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For Tonic Owner, Restaurant Is Her Version of the American Dream

Nicci Sylvester picked the name Tonic for her restaurant for a couple of reasons: a tonic is an elixir for your health and combination of her brother Tony’s and her names. Tony is the vice president.

One would think that an organic, made-from-scratch juice bar and restaurant would be just the tonic needed across the street from St. Mary’s Hospital, part of the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. 

But the thousands of medical personnel who work at St. Mary’s and their patients aren’t her customers, says Nicci Sylvester, the owner of Tonic Local Kitchen & Juice Bar in Rochester. 

While that seems a bit of a paradox, there are reasons, she says. Many of the people who end up in hospitals aren’t into organic, locally sourced produce, nor are their families. While doctors tend to be fans of her food, nurses are more apt to bring their own lunches from home, and many hospital workers don’t have the discretionary income, or a long lunch break, to afford her made-from-scratch meals. St Mary's cafeteria food is cheaper and faster. Plus it’s hard to compete with the sugary drinks next door at Caribou for $3, when a freshly juiced fruit-and-veggie drink costs $7 to $9, she adds.

Patients from the West Coast, who Sylvester describes as forward-thinking about nutrition, tend to find their way into her restaurant, as do Middle Easterners—many of whom fly in to be healed at Mayo—who are used to drinking fresh juice daily. They also like that Tonic is alcohol free, she adds.

Tonic Juice

The Coastal Sunshine, cold-pressed orange, lemon, lime and carrot juice.

But that being said, there are plenty of people filling the tables at her restaurant and buying from her mobile cart and tent at summer festivals. Tonic’s healthy food and juices are a big hit with hippies and yogis. “They’re thankful we’re not another corn dog,” she says, smiling. “It’s nice not to have to talk someone into loving us.”

Talking to the very forthright Sylvester is as refreshing as her freshly juiced pineapple-cucumber-jalapeno drink. We sit at a booth in the rear of the restaurant and she sinks into her chair with a sigh and a big refillable bottle of water. It’s 3 p.m. and her Fitbit is already steps ahead of the national 10,000-steps a day goal; she’s tired, but she still has to run her 13-year-old daughter to ice skating and work the dinner rush. 

The mother of two is zealous about not only serving healthy food, but in local sourcing, eating in season, not wasting food scraps and reducing everyone’s carbon footprint. She’d love to open a raw restaurant, but Rochester isn’t ready for that, she adds, and if she tried a raw night at Tonic, she’d be sitting in the restaurant alone. 

Sylvester didn’t set out to open her own restaurant. She was working as a bartender at upscale Pescara and suggested to the manager they add juicers, since business was slow during the day. He told her to come up with a business plan, and 28 pages and a year-and-a-half later, she says, she presented the plan to the manager with the caveat, that he was no longer in it. 

“I left with hugs,” she says, as way of explaining there were no hard feelings. 

Tonic opened in November 2013, the season she would never recommend to new restaurateurs in Minnesota. She had a lot to learn, but she learned quickly. She realized a menu in the window  was good marketing, and adapted her offerings to the local tastes (adding a “safe harbor” turkey bacon wrap that’s delicious, but boring to her). Her restaurant’s unofficial motto is “something for everyone, not everything for someone,” which is why there’s humanely raised chicken and bacon on the menu, not just vegetarian options. Her recipes reflect her Ukrainian heritage and her grandmother’s mentoring.

Because food costs are high—she estimates 32 to 34 percent—she has the challenge of

Tonic Local Kitchen

Inside Tonic Local Kitchen, where the owner's motto is "something for everyone, not everything for someone."

guesstimating just how much of each item she’ll sell. For instance, if she’s down to her last 22 eggs, she’s not going to make her crustless quiche, at the expense of foregoing selling 11 breakfast orders of eggs.  “If I’m out, I’m out,” she says. “Eat something else.” 

Eating seasonally, she preaches, not only helps the local farmers, but also the environment. “Who needs a kiwi in winter?” she asks rhetorically.

A casualty of running a farm-to-table restaurant is that the price of food is high, but also the cost of labor. “All that produce is delivered dirty and whole and has to be cleaned and chopped,” she points out. Labor costs run about the same as her food costs.

Those high costs translate into higher menu prices, but no item costs over $16, she says. While the food is rarely criticized—Tonic has consistently won awards for its cuisine from Rochester Magazine—people do sometimes question the portion sizes. But Sylvester believes she’s serving “good food at a fair price at a reasonable size.” 

“This isn’t Thanksgiving, you know,” she says, shaking her head.

To keep the restaurant’s carbon footprint small, food multitasks. For instance, the leaf part of kale is used for kale chips, the “shrapnel” is tossed in salads and the stems are juiced. She no longer has her grandmother’s garden for composting, but does return scraps for her suppliers’ gardens. A 75-cent fee is added to to-go items to compensate for the expense of biodegradable containers.

Another expense is her Kangen Water system. She uses the acid water that’s filtered out to wash down the tables, and the alkaline water is for drinking and washing the fruits and vegetables. At one time, she thought about charging for the water as a way to publicize the need for filtered water, but gave up on the idea (customers don’t like to pay for so-called tap water). “I’m not here to cram health down your throat,” she says.

All the extras add up to higher overhead, but Sylvester is more than willing to pay. “I don’t care about being a millionaire,” she says. “I’m working for me. I have the American dream … Even if it doesn’t make a lot of money.”

And from every other chef who works every day, all day, trying to make people happy and healthy, can the zealot get an amen? 

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