Restaurant biz


Many people sit in a restaurant and dream of having one of their own. On the surface, it seems so simple – have a good idea, be a good host, show people a good time and it must practically run itself, right? 

While the do-it-yourself ethic may be a great idea for many things in life, a restaurant just isn’t one of them because, put simply, it’s not something you do for yourself but for your customers. Yet there’s nothing to get the ideas flowing like an empty space decked out in a stainless steel kitchen, marble bar, and wooden tables to get the imagination going.

Such a place just opened up, again, in my neighborhood. Any takers?

The space at 242 West Seventh Street is one of those locations that just about every neighborhood has – 6 different incarnations of restaurant in 12 years. Some call them cursed, but like most voodoo in our lives there’s been some attention to a key detail missing all along. It seems especially strange in a neighborhood that’s otherwise booming, but that may be a big part of the problem facing the space. Do we really need another watering hole in the West End?

Once anyone gets beyond how attractive this particular space is, it’s easy to see the problems it has. There’s not a lot of sales area in a space that’s otherwise massive and certainly expensive. The vast and gorgeous patio doesn’t have a great relationship to the rest of the space, isolating it a bit too much and making good service difficult. There isn’t a ton of attached parking that doesn’t go away during the many Xcel Center events, either.

But as part of the whole West Seventh scene, all of these troubles can be overcome by finding the right price and niche if someone is willing to put in a lot of hard work and pay attention to the details. Several incarnations ago I happened to meet the head chef in another bar down the street who was complaining about the quality of food that he was asked to prepare. I made it clear that I’m an amateur when it comes to these things, but that I’d love to have a restaurant of my own one day. “What would you do differently?” he asked me, curious what an outsider thought. I told him, “I’d send you down to the Farmer’s Market every day to see what inspired you for today’s special.” Not a heartbeat went by before he said, “Can I work for you?”

As if I need that kind of encouragement,  As if! Thank goodness credit is nearly impossible to come by, if only to keep me out of big trouble.

But this story highlights one critical aspect of what it takes to make a place work – constant attention to detail and the ability to just plain roll with it. Contrast this with the need for a strategy, a theme or a reason for the place to be there, and you’re looking at a set of skills that seem completely at odds with each other immediately.

This particular location probably does need a strong theme to serve as a draw on its own.  Along West Seventh, from Kellogg to Chestnut to Walnut, there are already 6 other established restaurants that pack ’em in during the events that define our calendar. Whatever comes into this space this time will be a late-comer to the party and will have to be able to distinguish itself in some way.

I’ve heard a lot of good ideas from people over the years, but to keep those in confidence I’ll tell you my own difficult concept – a classical music based cabaret/stage place that thumbs its nose at distinctions between upscale and lowbrow. The music could be provided by local students at McNally Smith and the real pros at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra who just want to have a good time on their own, giving the place an infectious “We don’t care what you think” sense of artsy fun. I think the local scene could use such a place.

This, or any other defined destination, runs smack into the lack of assigned parking spaces – and almost certainly means that the kitchen would have to be moved or consolidated. Either one can be solved with money, but that only increases the stakes and puts more pressure on a place that hasn’t done well under pressure. It’s a tough one, I admit.

Still, there’s an allure to the whole idea that I can’t shake easily. It’s been a long sad trip watching so many places come and go, so many lives invested in making something work that ended up not quite getting there. It’s just not a gig for amateurs, no matter how strong the fantasy is. It’s not that the site is cursed, it just has a few issues – like any of us, in the end. Here’s hoping that the next one is lucky 7, knowing full well that luck is often what you make of it in life.