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Popul Vuh rebrands to live another day

A rendering of the entrance for ViViR, the new concept that is taking over the space recently vacated by Popul Vuh. The design is by Shea, the same firm that did the interior for the original restaurant and its sister concept, Centro.

Most concept changes don’t tug at your heartstrings. But when Tanya Spaulding, principal at Shea, was asked to reconceptualize Popul Vuh in Northeast Minneapolis, she had mixed emotions. 

“I love that space,” she said of the fine-dining Mexican restaurant that was the umbrella brand for both it and Centro, a fast-casual taco bar. 

But after COVID-19 lingered, Popul Vuh owner Jami Olson said the possibility of closure was on her mind right away.  Unlike Centro, which has both outdoor seating and a product that translated into takeout more readily, “Popul Vuh didn’t have a patio and takeout packages weren’t doing as well as we hoped.” 

Fine dining wasn’t on many people’s radar, and she realized that paying rent on a space that was only utilizing half the square footage wasn’t a good investment. 

“Plus Popul Vuh (which received numerous accolades and awards) wasn’t as profitable as the press may have made us sound,” she said, candidly. Closing was bittersweet, but also an opportunity. 

While Popul Vuh may have been the umbrella, Centro was the engine. In coming up with a new idea about how to utilize the fine-dining space, Olson and Chef Jose Alarcon believe they will soon have “two engines.” 

“It’s a risk to say that but everything is a risk right now,” she said. “I’m a huge energy person and it’s hard to have an empty space sitting here.”

In looking around at what seems to be working in the altered foodservice landscape, she saw a lot of people adding markets to their restaurant concepts. “I’ve always wanted to do one,” she said. “We have so much we bring back from Mexico, (we decided) let’s sell it.” Some of those items are hard to find in the States (perhaps for good reason), such as worm salt and eatable insects. But the market will also stock items like Alarcon’s moles and sauces, bakery goods and gifts. Because they’re across the road from the Northrup King Building and its artists lofts, Olson is anticipating selling local artwork, as well as art from Mexico. 

There were more compelling business reasons for redoing the space than just to add a market. Olson wanted the new concept to have its own identity and brand. Which is why Shea is stripping away the refinement of Popul Vuh to create ViViR, which will have a more organic feel to it. 

They “degreened it,” Spaulding said, moving to a more rustic and white color pallet for an “old and new” feel, as well as do-it-yourself” ambiance, highlighted by furnishings such as concrete blocks topped by found wood for shelves. 

The booths have been removed, along with the old entrance through Centro. Instead, guests will enter through a double door at the back of the space. The original entryway, a long hallway with clay pots hanging from the ceiling, will still be open but will be turned into a coffee-bar counter running along the windows, Spaulding said. 

Jamie Olson is in the middle of transforming her award-winning Popul Vuh into a new neighborhood market/bakery/restaurant called ViV!R, Spanish for “to live.”

The open kitchen and bar remain, but a prominent bakery case has been added, which will be filled with pastries by Ngia Xiong, Centro’s and Popul Vuh’s pastry chef. 

“There’s nothing better than a Mexican bakery,” Spaulding enthused. 

The challenge is to make the two fast-casual areas distinct so there’s a separate reason for visiting each one. “We thought Centro would be quieter and Popul Vuh would be bustling,” Olson said of the dual concepts when they first opened two years ago. But Centro opened to long lines out the door and has remained popular, and Popul Vuh was quieter.

Centro attracts a night crowd. “Previously people weren’t afraid to stand shoulder to shoulder to eat tacos,” Olson said. ViViR will be more of a café, catering to the early morning crowd for breakfast and then breakfast-style entrees throughout the day, along with some of Alarcon’s best-selling dishes from Popul Vuh. With the new configuration, a now-essential patio will also be added to ViV!R.

“Every day is a battle. When we reopened, I thought everyone would be grateful, but everyone’s stressed,” Olson says about guests. “Every day is like opening a new restaurant. You can’t ever do autopilot.”

With ViViR set to open in early fall, will Popul Vuh ever pop up somewhere else?

“We put everything in storage,” Olson says shrugging her shoulders. “Maybe in a couple of years we might pop it back into a good neighborhood.” But right now her energy is already channeling in another direction toward ViViR, which translates as "to live." 

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