Hangin’ With Klecko: Tillie’s Farmhouse Is Delicious Destination
Each summer, for over a decade, I have been the soda bread judge at the Irish Fair of Minnesota, an honor I’ve shared with Dick Trotter, the longstanding owner/operator of Merriam Park’s legendary Trotter’s Café.
Last August, just moments after we passed out ribbons to the soda bread winners, Dick confided that his family had sold their café. He told me there were several interested buyers, but in addition to receiving a fair payout for the business he’d built, it was just as important to find somebody he believed would take his concept to the next level.
That person was Kari Grittner.
Recently I swung over to Tillie’s Farmhouse (formerly Trotter’s Café) and asked Kari if she had a few moments to be intervened and she was kind enough to comply.
The first thing I asked about was her previous work history.
“I’ve had experience in hospitality, but for the last 24 years I’ve been an accounting professor at Rasmussen College,” she replied.
Next I asked why a numbers woman would segue into hospitality when her career had been going so well. Kari smiled while answering: “I’ve known since I was 3 that what I’m doing now was going to happen. At first I looked at some sites in suburbs south of the river. Suburban concepts have a different client base, and I maintained an 'I’ll cook it and they will come attitude,' but my kids disagreed and encouraged me to buy something in the city.”
At this point I confessed that I had come to Tillie’s Farmhouse on numerous occasions. In fact, the previous weekend I brought my grandkids for breakfast. I also pointed out each time I had been there, I’d seen Kari doing everything from working the line to busing tables.
She commented: “If this place is going to succeed, it’s essential that I’m here to help change the direction. For the first month we ran it as Trotter’s Café. I wanted to see exactly who our clients were and what was working, and what wasn’t.
“I realized the transition had to be slow, the last thing I wanted to do was sever a 30-year culture, but eventually there has to be a breaking point where your staff understands and buys into your procedures and policies.”
When I asked how long it took to reach that point, Kari surprised me by not answering with a number, but with an observation: “When our new hires outweighed our inherited staff, I could see the crew became empowered as they began providing the neighborhood with meals they didn’t know they wanted.
“The most important thing I want each person who works here to remember is anytime you are confronted with a split-second decision, always error on the side of beautiful and delicious.”
I began to laugh and explained, “always error on the side of beautiful and delicious” might be the best line any restaurateur has ever given me.
After I stopped envisioning this mantra on T-shirts and bumper stickers, I shifted gears and asked if there was anything about buying a restaurant that surprised her. Kari responded: “The people game is not what I expected, but I’ll eventually get a handle on it. My son will be coming back in a week, he just had a baby. When he returns he will be stepping into the kitchen manager position. The one thing we realized though is that we are identical.
“When people think the same way that can be dangerous, you can miss opportunities. We felt it was very important to bring in people with different perspectives. I don’t want people to come here and follow lists. I want individuals, because their input will create teamwork and fun.”
Next I asked about the menu development process, wondering if Kari was creating for a specific demographic or for herself. I think I might have noticed a blush of modesty as she answered: "To be truthful, I like to start with what I like to eat. I have a playful palate and a wonderful team. Once I come upon an idea, I hand it over to the crew. But I think it’s important for a crew to have a platform for their ideas as well, so starting next year we’ll be implementing a meal of the week that will be designed by different people on our staff.”
As Kari was talking, I noticed that upgrades had been made to a space that was already in good shape. I commented that Trotter’s Café used to cater to a casual clientele, but the current space looked like she might be ramping up to fine dining.
“No, I have a staff that would do well with fine dining, but at this moment, I don’t think that’s what this neighborhood wants, so we’ll be focusing on comfort food,” she said.
When I asked Kari to summarize her restaurant’s food, she thought for a moment and chuckled before answering: “I guess I’d say farmhouse fare (insert Kari’s sarcastic eye roll) probably because our curry bowls are one of our most popular dishes, but for the most part we like to offer hearty blue plate meals. Breakfast for Dinner is wonderful. Homemade apple and maple sausage served with cornbread toast.
“Our weekly specials have been great. Recently we’ve sold a lot of pot pies, and just last week we ran a chorizo mac and cheese that did really well.”
As I stood up to leave, I mentioned I was surprised that she didn’t plug her lemon/corn meal, pancakes. I had ordered them several weeks prior and they were one of the 10 best things I’d eaten all year.
The modest blush returned and Kari thanked me for coming in as she rolled up her sleeves and returned to the line.
Friends, it’s not often you hear me rank restaurants, but after half a dozen meals at Tillie’s Farmhouse, I am proud to pledge my allegiance and let you know this place has slid into Klecko’s top 10 list.
Dan “Klecko” McGleno is the CEO at Saint Agnes Baking Company in St Paul and can be reached electronically at firstname.lastname@example.org, at the office at 651-290-7633, or on his cellular device at 651-329-4321.