Are the suburbs infertile ground for so-called “third places,” those social surroundings separate from the two usual environments — home and the workplace — where people gather to enjoy the pleasures of good company and lively conversation?
Or do third places in an Eden Prairie, Woodbury or Plymouth simply take on different characteristics from those in Minneapolis or St. Paul?
Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, coined the term “third place” in his 1989 New York Times best-seller “The Great Good Place.” (He’s “one of us,” having completed his undergraduate studies at Mankato State University and earning his master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Minnesota.)
Oldenburg argues that third places are the heart of a community’s social vitality. He laments their disappearance — in the United States at least — as a byproduct of a business world that has been devoured by franchises.
Indeed, Starbucks has used the third-place concept in its marketing, but the sterility of the chain’s individual customers staring blankly into laptop screens while the latest corporate-sponsored CD pumps from the store speakers is the antithesis of true third places. When was the last time you walked into a rousing political debate between casual acquaintances at a Starbucks?
Uncle Franky’s a hopping hot spot
Enter Jay Grobstein, a restaurateur who founded — and burned himself out running — Erté, a swanky steak and seafood restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis. Grobstein sold Erté in 2003, soon after he opened Uncle Franky’s, a hot dog and hamburger joint on Broadway in Northeast Minneapolis.
Grobstein says Uncle Franky’s bumped along as a business for the first few months, mostly off of the goodwill of his Erté customers who were curious about what Grobstein was up to with his hole-in-the-wall hot dog stand. The place eventually established its own personality, however, along with a regular clientele that is best summarized as diverse.
“Uncle Franky’s is the only place where you can see one customer who’s caked in dirt and cement, one in an Armani, a 19-year-old preppy girl, a 65-year-old grandmother, a mother in her 30s with her infant in a stroller … Every single person is at Uncle Franky’s all mingling,” Grobstein says. “The transvestites sit next to the cops. When I see that, I really think I have something.”
But could it be re-created in the suburbs? That was the question Grobstein approached with some trepidation earlier this year, when a developer recruited him to open a second Uncle Franky’s in a strip mall on Highway 55 in Plymouth.
The building was brand new, and Grobstein pumped up the ’70s music and put the Cartoon Network on the big-screen TV with the sound turned down, two signature traits from his Northeast location.
Will it work in suburbs?
But the suburban customers were thrown off by Grobstein’s aggressively friendly manner and the rattling off of orders between the cashier and the cook that Grobstein agrees is akin to the infamous Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago. Nine months after his western suburbs shop opened, Grobstein admits that it’s still an experiment in many ways.
“Customers come in here and they’re overwhelmed. ‘What the hell do I do here? Who’s yelling at me? Why is this guy offering me a Coke?’ They all think I’m out to screw them,” he says.
“These are people who have eaten at Red Lobster their whole life. They’ve never been somewhere that’s not a chain. But even though it’s crazy for them at first, a lot of people like the fact that now they know how to do it. They’re part of the club. And it is a little club — a very small, underground type of thing.”
Ironically, Grobstein battles the urge to become precisely what he loathes. He says he has turned down two offers to create 10 more Uncle Franky’s around the Twin Cities with other people’s money. But his reluctance comes from a lack of confidence that he has the business acumen to grow the company that fast, rather than a noble stand against Franky’s becoming just another homogenized fast-food chain.
“Right now, it’s a local restaurant, and we hate franchises, but that may be my goal,” he says. “There are times when I don’t care if it turns into a franchise if I still have a piece of the action. That’s a struggle right now in my life.”
The Uncle Franky’s character and logo were created by Chank Diesel, a Canadian native who studied fine art at Macalester College and is a celebrity among font lovers for his creative and distinctive style. His work with fonts has been seen by millions and is archived at the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum as “an important example of contemporary typography.”