Bullish on Uptown

As the recession rocked the restaurant industry, Parasole shrugged — and developed three new restaurants.

During the last couple of years when restaurants across the country were struggling just to get by, local eatery empire Parasole Restaurant Holdings was not only making a profit, it was planning a substantial expansion.

Since May of last year, the company has opened three new restaurants in the Uptown area at a cost of nearly $9 million. Ask Parasole co-founder Phil Roberts whether there was any risk involved and he’ll laugh, nod and maybe throw in a four-letter word to drive home his point that yes, there certainly was. But he has no doubt it will pay off.

“We’re opportunistic and for the restaurant industry it’s been a tough few years,” he said. “You can either sit around and wring your hands and say ‘woe is me,’ or you can take advantage of that. We take advantage of that with sites becoming available.”

When an Applebee’s failed at 3200 W. Lake St., Parasole spent $1.5 million to build Burger Jones, which opened in May of 2009. As the renovation of Calhoun Square began, Parasole took the opportunity to overhaul and re-name its restaurant at the corner of Hennepin Avenue and Lake Street — Figlio became Il Gatto last November at a cost of roughly $3 million. And on June 15, Parasole opened its $4 million Uptown Cafeteria & Support Group — complete with the area’s third rooftop patio — on the east side of the mall along Lake Street.

Combined with the company’s decade-old and still popular Uptown restaurant Chino Latino, Parasole now has nearly 1,000 seats at Hennepin and Lake alone. The gamble on Uptown is big. It’s expensive. And, Roberts said, it’s a decision based on faith in the area’s growth.  

“We believe in [Uptown],” Roberts said. “These are bankable sites. Uptown’s only getting better, there’s more and more condos and apartments being built here. Look at the proximity to the lakes, to Downtown. Boy if I were single I’d love to live in this area. It’s the only area I would live in.”

Roberts said Parasole saw the dark clouds of the recession looming years ago and was ready for it. The company launched a program called “Tender Prices for Tough Times” that offered discounted meals at each of its restaurants, and it marketed hard, exploding on social networking sites. Roberts relentlessly teased Internet audiences with riddles and suggestions about Parasole’s new ventures.

The company also streamlined its operations, finding ways to save money while still getting the job done.

“We not only held our own those two years, but we actually increased a little bit,” Roberts said. “Not a lot, not as much as we’re used to increasing, but what we did do is we increased the amount of butts we were putting in seats by a lot.”

The strategy in launching the new restaurants has been to avoid “eating your young,” as Roberts puts it. In other words, don’t duplicate concepts in both food and design, the latter which is done exclusively by New York-based Moschella+Roberts.

Il Gatto is strictly Italian, Chino Latino serves Latin and Asian-inspired dishes and Cafeteria offers a variety of home-style favorites from “Everything’s Going to be Alright” meatloaf to “Night Train” chicken and waffles. Cafeteria diners can also opt for the “Employee Meal,” a mystery dish the chef dishes out directly to the customer in the kitchen.

“We cater to a youthful crowd,” Roberts said. “I don’t mean kids, but also to a crowd that has a brain. They appreciate wit and thoughtfulness not just about what you call things, but the flavor profiles and everything.”

Other area restaurants aren’t intimidated by Parasole’s massive presence in the area. Brad Bridwell, general manager of Old Chicago at 2841 Hennepin Ave., said he’s always felt that competition is a good thing.

“I know that those efforts of Parasole are sucking people down to the intersection of Lake and Hennepin and Calhoun Square and that area there, which is great and eventually they’ll come over to this side of the transit hub,” Bridwell said. “I’d like to see the footprint grow a little bit, but I’m happy with the development. I think that anything that brings people to the area is good for my restaurant.”

Wayne Kostroski, co-owner of Cuisine Concepts, which owns Bar Abilene on Lagoon Avenue, said he’s not concerned either, as long as none of the area restaurants duplicate each other’s offerings. Cuisine Concepts, which also owns the Franklin Street Bakery, is also expanding, though not in Uptown. Kostroski said now is a good time to find available and affordable property, as well as skilled employees.  

“If a business does their homework well and keeps a conservative eye on what they believe is possible to grow in these economic times, in some ways these are the best times, right now, to look to grow and invest in another operation,” he said.

Thatcher Imboden, president of the Uptown Association, said Parasole’s efforts, as well as the recent openings of several new retail stores including Apple, shows how viable Uptown is.   

“I think it’s a good sign when there’s a lot of investment going on in Uptown because it’s showing there is a belief that Uptown is worth investing in,” Imboden said. “It is showing other businesses — both existing and potential tenants — that your investment is not made in isolation.”

He said healthy business districts need continuous investment and for a while the slumping economy and business closures it caused might have cast “a shadow of doubt” over the business community.

“Seeing Parasole make significant investments and really drastically increasing the amount of seats in Uptown is really a good sign that such a savvy and well-established restaurateur thinks that it’s a worthwhile investment,” he said.

Parasole’s next investment is beyond Uptown, at 50th Street and France Avenue where about $1.5 million is going into a pizzeria and homemade mozzarella joint called Mozza Mia. Located in the former Tejas space, it’s expected to open in November.

“I don’t know what’s next after Mozza Mia,” Roberts said. “We don’t have any plans to do anything else, but it’s a big bag of tricks that I have.”