New manager of Suburban World puts her money where her heart is
It's late morning at the Bryant-Lake Bowl (BLB), and the comforting, ocean-like sounds of bowling fill the air. Light streams in through just-washed picture windows as diners munch on late breakfasts and early lunches.
BLB owner Kim Bartmann strolls into the restaurant, apologizes for being a few minutes late, and sits down, slightly harried, for the interview.
Her phone immediately rings.
"I'm sorry," she said. "This is going to happen."
Bartmann will be called or beeped six times over the next hour - not all that surprising considering she also owns Caf Barbette (formerly Caf Wyrd) and recently took over the management of the Suburban World Theatre.
She is outfitted with all the modern-day business accoutrements - a Palm Pilot-like gizmo, a cell phone, a beeper - but Bartmann has a youthful, informal presence. She is dressed comfortably for the Minnesota winter in at least three layers, and she has a direct, unblinking gaze that widens dramatically to punctuate or accent certain phrases.
So, what does it take to be an entrepreneuse extraordinaire?"It's a sickness," she laughed. "It's definitely a way of existing with blinders where you don't take 'no' for an answer."
Revitalizing Suburban World Bartmann, who is currently leasing the Suburban World, would love to purchase the historic theater, but she said she needs more investors.
"I need to raise some money," she said. "Despite what everyone might think, I'm not rolling in cash, because I do crazy things like pay people's health insurance and sell organic food."
When she first heard the theater was available, Bartmann said she rushed right over. Like many of her friends, Bartmann had not been in the Suburban World since it was converted to a Cinema Grill.
"I've always loved that theater - it's just so cool on the inside with the stars on the ceiling and all that stuff - and although I hadn't been in there since it changed, when I heard it was for sale, I immediately thought, 'Oh, if there is anything left
to salvage, I want to figure out how to do that,'" she said.
Bartmann's vision for preserving and revitalizing the theater centers on offering programming across all genres - a space for live theater, music, performances and films -- and upscale food and wine.
"We want the theater to become a more vital part of the community, as opposed to becoming - no offense - just a Barnes and Noble or something like that," she said.
Mid-sized theaters where companies at-large can practice their craft are few and far between in Minneapolis, Bartmann said.
"Here, we can allow people to essentially market their work in our theater, to expose people to pieces of work that maybe they have not seen before," she said. "You may come to see a country western band, but you will also see a juggler, a modern dancer, a short film and a cartoon."
Bartmann's goal is no less than expanding the base of theater-goers in the Twin Cities.
"We can be involved at a community level in supporting theater work," she
said. "Because, otherwise, if we're not growing, we sort of reach a point where we're cannibalizing each other."
Her vision has already been partially realized at the theater, but Bartmann said she and her crew have an uphill climb to make the theater financially viable.
"We have to put a lot of time, money and energy into building an infrastructure that can support live theater and live music," she said. "We need to build a larger stage and a greenroom. And then there are architectural challenges of working within boundaries, so we are not messing with the historical significance of the building."
An impressive rsum Bartmann opened Caf Wyrd in February of 1991, at the tender age of 27. Her only investor back then was her mother.
"I basically maxed out my mom's credit card to open it," she said.
At the time, Bartmann was a student at the University of Minnesota taking classes in Humanities, Film Theory and Philosophy and playing on the rugby team. She always thought she would become a teacher, but her plans detoured when she drove by the corner of Lake St. and Irving Ave. S. and saw a space for lease.
"I drove by on a Saturday morning and thought it would make a good spot for a coffee shop," she said. "We had Muddy Waters and Upper Crust and a few places around the U.
"It was crazy. We called the guy and were renting the space and all of a sudden - in, like, two seconds - it was opening."
The original Caf Wyrd was half the size the space is now, and there was no kitchen, so Bartmann said she made soup every morning on a hot plate on the counter.
When Bartmann opened Bryant-Lake Bowl in October of 1993, she had investors and didn't need her mother's credit cards. Whereas the search for good coffee motivated Caf Wyrd, the desire to sell good tap and bottled beers led to Bryant-Lake Bowl.
"Being a rugby player, I'm a beer snob," Bartmann said.
Bartmann said she converted Caf Wyrd to Caf Barbette last year ago because business had become stagnant and she wanted to launch another full-scale restaurant; however, she added that she wants to re-open Caf Wyrd.
"I would love to open Caf Wyrd on the Greenway," she said. "It's part of my little fantasy. As soon as I find out one way or the other what happens with Suburban World, I'm going to pursue that."
Three years ago, Bartmann embarked on one of her greatest challenges, when she put on the hat of publisher and launched Siren, a free biweekly newspaper.
It lasted about a year before it folded.
"It's a really different market," Bartmann said after a big sigh. "We were undercapitalized, and although I think we were putting out a great product, it didn't work."
Bartmann said she lost everything she had - "which is more than I thought I had," she quipped - but, ever the competitor, she said she might try her hand at publishing again sometime in the future.
"Who knows?" she said. "It's a thing. It gets into your system."
The changing face of Uptown Uptown is the perfect location for a mixed-performance venue like Suburban World, said Bartmann, because of the high density of people living there, the increased foot traffic and the new transit station.
"There's just more going on," she said. "For the last 10 years, there have been more and more people around every summer. People just descend on the area. Uptown has really become a destination point. Whereas in earlier years, people used to go to Calhoun Square or Lake of the Isles or Uptown Theater and then walk around, now people are saying, 'Let's go Uptown and see what's going on,' which I love."
The density of chain businesses in the Uptown area, though, is a little too dense for Bartmann's taste.
"It was very sad when the building on the southwest corner of Lake and Hennepin burned down and was taken over by a singular retail unit - The Gap - because it doesn't have the vitality of an urban landscape with a lot of different little storefronts," she said.
Perhaps the most disappointing turn Uptown ever took, Bartmann said, was several years ago when the business association launched an aggressive effort to drive away street musicians.
"And, then, they decided to mount
cardboard cutouts of musicians on buildings and pipe in music on little speakers that were in trees," she said.
All in all, though, Bartmann thinks Uptown and Minneapolis in general are getting better and better all the time.
"You know I'm sort of stuck in my ways," she said. "I go to Fort Snelling, I walk my dog, I go to restaurants, I go to shows - that's pretty much what I do, and those things are always getting better."
Bartmann is almost embarrassed to admit it, but she said she's never even been to Dulono's, the venerable pizza place a few blocks down the street from BLB.
"That is totally my kind of place," she said. "It's almost like I'm saving it. I only went to Murray's for the first time three years ago, and I love it. There are a million places like that in Northeast and St. Paul, on Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue.
"If you do get off the couch and go out in the city and explore, you can go two miles and feel like you've gone on a road trip."
"If you want the city to be more than what it is," she concluded, sounding exactly like the businesswoman she is, "then get off your ass and do something about it."