Calhoun refectory becomes new restaurant

Lowry Hill couple with bistro bloodlines embarks on fish mission

The Tin Fish -- which will turn the Calhoun refectory into a new fish-and-seafood restaurant --

will open May 15.

Run by Lowry Hill residents Sheffield and Athena Priest, the refectory will continue to sell its standard fare of popcorn and ice cream, they said. The Tin Fish will add a variety of fish and seafood items, including $1.99 fish sandwiches, fish tacos, $14.95 halibut, scallop, salmon or walleye platters (with fries and coleslaw) plus daily specials.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board owns the refectory and has tried for years to increase its profitability. This change has meant four different managers in four years.

Steve Buchal, Park Board manager of special services, said the Park Board has been looking for something that would make the refectory "more of a destination."

In December, the Park Board originally sought proposals for 2005, but when the Priests' one competitor withdrew, the Board offered the couple a chance to start a year earlier than planned.

They leapt at the chance, but not without the new business jitters.

"If we weren't [nervous], that would be troublesome, given the timeframe," Sheffied (call him Sheff) Priest said. "We have the nervous energy thing that wakes us up at night."

Fish out of water?

Sheff and Athena Priest seem an unlikely duo to open a restaurant. They both have eclectic backgrounds (a term they take as a compliment).

Sheff once tutored at Powderhorn Community School, 3328 Elliot Ave. S., and now works as a shipping department manager for Light & Life Books, a publisher of religious books, his r/sum/ said.

Athena (known to friends as "Nouli," Greek for little Athena) is a physical therapist at St. Paul's Regions Hospital.

She works in the therapy pool with people with arthritis and other chronic conditions, she said.

Between 1999 and 2001, the Priests worked for Project Mexico, a Tijuana-based program similar to Habitat for Humanity run by the Orthodox Church. They lived in the San Diego area during that time, not far from The Tin Fish restaurant on the Imperial Beach pier.

"They used to walk out on the pier," recalled restaurant owner Joseph Melluso. "One day, I called out to them and said, 'You guys look like you are in love.' They came in and we chatted."

The Priests would occasionally stop by and began helping Melluso when The Tin Fish got busy with a catering job, he said.

"We would always feed them," Melluso said. "We gave back the same love and respect that they would show us, and we became friends."

The Priests eventually moved back to Minneapolis. They started eying the refectory and thinking it could offer more to area residents, they said. They approached Don Siggelkow, a Park Board assistant superintendent, in late 2002 and asked if they could run it.

The Priests are getting significant advice from Melluso, now their business partner.

The Tin Fish, with two San Diego outlets, is only five years old, but Melluso said he has done similar restaurants for over two decades. He recently bought the Boston Maine Fish Company, with restaurants in Boston and San Diego, he said.

He wants to expand The Tin Fish market.

"Our goal is to be national and international," he said. "This is our first national deal."

Melluso is not named in the Park Board contract, only the Priests. He is helping them with recipes, contract negotiations and national fish-buying contacts, he said. He is also helping with training. Sheff's younger brother Simeon "Sim" Priest, a 2002 South High grad, has flown to San Diego to learn at The Tin Fish.

"I will be there opening week," Melluso said. "I will be there for whatever weekends are needed for them to say, 'We got it. It is wonderful. We have had enough training and support.'"

All in the family

The Priests both have Greek blood and restaurant connections. Sheff Priest, fourth-generation Kenwood, said he counts among his ancestors great grandfather Christ Legeros, who in 1919 opened the Rainbow Caf/ at West Lake Street and Hennepin Avenue. The caf/ stayed in the family for six decades.

St. Paul native Athena (maiden name Nickitas), said the owners of the St. Clair Broiler, 1580 St. Clair Ave., adopted her family, and when she was growing up, the restaurant served as her babysitter.

Jim S. Theros, owner of the St. Clair Broiler and other area restaurants, credits Athena's father with encouraging him to get into the restaurant business. "They will do a hell of a job," he said of the Priests. "The secret they have is they are from Greek descent. Greeks enjoy the restaurant business."

The Priests plan to add some old Rainbow items to the Tin Fish menu, perhaps the Rainbow burger or macaroni au gratin. People who know they are working on a new restaurant are already requesting the Rainbow's lamb and beans, Athena said.

Of course, The Tin Fish's main thing will be fish.

Low-cost items include the $1.99 fish sandwiches (that's two pieces of lightly breaded cod on a toasted sesame bun splashed with tarter sauce and a mild house hot sauce, Melluso said) to the fish and chips and the platters.

"For people who are into health-conscious eating, we do very fresh lean grilled seafood, no fat," he said.

Refectory's future?

The Priests have started shopping for new patio equipment to replace the refectory's industrial picnic tables, they said. For starters, they bought 10 tables and 40 tubular steel-framed chairs with mesh seats, similar to those used by Dixie's Calhoun, 2739 W. Lake St.

They plan bigger changes for the coming years -- adding a wine and beer license or wireless Internet access. They also want to install glass French doors in the archways around the refectory. It would protect inside seating from cold weather while maintaining the view, extending the dining season.

(Currently, the only way to enclose the space is with what could be best described as a pull-down garage door.)

The wine, beer and glass doors are down-the-road changes, however, the Priests said. They want to start slow and build community trust.

"We view ourselves as stewards of that facility on behalf of the city," Sheff Priest said.

The deal

Siggelkow said the Priests have "more experience than anyone we've had [run the refectory previously]" and touted their enthusiasm.

Said Buchal, "I like the concept they are bringing forward. The fact that it has worked successfully elsewhere bodes well for the concept."

The Park Board gave The Tin Fish a five-year contract, expiring Dec. 31, 2008, with three three-year extensions if The Tin Fish meets refectory reinvestment goals. The contract also allows the restaurant to operate mobile vending carts around Lake Calhoun.

The contract has a sliding-scale profit- sharing plan, which gets phased in over the first three years. Based on gross revenues not counting sales tax, The Tin Fish will pay the Park Board 8 percent of the first $150,000 in 2004, 9 percent in 2005 and 10 percent in subsequent years.

The Tin Fish will pay the Park Board 12 percent of gross revenue between $150,000 and $250,000; 15 percent of gross revenue between $250,000 and $450,000 and 17 percent of gross revenue exceeding $450,000.

The Tin Fish's initial proposal projected $150,000 in sales in 2004, increasing to $250,000 in 2006. Under that scenario, the Park Board would get $12,000 in 2004 and $27,000 in 2006.

In addition, The Tin Fish will operate the Park Board's canoe, pedal boats and kayak rentals, getting 28 percent of revenue. Siggelkow estimates those rentals would reach $100,000 this year, or $72,000 for the Park Board and $28,000 for The Tin Fish.

The Tin Fish contract reduces Park Board expenses. Under previous contracts, the Park Board has paid for the refectory's utility bills and trash removal. Under the new deal, The Tin Fish will pay for those costs, as well as for any new kitchen equipment.

"I am confident that we will do better in the first year of the contract than we have done in any recent years," Buchal said.

The contract requires The Tin Fish:

  • To operate between April 15 and Memorial Day, at a minimum. (This year is an exception because of the last-minute contract. The Park Board will open the refectory first, selling popcorn and ice cream, until The Tin Fish moves in May 15.)

  • To be open at least 11 a.m.-7 p.m. April 15-Memorial Day. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the minimum hours are 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday.

  • Get Park Board approval for all signage.