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Blackbird owners begin fire recovery process with benefit show

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After years in (and a couple out) of the restaurant industry, husband and wife team Chris Stevens and Gail Mollner had a very specific vision for a place they wanted to work: a place where you could get a fine meal, just pop in for a quick bite, or even just have a drink with a friend--a place that felt a little like home. In 2007, Gail and Chris made that vision a reality: the Blackbird Café, a South Minneapolis eatery that has been knocking its patrons, neighbors and citywide, dead with delicious, unpretentious meals ever since. All that changed February 18th of this year, when a fire at an adjoining restaurant spread throughout the building that housed the Blackbird and several other businesses on 50th and Bryant, leaving nothing in its wake.

The story does not end there, however: Blackbird's loyal employees banded together with several local restaurants, musicians, and food vendors to throw a benefit for the Blackbird rebuilding fund this Saturday, March 6th, at Java Jack's, featuring a host of bands, food, and community. A week later, on March 14th, over 55 local restaurants will host "Fork The Fire," an all-day, multi-location event to help the Blackbird, neighboring restaurant Heidi's, and their employees.

Gimme Noise caught up with Gail and Chris to talk about food, fire, and rising from the ashes.

How did the Blackbird come to be?

Gail: In the mid-'90s, Chris was the head chef at the Table of Contents in St Paul when I got hired there as a cook.  I had a culinary arts degree from St. Paul Tech, and had serving experience and worked as a barista, but Table was my first cooking job.

The food scene was very different back then.  The word "foodie" didn't exist, Whole Foods market wasn't even on the scene yet, and arugula was not a common household word.  Working at Table was a terrifically fun time, encountering ingredients I'd never heard of, complex cooking methods I'd not been exposed to, and the crew was a tightly knit family.  Naturally, I was smitten.

Chris and I got married in 2001, and we both thought we should take a break from restaurant work. We wanted to open our own restaurant, but felt that we needed more life experiences outside of the restaurant industry to make it work....The Blackbird was the result of those life experiences. We wanted it to be a casual place, in the true sense of a neighborhood café- where you felt welcome to pop in for a coffee or beer, a quick bite or a multi-course meal, where the employees recognized you and knew you by name (or by your order), like any good neighborhood place.  The menu was a hodgepodge of euro-classics, like beef brisket sandwich and handcut fries, but also with some comfort classics from other cultures, like the spicy peanut noodles and banh mi.<

It's really weird talking about the Blackbird in the past tense.

What is the benefit all about? How did it get put together?

Gail: Chris and I haven't had any hand in planning the party.  It was our employees' idea. So many of our customers have become dear friends over the past two years.  Many of them have opened their homes to all of us for meals, patio drinks, and backyard barbeques.  The party is really an opportunity for all of us to say goodbye to each other, if only temporarily.  All proceeds from the benefit go toward the reopening of Blackbird.

Jerry, the owner of Java Jack's, has donated his café for the night.  Brasa, Coastal Seafoods and New French are donating a bunch of food, and Chris and the kitchen guys are making some snacks.  Drink donations come from many of Blackbird's vendors.  There has been a lot of door knocking by the servers and cooks for silent auction donations, which come from neighbors and businesses.  Our coffee vendor B&W donated a few pounds of our cult classic coffee (dibs!!!).  Many of the folks who worked at Blackbird are artists, and have made things specifically for the auction.  It's pretty incredible!

For the music:  The cool voice of Lucy Michelle, doing a solo performance.  The big and little strings of Tete a Tete, who are two servers from the Blackbird.  The energetic electric Mayida.  The mesmerizing Dark, Dark, Dark.

There definitely seems to be a strong community spirit about you guys that most restaurants don't have. What do you think it is about the Blackbird that has inspired such loyalty?

Gail: I don't know if I totally agree that most restaurants don't have a strong community spirit.  The landslide of help and comfort we're getting in this tough time, particularly from other restaurants- who are on any other day of the year our competitors- is a pretty solid testament to community spirit. 

I think our customers just really liked feeling engaged in their dining experience, that they were part of (in our case) two regular people making a living running a quirky little restaurant. One thing I loved about our customers is that they overwhelmingly spent their dining dollars on indie places. They root for the little guy!  Many know the names of cooks and servers at other neighborhood restaurants.  Many wanted to get to know us and the staff personally. Having such a small place allowed us to offer a very personal service style. But honestly, we gave up trying to figure out what inspired loyalty. We were just grateful to see them walk through the door as often as they did, and enjoyed all the belly laughs we shared.

What's the next step for you, after the fire?

Gail: We're definitely re-opening.  50th & Bryant has been a good location for us, but staying there depends on timing and financing.

In your years in the food industry, what's your favorite story?

Gail: All the good stories aren't fit to print, but we both had a good laugh thinking about all remote possibilities!  Swing by the party.  We'll give 'em up after a few drinks.

Okay, bonus question, because I'm hungry: If you could have anything to eat right now, what would it be?

Chris:  Banh mi with fries, extra jalapenos, extra pate.

Gail:  Our cook Miriam's tortilla soup- it always made me feel happy.

The Blackbird benefit, with food, music, and a silent auction, is Saturday, March 5th, at Java Jacks on 46th and Bryant, 7:00-11:00 PM, $10. Details about Fork The Fire can be found at forkthefire.org.