Coffee shop, white linen sit-down restaurant, jazz night club—what’s your dream, where would you like to go out in the neighborhood? What can the North Minneapolis dining market support?
Last month, NorthNews looked at what dining options seem to be working in the Camden area of North Minneapolis, and challenges for in-city restaurants along Lowry and north of Lowry. This month, we look mostly at the area from Broadway south to 394 where fast food and take-out are popular. Lunch trade thrives serving area workers, but sit-down dining after dark (next month’s installment) begs interpretation or requires going beyond the fringes.
Milda’s: Long-running success in comfort food
Like Emily’s F&M Cafe in the Camden area, Milda’s Cafe on Glenwood and Morgan stopped offering evening meals long ago, in the early 1970s. Milda Hokkanen, a widow with three children, started the restaurant in 1965 at age 50; the evening hours were too taxing. Her daughter Jane Eisenschenk and Jane’s husband Tom own the restaurant now. They decided four years ago to close on weekends as well, not for lack of business but for lack of family time. Jane explained that with two cooks and two grills cooking non-stop complicated breakfast meals “it was hard to keep up and they’d be totally wiped out,” tired physically.
For you see, the secret to their success, Jane said, is “for any restaurant, you need to stick to what you can do.” For Tom the cook, that means not pre-preparing sausages and bacon and other parts of a meal that most restaurants do—so those items, and pancakes and eggs, take up grill space.
People have suggested menu changes and expansions, but “repeat customers know what we have. Whether it’s hot beef, pasties, or caramel rolls, we still have it. We maintain the same quality, the same recipe, the same ingredients. We hear them say, ‘I was so hungry for this and it tastes exactly the same as I remember,’” Jane said.
Lunch might be a soup special at $5.75, pasties and gravy (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) at $7.75, hot dish at $7.35. “For $10 you can get a meal and beverage.” Tom’s choice, served until 10 a.m. is two eggs, hashbrowns and toast for $4.75. It’s all comfort food, “not diet food, a fresh fruit plate isn’t what people are coming here for. It’s like if you want a steak you go to a steak place, or seafood you go to a seafood place,” Jane said.
Milda started out with just pasties, the meat-vegetable-potato filled pastries enjoyed with gravy and a side of cole slaw. The building (what is today Elite Catering and Sunnyside Cafe across the street) was Wells Memorial, a settlement house which merged with Unity House and Northside Settlement Services in 1967. “It was the GlenMor Cafe but everyone knew it as Milda’s,” Jane said, “She had never worked in a restaurant but she had cooked for the threshing crews in North Dakota. She would say she was too ignorant to be afraid.”
People asked “what else can you make?” Jane’s father was a baker, so Milda had learned from him. She always made the rolls at Milda’s, and gradually learned restaurant cooking from other cooks she hired as “she kept knocking down walls” to expand. Milda Hokkanen died in 2005.
Jane is out front and handles the business end; Tom and Jane are there daily, open 6 a.m.-3 p.m., arriving at 3:15 a.m. Tom makes the soups, gravies, hot dishes and hot cereals for the day before they open.
The Eisenschenks employ five servers and two cashiers, a busser, a dishwasher and three cooks in addition to Tom; not all are full time and usually two are off on any given day. Jane’s taking part of Mondays off to tend a grandchild.
While they don’t have much turnover in employees, Jane said their application reflects the fact they have “every person in the world come in here, from millionaires to low income, all races, creeds, orientations. We make the point that they have to be able to accept and respect all people.”
The immediate neighborhood has changed quite a bit recently, with old houses being torn down and new ones going up. Young people, newly-married people—all good signs, “and the crime rate is not much of a big deal anymore, it’s been relatively quiet,” Jane said. Busy as they may be at the peaks, “we welcome new customers.”
Business comes from all over, people from the neighborhood as well those working downtown, a lot from Golden Valley. “There’s not a lot of traffic now on Glenwood from farther out. It used to be bumper to bumper,” Jane said, noting that many of the industrial businesses in the area closed. The more recent recession took out home improvement and other construction related customers, and other regulars came less often or ordered less.
They noticed what retailing expert David Brennan said happened everywhere, “Many customers traded down by going to less expensive restaurants; some cut down on the amount purchased by buying a less expensive meal, eliminating a beverage; others went out less frequently or stopped going out.”
The Eisenschenks look forward to what should come from the Van White off ramp and eventual redevelopment of the Basset Creek Valley.
Down the street from Milda’s, Venture North offers the quick cup of coffee starting at 11 a.m. Sunnyside Cafe, which shares space with Elite Catering, has likely picked up Saturday business from Milda’s giving up Saturdays; Sunnyside is open only on weekends.
Coffee shops with food
At Cuppa Java at Penn and Cedar Lake Road in Bryn Mawr, morning customers put money on the counter and hand over their coffee mug without needing to say a word. There’s the assortment of coffee shop beverage offerings; flavored coffees, espressos, chai, teas, and fancy sodas.
But owner Robert Gillem said it’s become “so much about the food.” He describes the menu as “soups, sandwiches, basic American comfy food. No deep fryers. Our Cubanos, our Reubens have been called the best in town.” Lunch is their busiest meal, and some regulars eat two or three meals a day there. For those who don’t want to wait, there are several varieties of $5.75 grab-and-go sandwiches in the cooler (pre-made in the restaurant).
Hours are 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. weekdays, 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. “The evenings are a little slower,” people will be on laptops, studying, working, enjoying a glass of wine (or beer, they have both), having meetings. He’s carved out one more table’s worth of space from a former storeroom, and will add more outdoor seating next summer where an exterior staircase used to be.
On an artery leading to and from the 394 freeway, with a bus coming every half hour, Cuppa Java is highly visible. Gillem said he does get a lot of customers from North Minneapolis. Cars park up in the neighborhood for a retail district where the shops play off each other. Thirteen businesses recently sponsored a Sip and Stroll with each giving a free appetizer or wine; Cuppa Java is also at the heart of the Saturnalia Festival in winter. Bryn Mawr does a neighborhood-wide garage sale, too.
Though he’s owned the place for 12 years, Gillem bought it already operating from a coffee roaster who started two shops and soon realized that “they needed to be owner operated.” He has coffee-shop-owner friends who are more hands-off, but said he’s always filling in for someone or fixing something. The average busy shift involves three people at the counter and three in back cooking; a total of 14 people are employed and most working five days a week.
Did the recession affect him? “You know, it slowly got busier.” Gillem said that essentially, if you’re not expensive, and you take care of business, people will choose you. “We’re trying to be fast, and keep prices fairly low. On everything, I use the best bread I can find, the best chicken I can find,” the best ingredients.
Also a fixture in Bryn Mawr is Fast Freddie’s Pizza, which Harrison Neighborhood resident and local real estate agent Jim Kantorowicz describes as “they’ve been there forever and the pizza’s great.” And there’s the relatively new Sparks, with an upscale menu of wood-fire-cooked foods. It’s a small place where customers can see the food being prepared.
“On making it, many small-business people are seeking to do what they want rather than be controlled by others. The psychic and emotional rewards exceed profits for most,” wrote David Brennan, co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas.
“About half of all businesses fail within four years with restaurants among the worst,” Brennan said.
Almost as soon as it “closed for good,” after several tries at new management, Avenue Eatery at Broadway and Emerson opened back up about a week ago under Sammy McDowell, a caterer who also does food service at Shiloh church. He’s changed the sandwich bread to a crustier submarine style, and plans to add two soups starting Nov. 1.
“I’ve been managing restaurants for 17 years, and what you do, do really well.” Keep the menu simple. For Avenue Eatery, he said that means a “great fresh sandwich, hot cup of coffee, great cup of soup, and great desserts,” peach cobbler, pecan pie and sweet potato pie that he makes himself, and “banana pudding. It has to be fresh.”
He said every five-dollar sandwich is made fresh to order, and he encourages people to order ahead if they don’t want to wait. His last eight years were at the freaky fast Jimmy John’s, Subway for five years before that, and seven years at Kentucky Fried Chicken where he worked his way from the bottom up.
There’s been a lot of eye-rolling in the neighborhood about past staff at Avenue Eatery wearing pajamas and being inattentive. McDowell will have one or two staff in addition to himself on during most hours and he said he is training every new hire to be customer service oriented. “Say hello” immediately or “be right with you,” or they’ll walk. “I’ll keep a clean store.” He’s trying, by the way, to be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, Saturday 8 a.m.-3 p.m., closed Sunday. He’ll test the early evening hours to see if people come in frequently enough to make it work
Why so much fast food and take-out?
Brennan conducted an extensive market research project in North Minneapolis for the West Broadway Business Association in the late 1990s, supervised two Small Business Institute projects on Lowry Avenue in the 1990s, and lived in the Camden area while student teaching at Minneapolis North in 1965. To look at the state of the current market, he reviewed the recent NorthMarq study (see NorthNews October 2012).
He said in general, “most inner city areas under retailed: that is there is more consumer demand than there is retail supply. Why? Many retail categories require large populations with good incomes in stable to improving commercial areas.
“Transportation and retailing go together. Transportation creates access and traffic volume resulting in greater retail potential. West Broadway is the primary retail corridor. It links I-94 with the area and the suburbs beyond. Unfortunately, the east-west segment is in the poorest area reducing total retail potential, especially of non-convenience oriented retailing.”
“Food, personal and financial services, hardware, value-oriented retailing, small scale restaurants that serve local demand are the ones most likely to succeed. Convenience and neighborhood retail and services are the ‘sweet spot’ for the North Side.”
So it’s not surprising West Broadway is home to several franchise fast food restaurants offering that convenience: Burger King, Little Caesar’s, McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut Carryout/Delivery, Subway. Fast food restaurants listed last month were also on transportation arteries. One that wasn’t mentioned was the seasonal Camden Dairy Queen on North Lyndale.
West Broadway has several independent operators providing food that could be consumed on site but is most often ordered for take-out, due to small eat-in areas. They include: Olympic Cafe and Olympic Cafe Plus, Broadway BBQ and Soul Food, Yuan Yuan in Hawthorne Crossings, El Amin’s Fish House, Hooks Fish & Chicken, Wings N Things and Pappy’s.
The sign outside the AmStar gas station says their deli is open. Pair of Dice Pizza and Pizza Town offer exclusively carryout or delivery.
Jeff Skrenes, who has written about several restaurants in his Hawthorne Hawkman blog, told NorthNews he frequents the Amazing Oriental Supermarket and Restaurant as well as the kitchen at Bangkok Market on Lowry and Lyndale. He said he likes the laab meat at Amazing Oriental. Laab is spicy ground meat seasoned with lemon juice and cilantro, and eaten with sticky rice and lettuce to cool down the palate.
For catfish, “I like El Amin’s. Fish is easy to overcook, but they do it right. The exterior should be crispy but it should be soft inside,” Skrenes said. For a Philly cheesesteak, “it’s not as good as Papa’s,” the Camden restaurant that recently closed and filed for bankruptcy, “but Pappy’s is pretty good,” located on Washington right along the freeway. Skrenes said he favors Olympic Cafe’s gyros.
At a West Broadway Area Coalition business meeting a year or so ago, there was discussion of people asking about locating restaurants on Broadway, but all lacking the money for equipment and needing the kitchen already in place.
“Restaurants are a particularly vulnerable and fluid type of retailing. While eating and drinking establishments account for only 10 percent of retail sales, consumption is much lower with low income households and much higher with high income households,” Brennan said. “Low income households spend a disproportionate share of their income on housing and food at home compared to higher income households.”
“When low income households do eat out it tends to be at less expensive restaurants, especially fast food places where the food is less expensive for the calories provided making for a value (regardless of quality or healthfulness). More affluent households eat out more because of higher discretionary incomes and jobs that require meals away from home.”
Brennan told NorthNews, “in my experience there is a greater chance of failure if a restaurant has already failed at that location.” An almost moot point now, there aren’t any unused kitchens waiting for operators.
Charmaine Wahlstrom said she hopes to get a tenant to reopen a bakery where the successful Butter Roll was before the owner’s fatal accident. She would like to add a coffee shop in front.
Next issue: Northside bars, nightlife, and dining beyond the fringes.