Minneapolis's Hell's Kitchen is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a series of events this year. One of them will be the official grand opening this weekend of its new Angel Food Bakery and Coffee Bar, in a street-level space right above its basement restaurant.
We recently sat down with Cynthia Gerdes, her husband/chef/co-owner Mitch Omer, and her daughter/pastry chef/new bakery manager Katie Gerdes to discuss a few highlights--and lowlights--from the past 10 years, the inner workings of the restaurant, their recipe for success, and some of the more challenging aspects of business ownership.
As the Minneapolis staple enters into its early tween years, the Hell's Kitchen family talks very openly about their trials and lessons learned. Cynthia Gerdes is an entrepreneur by nature, launching her first business, the highly successful Creative Kids Stuff, and then in conjunction with Omer, a veteran of the food industry, the original Hell's Kitchen, which opened just a block away from the current site in a dingy, 120-seat space on 10th Street on the fringe of downtown. She recalls Omer's frustration with the restaurant industry, which inevitably led to the decision to open Hell's Kitchen. "It came to a point where I had to tell him to put up or shut up."
To open the doors to their first location, the pair had to essentially liquidate all of their personal belongings. Omer recalls an early story involving his most cherished position: his "2001 Centennial Indian Scout" motorcycle. "Less than a month after we opened 10 years ago," he says, "I shattered my leg in a motorcycle accident, and I was laid up and on a strict diet of Oxycontin and red wine." It was then that Gerdes came to him and explained that they were shy on payroll. "I had to sell my bike," Omer says, still with a tone of sadness.
The story doesn't end there, however. "Last week, get this, after 10 years, the woman that bought it from me called and wanted to sell it back to me now. I'm going to get my bike back," he says, with evident emotion. "After 10 years, I'm finally going to get my bike back."
After having established themselves as successful restaurateurs in their first space, the Hell's Kitchen crew had run into a substantial roadblock. "Our landlords, with four years on our lease, they said, we'd really like you gone," Cynthia remembers. "We read the writing on the wall. We either get kicked out and get enough money to make the move from the buyout, or we get kicked out after four more years and have nothing -- not even a dollar."
The two set out to find a new location. After a year and a half of surfing the downtown real estate market (the two never had any intentions of leaving downtown Minneapolis), they happened to fall into the old Rossi's Steakhouse spot, in the basement of a building located on Ninth Street and Nicollet Mall. Many people scoffed at the decision to move into a basement location with zero street visibility, but Gerdes, Omer, and the staff pushed forward to create the second incarnation of Hell's Kitchen. According to Gerdes, Omer likes to say they "took a perfectly good steak house and fucked it up."
The newly established Angel Food Bakery recently opened and is preparing its official grand opening this weekend. Running the ship is Gerdes's daughter Katie. Katie, a veteran of the fashion industry (perhaps you remember her as a contestant on the popular TV show Project Runway?), has been baking for most of her life. She talks about the roots of her design and baking careers, dating back to her early Girl Scout days.
"They both kind of started in the same spot, in Girl Scouts -- which I guess sounds kind of cheesy -- but I learned how to sew in Girl Scouts, and we did baking and cooking projects in Girl Scouts," she recalls.
She cites the overly stressful nature and pressures of the fashion industry for her transition into baking. "As a baker, I get to make things and make people happy," she says.
Katie used baking to help pay for college, which included time spent at St. Paul's Cupcake on University Avenue, but getting a job at Hell's Kitchen was a bit of a challenge due to her mother's stance on working with family. Katie had been helping out a bit with some of the kitchen's baked goods and in a behind-the-scenes move was hired by Steve Meyer, another HK co-owner, to help develop the dessert program at Hell's Kitchen. Cynthia recalls telling Meyer in regard to hiring Katie, "You can't. That's in the policy," to which Meyer replied, "We don't have a policy and you know it."
The family likes to point out that the bakery wasn't started just for the sake of having a bakery. Essentially, the Hell's Kitchen kitchen had run out of room to support their operation. The bakery was a dual-purpose solution to their space problem.
To celebrate their 10 years, the Hell's Kitchen crew has a year's worth of celebratory events they're planning. Last weekend kicked off the events with a customer appreciation brunch with prizes and giveaways. Beyond the bakery opening, future festivities may include a downtown block party.