When a critically acclaimed fine dining restaurant closes because of a pandemic, you replace it with a market.
That's what Jami Olson, the restaurateur behind Popol Vuh, figured out when she and co-owner and chef Jose Alarcon decided last summer not to reopen their intimate Mexican-inspired restaurant in northeast Minneapolis.
Instead, they replaced it with Vivir, a casual cafe with a strong takeout element and a selection of home goods and Mexican treats.
On the shelves are housemade spreads and salsas, frozen cookie dough and ultra-dark chocolate bars. Packaging the kitchen's handiwork under Vivir's logo to sell alongside other brands was always part of the pandemic-necessitated plan, Olson said. When guests fall in love with Vivir's salsa on their torta, they can take a jar of it home.
"It's a way to make our ingredients more accessible, and on the business end of it, we want to enhance our profitability as much as possible," Olson said.
In search of new streams of revenue, more food and drink establishments in the Twin Cities are branding themselves as retailers with one-of-a-kind products you won't find in supermarkets. They are sticking labels on housemade sauces, bottling up cocktail mixes and putting proprietary seasonings into the hands of home cooks, with the hope that customers will return for the tastes they can't get anywhere else.
The front entry at Tattersall Distilling's northeast Minneapolis cocktail room has been transformed into a gift shop of sorts, with newly branded merchandise and bottles of bitters and simple syrup, jars of barrel-aged honey and jugs of cocktail mixers.
"We're trying to offer something unique here to actually get people to come in," said Tattersall co-founder Jon Kreidler. "Otherwise, our booze, you can go in any liquor store and get it."
While Tattersall and Vivir have brick-and-mortar marketplaces, other restaurants are simply adding branded products to their online ordering portals.
Union Hmong Kitchen, which is currently takeout-only, just launched an online store for chef Yia Vang's sauces, spices and sticky rice kits.
It was something Vang resisted at first.
"I was like, no, we're not a grocery store," he said. But after a friend bought one of the spice mixes, a light bulb went off.
"They said, 'I feel like it's a behind-the-scenes of what you guys are doing at the restaurant,' " he said; it's a way for fans of Vang's cooking to get a peek inside his kitchen.
And then there's the practical side of things.
"If 2020 taught us anything, it's how vulnerable a restaurant is," said Marshall Paulsen, Vang's business partner in the upcoming restaurant Vinai. "If you only have one revenue stream and you don't have other ideas, then you're behind already. This is a way for us having not just takeout, and you've got our label and logo in people's homes."
Does Vang worry that by selling his Szechuan coffee steak rub for customers to season their own meat, he's giving away too much of his restaurant's magic?
Not at all, he said. After all, one important ingredient to the restaurant experience is still missing.
"The magic," he said, "is the people."
12 staples to try
From salsa and spices to kimchi and condiments, here are 12 products from Twin Cities restaurants worth putting in your refrigerator and pantry:
Kimchi from Pizzeria Lola
The tangy Korean condiment that tops one of Pizzeria Lola's signature pies (the Lady Zaza) can now be bought by the pint. Chef/owner Ann Kim has jarred up her family's recipe for spicy, fermented cabbage ($12). Bonus points for the fun label, which also comes printed on a tote bag.
5557 Xerxes Av. S., Mpls., pizzerialola.com
Salsa, Nico's Taco and Tequila Bar
Choose from eight housemade salsas, stone ground with the traditional molcajete and sold by the jar — ultra-crisp chips included (verde serrano shown here). Eight-ounce jars are $7, or three for $15; 16-ounce jars are $10, or three for $25.
2516 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.; 2260 Como Av., St. Paul, nicostacobar.com
Sauces from Marna's Eatery
Pick up Costa Rican flavors in Robbinsdale and bring them home in 8-ounce bottles of Marna's signature sauces: chipotle crema and rosa sauce ($9.50 each). Housemade blends of dried seasonings in small ($6) and large ($9) bottles can amp up your fish, beef or potatoes.
4154 W. Broadway, Robbinsdale, marnaseatery.com
Dried fruit and nut confiture, Patisserie 46
Chef/owner John Kraus eats this chunky spread on a slice of multigrain during "those late night cheese binges" we all identify with. Like fruitcake in a jar, the confiture is jam-packed with quince, fig, pear, date, prune, apricot, raisin, citrus, nuts and spices ($15 for roughly 7 ounces). Other pantry must-haves: apricot and almond jam ($11), which is "absolutely necessary to keep scurvy away through winter," Kraus said. And for the ultimate snack, salted caramel spread ($11) on toast.
Patisserie 46, 4552 Grand Av. S., Mpls.; Rose Street Patisserie, 171 N. Snelling Av., St. Paul, patisserie46.com
Masa cookie dough, Vivir
The signature, brightly sprinkled cookie from the bakery at the new northeast Minneapolis Mexican market can be yours anytime. Just stash a bag of cookie dough balls in the freezer, and bake at will ($12 for one dozen). Other great take-home items: salsa de cacahuate (peanuts, sesame seeds and peppers), salsa macha and Vivir's own 70% cacao chocolate bar.
1414 NE. Quincy St., Mpls., vivirmpls.com
Fried chicken dredge from Justin Sutherland/Handsome Hog
Only "Top Chef" star Justin Sutherland could make a word like dredge sound so good. The chef/owner of Handsome Hog has made his signature flavoring blends available online. Packaged in gold, the fried chicken dredge is obviously the gold standard ($21 for 1.25 pounds). Brisket and rib rubs are also sold by the pouch, plus shakers of bourbon and smoke wing seasoning and Tennessee hot spice (from $11).
Handsome Hog, 173 N. Western Av., St. Paul. Sold in the restaurant when it reopens Feb. 1 or online at justinsutherland.com
Condiments from Hai Hai and Hola Arepa
Two 6-ounce jars from the sister restaurants add a tropical kick to almost anything. Buy them individually ($9) or as a "Keep It Spicy" pair ($18). Coconut chili crisp is based on the chili-shallot sambal on Hai Hai's Bali chicken dish. Nut and seed salsa macha combines pepitas, peanuts and almonds, sesame seeds and dried peppers into a topping for eggs, veggies and dips. While you're at it, add a bottle of Cafe Sua Da ($12 for a pint) to your cart; just pour this rich Vietnamese coffee over ice.
Umami salt, Union Hmong Kitchen
"It's our version of the ramen packet," explained chef Yia Vang. Sprinkle this dried mushroom seasoning on eggs, French fries, broccoli — anything that needs a mouthwatering boost ($12 per tin). Crunchy chili oil, lemongrass scallion dressing, tiger bite hot sauce and Szechuan coffee steak rub are also for sale individually or in a gift box. And for $55, learn to make purple sticky rice in a kit that comes with all the tools needed, including a woven steamer basket.
693 Raymond Av., St. Paul, unionkitchenmn.com
Fresh pasta, Broders' Pasta Bar
Make your own #18 — that's a signature menu item from the south Minneapolis pasta slinger that's now selling its housemade noodles to go. Egg linguine, spinach gnocchi and squash ravioli are among the offerings with that fresh pasta chew ($10 each). Dried pastas imported from Italy are also for sale. (Even beloved bucatini, of which there's a bizarre nationwide shortage.) But for the #18, get the egg yolk tagliarini and a pint of truffle cream ($14).
5000 Penn Av. S., Mpls., broderspastabar.com
Barrel-aged honey, Tattersall Distilling
The distillery's apple brandy barrels get a new job lending hints of caramel and spice to raw honey collected near solar farms across the Midwest in collaboration with Bare honey ($16 for a 12-ounce jar). No surprise that it's also great in drinks — just get it in simple syrup form ($16 for a 375-milliliter bottle). Tattersall's northeast cocktail room now hosts a mini market with these and other new products: spruce tip tonic, shrubs and cocktail mixes.
1620 Central Av. NE., Mpls., tattersalldistilling.com
Yellow mustard, Birchwood Cafe
With scratch cooking as part of its core mission, Birchwood Cafe even makes its own condiments. Ketchup, hot cherry pepper sauce, and this yellow mustard, with turmeric, garlic and a kick from cayenne ($6 for an 8-ounce jar).
3311 E. 25th St., Mpls., birchwoodcafe.com
Raspberry lemonade tea, Jinx Tea
A fizzy, fruity Arnold Palmer is one refreshing flavor that comes by the crowler at this creative tea shop. Look for the 25ish-ounce cans in other cafes around town, too. Or stop in to pick up a custom can of any of the other fun flavors on tap, including kombucha and the tart and just-sweet Ruby Punch. $8.
4503 France Av. S., Mpls., jinxtea.com
Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4853