Eliesa Johnson
Chef/owner Alex Roberts wanted to complement his fine-dining restaurant with a café so diners could linger morning to midnight, and order a full meal or a snack.

The Reinvention of Minneapolis' Restaurant Alma

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Alex Roberts enhances his 17-year-old restaurant, adding a café, boutique hotel, and tiered kitchen service to the fine-dining landmark.
By Connie Gentry February 2017 Chef Profiles

Hospitality takes a holistic turn within a historic building nestled in the oldest riverfront neighborhood in Minneapolis, thanks to the expansion of a fine-dining destination into a daylong café and European-style boutique hotel. After leasing the space for about 14 years, Chef Alex Roberts seized the opportunity to purchase the building—knowing he wanted to augment Restaurant Alma’s high-end dinner-only service with a bakery or café that would create a neighborhood hangout of sorts from morning until late night. 

“I knew I wanted to do the café to complement the restaurant,” he says, explaining that Alma offers a three-course tasting menu seven days a week and is designed to get people to slow down, have a bottle of wine, and gather at dinner. “That has been very successful for us, but we wanted to add à la carte dining with a small bakery counter, a coffee bar, and a full cocktail program so people could order however they want, whether it’s a full meal or a snack.”

The restaurant took a brief hiatus in the fall, closing for a couple of months to facilitate the renovation and expansion, then reopening in late November with an all-day café and bar, which Roberts says is open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. during the week, and until midnight on the weekend. Alma grew its seating capacity from 60 in the former dinner-only space to as much as 160, when all available areas including the dinner restaurant and café are put to use. On the café side of the building, he also added a boutique hotel with seven well- appointed guest rooms. 

For all their finely honed details, the guest rooms were somewhat of an afterthought. “I didn’t have that idea initially,” Roberts explains. “I was inspired to create guest rooms after spending time in the space, reflecting on what to do with it, and then thinking about my time traveling and staying in small places. I realized a lot of the great restaurants of the world often have rooms, and of course a lot of old hotels and inns in Europe have dining service. So I started to consider adding guest rooms for the project and thought it would be a great extension of hospitality for us as a restaurant group.”

Early reports indicate it is just that: When Roberts talked with FSR, the café had been open four weeks, the hotel was open three weeks, the restaurant had been operating two weeks—and already the trilogy had come together in operational efficiencies and integrated services. 

“We had a wedding party that reserved all of the rooms in the hotel and they’re having a groom’s dinner in the private-dining room,” Chef Roberts says. “And now our operations are starting to flow and we see how the design and the functions of the new kitchens are really working together—so it’s a really nice time to assess how our design has transferred into operations.”

Eliesa Johnson
Restaurant Alma has three working kitchens: a production kitchen, a service kitchen, and an area dedicated to pastry and cold service.

Tiered Kitchens

In addition to the café and guest rooms, the renovation of the space also called for extensive reinvention within the kitchen operations—essentially replacing the standard one-kitchen model with three working kitchens: a production kitchen, a service kitchen, and—providing a conduit between these two spaces—an area dedicated to pastry and cold service. 

“What we did was try to create some efficiencies with the way that the restaurant kitchen and the café kitchen operate,” Roberts notes. “I was inspired by my time at Gramercy Tavern in New York City in terms of how they use the space to operate the tavern-area kitchen as well as the dining room, so our kitchens have some efficiencies with a shared pastry station, a garde manger, and cold stations that can all work together a bit.”

For a 12,000-square-foot historic building, the footprint allocated for the kitchens is fairly generous—it’s about one-third (or 2,800 square feet) of the 8,500 square feet that comprises the lower level, which houses the restaurant, café, and foodservice areas. The hotel guest rooms are on the 3,500-square-foot upper level. 

Describing the different kitchen areas, Roberts says the production kitchen in back is where all deliveries come through, where the food storage is housed, where the butchery work is done, and where the pastry and baking production as well as much of the prep work takes place. 

“For example, if the café is serving brunch on the weekend there may be someone in the back in the production kitchen roasting vegetables or peeling potatoes and getting them ready for the service kitchen,” he explains. “Things are staged through the back: bread, pastry, cooking beans, vegetable prep, as well as some sauce making or stock making. Those kinds of things are all done in the back, and then just the finishing and the service is handled in the front kitchens.”

Housed in the production kitchen are the two walk-in coolers, a walk-in freezer, the bread and deck oven, convection ovens for prep, the area for butchery, and a dish area. Before, the restaurant had only one small walk-in, and, Roberts says, “That really limited our ability to bring in any whole animal, and it limited our ability to do any type of curing or drying.” Now, with three separate walk-ins, one can be dedicated for proteins, one for produce as well as for mise en place, and one for the pastry team to stage their croissants and cookies. 

“Essentially the Restaurant Alma kitchen handles prep and service. The café kitchen  is exclusively a service kitchen. It is designed to run continuously throughout the day and be supported by the production kitchen.”

The café and restaurant run different menus, but their kitchens are joined in the middle, which Roberts describes as “kind of the dividing line.” This middle area serves as the pastry station, where bakery and pastry items are plated, and houses the cold stations where first courses, salads, and charcuterie are assembled. 

“There are separate hot lines and hoods for the restaurant and the café, and they are expedited separately, aside from pastry,” Chef Roberts says. Both the restaurant and café have their own chef leading the area. 

Many of the kitchen processes and organization were altered with the new space, but Chef Roberts kept some of the original equipment and remained loyal to the brands he trusts most. “We used everything that we could from the previous kitchen, like the old stoves. I’m a fan of Jade heavy-duty ranges and we’ve used Jade here at the restaurant since it opened, so we reconditioned the old Jade ranges that I opened with 17 years ago and put them back in the prep kitchen. We brought in some new Jade equipment for both service kitchens. We have French tops, flat tops, open burners, a Plancha cooktop, a grill, and a fryer.”

He uses a gas-powered grill with a wood-chip smoking feature, like a smoker box, but does not have a wood-fired oven. “It’s really exciting to have some new tools to work with, like a Plancha and a deck oven,” Roberts says. “Different equipment brings textures and flavors to food. You don’t get the same type of bread from a convection oven that you do from a deck oven, so for me as a chef, the integrity of texture and flavor that is developed from using certain pieces of equipment is really exciting to have. It allows us to cook a little differently than we have in the past.”

Eliesa Johnson
Chef Alex Roberts (center) with the restaurant's chef de cuisine, Lucas Rosenbrook, on his right, and the café's chef de cuisine, Matt Sprague, on his left.

Built-In Efficiency and Flexibility

While the expansion of hospitality services and the enhanced equipment are exciting evolutions for the chef/owner, what he is most thrilled about is the flexibility afforded by the re-invented kitchen space. “Having this ability with our equipment to run the café all day from a service kitchen that can put up the food efficiently and quickly is great. And then to have a production kitchen in back that can support it all—where you aren’t limited by having just one space to get all of your production work done, plus having to prep in the same space where you’re doing service, all of which can be really stressful especially when you’re getting low on food—it’s just really nice to have the extra space that allows us to be prepping all the time if we need to.”

The kitchens are operating at least 15 hours a day, if not more, given the extended hours of café and restaurant operation. Alma opens for dinner at 5 p.m., and the cooks are usually arriving by noon to start prepping the stations for dinner. 

“It’s very labor-intensive,” Roberts explains, “as we make everything from scratch—from our bread to our stocks. And in the great traditions of cooking, we’re trying to make as many things fresh every day as we can. The cooks on the restaurant side are essentially responsible for all of the mise en place from end to end, where the café cooks come on the line and are having prep shared with them from the production kitchen. That means there are slightly different styles of cooking, or prepping, for the different restaurants and different menus.”

The new setup also makes it easier for the restaurant to host private-dining events, a space in the back of the restaurant can be used as general seating or private dining and the production kitchen can easily double as a private-dining kitchen at night. “This gives us a lot of flexibility—and that’s what I’m most excited about,” Roberts says. 

Efficiencies are also built into the equipment, and all of the new hoods have energy-saving features, including heat sensors and variable speed fans so they are able to run from automatic temperature sensors and not run full-blast all of the time. 

Eliesa Johnson
The restaurant grew its seating capacity from 60 in the former dinner-only space to as much as 160.

“That’s a great feature,” he says, and a significant upgrade from the old fans that “would just run full-speed all of the time. Other than that, we don’t have combi-ovens, but the bread oven is a high-efficiency MIWE deck oven that uses technology to get high temperatures in the deck, but it doesn’t require a ton of energy to do that.” 

The HVAC systems have also been addressed to accommodate the open-kitchen environment and make sure the restaurant has sufficient air conditioning in the spaces so that enough air circulates to maintain the kitchens at a comfortable temperature during service. 

“It gets really hot in the summer and cold in the winter in Minnesota, so we will see how it performs then, but we made it a point in our build-out to address the HVAC output and the exchange of air between the open kitchen and dining room,” Roberts says. 

They have also begun to operate more efficiently via cross-utilization of staffing, where workers are trained to work in multiple areas. For example, the front-of-house manager is responsible for both areas during the dinner service, floating between the café and fine-dining space to help the dining room on each side. An innkeeper position was created to manage the guest rooms, but works closely with the host staff “to welcome all guests and handle all customer relationship duties,” Roberts explains, “because we have one entry where all guests come through, so either our host or our innkeeper is the first face to hospitality in our building.”

In the kitchens, the pastry chef is responsible for all pastries, baking, and bread for the whole operation, including service for both the café and the restaurant. “We’re starting to cross-train stations a bit so they can help each other in busy times, or—when it’s 20 below in January and it’s quiet—you can contract a little bit and not bore your staff to death,” Roberts says. “We’re doing this for the economic reasons as well, since it helps us stay healthy and resilient as a business.”