Menu Makers

Meet eight restaurateur Tommies who want to whet your appetite

Life as a restaurateur is not for the weak of mind, spirit or stomach. The work is grueling, generally requiring a minimum of 60 hours a week, usually more. Owners must have an unflappable work ethic and relentless passion – day in and day out – because they are responsible for the livelihood of their staffs, the quality of their menu and the balancing of their books. And if a waiter decides at the last minute to not show up for a shift, guess who has to cover it? And that’s just for starters.

The payoff, however, is big: They love what they do. At least that’s overwhelmingly what the owners of the six restaurants profiled here had in common. As it happens, all of the restaurants profiled are independently owned Twin Cities establishments.

More than a dozen ambitious St. Thomas alums have taken the plunge, forgoing the typical nine-to-five, punch-in/punch-out work week for the unpredictable, bustling, high stakes lifestyle of a restaurant owner. Some Tommie-run Twin Cities establishments you might have heard of or dined at are Davanni’s, DeGidio’s Restaurant and Bar, O’Gara’s Bar and Grill, The Nook, Casper’s Cherokee Sirloin Room, Shamrocks, Tavern on the Avenue, Sparky’s Café, Tiffany’s Sports Lounge and Ray J’s American Grill.

In the following pages you’ll hear from the young proprietor of a thumping Uptown bar/restaurant and a suburban wood grill; two supper club owners – both of beloved landmarks – one in downtown Minneapolis, the other on St. Paul’s chummy West Seventh Street; the owner of a cozy eatery in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District; the owner of an eclectic café in burgeoning Northeast Minneapolis; and a father and mother of six who own two down-to-earth St. Paul bars and grill.

You’ll get a sense of what makes all of their businesses – whether it’s a 60-year mainstay or a fledgling urban lounge – successful. All of the Tommies profiled here expressed a deep appreciation for their customers, a commitment to serving their communities and a dedication to hard work.

We've loaded this map with the Tommie-owned restaurants we know about.  If there's one we missed, leave us a comment below and we'll add it to the mix.

View Larger Map

Wilde Roast Cafe, Tom DeGree, co-owner (photo above)

Tom DeGree brings a lot more than just steaming hot lattés and gourmet pizzas to his business, the Wilde Roast Cafe, in Northeast Minneapolis. A full-time elementary teacher for St. Paul Public Schools, DeGree embraces the vital role his business plays in the local community.

“We see ourselves as part of three different communities: the Northeast business community, the neighborhood locals and a safe destination point during the dinner hours. This is a place where everyone can come,” he said.

A ’92 alumnus of UST’s graduate program in education, DeGree said, “the knowledge of how to build communities came from being a teacher, and that piece I translate to working here.” He continued, “If you don’t build … community within your classroom, you’re not giving those kids a reason to be there. I realize that [for] a lot of people, that’s a piece that’s missing – their connectedness.” As such, he makes an effort to get to know his customers and make networking connections, which to him is an important part of community building.

DeGree sees his part in helping to rebuild Northeast Minneapolis as instrumental to the business’ success. In the recent past he has organized fundraisers for Camp Heartland and Clare Housing, two local organizations working for people living with HIV/AIDS.

DeGree, who co-owns Wilde Roast with his partner, Dean Schlaak, also tries to promote a sense of community among the staff. Of the 20 staff they employ, five have been with the café since it opened in March 2004.

Seeking professional advice while developing a business plan, DeGree approached St. Thomas’ Morrison Center for Enterpreneurship, which recommended that he give the café a theme. “I figured the Victorian look hadn’t been done [in local cafés],” he said. From there, he brainstormed for a person who captured the humor and style of that era, someone who personified both “literary and fun aspects.” OscarWilde, the legendary Irish writer, fit the bill.

Rich wood tones and velvety textures take diners back to the turn-of-the-century. Every aspect of theWilde Roast’s interior design, from the English pub lighting fixtures to the mahogany fireplace, is either an antique from the era or a reproduction.

With a full menu, including gourmet pizzas, hot and cold sandwiches and a slew of brunch dishes, the Wilde Roast Cafe is not just a coffee house but a full-fledged restaurant. Having originally conceived Wilde Roast as a coffee house, DeGree and Schlaak changed their minds at the 11th hour and decided to serve a full dinner menu, which meant operating with a kitchen plan based on a coffee shop. “We’re no bigger than the kitchen at Dunn Brothers,” DeGree said.

All their efforts seem to have paid off. Wilde Roast has received numerous awards, including Best Barista, Best Business Owners and – for four consecutive years – Best Café from Lavender magazine, and other honors from or mentions in City Pages, Star Tribune, Minnesota Monthly, Northwest Airlines’ World Traveler and Mpls/St.Paul. The most lavish accolade of all, however, may be the September 2006 cover of Bon Appétit, on which the cafe’s flourless chocolate cake, “La Bête Noire,” was featured.


The Independent and Maverick's Wood Grill, James Nelson, owner

When James Nelson, 35, says “I’m such a kid,” at first you’re inclined to believe him. With his hair gelled up in a “fauxhawk” and playful sneakers on his feet, you might not suspect he spends 60-70 hours a week operating two restaurants: Uptown’s The Independent, which he opened shy of his 30th birthday, and Maverick’sWood Grill in Champlin.

Nelson remembers the day he applied for a liquor license for The Independent. He was 27. The city official asked him, not unjokingly, for a note from his parents and to talk to his boss.

A self-described “customer-service person,” Nelson has never been short on ambition or initiative. At 14, he began his career in the restaurant industry as an Embers waiter before moving on to Applebee’s, helping to open stores, when he was 18. From there, he forged his way into the Minneapolis restaurant circuit, waiting tables at and/or managing urban hot spots such as D’Amico Cucina, Bryant Lake Bowl and Barbette.

“I was very blessed to work with some of the best restaurateurs in the city, growing up. They took me under their wings as a young go-getter who obviously loved the restaurant world and taught me a lot,” he said. In fact, Nelson worked 60 hours a week managing restaurants while he attended St. Thomas part time, eventually graduating in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. “I wasn’t the typical St. Thomas student,” he noted with a laugh.

Nelson transferred from Bethel College to St. Thomas in the middle of his sophomore year because he knew it to be the best school for small business. “It was a good move in retrospect. [My professors] helped me tailor my bigger business projects and marketing projects to the world I was going to go to.”

He credits his strong financial and small business background, his commitment to organic and local ingredients and his dedication to keeping his staff happy as the keys to his success.

“It’s been a really tough five years since we opened…[but] we can stay in touch with our staff and keep up with the politics of our neighborhood and make changes. Every quarter we look at what we do best, what we can do to improve, what the market is doing…and we can subtly change very quickly.”

It was his reputation for running a strong, independently operated restaurant that encouraged the city of Champlin to seek Nelson’s expertise in bringing a similar venture to the suburbs. Both Nelson and his wife, Jane, who helps with the bookkeeping and menu, grew up in the northern suburbs, so he was open to the idea. Maverick’s, which specializes in wood-grilled steaks, burgers and fresh seafood, opened in November 2007. Nelson judged its first year as “so far, so good.”

Nelson sees small business as a lifelong pursuit, saying “Even on a day that’s busy or tough, I love what I do, and that alone makes it totally worth it.” For now he’s toying with the idea of a third restaurant but is keeping an eye on the economy. He also would like to teach small business classes someday.

The Independent was lauded for Best Happy Hour by Minnesota Monthly in 2007 for its generous appetizers and two-for-one drinks, and has been featured on Best Martini lists in Allure and Cosmopolitan magazines.


Mancini's Char House and Lounge, Pat and John Mancini, co-owners

When asked what has kept Mancini’s Char House and Lounge successful the last 60 years, Pat Mancini ’82, co-owner with his brother John, an ’88 alum, said, “We’re a family-run business that has taken a personal stake in what we do and how we do it.”

For the Mancini brothers, that means maintaining the business in the spirit of their father, the late Nick Mancini. Nick was a poor, Italian immigrant who opened the restaurant on West Seventh Street in St. Paul as a 3.2 bar in 1948 and ran it tirelessly until a few years before his death in 2007. “Our mission is to be customer-focused, which was my dad’s forte,” Pat said. “My dad was constantly on the floor – seven days a week, 70 hours a week.” From humble beginnings, during which they sold only sandwiches and beer, Mancini’s grew into the St. Paul landmark it is today, serving a small, simple menu of hearty fare – mostly its famous grilled steaks and seafood – and serving as a neighborhood leader, another integral part of their success.

Pat believes that “a strong community makes a strong restaurant.” In this vein, they make a point of reaching out to the local community in such ways as honoring St. Paul athletes (which Mancini’s Sports Hall of Fame has done since 1985), donating bread to local community centers and shipping free steaks to U.S. soldiers serving in Kosovo and Iraq as part of the Serving Our Troops organization, a group comprised of St. Paul based restaurants. John also serves on St. Paul’s Business Review Council. Pat says his dad knew that in order to survive, “[the community] needs great leadership and the neighborhoods to be strong and vibrant.”

Both brothers have worked in the restaurant since they were teenagers, doing such duties as loading beer into the coolers and working the floor. During this time, their dad taught them through his actions to “knock yourself out for the customer, treat everyone equally and make them feel like they’re a part of Mancini’s,” advice they still bring to work each day.

John and Pat both put in 60-plus hour work weeks, each doing a little bit of everything, although John is more “up front,” working directly with their customers, while Pat handles most of the bookkeeping and marketing. Their mother, Mary Ann, works in the office two days a week. Also, one of Pat’s sons bartends and his daughter, a student at the College of St. Catherine, waits tables.

Pat said Mancini’s clientele ranges in age from 26 on up and about 60 percent are regulars: “I can’t tell you how many 80th birthdays we’ve done in the past week.” Perhaps it’s the high-quality grills, which lock in meat juices, or it’s the old-school supper club setting that the restaurant gets right. Nick Mancini was fond of the Rat Pack era in Las Vegas, which the deep colors, dim lighting and low, round lounge chairs reflect. In 1986, Mancini’s added a stage, too.

Mancini’s was selected by the Minnesota Restaurant Association as the recipient of its first Minnesota Restaurant of the Year award in 2007.


Sapor Café, Julie Steenerson, co-owner

Having Lucia Watson, the namesake owner of Uptown’s beloved Lucia’s Restaurant and Wine bar, as a career coach of sorts wasn’t the only thing Julie Steenerson had going for her early in her career. Steenerson, co-owner of Sapor Café in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District, also had a fierce passion for the industry and food. But she understood that passion alone would not be enough to start, let alone maintain, a successful business.

In 1996, armed with a vision of opening her own restaurant, she left her job in financial services and enrolled in St. Thomas’ MBA program, graduating in venture management in 1999. Around the same time, she scheduled an informational interview with Watson, who hired her on the spot. “I learned the business from the ground up,” she said. By day, Steenerson worked at Lucia’s, typing menus, managing the “front of the house” and helping with the bookkeeping and wine selections; by night she practiced selling her business plan to her classmates.

“I learned what kind of leader I was,” she recalled about her education and training.

At St. Thomas, Steenerson realized that “I knew very much that I wanted to get out of the large corporate structure, and I wanted to establish my own guidelines for how a business should be run.”

And how is that? Steenerson describes Sapor, which means “taste” or “flavor” in Latin, as “very inviting … there isn’t any pretense about dining in our space.” The menu, which includes miso salmon and southern-style macaroni and cheese, changes seasonally to ensure the highest quality ingredients and reflects the global palate of Steenerson and co-owner/executive chef, Tanya Siebenaler.

Moreover, she emphasizes, “This is a lifestyle business. That’s how I set it up. That was my goal.” Steenerson works seven shifts a week, predominantly working the front of the house, and is responsible for the office management. Over the Monday lunch shift, she and Siebenaler run Sapor completely by themselves for the sole purpose of staying connected to their customers and the needs of the restaurant.

Although she admittedly has a hard time not thinking about the restaurant (and with a slim staff, rarely takes vacations), Steenerson gushes that she can’t imagine doing anything else. Well before attending St. Thomas, she had plotted a plan of owning her own business, and now that is what makes her the most proud. “The point wasn’t to sell it and make a lot of money, but to do something I was committed to, that I was excited to do every day.”


Plums and J.R. Mac's, Dan and Patty McQuillan, co-owners 

With six kids to raise – from an infant to a junior-high student – and two St. Paul restaurants to run – Plums Neighborhood Bar and Grill on Snelling and Randolph, and West Seventh Street’s down-to-earth, green-booth-swathed J.R. Mac’s Bar & Grill – Dan and Patty (Mahoney) McQuillan have a lot on their plates.

The McQuillans, who met while undergraduates at St. Thomas, have roots in both restaurants, as both establishments were previously owned by Dan’s father, Jim McQuillan. As a kid, Dan worked at McIn’s (now Plums), cooking and cleaning, until he was 17. The elder McQuillan sold McIn’s in 1983, and the new owner renamed it Plums. When the owner was ready to sell it in 1989, he called Dan, who snatched up his dad’s former place. Five years later, Dan bought J.R. Mac’s from his father.

An ’86 economics graduate from St. Thomas, Dan admits that juggling his family life around two restaurants is “getting harder and harder all the time. [Patty and I] try to at least get out alone a little bit, but it’s a struggle. Kids these days have so many activities.” Still, he says, “keep[ing] up with the kids and whatever they’re doing” is one of their favorite pastimes. In the fall Dan also coaches football at Cretin-Derham Hall, and in the summer he coaches Little League baseball.

Patty, who earned her B.A. from St. Thomas in 1987 and later a master’s in education, helps out periodically, but mostly she stays at home with the kids.

Dan, 44, now works between 50 and 60 hours a week, a downshift from the 100-plus hour weeks typical of his first 10 years in the business. In running a restaurant, he has  learned that “the pros and cons are basically the same. [The hours] are flexible, but they require you to be there all the time.”

At the same time, he feels the demanding and high-responsibility nature of owning a restaurant does not come without its merits. He takes great pride in having a personal stake in every aspect of keeping the businesses running. Despite having 40 employees between the two restaurants, Dan says he does everything from fixing refrigeration to doing the payroll. “You have to be a jack of all trades,” he emphasizes. “If things go wrong, all you can do is blame yourself. And if things go well, [you can praise yourself].”

The secret to their longstanding success? “We don’t try to be everything to everybody. Mac’s is more of a local, neighborhood place. Plums is similar, but obviously because of the locale, we get more of a college crowd there.”

Like the pros and cons of owning his own business, the loyalty of his patrons is above all a plus but is bittersweet. “A regular customer becomes like family. We used to get around 20 guys who would come in [to J.R. Mac’s] every day on their way home for happy hour after work. Eighteen of those guys are now dead. That’s a hard thing. We’ve been in it long enough to watch a lot of good customers pass away.” He guesses that around 90 percent of J.R. Mac’s business is regulars, 70 percent at Plums.


Murray's Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, Pat Murray, co-owner

Pat Murray, 68, knows a thing or two about business. He had two incredible teachers: his parents, Art and Marie, founders of downtown Minneapolis’ landmark steakhouse, Murray’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge.

Murray began working in the family business at 16 as a dishwasher. Over the years, his parents doled out more responsibility, and in 1968 he was made a coowner.

Now the patriarch of this favorite spot for “top-shelf” businesspeople, local celebrities and prom-night revelers, Murray spends only three to four hours a day at the restaurant these days. The majority of his work hours are devoted to Service Ideas, a restaurant supply manufacturing business also founded by his father. One of the company’s better-known products, the thermal, insulated plastic coffee pitcher, was invented by his dad.

“If you’re an independent business, it’s a hands-on business… we do things our way,” Murray said.

Murray’s way is butchering meats on site to ensure the highest quality cuts, keeping customers and staff loyal and staying involved with the community.

“My dad used to say ‘whatever’s good for Minneapolis is good for Murray’s,’” he notes proudly. With that motivation, Murray has been a longtime fixture on local committees, including the Minneapolis Downtown Council, the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce and the board of the Minneapolis Convention and Visitors Association.

Murray’s restaurant also is a true family-run business. Murray’s five children are all equal stakeholders and co-owners of Murray’s, along with Murray himself. Three of them operate and manage the restaurant, although Murray stops in to check “the numbers” each day. He also has a son-in-law who works in the office.

Although he never graduated from St. Thomas or earned a college degree, he credits the university for teaching him the principles of business. As a St. Thomas Military Academy student who had drill practice in the university’s armory building every day, he remembers, “I knew St. Thomas to be a top-quality school.” But after two and a half years of studying business – back when tuition was $730 per semester, he recalls with a laugh – Murray left St. Thomas to get married and further immerse himself in the family business. “This is a direct-work business, and I felt it was important to start working right away,” he said.

The 1950s-style supper club, with its low lights, striped curtains and pink linen tablecloths, has remained the way Murray’s parents built it in 1948 and is recognized for its award-winning Silver Butter Knife Steak, a 28-ounce strip sirloin that is carved tableside – its top-selling menu item. Many of the meats are seasoned with the same seasoning his mother concocted in the restaurant’s early days. But don’t ask Murray what’s in it; it’s a secret.

One secret Murray will reveal, however, is what it takes to make it in the restaurant business, all qualities he picked up from his mom and dad: passion, energy and a willingness to work long hours.

With 60 years of success under their belts, the Murrays are doing something right.


Next in St. Thomas Magazine