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Final Hot Topics Event Paves Way to Charlie Awards

Andrea Christenson, vice president at Cushman & Wakefield Commercial Real Estate, moderated the panel

It was the best of time in the worst of weather as six industry experts took the stage at General Mills to deliver the final Charlie Awards Hot Topics on the Business of Food & Drink. The crowd was down a bit due to a downpour right as “rush” hour commenced, but that just meant more wine and hors d’oeuvres for the hearty souls who braved the elements to network and learn.

Andrea Christenson, vice president at Cushman & Wakefield Commercial Real Estate, moderated the panel, after being introduced by the Charlies’ Scott Mayer as the smartest woman he knows in real estate and a “nasty woman” (in reference to Donald Trump’s reference to Hillary Clinton, which Gov. Elizabeth Warren has turned into a compliment).

“Thank you, Scott, that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me,” Christenson replied to laughs from the crowd.

Since it was the final outing before the Charlies on Sunday, Nov. 13 (3:30 p.m. at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis), Mayer plugged the event one last time, promising fun country/western surprises to highlight their theme around the role of local farmers in the restaurant industry.

Panelist Stephanie Shimp, co-owner of Blue Plate Restaurant Co., took the stage two hours after opening her latest restaurant, Mercury Dining Room & Rail in the old Brasserie Zentral location in east Minneapolis. The fourth quarter has been busy for Shimp as her company gets ready to open another new concept in St. Paul, Bottle Rocket, and staff a 53-acre farm they just closed on.

On the question of the feasibility of multiple concepts verses one, Shimp said, “Multi-concepts are more expensive, but definitely more fun.”  When choosing locations for a new concept, Shimp says they are neighborhood driven, and her team assesses whether the neighborhood is on its way up or down. They look for a niche they can fill and then stick with what :we do best, which is breakfast, lunch and dinner. “We’ve done well with second-generation spaces, sometimes, third (generation),” she said.

After being warned not to get political, Pete Mihajlov, founding partner of Parasole Restaurant Holdings, was given the tough question on the rising minimum wage debate.

“How many of you are restaurant owners?” Mihajlov asked as hands went up. “How many people would like to be restaurant owners?” When no hands went up, he commented, “You are the smartest people.”

Running a restaurant is a game of margins and the margin of error is getting razor thin, he said. While employees are a restaurant’s most valuable resource, he said, they represent 40 cents of every $1. The disparity between the earnings for the front of the house and the back of the house is becoming wider, he added, especially since Minnesota is one of eight states nationwide that doesn’t have a tip credit. “When I retire I want just one table at Manny’s,” he quipped, referring to the high tips servers at the legacy steakhouse earn.  He did add that servers in all restaurants work hard for tips.

When asked about the right size for kitchens, Ryan Smith of Horizon Foodservice Equipment said a kitchen should be as “little as it can be, but as big as it needs to be.” The reasoning, he said, is “the more space you can devote to the front of the house, the more money you can generate.”

Laura Michaels, managing editor of Foodservice News, suggested restaurants maximize their space to generate as many revenue streams as they can, such as takeout, delivery and prepared meals. She gave several examples, including Mucci’s Italian, which has four profit centers and sells doughnuts on the weekend. 

Pat Weber, owner of Mise en Place Consulting, summed up the most prominent trend right now as “authenticity.” In addition, he said, chefs need to embrace customers’ special dietary needs, rather than seeing them as annoyances.

After showcasing his skill set in the beautifully displayed food spread, Noah Barton, General Mills executive chef, said that even large companies like his were concerned with authenticity.  “Restaurants need to take credit for what they’re doing,” he said, by educating guests on where they get their food and the extra time and care procuring fresh takes. “Buying from farmers takes time,” he said, which needs to be accounted for in a chef’s workday.

In preparation for the upcoming Charlies Award show, Christenson told audience members to check the Internet for videos of last years’ show where chefs read their reviews with comical results. 

Ryan Smith of Horizon Foodservice Equipment; Pete Mihajlov, founding partner of Parasole Restaurant Holdings; Stephanie Shimp, co-owner of Blue Plate Restaurant Co.; Pat Weber, owner of Mise en Place Consulting; and Laura Michaels, managing editor of Foodservice News.


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