Papa’s Pizza and Pasta: Building community in North Minneapolis

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“We did this restaurant to prepare good food and provide a place for people to gather. That’s why we don’t deliver and we don’t sell by the slice,” said Kris Brogan. Mick and Kris Brogan have operated Papa’s Pizza and Pasta (in the Victory neighborhood at 42nd and Thomas Avenue North) for three years now. Mick added, “We want people to come in and sit down and enjoy good food and good talk.”

The other day I visited the Brogans at the restaurant and asked, why, with all we hear about crime in the area, they decided on a north side location.

Mick told me that crime in North Minneapolis is no worse than anyplace else. “For two years,” he said, “I was the night manager at Embers on 26th and Hennepin on the south side and I made more arrests than the police did!” He chased people who left without paying and grappled with intoxicated patrons almost nightly. He felt like he was doing law enforcement on a regular basis.

Papa’s Pizza has a small compact dining room with 16 tables and soft lighting from a lamp suspended over each table. Continuous background music is filled prominently with ballads from the 50s and 60s, with the recognizable voices of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Dean Martin. They have a beer and wine license and a menu with a variety of pizza, pasta dishes and salads. The café is located on a corner, in a residential neighborhood. The walls are filled with album covers, posters and photographs memorializing the life of Frank Sinatra. I suspect it is reminiscent of cafes in Brogan’s hometown of Trenton New Jersey.

Mick and Kris Brogan moved to Minneapolis from Trenton 25 years ago in search of better schools for their young family. Mick found work in the restaurant business, while Kris became involved in community development and real estate. After a few years working for food service corporations as a restaurant manager, including several years running four restaurants in the IDS center, owned by Woolworths, Mick decided he would be happier owning his own place. The decision began a 10 year journey which finally ended when he and Kris opened Papa’s Pizza in June of 2005.

After two interviews with the Brogans what emerges is a unique partnership that combines good food and charm with community activism. While Mick built a track record and experience as a restaurateur, Kris, a commercial real estate broker, cultivated contacts in local politics and community development. She also built a strong knowledge of programs to empower people through economic development and affordable housing. She was the economic development policy aid to Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton from 1998-2000, working on historical preservation, zoning, and housing.

Often what comes to mind when people think of North Minneapolis are gang activity, a high crime area, and home foreclosures. I asked the Brogans if those perceptions influenced their decision to open Papa’s Pizza.

“What we found,” said Mick, “was a neighborhood that was changing. There are younger families moving into the area, because the housing prices are lower and the quality of housing is high.”

Despite research that the neighborhood wanted a restaurant, particularly an Italian restaurant, getting started and building the business wasn’t easy. The process of getting zoning clearances and license approvals from the City of Minneapolis was slow. Once opened the neighborhood response was not as strong as they had hoped.

“People in this area—because there hasn’t been much up here—have a mentality of driving to the suburbs for shopping. So when people eat out they go elsewhere,” said Mick. When they opened the restaurant people were suspicious because the Brogans lived in South Minneapolis. “Some people even believed that when a couple of businesses nearby closed (a barber who retired and an upholsterer who relocated) that I drove them out,” said Mick.

The Brogans acknowledged higher then normal foreclosures and some crime and vandalism, but said, “We don’t see crime as a big issue. We have some petty crime like all neighborhoods.”

What they see is a neighborhood that is largely safe, stable, diverse and economical. “The houses are smaller, we have a mix of white, Asians and African Americans and it is an inexpensive place to live,” said Mick. (According to the City of Minneapolis neighborhood profile the neighborhood is 70% white, 15% Black, 5% Asian and 2% Hispanic.)

So it seemed natural to Kris and Mick that one way to address neighborhood suspicion and concerns about crime and property issues was to get deeply involved with the community. Kris got involved by joining the board of the Victory Neighborhood Association (ViNA). She also serves as chair of ViNA’s Community Livability Committee. They offered Papa’s Pizza as a place for the committee (meetings are open to all neighbors) to hold its meeting. Meetings are held on the second Saturday of the month and the restaurant provides complimentary coffee and pastries for 18- 25 neighbors who attend.

“The meetings offer an opportunity to solve problems but also a place for neighbors to get acquainted and talk to one another,” said Kris. Most meetings have a speaker and the discussion focuses on issues like, graffiti, police responsiveness, housing, rental property, and general care of property. Kris’s experience with the Mayor’s office comes in handy in helping solve neighborhood problems, “but we found that things go better and faster if the neighbors solve the issues themselves,” said Kris.

One problem the Neighborhood Livability Committee has eliminated, at least for now, is graffiti. Volunteers came forward to supply paint and person power and developed a system for immediate response so that graffiti was removed within a few hours of when it appeared. Mick described the last graffiti attack. “The big test was when we had one big hit right here on the corner. We got the neighbors out and the paint and we had the stuff removed in a couple hours. Since then we haven’t had graffiti.”

The Brogans are not only involved in the community, they also seem to be excited about the potential for the neighborhood.

Kris expressed disappointment that city officials aren’t more excited and doing more to build the community: “It seems like there is a lack of vision and a lack of investment where North Minneapolis is concerned. We have 30 houses in foreclosure in the Victory neighborhood. Where is the city? They could do a lot to promote this area as a great place for first time home buyers.”

They are impressed with the public schools in the neighborhood. Kris drives her two granddaughters to North Minneapolis every day to attend Loring Elementary, located at 44th and Thomas Avenue North. She also mentioned Patrick Henry High School, located at 43rd and Newton Avenue North, which was listed in the top 5% of high schools in America in 2007 by Newsweek. The neighborhood is near the Karl Kroenig Nature Preserve and North Regional Park, with bike and walking paths, on the Mississippi River.

The Brogans have had their challenges, but perceptions of the Brogans as carpetbaggers are being quickly erased by their presence and their activism. They also told me that they recently began looking for a house in north Minneapolis.

There is another impressive list of community organizations and resources listed on the Papa’s Pizza and Pasta Web site. “Papa’s” can also be reached by phone 612-521-7272 (PAPA).

Paul Bauer is a management consultant and freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis. He wrote this article as part of a citizen journalism class sponsored by the TC Daily Planet and EXCO.

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