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Minneapolis’ Seward Neighborhood Gets the Restaurant It Wants

The Seward Creamery Cafe just opened a patio to its neighborhood restaurant.    

The Seward Creamery Cafe was a restaurant designed by committee. So, what could possibly go wrong? Well, as it turned out, nothing that couldn’t be tweaked.

When they built it and the neighborhood didn’t come, the Seward Co-op board took a long hard look at the restaurant housed on the bottom floor of their new office building in the Seward neighborhood and decided “we could limp along or fix it,” Tom Vogel, marketing manager, said.  

The doors closed for a couple of weeks last summer, after the board and management held listening sessions with the staff and community, Vogel said. What they discovered redefined what a neighborhood restaurant should be. They learned that the “fabulous chef” they had hired as the opening chef was cooking great food, but food outside the potential customers’ comfort zone—and price range. The price point was way too high and the $35 steak “resounded with a thud for Franklin Avenue,” Vogel said, as did table service and fine dining in the evening.

One of the many sausages made in the production kitchen in the back of the restaurant.

The use of “Creamery” in the name, a nice nod to the fact that the building once housed the milk drivers co-operative, turned out to be misleading. “People thought it was an ice cream (place),” he said. 

They missed the mark on the décor as well. “We did over-the-top history (of the milk drivers) and didn’t talk about who we were. We didn’t brand it well as Seward Co-op,” he said. The original colors were Norwegian blue and white and it wasn’t warm or inviting. Nor did it resonate with the largely African population in the area. It’s now painted white with photos of the farmers the co-op and restaurant support. It also has information about the co-op on every table and yard signs advocating acceptance. 

The logistics and traffic flow had to be readjusted, especially since they were going to a fast-casual layout. A patio area off Franklin Avenue opened in early summer.

Inside the noise level was deafening, especially in a restaurant with a purpose of gathering people from the neighborhood together. They did sound mitigation, which softened the buzz of conversation and chair sliding. 

Tom Vogel, marketing manager.

The decision was also made to forgo tipping. “We pay a livable wage, about $12.86 an hour,” Vogel said. “That tip is included in the price (of the food).” Customers are asked if they want to round up their bill at the counter and the loose change collected here (as well as at the co-ops) are donated to rotating food-related charities. There are 12 recipients selected and to date those extra pennies have resulted in about $25,000 a month or $1.25 million since 2011 going to programs, such as a food shelf. 

The menu now has a healthy mix of small plates, sandwiches, salads and sausages that are made in-house and sold in both the Seward and sister co-op Friendship. The most expensive item on the menu, a steak chimichurri bowl, is $14. The cookies and pastries, the same ones you’ll find at the co-op, are well worth the calories. And there is ice cream, hand-dipped from Sonny’s. 

Not all restaurants that claim to be neighborhood places put in the time and effort—and don’t forget money on the do-over—Seward did to define who its customers are and what their needs are. 

Seward Co-op is a significant force in the neighborhood. It counts 17,000 households as members, 340 employees, two grocery stores, a restaurant and a production facility. It is profitable and the proceeds are rolled back into the business and distributed to members. About 20 percent is distributed, while 80 percent is rolled back into the co-op. “No one’s getting rich off patronage,” he said, smiling. There’s a one-time $75 fee to join, which can be paid in one lump sum or on a payment plan. 

A guest gets coffee from the drink station.

The Seward neighborhood located along the Mississippi River in south Minneapolis is one of the oldest in the city. Jonathan Locke, a restaurant consultant and teacher, remembers when he first moved to the area in the 1970s. “There was a daycare co-op, two (food) co-ops, a radio co-op and a bicycle co-op, where members could use the free tools and equipment to repair the bikes," he said.  It had a sense of community and progressiveness then, as it does all those years later. It’s been described as an urban village within a large metro area. It’s also home to the largest East African population in the U.S, Vogel said. 

The second location, the Seward Co-op—Friendship Store is a few miles away from the original location and serves a different population in the Powderhorn area. Its demographic is approximately one-third each of African Americans, Hispanics and whites, Vogel said. Both co-ops have a commitment and program to hire more people of color to reflect their customer base. When the new store opened, they heard complaints that they were coming in from outside the neighborhood. “So we made sure to hire from the neighborhood,” Vogel said.

No question: When their constituents talk, Seward management listens. 

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