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Industry Voices: Timothy McKenna, Mill Valley

Timothy McKenna has taken on the role of general manager for both Mill Valley Kitchen on Excelsior Boulevard in St. Louis Park and for the new Mill Valley Market in Theodore Wirth Park in Golden Valley.

Describing his career, Timothy McKenna says he “slowly crept” from server to management, but in actuality the elevator ride only required a few months before his innate talent for bringing out the best in people was discovered. 

“I lead by example…I’ve hosted, I’ve cleaned the toilet, so I get it,” he said. “The people I’ve admired (at work) were those who would never ask me to do something they wouldn’t or couldn’t do.”

The origin of his love of restaurants can easily be traced back to third grade where he took a particular assignment to heart: You own a restaurant, what’s your menu?  By high school, he was the chef for the family, even though he was the youngest of four siblings. 

McKenna started as a server at Mercy in downtown Minneapolis where he quickly crept into management. At 31 he was the general manager of a restaurant and hotel in the theater district with five different dining options. When the restaurant went through a rebranding, he left to help out a friend who had taken over a Dairy Queen franchise after his father retired. “After six months I realized it wasn’t working,” he says. “It was a two-hour commute and no interaction with customers.” And it didn’t help that franchises “put you into a box” with too much direction on the part of the franchisor. “I’m a people person,” he explained. “I love spontaneous conversations.”

He returned as general manager of Mill Valley Kitchen—with the same owners as Mercy, Mike and Abby Rakun—just as the idea for Mill Valley Market on Theodore Wirth Parkway in Golden Valley was being kicked around. After numerous talks and negotiations with the park board, the snack-bar-style restaurant took over the existing restaurant space in The Trailhead, a year-round hub for outdoor activities from biking and hiking to cross-country skiing.  

“We were supposed to do the Cross Country World Cup,” he said, but even as the snow-making machines and grandstands were in place and ready to go, the event was called off four days before it was to take place, due to COVID-19 and the president's decision to block EU traffic, where many participants were coming from.

The plan was for the restaurant to provide catering services out of the Mercy kitchen for the athletes, staff and support people. “The food was ordered and ready to roll,” he says, but the games didn't begin.

“Overnight we had to change our business model,” he says. The restaurant that never really opened, closed, while they focused on takeout and delivery from their other venue.

May 29 became their new target opening date. And then the park board closed parks due to the protests surrounding George Floyd’s death while in police custody. Ironically, in a building with a wall of windows, the only one broken in the aftermath of the disorder was the to-go order window.

Since finally being able to open—albeit in a limited capacity—business has been steadily growing, helped by day camps in the park. Some parents take advantage of the restaurant for a cup of coffee after dropping off the kids in the morning, or pick up dinner at the end of the day. The nearby frisbee golf course is also a source for diners. And since a healthy share of people have time to hike or bike during the week right now, they become guests as well. There's a large indoor dining hall, and is one of lucky venues to have a wrap-around patio with ample outdoor seating—and a spectacular view.

In the midst of all the upheaval on a global scale, McKenna and his husband decided to buy an old house and gut it. One of the benefits of disarray at home, however, is the house sits on a half acre. “I’ve started gardening for the first time,” he said. And right now who doesn't feel safer outdoors? 

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