I've never been to the downtown Minneapolis home of Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer, but they tell me it's bright, with big windows, a tiny kitchen, and lots of cool stuff, because Summer is an avid collector but Carlson is a minimalist.
So I'll bet that means there's lots of interesting things to look at but it's nice and neat and never cluttered; there's probably great music going at all times and something good to drink and good smells wafting all around...
Wait. I have been to the home of Summer and Carlson, because I've been to both of their restaurants, the one in Seward but also the one in Bay City, Wisconsin and I'll be damned if I've ever felt more at home in any restaurant, ever, in my life.
Gracious doesn't begin to describe the experience of drinking and dining with them. Had a little too much to drink? They'll offer to call you an Uber. And then, pour you another glass of a luscious winter Sangria.
Their success lies very much in this hospitality ethic: "I don't want to sit at home tonight," says Carlson as she hands me that glass. "I want to make people happy with food. It's what I love to do."
Such statements sounds like so much lip service in today's ever-awash-in-new- restaurants dining landscape.
But, how many times have you been told "no" in a restaurant? No, you can't sit down a little early; no, they don't have your favorite dish; no you can't have a side of sauce; no, no, no.
Not here. The service ethic has always been great hospitality.
"Even if you're just eating off of a food truck," says Summer.
So now that they've got one foot on the food truck and one foot off -- with two restaurants plus the trucks -- that hospitality plays out in lots of different ways. Did you know that you can buy their famous donuts right out of a window at the back of the Chef Shack Ranch every Saturday morning at 9 a.m.?
Generally, there's already a line.
"If we're a little late, people bang on the windows, and then I start giving bags away to people who waited. We've got two backup machines now in case one breaks, because there is no 'not having the donuts'. People freak out. People cry. People are emotionally attached to these donuts."
They sell about 300 bags every Saturday alone.
Which may sound like a lot of cash, but when I ask how their lives have most changed since they went from nearly a decade of food truckin' to the proud owners of two restaurants? The bills are bigger.
"Now, instead of something being $500, its $5,000 dollars," says Carlson.
Wouldn't they have known such a thing would happen, considering their collective five decades in the biz previous to now? "You don't concern yourself with those things when you're just an employee."
Other things they have to concern themselves with: how to create an affordable build out, how best to keep employees happy so they will stay, month after month, year after year (turns out it's easier to retain them in a restaurant; when they had to let some cooks fly away after food truck season sometimes they came back to the coop, but sometimes they didn't), hidden costs, lease negotiations, and a few hundred thousand other things.
They also have to concern themselves with a sudden lack of passport stamps. Used to be, when the snow flew, they'd park their big red trucks and then fly off themselves: to India, to Thailand, to Mexico, to NYC. Wherever they wanted, usually for four months at a time. They remind us they're not rich. Just savvy. And they did it for the love.
"We travel like backpackers." Backpackers with an eye for art -- a few pesos bought them the colorful day of the dead flags that hang in their Seward space along with hundreds of other little details to look at. Charming as it is, it's no accident.
"Just paint, and put your tchotchkes on the wall. And clean really well." It's how they managed to turn over the old Indian restaurant on Franklin where the Ranch now resides -- there's no trace left of the fluorescent lights, industrial furniture, or buffets that establishment left behind.
It's one way they saved themselves from yet another big bill. They feel like they should give a class to new restaurateurs on how to save a bundle.
While they hope to get back to that travel schedule sometime in the future, the thing about it was, they kind of had to open a restaurant. The cost of renting kitchen space with no retail just got to be too expensive. And now, naturally, they've got a built-in kitchen for their food truck business, which unlike some food truckers who go brick-and-mortar, they're keeping.
"They're roving advertisements, for one thing," said Summer. "They're great for brand recognition. They're big, they're red, they make donuts."
It's notable that the couple seems to spend roughly every waking moment together. When they're not working, they're traveling, and when they've got some rare time off, they're dining out around town.
"We rarely ever argue," assures Carlson. "But I don't recommend people work with their partners."
So, how do they make it work?
"We communicate calmly and respectfully when things get stressful." but, more notably: "Chef [she's referring to Carlson now] has always been first in command. I really answer to her. She hired me on as her sous chef at Barbette, so it's always sort of been that way, in the brigade system sense."
Got that folks? When your partner gets fired up just repeat these words: "Yes, chef!"
You might think of them as the ladies with the best mini donuts in town and some fine smoked brisket, but they've both got stars and stripes to spank any chef in town. Collectively their resumes include: Morimoto and Lespinasse; and working under some of the most important chefs in the world, Daniel Humm and Gray Kunz; and then locally heading up kitchens and pastry programs at The Whitney Hotel, Spoonriver, Barbette, Cue under Lenny Russo, and on and on.
They've got French technique with the best of them. So why BBQ? Because it's regular food for regular people. "This is every person's eatery at an easy price point."
There's nothing over $25, and lots of people come by for a taco and a beer so they can get in and out for under $10. Again, when someone comes to your home do you serve them sea urchin in salsify sauce? Probably you do not, and so neither do the women of Chef Shack.
While the two constantly flit in and out of the kitchen like mother hens, they're grateful for what the staff retention means for them. "Ten years ago I wanted to be in control, but now, if I can teach my kids, and mama can step away, that's very satisfying," says Summer.
It takes time, and more time still to ensure consistency. She says she feels for people who open restaurants and right out of the gate are under pressure to get every detail right. The trucks were a training ground, so when the doors flew open on the restaurants, they were already there. The cooks can nail those biscuits without her supervision.
And they're constantly evolving.
"My brisket a year ago was a much different product," says Summer, who is resident pit master. She says she doesn't like to bombard her meat with smoke -- she wants it to still resemble what protein was when she started: "I want to know if it's beef or pork or chicken I'm eating. She finishes her meats in a "wrap" or "en papillote" to ensure moisture. "A lot of pit masters don't agree with it -- it's less showy, but I swear by it."
Showy. It's an adjective that lots of new entrepreneurs tend to gravitate toward. Gotta set yourself apart in the marketplace, right? And who can blame anyone -- it's human to crave notice. The alternative is confidence by way of restraint, modesty, and simplicity; by giving people what you know they want (donuts and meat at a fair price) instead of setting out to show of what you can do takes a long time. There's no quick return on that.
"We're successful because we're not getting too overextended. We say "no" [to new opportunities] all the time. "No, no, no, no."
Aha! So they do say no!
It's true. They keep limited hours at both places and seasonal hours in Bay City. They offer three or four entrees at a time.
"If I buy fresh fish and it doesn't all sell? I don't like that. It costs hundreds and hundreds of dollars. So we keep it tight." If they suspect a slow night, they call off the servers and do it all themselves.
"I've been cook, host, waitress, and valet all at the same time," says Summer. And they're not above calling in the help of regulars if they get in the weeds.
"We've created a lifestyle here, that's why it works."
"We're not phased by anything anymore. We take everything in stride," says Summer, talking for the both of them now as she tends to do.
What would they do if they couldn't do this?
Summer: "Collect antiques, make pom poms all day -- I just got a new scissors! And drive a Zamboni. I just want to clean that ice."
Carlson: "There's nothing else I could do."
Summer: "She'd meditate and do yoga and read books. She's a Buddha. Everybody loves Chef."
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