Byte, a new restaurant that offers a radically different life for its workers

Mark Lowman, left, and Travis Shaw

Mark Lowman, left, and Travis Shaw Sasha Landskov

A couple of skinny young dudes dressed in ironic T-shirts stand against a backdrop of graffiti murals and graphic art posters in a construction zone space in the Warehouse District. They hardly look like they’re about to shake up the entire local restaurant industry.

Travis Shaw and Mark Lowman are both hospitality industry vets. After years of cooking, both made their way up to chef positions at the Marquette Hotel Minneapolis. Both were unhappy, and they were mostly unhappy because of the way they had to treat their staff. By now we all know what it looks like to work as a cook in America: low pay, long hours, no benefits, and few other incentives.

After work, Shaw and Lowman would get a drink together and blow off steam, as chefs are wont to do. They’d discuss the things that could make kitchen work a truly sustainable career choice for adults. Then they’d go back to their jobs, the very ones they feared would inevitably let them down.

But more and more, they came back to their radical vision of what restaurant work could be. Lowman started asking, “Why aren’t we doing this? Are we going to do this?”

So they got to work on making the “this” a reality.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage for a line cook in America is a little more than $11 per hour. Very few restaurants offer health care benefits, and when they do, it’s often a 50/50 match system. When you’re making $11 an hour, you’re going to pass on that deal. A request for a paid vacation would probably get you laughed off premises, and if a toothache should strike, better hope you know some home remedies.

While both chefs say that they loved the work, and initially didn’t mind working 75-hour work weeks, as they got older, they were having a tougher time envisioning a future in that routine. A nationwide culinary worker shortage suggests they are not alone. More people are leaving the business early, and fewer are entering.

“Eventually, you can only go so far on passion,” says Shaw. “All of a sudden you realize you’re working all the hours, and you’re not getting paid dick.”

Lowman chimes in: “The restaurant kitchen industry is an outdated system... built on machismo and how hard you can work. Which just feeds ownership and the corporate structure and allows them to pay you less. Well, you’re working with a new generation of people, and that’s not good enough anymore.”

With an eye toward gaining back their self-respect and employing people in a manner that feels good and decent, they’re opening Byte on March 1. It will be their radical vision come to life, complete with a 40-hour work week, $15 hourly to start (and overtime beyond 40 hours), full health benefits, and paid time off.

But how? Here’s the plan:

1. Help yourself.

The sliver of downtown space in the former Foxfire Lounge will be exclusively counter service. There will be drip coffee (no fancy pour-overs or espresso drinks), and you’ll need to go elsewhere for your mixology — they’re serving only beer and wine. It’s all with an eye toward efficiency.

2. Street food rules.

“We took inspiration from taco stands and Asian street vendors,” says Shaw. “They’re able to make things that are cheap, quick, and amazing. One person can execute it and keep things efficient.” That means low labor, low food cost, and ingredients that can be used in multiple menu items.

3. Don’t expect farm-to-table.

“I’m sure we’ll get called out for that,” the partners say. “We could pay for grass-fed organic beef, or we could pay people. A lot of places are carrying the flag for farm-to-table food and that’s great. But there aren’t a lot of people carrying the flag for this. Commodity food is where we had to draw the line.”

4. There’s safety in numbers.

They’re focusing on high volume, which is where they hope the money will come in. The restaurant seats 100, plus another 30 on the patio, so even though the space isn’t huge, this is no cozy 50-seat bistro.

5. There’s no “I” in Team.

They’re hiring only 12 employees, most full-time, but also a few part-timers who wish to be. There will be no tipping, and everyone will do everything. At least they hope. Duty crossover will be an important part of efficiency, just like the ingredients used in multiple menu items. Twelve employees is pretty bare-bones for 100-plus seats.

What you won’t see in this scenario is the 15 percent or so hike in menu item prices that most no-tipping establishments use to offset the missing gratuity line. Byte’s prices will be comparable, if not even a little lower, say Shaw and Lowman. The two wouldn’t have felt comfortable having a restaurant built on social justice without also offering affordable food, they say.

They have their detractors. Shaw and Lowman say they’ve already received “hate mail” and other blowback. They have been called “snowflakes” and “ignorant millennials.”

But the two are not hearing it. “They can’t see into our books. They don’t know the details of our plan,” Shaw rebukes.

Shaw and Lowman are using most of their own money for startup costs, so they are not on the hook to pay back investors. And they’re getting a great deal on the space — in part because the landlord digs their mission.

So why “Byte” and not just “Bite?” The friends recognized that they’d probably be all but living at the restaurant, so wanted to incorporate stuff that they and their friends truly liked.

“We’re both geeks, we like board games and stuff.” So, the “geek pub” was born. And no, this is not an arcade. The tables will be filled with board games. They’re watching the bottom line, remember? They’ll also serve local beer and fun, affordable wines that “don’t take themselves too seriously.”

And yes, it is a real restaurant. Food is the first focus. These self-professed geeks seem geekiest when describing their menu items: paneer bites with Indian spices and tomato chutney, chicken mole rojo, and black vinegar pork.

Byte comes at a pivotal time in the overall local and national dining landscape. Minneapolis is facing a $15 minimum wage hike for all workers, possibly including tipped employees. If that legislation passes, many restaurant owners say they will have to change their business model or go out of business.

Shaw and Lowman get it, and they know that their model is only one way of doing business. But they do think that their model is probably the more dynamic one. You can see what they mean, as more and more businesses strip down to just counter service. Labor is the largest percentage of a restaurant’s operating costs. It makes financial sense.

And Byte could be the wave of the future. 

open March 1
319 First Ave. N.,