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Four Chefs Get Real on Reopening, Hope and Survival



If you’re not already taking yoga classes, perhaps now is the time to start, because as Gavin Kaysen, owner of Spoon and Stable, Bellecour, and Demi said on a Star Tribune webinar in July, “flexibility has been the name of the game” during the pandemic that first shuttered and then reduced dining numbers for restaurants nationwide. 

At the top of the new COVID-19 lexicon are the words: “flexibility,” “adaptation,” “service fees” and “fear.” 

Flexibility comes into play when the four chefs on the call had to switch from sit-down, fine dining to take out, in addition to the seemingly minute-by-minute challenges restaurants are experiencing. Ann Kim said she perhaps was in a better position than the others because her two pizza concepts, Hello Pizza and Pizzeria Lola, already had a significant takeout business. Young Joni was a bit more trickier, she said. 

To which Kaysen added: “It’s no longer, 'where will we be in five years?' Now it’s, 'where are we going to be in 30 minutes?'” 

Part of a chef/owner’s job has always been adaptation, Chef Justin Sutherland of the Madison Restaurant Group added. He’s kept his staff busy with cooking for charity and running multiple restaurants, all while relocating Handsome Hog to another location in St. Paul. 

Adding to the panelists’ pandemic stress is all four are also opening new concepts. Kaysen's new project is a pop-up bakery across the street from Spoon and Stable in the Cooks of Crocus Hill retail store, modeled after his popular bakery at Bellecour in Wayzata. He saw the opportunity to add much needed sugar to the North Loop neighborhood that just lost “a lot of joy” with the closing of two morning mainstays, The Bachelor Farmer's cafe concept and Moose & Sadie’s. “I don’t have a lease, so it’s OK," he quipped. "Diane (Moua) and the team are super excited. We might be our own best customer." Moua is his award-winning pastry chef who is up for a James Beard award in September. 

Jamie Malone of Grand Café and Eastside is serving Spanish “picnic food” out of the pop-up, La Pistola at Eastside. The restaurant has a large walk-up window in the bar which is perfect for handing out food at a safe distance. They are also producing lifestyle meal kits that contain a week’s worth of food for two that include a variety of take-and-bake, assemble and cook and pre-made entrees and snacks, plus surprises such as fresh flowers and art kits. 

Kim and her partner are still working on their fourth restaurant, Sooki & Mimi, a taco shop in Minneapolis’s Uptown area. 

“I feel a little crazy for even saying I’m opening a new restaurant in the middle of a global pandemic,” she said. She and her husband are the sole investors; and they did think long and hard about walking away from it. "I thought with this one, is my luck going to run out? Every day is uncertain,” she said.

As a leader, she added, you have to deal not only with your own emotions but people’s emotions centered around dining out in the new normal. “Your team members and people are looking at you for answers and deep inside you know you don’t have any,” she candidly admitted. As far as moving forward with the project: “I put on my big girl pants and said we’re going to make this happen.” Instead of looking back at what was, she said, she’s looking at it as a new renaissance for restaurants and an opportunity to make great, changes for the industry and for guests. "Hospitality is this beautiful symbiotic relationship and we’re changing the relationship,” she said.

Those changes would be so much easier if the federal government would come through with funding to help independent restaurants. A report on what’s needed and how to help make it happen can be viewed at SaveRestaurants.com, Kaysen said. 

And while the roller coaster ride continues, one bright spot has been that the chef community has pulled together with offering advice, support and even kitchen help to each other. 

As Malone said, “So many things are broken in our business model and we’re used to saying, 'OK, we’ll just work harder.' (But you) can’t just make decisions because we’re frightened every day.”

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