Nighthawks closed just after 2 p.m. like it does every Sunday. A few hours later, a handful of people walked into the popular south Minneapolis diner, where Erik Anderson proceeded to prepare an eight-course Japanese yakitori chicken feast — at a grill normally reserved for flipping burgers and hash browns.
Anderson, who is in the midst of opening his own restaurant, doesn’t work at Nighthawks. He was just borrowing the kitchen to host a special dinner.
Nighthawks isn’t the only restaurant to throw open its kitchen doors. Across the Twin Cities, restaurateurs are offering theme dinners, turning their kitchens over to guest chefs, sponsoring pop-up eateries and holding one-time events as a way to create excitement and stand out in a fiercely competitive market.
Hi-Lo Diner, known for its Hi-Top fried dough and omelets, held a pig roast. Constantine’s Mike DeCamp regularly invites fellow chefs to bartend. A yet-to-open Asian dumpling shop, Mrs. Dumpling, staged a pop-up at Lowry Hill Meats. And Salty Tart pastry chef Michelle Gayer sold pies at Latin restaurant Hola Arepa for Thanksgiving.
Fueled by social media, a surge in chef-owned restaurants and sophisticated diners who are demanding more than just a good meal, top local eateries are pushing the boundaries of the traditional restaurant experience.
“It’s kind of the perfect storm of consumer trends,” said Annika Stensson, the National Restaurant Association’s director of research. “And it’s created this environment where chefs can really thrive and be experimental and kind of take it one step further.”
Cindy Witkin of Edina bought the yakitori dinner for herself and seven friends through Appetite for Change, a community engagement organization. She called the dinner “fascinating,” and said “it felt like we were being entertained.”
Entertainment is certainly a big part of the experiential dining trend.
Perhaps that’s why event ticketing groups have become involved.
Five years ago, Eventbrite, a global ticketing company, didn’t manage a single restaurant-related event in the Twin Cities. In the past 12 months, it has handled more than 1,000 events, including the all-inclusive Oyster Bash at Oceanaire Seafood Room in downtown Minneapolis.
Local Tempo Tickets focused on ticketing for performing arts, theater and music when it launched in 2009. Now food-and-drink related events are its fastest growing segment, including a recent all-you-can-eat party staged by Robbinsdale’s Pig Ate My Pizza.
“We’ve seen an explosion with restaurant clients coming on,” said Nick McCulloch, Tempo Tickets’ director of sales and marketing. “New demand is just cropping up for these events.”
Using a ticketing company can help a restaurant manage cash flow, which allows chef-owners to experiment without worrying about the bottom line.
Nighthawks, for example, has a private eating space connected to its kitchen. Called Birdie, the restaurant-within-a-restaurant is open just three days a week, for a single seating for 14 people. The menu, which changes at the whims of Nighthawks’ chef costs $100 to $130 per person.
On its own, a restaurant like Birdie would likely struggle to survive. But as an offshoot of an established eatery, Birdie is able to prepare high-end fare.
Mike Brown of Travail Kitchen & Amusements finds value in a more flexible setup.
“Sometimes it’s just good — good for everyone — to jump out of what you’re doing and do something else,” he said. “It makes the people there feel that energy.”
While food-related events allow for innovation, many restaurateurs say hosting them also is a smart business decision because the events can create lasting bonds with diners.
“People feel like they have a relationship with chefs and that makes them invested in restaurants,” said Geri Wolf, owner of the Style Laboratory, an events design and planning company in Minneapolis. “Chefs are getting out of the kitchen and the general public is loving getting to meet them front and center.”
And, in an industry where millennials are representing a bigger chunk of the clientele, creating excitement is essential.
“You’ve got to be doing this,” said Tim Niver, who owns Strip Club Meat & Fish, Mucci’s Italian and Saint Dinette in St. Paul. “You can’t wait for people to come into your restaurant anymore. There are just so many great places out there that are open and vying for the guests.”
Still, even chef-owners who are offering theme dinners and special events caution that there are limits to the trend. An event, no matter how glitzy, would flop if the food wasn’t any good. And too much pomp and circumstance could undermine the meal.
Said Niver: “We should also remember what a good, relaxing dining experience can be — and just take the time to eat.”