Fire sparks outpouring of support for lost businesses

Business owners in limbo after 50th & Bryant fire receive swift support from the community

One week after a fire destroyed three boutiques and two restaurants at the corner of 50th Street and Bryant Avenue, stunned business owners were still reeling from the loss, uncertain of their future.

Restaurants Heidi’s and Blackbird Café and retailers Patina, Shoppe Local and Stacey Johnson Jewelry Design were all lost in a matter of hours Feb. 18 when a grease fire that started in Heidi’s spread to the shared building’s attic and refused to go out despite a massive effort from Minneapolis and Richfield fire crews.   

“I haven’t stopped crying,” said Blackbird Café owner Gail Mollner, who said she spent the first week after the fire in a holding pattern, waiting for insurance information and updates on the status of the building. “I honestly have not stopped crying.”

But one thing has helped, Mollner said — a flood of community support.

Within days of the fire, community members had organized multiple meetings to discuss the incident, show support for business owners and start the process of moving forward. City staff immediately reached out to the businesses with a variety of programs to help them rebound, and local restaurants hatched a plan to band together for an unprecedented fundraising effort.

City Council member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward) said there has been no shortage of offers to help out.

“There are lots of offers coming in from all sorts of places of assistance to help them rebuild and to help keep the businesses here,” she said. “My office is compiling all those and letting business owners know we have the resources when they’re ready. It’s a little precipitous now to talk about what the options are before they know structurally what’s happening with the building and what’s happening with insurance.”

Christine Ward, who owns the building, Patina and Shoppe Local, said many different people had surveyed the site, but she hadn’t seen any reports yet of its status. The historic brick building lost its roof in the fire and was little more than a rectangle of walls surrounding charred rubble after the flames were extinguished. Its boarded exterior shows surprisingly little damage.  

“At this point it really looks fairly normal, which is so strange to me because, man, from the back it’s a whole different story or from the rooftop, or what was the roof, it’s a very different story,” Ward said. “You can see steel beams that are practically melted and bent and then you get a sense of the heat that was generated.”

Ward and other business owners and employees from the building attended a community gathering Feb. 25 to meet with supportive customers and discuss the fire and next steps. Kassie Kuehl, owner of Kasia Organic Salon across the street, hosted the event, which was initially planned as an open house for her new business.

“I’m on this block because we’re a team on this block of fellow community businesses and that’s the reason why I chose this location, because of the community support in this neighborhood,” Kuehl said. “I just have no other option but to support my friends across the street.”

Christopher Dark, president of the Lynnhurst Neighborhood Association (LYNAS), helped plan the event and was there along with city staff and Council Member Hodges. Community members hosted a similar meeting a couple days later at the nearby Malt Shop.

Dark said he lives a block away from the fire site and frequented the businesses. He said the loss of the corner’s thriving mix of retailers and restaurants leaves a big hole in the neighborhood.

Patina had been on the corner for a decade, but both Blackbird and Heidi’s were only a few years old and Shoppe Local and Stacey Johnson Jewelry Design opened within the last year. Each business owner expressed interest in returning to the corner if possible, but the sudden loss of income makes waiting difficult for them and their employees.

Stacey Johnson, owner of Stacey Johnson Jewelry Design, said her little shop was her first established location after years spent working festival booths. It was doing well and she’s anxious to open again, preferably in the same area. She was out of the state gathering jewelry pieces and ideas at gem shows during the fire.

“Now we’ve got products to build jewelry with, we just don’t have anywhere to sell it. So we’re very anxious to start up again,” she said. “It’s just a matter of what happens.”

Patina, which has several Twin Cities locations, shifted most of its 50th & Bryant staff to other stores. The destroyed shop was the company’s flagship and Ward hopes to get it up and running again as soon as possible, along with local-merchandise boutique Shoppe Local. In the meantime, she said she can deal with the loss and is grateful everyone got out unharmed.

“It’s stuff, and hopefully we can replace it,” she said. “The important stuff got out.”  

Most employees from the other businesses, including Blackbird sous chef Adam To and his right-hand man, Dan Manosack, have had to pick up work elsewhere until their former employers’ future is known. To and Manosack said Blackbird’s staff plans to work around town and bring their experience back to the restaurant when it reopens. The employees are throwing a benefit for their bosses and patrons March 6 at Java Jacks (see sidebar).

Blackbird owners Mollner and husband Chris Stevens, the restaurant’s head chef, have been grateful for the support, but they don’t know when or where the restaurant will reemerge.

“We’re not looking for another space immediately, but we saved every dime for this business venture,” Mollner said. “I mean, it’s literally the two of us and our savings, so I guess it depends on how long our reconstruction period is because after a few months we need a paycheck, too.”

Heidi’s namesake Heidi Woodman said she and her husband, acclaimed chef Stewart Woodman, love the neighborhood but also didn’t know whether they’d be back in their old spot. The fire engulfed their restaurant on the same day Stewart Woodman was named a semi-finalist for the 2010 James Beard Foundation Awards in the “Best Chef: Midwest” category.

“I don’t really know anything new other than I’ve been talking to a lot of people in the insurance business whose jobs I didn’t know existed,” Heidi Woodman said at the Feb. 25 meeting.

Restaurants throughout the metro have banded together for Heidi’s and Blackbird in recent weeks. A huge fundraising effort is planned March 14 (see sidebar) that will feature a dining event at Mission American Kitchen with food from Stewart Woodman and a dozen local restaurants as well as a night of dining at Café Twenty Eight, where Chris Stevens will prepare small plates and Surly will provide beer. In addition, more than 50 area restaurants will donate a portion of their proceeds to Heidi’s and Blackbird that day.  

Broders’ owner Molly Broder, a lead organizer of the effort named Fork the Fire, said her restaurant would be donating half of its dining revenue that night to the cause. She said every restaurateur she’s spoken with has had a strong interest in helping out.

“I think the [fire] touched all of us in the restaurant business and we have great respect for the hard work that they’ve been doing down there and it’s such a great loss to the community that this thing happened,” Broder said.

Linda Haug, owner of Café Twenty Eight, said as a small independent business, she could understand the gravity of the loss for the owners of Heidi’s and Blackbird.

“When you’re kind of a mom and pop [restaurant], you put your heart and soul into it,” Haug said. “Knowing that they went through the same process, just pretty much every waking moment of your day goes into opening that business, and through no fault of your own that business is taken away from you. That just broke my heart.”

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]


Restaurant relief

Two fundraising efforts are planned for Blackbird Café and Heidi’s.

The first is a benefit for Blackbird set for March 6 at 7p.m. at Java Jacks near 46th Street and Bryant Avenue. Blackbird employees organized the event, which will feature a silent auction for art and other items, food from local restaurants and live music. Cost is a $10 suggested donation.

Donations specifically for Blackbird can also be made at forceofchange.org/blackbird.php.

The second event is a series of benefits called Fork the Fire scheduled for March 14.

Mission American Kitchen, 77 7th St. S., will serve dishes from Heidi’s chef Stewart Woodman from 2-8 p.m. that day, along with meals from a dozen other local chefs from restaurants including Cave Vin, Pierre’s Bistro, Vincent and others. Cost is $30.

Café Twenty-Eight, 2724 W. 43rd St., will host a separate benefit as part of Fork the Fire at 6 p.m. It will feature small plates from Blackbird chef Chris Stevens and beer donated from Surly. Cost is $25. Go to cafetwentyeight.com for updates.

More than 50 other area restaurants will donate a portion of their proceeds to Blackbird and Heidi’s during Fork the Fire. For a list of participating restaurants, visit the Fork the Fire page on facebook.com. A website for the event has also been set up at forkthefire.org.