One cafe owner’s tip: know the clients

by Kane Loukas

Will students be in the mood for a New York strip steak during their evening study breaks? How ’bout some spicy sauces to pour over their entrees?
Jim Grell, co-owner of The Modern Cafe in Northeast Minneapolis and Chet’s Taverna in St. Paul, has been exploring these and other questions in the past few weeks as he gets ready to open his third restaurant, this time in the space vacated by the Emerald Cafe at the intersection of Cedar and Riverside avenues on the West Bank.
Despite Grell’s reputation as an up-and-coming restaurateur, running a profitable business in that location will surely be a challenge, which Grell readily admits. In the past four years alone, three restaurants went under — the New Riverside Cafe, Bella Luna and the Emerald Cafe. Bella Luna shut down after less than a year.
To make sure things go differently for Grell, the street-level eatery and wine bar will get a more than $50,000 face lift before its doors open in mid-August under a yet unannounced name.
The bubbler is one of several things chosen specifically because Grell thinks it will appeal to the eclectic and trendy Cedar-Riverside crowd. Tailoring a restaurant to the neighborhood is Grell’s philosophy, and, so far, it has worked.
“I lived in Northeast (Minneapolis) for 20 years,” said Grell. “I saw the neighborhood changing with lots of artist types coming in and I thought I had a good idea of what they were looking for.”
The 60s-style diner with checkered linoleum that The Modern calls home features a menu of familiar Midwestern dishes. There’s meatloaf and pot roast that appeal to the practical, working-class side of Northeast. There’s also bruschetta and sophisticated pastas to fit with the fine-arts set.
To figure out the menu and appearance of his new restaurant, Grell went and visited different restaurants in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, picking out those foods or restaurant features that attracted University customers. What he came up with is a Midwestern menu with an Asian influence. For example, a dish might include steak with a spicy Asian sauce and vegetables, a dish that Grell expects to tingle the taste buds of meat-and-potato types as well as theater-goers with more exotic palates.
Patrons can also expect an exposed kitchen area so those at the 40-seat wine bar can check out the chefs at work. Smoking will be permitted in parts of the 25-table dining room, and despite the vegetarian leanings of locals, meat-eating will be permitted throughout. “If we want to serve some rare duck breast, we certainly will,” Grell said.
The food will be slightly up-scale with relatively comfortable prices: Lunch entrees will run from $5 to $7 and dinners from $8 to $15.
But even after gathering ideas and preparing the space for business, Grell said, “we don’t go in with a real concrete plan about how it’s going to be.” Flexibility, he said, will allow the restaurant to adjust as he and his staff get a better feel for the tastes of West Bank diners.