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With New Fitzgerald’s Concept, the Bar Is the Star

Chef Graham Messenger’s Fitz Burger with American cheese, lettuce, dill pickles and Russian dressing.

“You can’t build a business on special occasions,” said Joe Kasel.

It’s a reality Kasel and co-owner Kevin Geisen were faced with firsthand as their Salt Cellar restaurant, with its high-end feel and Caesar salads prepared tableside, failed to resonate with customers. At least not the formal dining part.

In another perhaps more welcome dose of reality, the owners of the restaurant on the corner of Western and Selby avenues in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood saw customers fill the bar area nightly, ordering plenty of burgers, sandwiches and beers. They also saw opportunity. 

Building on that hit bar program, Kasel and Geisen reimagined the concept and rebranded the location, debuting the more casual Fitzgerald’s in October, less than two years after Salt Cellar opened its doors. 

“We really evaluated what was working and what wasn't,” said Geisen as he pointed to the reconfigured dining area. The fireplace was relocated, the oversize booths removed and replaced with high-top tables, and what once was space mostly closed off from the bar is now the other, newly constructed half of the bar itself.

“It’s intentionally meant to feel a lot more casual,” said Geisen.

At Fitzgerald’s, the bar is the star, with more tap beers and a late-night happy hour featuring $10 pizzas.

The menu got a remake from new executive chef Graham Messenger, who moved over from Ox Cart Ale House, the Lowertown eatery and rooftop bar Geisen and Kasel opened in June 2015. Gone are the $45 Kansas City Strip Steak and Bananas Foster flambéed in front of your eyes. Messenger instead opted for appetizers such as fried ribs and deviled eggs, several thin-crust pizzas, and an entrée selection where the most expensive item is the $18 steak frites. And of course there are plenty of burgers to choose from, including the Fitz Burger with American cheese, lettuce, dill pickles and Russian dressing. At the bar, the number of tap beers went from 12 to 34 and GM Joe Paton toned down what had been an extensive wine list. 

“What we’ve looked to create is an atmosphere and price point that people are comfortable with,” said Kasel, while using higher-end finishes to differentiate Fitzgerald’s from nearby bars such as Fabulous Fern’s and Happy Gnome.

“We don’t want to be just burgers, we’ve got that right next door,” Kasel continued in reference to neighboring restaurant Red Cow. “We don’t want to be fine dining, we’ve got that down the street [with W.A. Frost], and don’t want to be full-on sports bar. We’re a combination.”

It wasn’t easy, said Geisen, of coming to the conclusion that Salt Cellar wasn’t the right fit. He’d moved into the role of acting general manager in early 2016, but even as they reduced liabilities by $200,000 and “gave it our last push,” Geisen said he looked at his business partner and they both knew it was time to move on.

Geisen and Kasel, who’ve known each other since their high school years at St. Paul’s Cretin-Derham Hall, came together on their first restaurant project in 2003, opening the sports bar-leaning Eagle Street Grille across the street from Xcel Energy Center. Later looking to diversify, Geisen said he’d always been intrigued by high-end dining and, as he reflected on Salt Cellar, “maybe [it was] a pride thing, we wanted to show we were more than bar owners.”

With its rebranding from Salt Cellar, the new, more casual Fitzgerald’s has an expanded bar area, something (left to right) Carol March, president of Madison Hospitality, and owners Joe Kasel and Kevin Geisen say is what the customers want.

But, as FSN’s Buy The Numbers columnist Dennis Monroe accurately wrote in his business review of Salt Cellar in May 2015, “The Salt Cellar’s bar is a star.” 

“If Salt Cellar is reconfigured to provide more safe harbors on the menu, create a crisp service style, get rid of the tableside service and make the dining room a little more inviting, it can be a real success,” Monroe continued.
“ … They should promote the happy hour a little more with more reasonable happy hour prices on the bar menu. If they do these things, the restaurant has a real shot at long-term success.” 

With the Fitzgerald’s rebrand, Kasel and Geisen do believe the restaurant will have long-term success, as does Carol March, president of Madison Hospitality Restaurant Group, which has made a name for itself with St. Paul restaurants Public Kitchen and Bar and Handsome Hog that put elevated menus in more relaxed environments. 

Kasel and Geisen merged their businesses with Madison Hospitality in August following a year’s worth of conversations. Under the agreement, Madison Hospitality will handle business operations for Ox Cart Ale House, Fitzgerald’s and Eagle Street while Geisen and Kasel remain the face and operating partners of the three restaurants. Parent company Madison Equities owns the Ox Cart and Fitzgerald’s buildings.

March credited Kasel and Geisen for listening to their customers and said there was a trend happening nationally in upper-end dining that Kasel and Geisen simply didn’t know about when they were first developing the Salt Cellar concept in mid-2014. That trend has since been more clearly articulated as guests shift their dining
dollars to more casual restaurants, food trucks and the like. Today’s broader dining public knows more and is less impressed with what it sees as excess, be it in service style or menu prices. 

Looking ahead, Kasel said the partnership with Madison Hospitality brings strength to overall operations “and we have the ability to grow—or not grow—the option is there.”

“And now we’re able to do what Kevin and I enjoy doing, which is being in the restaurants.” 

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