Bryant-Lake Bowl stands as an icon and an institution in South Minneapolis. It has been a neighborhood anchor for the surrounding LynLake neighborhood for 25 years. The eclectic menu includes both pot roast and pad Thai. The food’s good, but not expensive. The room is cool, casual, comfortable, with a funky artistic flair. It remains the metro’s only bar/restaurant/bowling alley/theater.
There have been few big changes to the place since it opened in 1993, even though the surrounding neighborhood has become increasingly crowded with several new large apartment buildings.
Bryant-Lake Bowl (BLB) reflects its owner Kim Bartmann, who took what had been a dive bar and remade it into a neighborhood destination. Bartmann has now established a reputation as a successful — and prolific — small-business entrepreneur. She’s built a modest empire of nine restaurants — all with different names and concepts, and all within a 15-minute drive of BLB. She seems to have a magic touch for reimagining overlooked spaces.
“I do respect her and I really like what she does. … I admire her a lot,” says Phil Roberts, another serial restaurateur, who’s chairman and CEO of Edina-based Parasole Restaurant Holdings. “It’s more work, but it’s more fun to have several concepts.”
On the heels of Book Club, which opened in late 2017, Bartmann just debuted Trapeze, a small event and party space connected to her Barbette restaurant in Uptown. Her next project is already taking shape: She recently signed a letter of intent with Minneapolis-based developer Sherman Associates for two spaces in the planned 205 Park Avenue South development, where she intends to open a bakery and coffee shop. Bringing a restaurant to a newly constructed building will be a first for Bartmann, who has always tackled existing, if down-at-heels, properties.
But today Bartmann is facing new challenges. Business is down and, for the moment, she’s presiding over what she describes as a break-even operation. While many people harbor dreams of opening a restaurant with the expectation of making money, Bartmann’s experience underscores how challenging the business can be — even after more than two decades in the industry. Today Bartmann finds herself at a crossroads: She wants to keep growing her portfolio of restaurants, but is grappling with declining revenue.
“My sales are down,” says Bartmann, who employs about 350 people (the number varies seasonally). She says total annual revenue is about $16 million, but quickly adds “margin zero.” She estimates that for the two years through the end of 2017, her sales declined about 15 percent.
“I’m not kidding,” she reiterates. “We’re hanging in there.”
It’s a battle that Bartmann isn’t fighting alone. Casual dining restaurants with table service, Bartmann’s niche, are seeing declining sales across the country. New York-based market research company NPD Group found that traffic in the category was down 4 percent in 2017, while visits to fast-casual restaurants were up 7 percent. NPD also found that the number of independent U.S. restaurants dropped by 3 percent in 2017, and the number of full-service restaurants dropped 2 percent that year.
With business under pressure, Bartmann recently tapped an investor with extensive, big-league industry experience for her holding company that includes Bryant-Lake Bowl and four other restaurants. He’s Christopher O’Donnell, a 16-year veteran of Minnetonka-based barbecue chain Famous Dave’s of America Inc., where he served as CEO for four years.
Bartmann briefly summarized the arrangement in an email, but declined to elaborate, citing the newness of the partnership. “He is helping me in various aspects, with an eye toward growing business. I’m excited to have such a knowledgeable and hospitality-driven person share my passion for neighborhood restaurants and good food.”
“Capital is very hard to come by for women in any industry, much less the restaurant industry, because it’s particularly difficult to come by in the restaurant industry in general,” Bartmann says. “A lot of my opportunities have come in neighborhoods where it hadn’t occurred to anyone to develop before, or in depressed properties.”
O’Donnell brings an extensive restaurant industry resume to the table. For 2013, O’Donnell’s last full year with Famous Dave’s, the company saw revenue of $155.4 million — 10 times Bartmann’s current portfolio. Before joining Famous Dave’s, he was vice president of product development for California-based Pencom International, which produced training products for restaurant and hotel operators, and was the operating partner for Premier Ventures, a Denver-based restaurant group.
O’Donnell was fired by Famous Dave’s in 2014 while he was president and chief operating officer. But he’s not alone: The executive suite at Famous Dave’s has been a long-running revolving door. In its 24-year history, the company has had 11 CEOs; O’Donnell ranks as the longest-serving.
Since the deal is fresh, it’s too soon to know what the addition of O’Donnell as an investor will mean for Bartmann’s portfolio, though he will surely look to reverse revenue trends. Bartmann’s favorite part of the business is new growth — finding the location, creating a concept, adding distinctive design and matching it to the surrounding neighborhood.
“The only way I get to exercise that creativity is through growth,” she says.
Although she doesn’t have any restaurants outside the city of Minneapolis, Bartmann is starting to carve out a national profile. She’s currently president of the board for the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, a national organization that provides support and resources for women in the industry. Bartmann was instrumental in bringing WCR’s national conference to Minneapolis in April. The three-day conference featured a keynote talk by TV personality and chef Carla Hall, co-host of The Chew on ABC.
People who know Bartmann say that once she sets her mind to something, it gets done. “In three short years she became president and brought the conference here,” says Molly Broder, who owns three restaurants at 50th and Penn in South Minneapolis.
Three years ago, Bartmann was one of the leaders of a group of local women chefs and restaurant operators who went public with a protest against Mpls.St.Paul magazine, which featured a cover photo of 15 male chefs on its “Best Restaurants” issue. (Mpls.St.Paul is a sister publication of Twin Cities Business; both are owned by MSP Communications.)
Bartmann and others convened a meeting at The Bird, her restaurant off of Loring Park. Twenty-two women signed a letter of protest. The flap drew coverage in the Star Tribune, MinnPost and other media outlets before simmering down. Bartmann says that while business conditions are improving for women, the restaurant business remains heavily male-dominated.
Bartmann also works with Shoreview-based Deluxe Corp. — a company with nearly $2 billion in revenue — on its Small Business Revolution program. Every year the company puts $500,000 into boosting Main Street businesses in a selected small town and makes videos documenting the work with small-business owners. Now in its third season, Bartmann has offered counsel and perspective for restaurant operators in Wabash, Ind., Bristol Borough, Pa., and Alton, Ill. Episodes can be found on Hulu or the Small Business Revolution website at deluxe.com.
“Kim’s always had a heart for mentoring,” says Amanda Brinkman, Deluxe’s chief brand officer. “She’s got a lot on her plate, but she still finds time to help and mentor others.”
Food for thought
Bartmann’s latest venture is Book Club, in the former Café Maude space in the southwest corner of Minneapolis, which opened in December. She partnered with chef Asher Miller on the project, which features what Miller describes as a West Coast-inspired menu.
“Kim sort of masterminded the aesthetic of the dining room,” says Miller. “She is a woman of vision, and to me that was the thing that really appealed when I was thinking about ‘Who would I want to work with?’ My thinking was ‘I’m the operator, you’re the visionary.’”
Miller worked as a sous-chef at Barbette when it was new. He later collaborated with celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck for the well-regarded 20.21 at the Walker Art Center. Bartmann is not a chef — “I don’t work in the kitchen,” she declares.
But she got her start working in what’s known in the business as the “back of house.” A Wisconsin native, Bartmann moved to the Twin Cities in the 1980s to attend the University of Minnesota and had a series of kitchen jobs in many long-gone establishments: The Blue Heron Café, Winfield Potter’s, Little Apple Deli in Calhoun Square, Chez Bananas and “some horrible place over by the U that pre-bagged and microwaved pasta.”
People who know and have worked with Bartmann make similar observations. She’s determined. She works hard. She’s a survivor. She sticks to her principles. And she seems to have a knack for spotting restaurant locations that are ripe for renewal. Where others might see a vacant space, she can envision concept, design, the ineffable feel of the place, and how the location fits into the surrounding neighborhood.
Bartmann sticks to the territory she knows. Only two of her venues are outside South Minneapolis, and the Bird, in Loring Park, is just barely outside the perimeter.
“She’s smart, she pays attention to things like access . . . she drives every neighborhood and goes around and talks to people,” says Liz McLay of Minneapolis-based McLay Consulting, a real estate brokerage and advisory firm that has advised Bartmann. “She does have an uncanny ability to find neighborhoods that are ready to bloom.”
“You don’t just think about her as someone who’s an accomplished restaurateur,” says McLay. “You think of her as someone who is more of a thought leader in the restaurant industry.”
Bartmann’s Red Stag Supperclub opened in 2007 and became the first LEED-CI restaurant certification in the state of Minnesota. LEED has become the industry standard for defining “green” buildings, measured by efficiency, energy-saving components and sustainability. LEED-CI stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-Commercial Interiors, a rating system for improvements to existing buildings. Buildings are certified by the D.C.-based Green Building Council.
Before she opened the Uptown coffee shop Café Wyrd (pronounced “weird”) back in 1991, the space at the corner of Irving Avenue and Lake Street in Minneapolis had been home to a comic book store. BLB and Pat’s Tap were both dive bars. Tiny Diner took root in a long-vacant, eyesore property that had once been home to a gas station.
Alex Woehrlin has been selling coffee to Bartmann since 1992, when he started B&W Specialty Coffee, a Minneapolis-based specialty roaster. In the days before Caribou Coffee and Starbucks dominated the landscape, Woehrlin says that Café Wyrd built a dedicated following.
“She really created the first kind of coffee gathering place in Uptown,” recalls Woehrlin. “It wasn’t pretentious, it wasn’t anything. It was ‘Come and be who you are.’ It was fun.”
Today, long-standing Uptown anchors like Figlio and Lucia’s are gone. Bartmann converted Café Wyrd into Barbette in 2001 and remains on the corner where she started the coffee shop 27 years ago. She’s just a little busier today. “She likes to work a lot more than I do,” says Woehrlin with a laugh. “She has this unbounded energy.”
Not every idea works. In the late ’90s, Bartmann published Siren, a biweekly paper that she compares to the Twin Cities Reader, an alternative newspaper that operated until 1997. Siren lasted about 11 months before folding in 2000.
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At another point she was trying to strike a deal to buy the Suburban World theater in Uptown in 2002 and make it a performance space. At the time, she was running just two restaurants, BLB and Barbette. But she couldn’t come to terms with the theater’s owners. “It just kind of went sideways,” says Bartmann. “We pretty much had to walk away.”
She lost money on both efforts.
In 2009 she was sued by the Internal Revenue Service, which was petitioning to seize her home because of about $110,000 in unpaid employment taxes. The case was ultimately dismissed. Bartmann says that at some point she discovered that her bookkeeper was not paying payroll taxes. “It took me about a decade to get that all sorted out,” says Bartmann. “It all got paid.”
If a restaurant concept isn’t working, Bartmann isn’t sentimental about pulling the plug. The Bird is now the third concept in her Loring Park space. It opened as the Third Bird in 2014, but didn’t draw enough business. “It just really wasn’t working,” says Bartmann. Then it became the Bearcat Bar, which closed in less than three months. “It was awesome for a very brief period of time,” she says.
Now focused on breakfast and lunch as the Bird, Bartmann says the restaurant is starting to have some success.
Bartmann has built a reputation for supporting local farmers and sustainability, composting waste and supporting numerous charities.
Bartmann in her own words
How she started Café Wyrd coffee shop in 1991
“My single mother let me max out her credit card. So I put in $5,000 that way and then I talked my friend’s dad into lending her $5,000. And we opened a coffee shop.”
Overhauling Bryant-Lake Bowl in 1993
“The place was totally dead all the time. The day I got up the courage to go talk to the owner, the police department was hanging a camera pointed at the game room. They were having some issues with drug dealing there. Everyone thought I was just insane to think that you could turn that place into a restaurant.”
How Bryant-Lake Bowl inspired Semisonic’s hit song “Closing Time”
“‘You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.’ That’s what Roger Engmark, the pinsetter who’s worked there for a million years, would say at closing every night, hence the name ‘Closing Time.’”
Why she opened Tiny Diner
“It was the original prototype Erickson gas station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son. . . . I just literally had that picture [of Tiny Diner] in my mind almost from the beginning.”
Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs
“Making handshake partnership deals are a big no-no. … I’ve had a few of those.”
“The biggest mistake I think entrepreneurs make is not asking for help. And I’ve actually been pretty good at asking for help over the years.”
“She was 15, 20 years before the bandwagon on a lot of this stuff,” says Woehrlin. But she has a business to run.
“I used to be a super-progressive liberal person,” says Bartmann. But like many local restaurateurs, she was opposed to the $15-an-hour minimum wage ordinance that the Minneapolis City Council approved in 2017.
She supported Pathway to $15, backed by many bar owners and restaurateurs, which advocated a slower series of wage increases and would have included a lower minimum wage for tipped employees. “A lot of small businesspeople will not be able to navigate those sudden changes, and businesses will close,” says Bartmann of the city’s new minimums. She does not have any quick, easy answers for the cause of declining sales.
“There’s a stay-at-home economy, people getting food delivered,” says Bartmann, who is learning the obstacles to eating out firsthand: she and wife Sarah Jane Wroblewski became parents overnight two years ago when they adopted two children through the foster care system. Elaina is 5; Emmett is 4. They are the reason there’s broccoli in the macaroni and cheese at Book Club.
Another factor in declining restaurant sales is the mindset of millennials, who are less interested in sitting down to a meal at a full-service restaurant than previous generations were.
Bartmann also notes that new grocery stores are opening left and right, with wide selections of grab-and-go options. The Twin Cities “are one of the epicenters of grocery store wars,” she notes.
Over the years, countless people have approached Bartmann to float their idea for a restaurant and seek her counsel. She doesn’t have much time anymore to dispense free advice, but is taking some advising jobs. She’s currently consulting with the owners of Nighthawks in South Minneapolis — less than three blocks from her own Pat’s Tap — after the departure of the restaurant’s high-profile chef. She created the concept and is a minority partner in Kyatchi, a Japanese restaurant with location in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Still, she bristles at business jargon and words like “career” to describe what she’s been doing for decades. When did it feel to her like running restaurants had become a real business? “Probably about 10 years into it.”
“Sometimes it does seem like a hobby,” says Bartmann. “Anyone who runs a restaurant, much less a handful of restaurants, will tell you that it’s a lifestyle. It is not a job.”
Burl Gilyard is TCB’s senior writer.
This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.