Cities locations, and the Seventh Street Truck Park in St. Paul. At New Bohemia in northeast Minneapolis he met a server, Sarah Dordal, and fell in love. They've been together eight years, married for four.
Sarah started volunteering young, raising money for cancer research after a neighborhood girl was diagnosed with leukemia. A hairstylist, she later volunteered to do hair and makeup for brothel workers in Las Vegas. She's raised money every year to fight human trafficking and prostate cancer. Now a new mother to a 6-month-old, she still stops to hand out bags filled with toiletries and clothing to people at street corners and freeway off-ramps.
After launching Hope Breakfast Bar in September 2019, the Ingrams upped the ante.
They created a new nonprofit — Give Hope — that Sarah runs full time. They donated $21,000 — one day's revenue at two of their restaurants — to the family of Brooklyn Center police shooting victim Daunte Wright, and a recent day's sales went to the families of the three children shot in Minneapolis last month.
During the pandemic, Give Hope donated more than 2 million pounds of food to anyone who asked — from groceries piled on tables in front of their restaurants to meals they delivered throughout the Twin Cities. The Ingrams say their Christian faith spurs them. But there's no proselytizing. Share Your Hope cards are available for customers to scribble prayers, hopes and dreams. "Each week our team will pray over what you've shared," the card says. "We believe in you."
Local chef and restaurateur David Fhima started working with Brian Ingram "three or four years ago" on a variety of initiatives to feed the community.
"When the pandemic hit us and we had to shut down, I — like a lot of other chefs — was stuck with food in our coolers. So what are you going to do?" Fhima said.
Teaming with Ingram and local chef Justin Sutherland, Fhima said they started donating not only 120,000 meals for the community, but raising money for pandemic-unemployed staff through their nonprofit, the North Stands.
"It was just an amazing sight to see," Fhima said. "I was just blown away by what he did and does. It takes a lot of guts. It takes a vision. His vision has been 'I'm opening restaurants — but, really, I am helping the community.' "
Paying it forward
For all of his positive feelings about his adopted home, Ingram has had his share of frustrations in St. Paul. Several break-ins and burglaries at his restaurants over the past year got him heated enough to challenge city and courts leaders on his Facebook page. He even contemplated a run for mayor — at the urging of several local residents. He decided to stick to food.
"I told him no," Sarah said. They agreed they can make a bigger impact doing what they are doing.
Angelo Boncimino, a friend for 25 years, said Ingram is convinced that if he pays it forward the community will pay him back tenfold.
"It was confusing to his friends, how he was doing this," Boncimino said. "But fighting injustice is his thing. And he does it through food."
Ingram said he and Sarah "literally emptied our checking account giving away food" during the pandemic. But the community also stepped up — from people making Costco runs for bread and toilet paper to enthusiastically buying curbside meals and holiday meal kits.
Purpose Driven Restaurants has grown over the past two years from 19 employees to 200.
And, as it turns out, taking over restaurants that closed during COVID ended up making financial sense. It doesn't cost as much to repurpose a restaurant as it does to build one from scratch — Woodfired Cantina cost $200,000 instead of $4 million, Brian Ingram said. And landlords are more willing to negotiate better deals, with no money down and setting rents as a percentage of profit.
The Ingrams are looking to expand further, with a second Hope location just announced. Hope Breakfast Bar 2.0 will open this fall at the Shops at West End in St. Louis Park. They're even talking to a television production company about a show to help people find new ways to help their communities.
"Think about how much food we throw away every day," Brian Ingram said. "What if we all just give away the food at the end of the day? If we all do a little, we're all going to be in a much better spot."
Brian and Sarah Ingram donate 3% of the restaurants' profits to charity.
Hope Breakfast Bar: 1 S. Leech St., St. Paul, 651-330-8996, hopebreakfastbar.com. Open daily 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. A second location will open this fall in the Shops at West End in St. Louis Park.
Purple Ice Cream: Located inside Keg and Case Market, 928 W. 7th St., St. Paul. Open Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The Gnome Pub: 498 Selby Av., St. Paul, 651-219-4233, thegnomepub.com. Open Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Weekend brunch from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Woodfired Cantina: Located inside Keg and Case Market, 928 W. 7th St., St. Paul, 612-584-4896. woodfiredcantina.com. Open Wednesday- Thursday, 3 to 9 p.m., Friday, 3 to 10 p.m., Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.