In previous years, when restaurateur Kim Bartmann had announced a plan to open a new restaurant, some labeled her an empress with ambitions to rule the Uptown dining scene.
“People like to use the word empire,” she says while sitting in Barbette, the site of her first restaurant that opened 20 years ago. “I don’t really get it. I don’t hear that word being used for [Parasole CEO] Phil Roberts or [D’Amico & Sons President] Richard D’Amico, so that confuses me. I’m not really sure what that’s all about.”
Now may be the time when people start talking empire again. Bartmann has an agreement to purchase Casey’s Bar & Grill, 3510 Nicollet Ave. S. and, according to neighborhood groups, is close to buying Gigi’s Café, 822 W. 36th St.
She was awarded the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s contract in September to become the food vendor at the Lake Harriet band shell.
While Bartmann may not like the empire label, she says she is glad to have a portfolio of restaurants that she can use to demonstrate that the dining industry can be one that supports social justice, arts and culture, sustainability and environmental stewardship.
“If we can demonstrate that paying employees’ health insurance and trying to green your business and buying locally works as a model and is a sustainable from a ‘business standpoint,’ then I think expansion is all fine and well,” Bartmann says. “I am not driven by the bottom line of this business.”
Bartmann is already using her three current restaurants to make her point. Bryant Lake Bowl opened 17 years ago and she says it has basically subsidized its adjoining theater because she wants to support local arts and many of the performances there touch on social and environmental issues.
Bartmann’s Red Stag Supper Club in Northeast Minneapolis opened in 2007 as the first restaurant in Minnesota to be LEED certified.
Bartmann, 47, speaks passionately about sustainable farming and other environmental issues. She can’t pinpoint how or when she developed her values, but she says she didn’t let her entrepreneurial spirit stop her from being an activist.
“I want to align my work with my personal value system like everyone else,” she says. “A restaurant is probably the most difficult business to try to do that in, in terms of environmentalism, social justice and sustainability, but that’s the industry I work in.”
Bartmann sits on the board of directors for the Land Stewardship Project, which was founded in 1982 to promote sustainable agriculture and foster an ethic of stewardship for farmland.
Brian DeVore, the Project’s communications coordinator, said Bartmann is the first restaurateur to sit on the board. Historically, farmers, academics and activists had filled board seats.
Bartmann’s says her new ventures will maintain much of her focus: running small, neighborhood restaurants that strive for energy efficiency and local food. She is building Casey’s to LEED certification.
That’s a business model that Aaron Rubenstein likes. Rubenstein, the outgoing president of the Calhoun Area Residents Action Group, says Bartmann’s restaurants have great food, but also fit in more with a certain segment of the neighborhood population.
“One thing that I really like about Barbette and BLB is that I think they serve the Uptown neighborhoods more than a lot of the flashy Uptown establishments — which have their place too — but I like that there’s more of a neighborhood vibe,” Rubenstein said. “I think they appeal to at least certain segments of the community more and give us a place to go where we don’t feel completely pushed out of Uptown.”
Last year there was some concern about Bartmann’s businesses because it became public that the U.S. Government was seeking $110,000 in unpaid taxes from 2002 and 2003 owed by Bartmann. That, she says, was overblown and she is currently on a payment plan.
“It’s a pretty typical thing that happens to small businesses sometimes,” she said. “It happened with mine. It’s a non-issue, as far as I am concerned.”
If the neighbors of Bartmann’s new restaurants are anything like Rubenstein, they’ll be happy to know Bartmann is sticking to her guns. For example, Casey’s will be built to LEED certification.
“It’s simple attention to the quality of the product and the quality of the service. It’s basic restaurant 101,” Bartmann says. “And maybe with extra focus on community involvement or some of the local and sustainable ag stuff we try to support.”
Reach Nick Halter at [email protected]