Chain Fools

What you can do to revitalize downtown Minneapolis

"I haven't the faintest idea where to get wheelbarrows of cash right now," says McLean. "So it boils down to this: [The city] has how many quadmillions of dollars to kick into something that they acknowledge has a life span of only 20 or 30 years, but do they have anything in there for the human, creative part of it? They'll only deal with what they think is a no-fail entity with millions on paper, but the truth of the matter is that big chains headquartered far away are the ones that walk away quietly."

Which I can't help noting is true. McLean got a second mortgage on his house to sustain the Loring Café and the Loring Pasta Bar when things got tough last year. Reisman went into chapter 11 and toughed it out when construction snafus meant the roads around her place were closed off and torn up for an extra two years. Where are the stories about Chili's or Hard Rock Cafe presidents putting their children's college funds in jeopardy to get just one more onion blossom on a table?

 

Love among the Loring ruins: Can downtown Minneapolis steer clear of chain sameness?
Tony Nelson
Love among the Loring ruins: Can downtown Minneapolis steer clear of chain sameness?

Dear Dara,

I refuse to believe Red Lobster was the best response us savvy Twin Citians could have to "no Hooters in my backyard."

It is true what they say: Don't come to me with just a problem, bring a solution with it.

Faithful reader, Mike

 

Okay, Mike. I've got a solution. And it's not just to quit going to chain restaurants, including the Red Lobster proposed for downtown Minneapolis's Block E development. Which you should. (I know, I know, a lot of you work in far-flung offices with weirdo, fraidy-cat office mates who insist that all the work celebrations be held at T.G.I.Friday's, or so dread eating with extended family that the ease of Pizzeria Uno outweighs the pain.) But I think the solution is going to be twofold. For one thing, think about the extent to which the quirky, the uncomfortable, and the human-scale with human foibles serve to enrich, comfort, and enlarge your life. To what extent does being immersed in a world--say, the Cheesecake Factory, for one--of the perfectly humming along and bland make you uncomfortable in your own skin, considering that you yourself are not perfectly humming along and bland? The more I live in this world, the more I think a lot of the easeful choices we make ultimately lead to profound unhappiness. I think the time may have come for the silent, tasteful quarter of us all to start being a pain in the ass.

And the second thing is to issue a call to arms to people who are the real string-pullers: leasing agents, real estate developers, loan officers, city finance agencies, and politicians. It has become more and more clear to me that the number-one requirement for restaurant success nowadays is massive overcapitalization. When Nikki Reisman talks about restarting Nikki's, what stands between her and that is, in her estimate, $300,000 or $400,000. Between Jason McLean and Block E is $750,000. For the past year I've been sitting on a piece of news I desperately want to announce about a fabulous restaurant opening a fabulous new thing downtown. But I can't do it because their financing keeps crumbling.

Meanwhile, up in Roseville there's a strip mall that's serving as the most interesting incubator for new restaurant concepts, hosting roast-beef-sandwich shop Maverick's and St. Paul Bagelry and Pizza Nea. Mike Sherwood's Bagelry ended up there because every other mall he looked at insisted that the restaurant they rent to be backed by a massive chain. (Apparently based on the demonstrably wrong theory that a Pizza Hut never closes.)

The construction manager who considered putting a Loring Café in Block E had exactly the right idea. If that had happened, it would have done more to change the character of our downtown than anything I can think of. It would have been an actual tourist destination the way a Hard Rock Cafe never will be: a place to which locals actually happily bring visitors, like the Lake Harriet Rose Garden or the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, not a place tourists are supposed to go.

Which is a long, long way around to saying that if we had 50 people like that visionary construction manager, and another 50,000 who use the closing of the Loring and Nikki's as a wake-up call to be more mindful about the restaurants we patronize, we could have something for everyone: good red wine and crème brûlée for Amy, a solution for Mike, and, for the rest of us, a more lovable metropolis.

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