Why are puppets popping champagne at the Grand Cafe?

Zoomed-in detail of these fuzzy robot puppets living it up at the Grand Cafe

Zoomed-in detail of these fuzzy robot puppets living it up at the Grand Cafe Lauren Haun

If you’ve walked past south Minneapolis’ Grand Cafe in the past few weeks (or peeped their famous Instagram account), you may have noticed some adorable new additions to the (very) front of house. Furry dogs wag tails under dresses while drinking wine, and split oysters and delicate madeleines spin off of plates while animals in white jackets prod at a pot of pasta. The fluffy scene is much more Fifth Avenue holiday window display than Chuck E. Cheese (or Gigglebees for all you South Dakota kids), and it’s impressive how much cute was created with fake fur, cardboard, and the technical skill of a crew of artists.

The Grand Cafe is a critically acclaimed restaurant, both locally and nationally, and they are known as much for their impeccably created dishes as for their flair for style. Chef Jamie Malone and Chief of Operations Nikki Klocker reached out to In the Heart of the Beast in early May to discuss ideas for redecorating the giant window in the front of the restaurant, which previously housed an impressive houseplant jungle. The two from Grand Cafe provided some inspiration images and a request that dogs be incorporated in some way. (Portraits of Malone and Klocker’s pet dogs hang in the dining room of the restaurant).

Move over, Swedish Chef.

Move over, Swedish Chef. Lauren Haun

“It was a very different process from putting together a show; it was more like creating a painting,” said artist Alex Young, who served as lead on the project along with Steve Ackerman, Olli Johnson, and Pete Talbot, plus a cast of 11 additional supporting artists who helped along the way. “It has more details, much like a tableau, and it has to interact with the visual images of the restaurant. It is also very freeing not having to think about how you are going to get this puppet off stage.”

They decided to create a mirror image of the bustling restaurant with animals replacing humans by eating, sipping cocktails, smooching, and cooking it up in the kitchen. “We made a big mock-up of the window with the main architecture, where the tables were going to go, etc,” explained Ackerman, who first gained experience with robotic displays when he rehabilitated a few of the famous Jolly Troll Swedish smörgåsbord buffet’s animated trolls for Ingebretsens in 2017. From that, he cultivated skills like harvesting robotics parts from old toys and was able to re-create the simple motions of the vintage trolls.

“Pete [Talbot] and Ollie [Johnson] have experience with cranks and cans, and we used cardboard and fur to create the puppets, keeping it as simple as possible. There were very simple motors attached directly to a puppet or we used a wire to create the up and down, left and right motions.”

The process for creating the window display mirrors the attention to detail and creativity of the kitchen. The artists utilized the color scheme ideas from Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel and from the Grand Cafe’s own hip Instagram account, but the meal they ate at the cafe provided much of the visual fodder for their creation. “The dinnerware and the way the waitstaff dress, even the wallpaper has a very particular aesthetic,” remembers Ackerman.

“I created a mini replication of the egg dish that is served in an egg cup shaped like a bird’s foot, and I used a painted quail egg in the display,” said Young. She also hand-rolled each of the clay raspberries in the deserts, and the entire team participated in hand-stamping the fake floor with a woodgrain pattern while adding miniature nail studs to each floorboard.

Cordials flow for the city's fanciest puppets

Cordials flow for the city's fanciest puppets Lauren Haun

The fancy-freak-cuteness of the display is a true extension of the restaurant experience, where you can sit on the patio and a small army of well trained staff will treat you with the agreeable elegance of a theme-park princess. There are tiny brioche rolls with a perfect floret of cauliflower baked inside, served split in half so it looks like a ghost tree in a bun. A classic cheeseburger arrives on a metal pedestal, frilly with shredded iceberg lettuce and crisp batter-fried mushrooms tucked inside a crusts-off tea sandwich. At the end of the landslide of adorable plates, a marble-topped cart of amaro bottles is rolled out and there are sips from tiny crystal glasses as the sky outside edges pink, mirroring the glassware on the table. It replicates a childlike wonder that is hard to find as a cynical, battleworn adult—and somehow a warm night, illuminated by a window filled with puppets delighting in the same earthly pleasures as yourself, is the final touch to melt any hard edges that remain.

Just remember, it takes a lot of hard work to create so much easy whimsy.

A little bird told City Pages the puppets may be gone come this Sunday, so take in the puppets' full glory while you can… even if from the outside

A little bird told City Pages the puppets may be gone come this Sunday, so take in the puppets' full glory while you can… even if from the outside Sarah Brumble

Grand Cafe
3804 Grand Ave. S., Minneapolis