How Restaurants Survive Uptown: Consistency, Fair Prices, Fitting Concepts

Editor’s note: A version of this story originally appeared on Upserve’s blog.

Not everyone is cut out for Uptown’s restaurant scene. With challenges that restaurateurs can’t change, many flourish while some have to close their doors for good.

All year, swarms of people spend their time around Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet, while others cycle or stroll around town visiting the diverse mix of restaurants and shops. In the last five to seven years, more and more people, and restaurants, have flocked to the area.

The population in Minneapolis has increased about 7 percent from April 2010 to July 2015, according to Census Bureau population estimates. In 2015, the total population was estimated at 410,939. In Uptown alone, there are over 30,000 residents.

With an increasing population comes its benefits and challenges, said Maude Lovelle, executive director of the Uptown Business Association.

Rent, parking and city regulations have affected the restaurant scene in Uptown, but at the end of the day, which restaurants prove most successful comes down to what people are craving and the service they receive.

Joe Sipprell, general manager of the Uptown Diner, believes that continued success in this area is about customer satisfaction. “For us, especially at this location, we’ve been able to consistently put out quality product for the price,” he said. “And that’s how I get people to come back in.”

“We offer a great work environment, and we’re all really happy here. I work for some really good guys.”

The diner has been at its current location at Hennepin Avenue and 26th St. W. for about the last 12 years. In that time, Uptown’s local scene has changed.

Sipprell, who has been working on Hennepin Avenue for almost 30 years, said that Uptown was the “cool” place to be, because “everything was so independent.” But, after attracting the attention of national retailers, “the money rolled in and everything changed.”

Many business owners and restaurateurs left over the years to set up shop elsewhere. The changing climate has left the Diner seemingly untouched.

That’s partially because the Diner is small, so it’s able to compensate its employees more and give out more hours, Sipprell said. “We get little to no turnover,” he said. “We offer a great work environment, and we’re all really happy here. I work for some really good guys.”

The Diner’s overall concept, service and prices have been the biggest factors in keeping things running.

A restaurant’s concept can make or break business, said Lovelle, with the business association. In an area as competitive as Uptown, being the right fit can determine just how long you stay open.

“[Some restaurants] have not made it,” Lovelle said. “I think probably, most likely, their concepts or price points were not a match, so of course, there have been some that haven’t worked out.”

Of those who haven’t worked out it in the area is Prairie Dogs. Co-owner Tobie Nidetz said he found two main factors that led to the restaurant’s closing this December: The menu wasn’t large enough, and the physical location.

Prairie Dogs, known best for its handcrafted hot dogs and sausages, moved out of its location at 610 W. Lake St.

“Even after the accolades of the patrons, food writers and a national television network, we found the curse of location to be too strong.”

On Dec. 21, the restaurant posted an announcement on its Facebook page titled “THE CURSE OF LOCATION.”

“In the two years since [opening], the restaurant has seen a lot of ups and downs…but a little too many downs,” Prairie Dogs said in the announcement. “Even after the accolades of the patrons, food writers and a national television network, we found the curse of location to be too strong.”

Prairie Dogs has been praised by local and national outlets, including Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins & Dives.”

“I don’t attribute [closing] to our product,” Nidetz said. “We got great reviews on Yelp and our other social media.”

In the comments section below the announcement, customers left imploring remarks and some called for a suburban location, citing issues parking in the area. But, parking wasn’t the only reason for declining foot traffic.

The farther you travel from the center of Uptown, the density tapers off. “By the time you get to Lyndale, it’s really the bottom of the barrel,” he said. “It’s a desert at that point.”

But, this wasn’t the end for the restaurant. Prairie Dogs moved into the Viking Bar on the West Bank not long after closing their doors on Lake Street.

“It’s a personal thing,” he said. “I can’t tell somebody that their concept isn’t going to work there, unless it’s totally off the meter … That’s the odd thing about the restaurant business, there are hundreds of different ways to do what we do.”

“Don’t be afraid to work. Restaurants are tough.”

The revenue Prairie Dogs sees from the Viking Bar allows them to keep things running. And, now in its second month, their customer base is growing.

Looking ahead, the future looks bright for Prairie Dogs. Nidetz said the restaurant should be at hoped-for revenue levels by this summer, at which time they plan to launch a joint festival with other bars and restaurants to bring in business.

In the meantime, Prairie Dogs is looking for a new home, including in the nearby suburbs, like Hopkins, Minnetonka and Richfield.

“Hopefully, we find a location that’s not cursed,” he said.

Other restaurants in the area have faced similar challenges, and with more foot traffic going downtown and to Nicollet Avenue, some restaurants have had to rethink their approach.

Uptown gained a reputation for being the “cool” place in town. And, for many, it still is. Only, it’s not the same type of cool. Shifting trends have moved things around and left restaurants to adapt, or move on.

The shift in local trends is something that restaurants can’t always control. But, that doesn’t mean it’s all over.

For restaurants considering breaking into a market like Uptown’s, Michael Giacomini, director of finance with the Red Cow, said, “Don’t be afraid to work. Restaurants are tough.”

The Red Cow, with locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul, has grown increasingly popular in recent years, receiving local and national attention from USA Today, Pioneer Press, Thrillist, Nightlife & Bar Media Group, powered by Yelp, and more for their gourmet burgers, drinks and casual atmosphere.

Their rise to the top of the Twin Cities’ restaurant list wasn’t without its challenges, though. “There were a few scary nights, where we were like ‘we can’t have these sales,’” Giacomini said, explaining that it was partially due to lacking service.

But, those service issues didn’t last long after Josh Hoyt, now director of operations, was hired as the Red Cow’s general manager. Hoyt was brought on to “fine tune” the service, making the restaurant’s atmosphere into a welcoming, casual setting with a fine-dining standard for service.

“There were a few scary nights, where we were like ‘we can’t have these sales.’”

The two main things that have helped the Red Cow achieve its successes, Giacomini said, have been their locations, and “enhancing the guest experience” year after year. Even being in charge of the finances, Giacomini said that the numbers come second to the people who keep things running smoothly, and the guests who come back for more.

“That’s our number one goal, that’s always at the top of our list,” he said. “Basically, what I always say is the second you walk in our door and see the host stand, you feel welcome. You feel welcomed right away, it’s a place you want to be.”

To complement the service, there is a strong importance placed on consistency in what arrives at the guests’ tables. Each ingredient is taken into account – many being locally sourced – and “intense” training programs help clearly outline what’s expected of each and every employee.

To stay competitive and find balance in these often chaotic restaurant markets, Giacomini explained that consistency and great food are a must, but hospitality is number one, followed closely by creating a unified culture and running the numbers often.

“Uptown has fallen behind in the curve in progressive restaurants.”

The Red Cow expects to open its fourth location in Uptown this June, giving the family-owned company access to yet another highly-coveted territory in the Twin Cities. Their new location will be in place of the old Green Mill, which had a 38-year run before closing its doors this December, the Star Tribune reported.

Giacomini, who lives in Uptown and grew up in nearby St. Louis Park, said he’s excited about the potential for the area. He believes the trends are starting to favor local restaurants that are close to home, with high-quality ingredients.

“Uptown has fallen behind in the curve in progressive restaurants,” he said, explaining that districts like the North Loop and Cathedral Hill have outpaced Uptown’s restaurant market in recent years. But, he said, it might not stay that way.

“I think Uptown is looking to have a competitive comeback,” he said.