You will have to dine sans music at Byte, an ambitious new restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. A sound system is one of the features Travis Shaw and Mark Lowman had to do without when opening.
The two career chefs have instead focused on making Byte a restaurant where every employee starts out making $15 an hour. They also wanted full-time employees to get full benefits including health care, paid vacation, and overtime pay. And they strove to do it in a way that was also affordable for the customer.
That dream is now a reality, in the old Foxfire Lounge space on First Avenue. They’ve been open a week. How are they faring?
Aside from the lack of musical accompaniment, pretty good.
It’s a counter service operation, in which everyone behind that counter has to be nimble, taking orders, filling beverages, cooking, and delivering food. And it seems to run pretty smoothly considering the infancy of the place. Food arrives quickly.
In addition to counter service, one of the the methods for keeping costs under control is menu crossover. So, you’ll find chicken in one of the appetizers, two of the salads, two of the wraps, and one of the rice bowls. Black vinegar pork appears in two of the preparations, and flank steak in three. It is noticeable, and it’s probably something they’re going to have to amend if they want to get a lot of repeat business. One attribute Minnesota diners are known for is wanting choice. And while we’ve gotten better about not running out the door like the tablecloth has caught fire when we see fewer than 15 menu items offered, these guys will want to prove that they have a repertoire.
I liked what I tasted — the black vinegar pork in the banh mi was warm and piquant and made a comforting sandwich out of fresh, crisp baguette with nicely pickled carrots and daikon. A tabbouleh salad made with quinoa was a fresh, healthy option if a bit lacking in vinaigrette. It was somewhat unfortunately served on a pizza pan, which they’ll want to fix. You don’t want to eat anything off of a pizza pan that isn’t pizza.
Byte is a no-tipping restaurant, an experimental payment system that some restaurants have been considering, some trying (and some even committing to, like Seward Coop Creamery) in light of an impending city of Minneapolis minimum-wage hike. The days of customarily expecting the consumer to supplement the low hourly wage of a server may be coming to an end around here.
But there is an option to leave a tip on the credit card interface at Byte. I opted to leave a 10 percent tip, my default gratuity when dining at counter-service places. Tipping is so ingrained in dining culture, it seems wrong not to do it, even when there is an option not to. At Byte, those optional tips will be split evenly among staff.
The space is bright, colorful, and urbane, with lots of natural light flowing through the front windows, making it a sunny place to grab lunch. Go through a graffiti-filled corridor, and in the back there’s a bar with lots of tap lines and a plethora of board games. Stay home and play games or go out and drink? At Byte you can do both.
Aside from the minor details I’ve mentioned, Byte feels pretty much like eating at any urban counter-service restaurant, U.S.A. Dishes are heavily influenced by street-food culture, with Szechuan chili chicken, curry chicken wrapped in naan, the ubiquitous Korean barbecue beef rice bowl with kimchee slaw, and that banh mi. There’s lots of good local beer on tap, and Kombucha too. The pastry case is filled with the world-class pastry work of Rose Street Patisserie.
But here’s the thing about Byte. It is different. In a highly politicized restaurant world where the conversation is all about tip credits and minimum wage hikes, here are a couple of guys who are changing the rules on their own terms.
We haven’t seen many (aside from Common Roots and the Birchwood Cafe) who wear worker's rights and benefits on their chef's coat sleeves. It’s obviously scary — Shaw and Lowman say the first week has been a filled with terror and 20-hour work days (not altogether unusual for new restaurant owners, of course). In a cruel twist of fate, a banking error had their financial institution funneling all of their profits into another member's bank account, proving that karma has no rhyme or reason whatsoever.
But they’re getting it worked out. Payroll is coming up this week, and for the first time, the two chefs will pay their employees a living wage. That’s gotta feel like a triumph.
And in the meantime, consider bellying up to the bar and supporting this place so they can get that sound system. A triumph deserves an anthem, after all.
319 First Ave. N., Minneapolis