Hangin’ With Klecko: Conversations at Luci Ancora
Recently, in the Capital City, established restaurants have been shutting down or suspending service at a rate I’ve never witnessed.
This trend began upsetting me. It wasn’t a pebble in the shoe inconvenience. St Paul’s dining scene had entered a crisis and I couldn’t figure out why.
Oftentimes when my life goes off the tracks personally or professionally, I usually find myself swinging by Luci Ancora (St. Paul’s premiere Italian fine dining restaurant) to hash things out with Steve Smith and Jim Kohler.
In addition to being two of the city’s finest chefs, these guys are also my friends.
Submitted below is a conversation that took place among the three of us over cocktails at the Luci Ancora bar.
Klecko: “OK, guys, I’m thinking about writing a column about why so many of our city’s top restaurants are closing.”
Smith: “What did you come up with?”
Klecko: “I have my theories, but you guys are the salt dogs. I wanted to get your impressions before I subjected you to mine.”
Then I pulled a clipboard out of my backpack that listed my roster of casualties.
Faces on Mears Park
St. Clair Broiler
Smith and Kohler glanced at the list of fallen colleagues.
Smith: “You forgot Muddy Pig.”
Kohler: “I was going to mention that, and you don’t have Red Savoy either.”
At this point Kohler picked up the clipboard and began to examine it more closely as his business partner chimed in.
Smith: “For the last couple of years we’ve seen it coming, the industry’s pie is getting bigger, but the individual slices are getting smaller.”
As he took a moment to take a drink Jim interrupted.
Kohler: “These restaurants closed for different reasons. It isn’t as if there was an epidemic. Hadj has been talking about shutting down (Barbary Fig) for a while. And Red Savoy had the business. I heard they just didn’t want to sink a bundle of cash into fighting code.”
Smith: “Yeah, you bring up valid points, but most of these closings relate to financial issues. It’s odd they happened so close to each other. But one thing people don’t understand is how much work it is to keep a restaurant afloat. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m willing to bet Lenny (Lenny Russo, Heartland) was doing OK and making a profit. But, sometimes you have to weigh how big that profit is, and if it’s worth it. I can’t even begin to imagine how much energy he had to put into a space that big.”
Klecko: “Do you guys ever get nervous you could be next?”
Kohler: “Yes! Every year, usually during the second week of January, Steve and I go round and round as to how we are going to cut expenses.”
Smith: “I’ve seen a number of places fold because ownership isn’t there to manage their investment. It’s hard enough to survive under the best conditions, but if you don’t have someone on site giving constant focus to purchasing and labor, good luck.”
Kohler: “We’re in a good neighborhood with a core of people that support us. It’s not unusual for some of our regulars to come four times a week.”
Smith: “Another thing I’ve noticed is many places are developing huge menus. I don’t believe people want too many choices.”
Kohler: “When this place opened there were 10 restaurants close to here, now what is it, 100?”
Smith: “We find ourself constantly trying to adapt. Recently we put in this bar, and serving cocktails added a new element. It’s helped bring in younger customers.”
Kohler: “We’re still refining our pasta program. Right now we’re working with heritage wheat. It’s a progress that always has to continue.
Smith: “To survive you just have to make hard changes and adapt. That’s hard to do, and not everybody can do that.
Klecko: “It’s murder finding help these days, how’s it going for you guys?”
Smith: “When we find an employee it feels like a stroke of luck.”
Kohler: “I think Steve will agree, one of the reasons we’ve been able do well is we make some of the best pasta around. We’re constantly looking for exciting new sources. Recently we got a new wild mushroom source. We don’t want to have to depend on the big companies, we don’t have to. We’ve been making trendy stuff before it became trendy.”
Smith: “Jim’s right, we did organic before that was even a thing. We also crank all our pastas. We don’t extrude them.”
Klecko: “Why, is that bad?”
Smith: “Both methods are legit, but different animals. I’m not sure, is Broders’ (Broders’ Pasta Bar) cranking?”
Kohler: “They might be, but I think our pasta is better.”
Smith: “How about Tenant?”
Kohler: “I’m not sure. A lot of their pasta isn’t used in Italian dishes, but it’s really good.”
Smith: “And Monello at Hotel Ivy?”
Kohler: “Yeah, their pasta is super, but it’s crazy expensive. We have to make it a point to get over there and get some.”
Klecko: “How long have you two worked together?”
Kohler: “Since ‘88. During those 30 years there were times when we lived together and Steve even dated …”
Smith: “You don’t need to give him all the details, Jim.”
Klecko: “Are you two going to die here?”
Smith: “I wouldn’t mind it.”
Kohler: “It’s looking that way, despite change, we are still relevant, but some days, I wish we were more relevant.”
Friends, the Capital City has taken some hard culinary hits this year, but as long as the crew at Luci Ancora keeps turning out pasta, there’s hope.
Dan “Klecko” McGleno can be reached at email@example.com or 651-329-4321.