Ted Lowell says fixing up the new home of the Acadia Café feels like playing until about 12:30 a.m. when he has to finish a project before the plumber comes the next morning. With the Acadia’s January 20th reopening just days away, Lowell can’t afford to lose any time.
Lowell is 41. He’s stocky and jocular, with a dark graying beard. Today, he’s installing new sinks for the restaurant. Last night, he bored holes into the floor to run his tap beers from the basement to the main floor.
For Lowell and his partner Jeff Werthmann-Radnich, this is the third round of trying something new. So far, they’ve made it work each time. They bought Café Tempo in the late 1990s and sold it once it was making money. Then they bought the Acadia, which was losing money until they turned it around. Now they are moving the Acadia to a new part of town. They closed the Acadia Café’s former location, on Franklin and Nicollet in Minneapolis, on December 30. Lowell, Werthmann-Radnich, and Lowell’s wife Juliana Bryarly seem to know what they are doing. They’ve built the Acadia’s reputation on good local music and having two dozen microbrew beers on tap.
With the Acadia moving to the West Bank—filling a corner space at Cedar and Riverside—there’s hope in the winter air for that neighborhood, which has a rich history of diversity and creativity but in recent years has seen an uncomfortable amount of turnover among storefronts. The past two years saw the Viking Bar close, followed this fall by the North Country Co-op. The Hard Times Café was shuttered for nearly four months, and rumors floated about that it wouldn’t reopen.
But with the Acadia moving into a formerly problematic space, things are looking up. Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon said he sees other promising signs, including budding partnerships among local institutions and the Cedar-Riverside Business Association.
“I get excited when I hear the new president of Augsburg [Paul Pribbenow] talking about wanting people who work at Augsburg to live in the area here,” Gordon said. He acknowledged that the city’s investment in the neighborhood has been lacking, but said there is funding in the works that will be directed to fixing the cracked sidewalks and pothole-ridden street.
West Bank residents are hopeful that the Acadia can make it work. Since the New Riverside closed in 1997, at least half a dozen restaurants in the space the Acadia now occupies have failed. This fact has led some to ask: Is that space cursed?
“It’s not clear to me why they have failed,” said Tim Mungavan, who oversees the West Bank Cedar Development Corporation, a non-profit that owns the corner building as well as the adjacent building on Riverside. Mungavan said each business had different issues—a divorce in the family, a naïve business sense, or a menu that was too expensive for the neighborhood.
The last business, the Riverside Restaurant, was run by a series of owners who didn’t have experience running a restaurant, Mungavan said. “They had a great entrepreneurial spirit but they didn’t think ahead about the bureaucracy.”
That might be said of the Hard Times Café as well. The Hard Times, which is run by a collective of employees, just finished their own struggle to reopen: the restaurant closed in August to bring its kitchen up to code. Reopening was delayed by requests for permits and miscommunication between contractors and the city. But after four months with its doors shut, the Hard Times reopened at midnight on December 15th.
Will the Acadia steal customers from the Hard Times, or will it bring new faces to the West Bank? Hard Times employees don’t seem too worried. “Lots of students don’t feel okay in the neighborhood because of its appearance,” said Troy Pieper, a member of the Hard Times employee collective. “Acadia may draw them here, and they’ll stay longer.”
“We have a niche in the city,” said Jason Buckendorf, another employee. “We are a vegetarian restaurant, and we sell some of the strongest coffee—exclusively made by French press.”
Not everyone at the Hard Times feels that way. A couple of regulars eating a late lunch were suspicious of new businesses moving in to the neighborhood. Pausing between bites of his biscuits and mushroom gravy, Bobby Digital said that the Acadia reminded him of another business new to the West Bank that wanted to put security cameras up around the neighborhood. “That got a negative reaction,” said Digital.
The Acadia may not be a democratically-run collective, but the owners do cook, clean and show up to work every day like Hard Times collective members do. For Lowell and his wife, who used to have jobs in corporate America, running their own show and treating their employees well is enough. “I guess we have some ideology,” Lowell said. “We want to be our own monkey, but we want to do it conscientiously.”
Joel Grostephan is a reporter based in St. Paul. His work is regularly aired on KFAI Radio and in The Environment Report (based in Ann Arbor, Michigan). He’s always looking for a good story about class, race or poverty. Contact him at email@example.com.