Kim Bartmann’s burgeoning restaurant empire (Bryant-Lake Bowl, Barbette, the Red Stag Supperclub, Gigi’s Cafe, Bread and Pickle at Lake Harriet, and the soon-to-open makeover of Casey’s Bar as Pat’s Tap) is also a citywide statement about sustainability. Bartmann is as passionate about green remodeling, local sourcing, and supporting family farms as she is about funky-fresh reinventions of venerable local restaurant types (the bowling alley, the rural supperclub, the corner bar) and updates of classics like burgers and surf-and-turf using the finest ingredients available.
The Line sat down with her at the edge of Lake Harriet to enjoy a Bread and Pickle breakfast and find out what’s new — and what’s perennial — in the world of Twin Cities dining.
The Line: Kim, where is the Twin Cities dining scene right now?
Kim Bartmann: I think the bar has been getting raised for quite some time now. Years ago we had Aqavit, Cucina, and several other very ambitious large-scale restaurants. There was a brief moment of sort of rocket-style culinary advancement. But for some reason or another that just wasn’t sustainable — it was probably unsustainable economically for people. Then, of course, things really fell apart economically.
But now you can look around the Twin Cities and see food of that same caliber in small neighborhood eateries. And through the work of organizations like the Land Stewardship Project and Renewing the Countryside and Minnesota Grown — all the sustainable ag organizations and the other organizations that work to connect customers with small family farmers — and through the farmers’ markets — there’s been a real increase in the availability of high-quality product to people like me, and hopefully to everyday people who are cooking in their kitchens. Because the bar cannot continue to be raised in terms of the quality and affordability of food available in restaurants unless people are at home cooking that same food.
The Line: So food awareness and food quality has to be diffused throughout the community in order for high-quality restaurants to thrive here.
Kim Bartmann: Yes, and we have to support the small family farmers who are toiling away to produce that food.
Of course, there are challenges for both the producer and the buyer as larger customers get on the “buy local” bandwagon. I’m at a scale now where I’m going through so much beef that I have to source it from a couple of different farmers. And it wouldn’t be good for a single farmer to be dependent on a single customer — because what if something happened to that customer? They would be in trouble.
That actually happened when Lenny Russo had the restaurant at the Guthrie — he was going through a lot of product and through no fault of Lenny’s, when that restaurant went away, the guy who supplied his ducks, who had been growing more and more ducks, said, what am I going to do with all of these ducks? Supply and demand are so intimately connected that when one of the two falls away, it’s felt really strongly.
I would say that to continue to have the restaurant scene here grow and evolve in the way that it has in the last few years, we have to support small family farmers, and sustainable agriculture as well. It’s integral. There’s no other way to make it happen.
The Line: Does that have to do with maintaining the basic quality of the food?
Kim Bartmann: Yes. My organizing principle is quality of product. And I also want the kids you see here at Lake Harriet to grow up able to breathe the air and drink the water! Vast monoculture farming courtesy of Atrazine is extremely bad for our health. But apart from environmental concerns, responsible farming is absolutely necessary for the restaurant scene to remain vital.
The Line: What do you see as the next steps this vitality will take? Are there new trends on the horizon here? I personally am a little tired of “innovative comfort food.”
Kim Bartmann: (Laughs). Yeah, Zagat just came out with “The Ten Most Annoying Restaurant Trends,” and comfort food was on the list. But I don’t know if we’ll ever give up comfort food! I’m pretty sure we’ll always have it in some form.
When the economic downturn happened, you saw a lot of large-scale restaurants close, and the larger chains really suffering. And that coincided with a larger mass awareness of sustainability issues. And I think that the combination of those two things has allowed, across the country, small neighborhood restaurants to thrive while restaurants in a lot of other categories were closing or really losing sales to a dangerous degree.
You had people feeling more comfortable during hard times with a restaurant that was a known quantity in their neighborhood. And those small neighborhood places have tended to be the first places that picked up on the “buy local” movement.
With those two trends coinciding, things have been really great for me in the last two years, and for others with the same approach too. The Anchor Fish and Chips opened a couple of years ago in Northeast; Tilia just opened in Linden Hills — these small neighborhood places with a local identity are still opening and growing.
I don’t think the sustainability thing is a mere trend any more. Customers are really making choices based on whether places are buying locally, whether they’re using renewable power, whether they’re composting. And you can see major restaurant chains moving quickly in that direction.
The Line: What have you struggled with?
Kim Bartmann: I’m surprised at how difficult it can be to buy things. How hard it can be to get somebody to sell you something. It’s all about the low quality of customer service. You call and they’re not very helpful. You go into a store and you can’t get any help buying what you need. Just yesterday I was in a very large garden center. I finally got some help after about fifteen minutes. I turned to the person I was with to confer about which kind of trees I was going to buy — I was going to spend about 500 bucks — and the salesperson just disappeared! I had to wait another fifteen minutes for somebody else.
That kind of experience happens all the time and it reminds me how diligent I have to be about customer service in my own business. Actually, I think that question of connection is an important trend too. People are looking for authenticity when they go out to eat, and it extends to service. “Robo-server” just doesn’t work for people any more. Impersonality doesn’t work; authenticity does.
Authenticity — it’s not just about cheese! It goes back to whether that server or that person at the bar actually wants to work in your restaurant or not. And it’s about being connected, connected with the diner, connected with each other, connected with the restaurant.
So how do I maintain good service as I grow and manage an organization that used to be limited to a handful of people all of whom I knew personally, but now is much bigger? I mean, I used to buy pajamas for my employees as Christmas bonuses; now I’m asking myself, how do I manage my HR functions? (Laughs). This makes me want to throw up a little bit.
The Line: How do you try to maintain that level of service and authenticity as you grow?
Kim Bartmann: Well, since authenticity is rooted in your employees actually wanting to work for you, we’ve always done some things that are unusual for restaurants: subsidizing health insurance — at one time we paid a hundred percent; now we pay fifty percent — and we have a paid time off policy for everybody.
Lots of the tenets of contemporary business are about disconnection, whereas I think of old-world business as about being more connected with your customers, your suppliers, and your employees. The more modern paradigm was, the success of Ford Motor Company could be brought to hamburgers! Or to agriculture. We know the results of that — 20,000 square acres of dead sea in the Gulf of Mexico from fertilizer runoff. Topsoil gone over huge stretches of farmland.
The Line: Do you think that this hunger for authenticity is making Minnesotans more aware of their rural roots and traditions?
Kim Bartmann: Well, I was talking to this guy at a bed and breakfast by Lake Pepin the other day. He’s a lawyer from Edina. I’m pretty sure that five years ago he wouldn’t have brought up the sauerkraut festival and the tractor pull in Litchfield, where he’s from. People want to express the fact that they have that connection. People who come from small farming communities and now live in Minneapolis will talk about their small towns — and a few years ago that wasn’t part of party conversation.
I’m on the board of the Land Stewardship Project. Three or four years ago, for the first time in a very long time, the number of small family farms in Minnesota actually grew. They teach a class called Farm Beginnings, which, when they started in the ’70s, was very controversial because family farmers were committing suicide in record numbers. Even people in the environmental community were criticizing LSP because they thought it wasn’t fair to tell people they could make a living by farming.
Now that class has been franchised to other states; it’s part of the U.S. farm bill; small family farms are growing; and people in corporate positions are inheriting farms, taking these classes, or their kids are, and they are trying to retain those family farms and go back on the farm and start producing food. I think that is taking hold, and it has to take hold, because otherwise there won’t be farming as we know it.
Jon Spayde is the managing editor of The Line. This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.