Haute cuisine arrives on the scene with n e thyme caf Walk into n e thyme caf, a new American bistro at the corner of 43rd Street and Nicollet Avenue in Kingfield, and you are immediately struck by the chic, colorful atmosphere – especially if you were a regular of Lufrano’s, the homey red-sauce Italian restaurant which occupied the space for about 15 years and closed last year.
The eclectic wine list and menu, which fuses cuisines from a variety of cultures, puts n e thyme caf, which opened last December, in the category of a "white-tablecloth" restaurant–not many of which exist south of the 31st Street corridor and east of Lyndale Avenue in Southwest Minneapolis.
Cynthia Olson, who owns both the restaurant and the catering company Never Enough Thyme across the street, said she is not worried about marketing haute cuisine to Kingfield, a neighborhood that has experienced significant gentrification and increased property values over the last decade.
"It’s a great neighborhood," she said. "I had already seen what [the coffeehouse] Anodyne has done and how people from the neighborhood support it."
Olson said that, since opening in December, many former Lufrano’s customers have even come in to eat at n e thyme.
"Some walk in and look at the menu, but they’re really looking for pizza and red sauce," she said. "Others, like a couple we talked to in their 60s, say they loved Lufrano’s, but that they are really happy here, too."
Red tape City officials and bureaucratic red tape is the number one challenge Olson said she faced in opening a restaurant.
"It was an incredible exercise in patience," she said.
Olson, who originally intended to open the restaurant in September or October, said she approached the city licensing department in early June about obtaining a liquor license.
"They said the first step is to introduce yourself to your alderman and then go to zoning," she said.
Olson said she left a message for Brian Herron, her councilmember at the time.
"He got back to me two days before he resigned," she said.
Left without a councilmember to direct her, Olson said she was in limbo for many months through the circuitous zoning process.
"When I went through everything, the zoning committee told me to put together a big site plan, in which a lot of stuff has to be architecturally done," she said. "But the Kingfield neighborhood zoning committee told me that I would just need a variance because there had always been a restaurant there."
Olson said when she confronted the zoning department with this information, they said that a variance was sufficient.
"Why didn’t they ever tell me that then?" she said. "If you don’t know the system, you could spend thousands and thousands of dollars on a consultant – many of whom are retired from the city and hire themselves out.
"I couldn’t afford to have someone walk me through the process. You know, Target has to pay the same fees that I do for a zoning application, but they have attorneys and architects. I’m intelligent and I’ve got a business already, so if it’s hard for me, what about someone who doesn’t even speak the same language?
"It’s not a supportive process."
Olson said she finally received her liquor license and building permit in mid-October, which left the month of November to rehab and renovate the space. Although she was relieved to be able to open before the new year, Olson said she lost a lot of money during the long process.
"I’d been paying rent since July 1," she said. "It easily cost me $10,000."
Sept. 11 In the midst of dealing with the city, Olson said, the September 11 attacks happened. "Who knew what was going to be? Hotels were closing dining rooms, and restaurants were laying off staff," she said. "We had to be up and running before January, which is traditionally a pokey month. No one knew what anything was worth anymore, whether going forward with a business was a good idea."
But Olson said that n e thyme caf has for the most part emerged unscathed from the economic fallout of September 11, largely because a neighborhood restaurant draws on residents for its customer base versus a downtown restaurant which draws more heavily on tourists.
She doesn’t even need to advertise, Olson said.
"It’s a neighborhood place, and we depend on word of mouth."
Big night Olson said Dec. 6, opening night, was "insane."
"The night before the restaurant opened," she said, "I was sanding and putting oil urethane on the tables because we had used a water-based urethane and during a wine tasting for the staff, the glasses left rings on the table."
Terry Hastings, the restaurant manager, called opening night "wild and fun."
"Here we are playing restaurant," he said. "We’re making it up as we go along. All this work, and we’re thinking they’ll just trickle in, but it was like, "Boom, you’re open, let’s eat."
Hastings said that 15 minutes before opening, the restaurant didn’t even have silverware.
"It was across the street at the catering company, so we went over there and grabbed it," said Olson. "We go back and forth so much that we call the path between the two the Ho Chi Minh Trail."
Although Olson has run her catering company for more than six years, she said the restaurant business is new and exciting.
"Catering is wonderful, but there are limits and pressures," she said. "You have to carry everything out – you know, you can’t cook a meal for 100 people in someone’s kitchen.
So, you really need food that is forgiving.
"A restaurant for me is an opportunity to play in a territory I haven’t explored yet."