Reasons to visit the epicenter of municipal governance are pretty limited, and usually have nothing to do with eggs.
City Council meetings are sparsely attended. City Hall marriages (ideally) only happen once in a lifetime and, well, a limited entourage is kinda the point. Beyond that, folks usually only end up at City Hall if you’re 1) in trouble, 2) trying to wiggle out of said trouble, or 3) working for The Man.
Then one day a kindly, diligent tipster hinted that a little shop called the Chewery might just be worth a trip to City Hall on its own. They included lofty proclamations like, “hands down the best breakfast sandwich I've ever had,” and “it would never have occurred to me to look to City Hall for amazing food, but damned if they don't have something truly spectacular going on in that little kitchen.” Still, we couldn’t help but be skeptical.
And yet they were right.
The Chewery is owned and run by Lori James. Come April, she’ll have been serving outstanding breakfast sandwiches from the “Breakfast Boogie Bites” menu and “Dynomite Sandwiches” for two years.
“Everything you see, we came up with on our own, like the Brickhouse, the Jive Turkey—they’re all ’70s words. The Fancypants? It just kind of makes you feel good,” said James.
She and her daughter, Aqueelah Hysten, work like a tag team to prepare sandwiches to order beginning at 6:30 a.m. weekday mornings, including the uber-popular #1. This breakfast feast of a sandwich is made with egg, pecan-smoked bacon, and maple cheddar, and arrives ooey-gooey on an onion-cheddar bialy with their house maple aioli oozing out the sides.
This sandwich is every bit as good as billed, and the reason the Chewery has devotees.
The pecan and maple bring an unexpected sweet element that most breakfast sandwiches lack, without being overbearing thanks to a tang of cheddar and a little pop from the onion in the bun. It’s also nearly the size of a Big Mac, costs less than $6, and is available all day (or until they run out of eggs). It comes wrapped in gilded foil that makes you feel you’re holding a prize from the Golden Goose herself, and with a thick stack of napkins you'll need.
The Chewery isn’t easy to find. They have no website or social media presence. The people who love it likely first learned about it through word of mouth (just like us).
Located on the “ground floor” (code for basement), the Chewery is tucked behind the grand staircase near… nothing, past the Father of Waters statue, maybe in the same ballpark as the Hennepin County Sheriff’s civil filing office. The Chewery might not have windows, but it does have what’s surely the only two-foot-wide, sanctioned peace sign in City Hall.
The story of this mirage of a breakfast nook began nearly three years ago, when James found herself strolling through City Hall with a friend who was a mail carrier, remarking at how the place had changed.
“Goodness sakes, this is a shell! Everybody’s so stoic and straight-faced in City Hall… I could try for this place," she recalls saying, "make it into a breakfast joint—’70s [theme] of course, because I grew up in the ’70s—and try to bring camaraderie back to City Hall.”
By following through, James became the first African-American woman to own and operate a restaurant in City Hall. Monumental as that is, James may take even greater pride in knowing her customers’ names and sowing goodwill every day, one astoundingly good breakfast sandwich at a time.
Need an example? In the middle of telling the Chewery’s origin story, James didn’t just shout hello to a customer by name; she went so far as to ask how their work’s been going, which topic that day’s chamber council presentation would cover, and encouraged them to keep their “spiritual boxing gloves ready.”
In this way, the Chewery truly is a time warp. People talk to each other. Jams from the ’70s drift through the air. Smiles abound.
“I treat everyone the same, from a homeless person to the mayor. No one gets treated better. I wake up every day and look forward to it,” beams James. “I just love people.”
Go get a sandwich (any sandwich—though we, and apparently all of City Hall, are partial to the #1) and see what we’re talking about. But be forewarned: Give yourself an extra five minutes to gab.
401 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis
Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.