Plates are full for Northside restaurant owners
With the recent closure of Victory 44, full service restaurant owners in North Minneapolis are looking to the future and hoping for a little more help from local government.
By Cirien Saadeh | Staff Writer
It’s early-afternoon at Breaking Bread Cafe on West Broadway Ave. The restaurant is boisterous, the tables are full, and the smell of peach cobbler is in the air. Youth food justice leaders meet at one table, a couple are on a date at another, and a group of nonprofit leaders are planning an event at a third table. Breaking Bread Cafe is a newer business on the avenue and a newer restaurant in North Minneapolis. A project of nonprofit Appetite for Change, Breaking Bread seeks to connect its community to affordable, local, healthy food, while also providing job training to the local community.
The cafe is one of just a handful of full-service restaurants in North Minneapolis. Owning a restaurant is a difficult job and, even moreso, owning a restaurant in a community with so few of them.
“There is definitely a want for full-service restaurants in the Northside. People are looking for more variety for dining options in the Northside, rather than heading to other parts of Minneapolis or the suburbs. And I wish we had more of them on the Northside,” said Rob Hanson, Executive Director of West Broadway Business and Area Coalition.
Recently, North Minneapolis lost a full-service restaurant, Chef Erick Harcey’s Victory 44. His spokesman had this to say: “[Chef Erick Harcey] closed Victory 44 because there is a new building owner and his career is taking a new turn with the success and attention he has received from Upton 43. Chef Harcey loved the neighborhood and they supported his non-traditional perspectives on food for a long time."
The Victory Neighborhood Association (ViNA) has some funding to help whatever business, preferably a restaurant, takes over the space and is also committed to connecting the new business owners with resources and networks at the city level and elsewhere. According to participants at a recent ViNA Business Committee listening session, they want to ensure that if a new restaurant takes over the former Victory 44 spot, it is committed to being a community-centered gathering spot.
"I want to go to a Patrick Henry Football game and see all my neighbors and say 'meet me at such and such restaurant' [afterwards],” said Katie Fitzpatrick, a Victory resident and staff member with ViNA.
That community support is exactly what is helping so many Northside restaurants succeed. Michelle Horovitz, co-founder and Executive Director of Appetite for Change, says that Breaking Bread has become a neighborhood gathering spot and many staff live in the surrounding community.
According to Darryl Weivoda, owner of The Lowry Cafe, the community has been incredibly supportive of both the restaurant and the hardware store he owns next door.
Still, their work has not been without its difficulties. For one thing, parking has been an issue, so has affordability, and so have real and perceived fears of community violence. For Weivoda, many of the challenges he faces at his cafe stem from the development and construction on Lowry Ave. in the early 2000s which he says left a number of vacant lots and abandoned storefronts behind. The development, known as the Lowry Avenue Corridor Plan, was meant to increase access to transit and “congregate” businesses. “It used to be great to live on this corner. We could get anything we needed but for clothing. 47 different businesses. But six years before Lowry Ave. they went to the businesses and told the businesses they were going to take their businesses in six years and then the businesses became unrentable. Who is going to invest in advertising and promoting for a business that is not going to be there in the future?” said Weivoda.
Banana Blossom, a local Vietnamese restaurant also on Lowry Ave., is facing the same problem. “We have a lot of local supporters, but the location is bad. If there was more business around, it would be easier access. If there was more businesses around, it would lead to more business opportunities,” said Tony Vang, a manager there. Vang says that they really love the North Minneapolis community and want to represent it better. They are working to get their liquor license and on a new menu, including more sushi. They are also working on better parking options, a challenge echoed by Weivoda: “If we don’t have good parking, it’s too easy for people to go elsewhere to eat. Parking is a big issue,” he said. Weivoda says that when he expanded his 21-car parking lot by 6 cars, it was a huge hassle with the city.
Affordability is another issue. The average household income in North Minneapolis is $35,000, which does not leave a lot of room for eating out. “We are working on a dual pay model, one that is the true cost of the meal – food and labor – and one that is priced more affordably,” said Horovitz. “I think if we weren’t a social enterprise we would not be a full-service restaurant. We would probably be fast casual where you order at the counter. We would probably hire less and have less of a training program and our food might not be as fresh. We subsidize labor and our low menu costs through donations.”
Horovitz says she would like to see more support from the city: money for job training, support for the new higher minimum wage, and advertising for the cafe through city channels.
"It's not that the city makes it harder on us, they just don't make it easier for us. We could use some help," said Lili Johnson, owner of Tooties on Lowry, which is temporarily shuttered due to a fire in July (Read more on Page 3). Johnson notes that the impact of city ordinances, like the minimum wage raise and eco-friendly to-go containers, make it more difficult for the restaurant to make ends meet. "There is a lot of people who come here who are on really tight budgets and they cannot afford price raises," said Johnson. "These small businesses are being priced right out of the market."
"The real challenge is finding someone to take a risk,” said Kris Brogan, a former restaurant owner in the Victory Neighborhood. Brogan noted that the financial risk in opening and sustaining a restaurant is huge and that the unpredictability of Northside community support makes the risk even bigger.
“I think the City could help with at least tackling the availability of space issues or look at ways they can make commercial properties for folks. Coming up with financial incentive programs for folks. Trying to take away some of the barriers, the complexities around surrounding a business. It can be pretty daunting for someone who has an idea or a concept that works, but doesn’t know the process. The city can clarify that process,” said Hanson of the West Broadway Business and Area Coalition.
The Office of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED), through the City of Minneapolis, is trying to attract news businesses to the Northside and is also working to provide some financial support for new business owners. “North Minneapolis is often overlooked by businesses that are not from North Minneapolis. Our team strategy is to work with businesses not from North Minneapolis so they don’t overlook North Minneapolis and to work with businesses in North Minneapolis to show how vibrant North Minneapolis is,” said Casey Dzieweczynski, a senior project coordinator. Right now, CPED offers a number of funding opportunities for local businesses, including a facade improvement grant and a 2% interest loan among others.
Lachelle Cunningham, Executive Chef at Breaking Bread, says that while the work of CPED and others is a good start, more needs to be done for restaurant owners and food service entrepreneurs in the Northside.
“We need infrastructure support. When it comes to the full support and investment that is needed for a full-scale restaurant, there is a lot of risk, there is a lot of hesitation, there is a lot of issues there. Those businesses need help with infrastructure,” said Cunningham who also works to support black chefs.“They need that technical assistance, but they also need some hand-holding, some pushing, and these organizations that are in the community definitely work to do those things, but I think that there’s just a gap in that on-the-ground, frontline, in-the-moment, improvisation.”