Tin Fish ready to open again

  

 

Sheffield and Athena Priest should have no problem getting their fish fryers running by late April, opening Tin Fish for the eatery’s ninth season on the north side of Lake Calhoun. 

The couple is excited to bring back the 60 or so high school and college kids they hire every summer to serve up fish tacos and ice cream as customers hang out on the shores of the city’s most popular lake. 

But contract negotiations this spring between the Priests and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board got ugly, prompting neighbors to rally in support of the eatery and eliciting charges from a Park Board commissioner that the couple was hauling in a hefty payday from the venture.  

“We are very, very glad to continue running the Tin Fish,” Sheffield Priest said after the Park Board unanimously approved a new Tin Fish contract on March 21. “It’s been a great run for us.”

A contract dispute nearly derailed that run. Some commissioners claim a new contract is giving the couple what amounts to a rent reduction on a prime piece of real estate, while the Priests say they’ll be paying more than ever. 

“I don’t think it’s real responsible for us — with someone who is making a lot of money — to reduce the income we get from them,” said Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine, who pushed for a rent structure that would bring in more revenue to the Park Board than the one agreed to on March 21.  

Tin Fish is expected to pay $208,000 in rent this year under then new contract, compared to $174,000 last year under the old contract. The new contract has them paying 18 percent of gross revenue, compared to 15 percent under the old one. 

The debate lies within an option Tin Fish had in its old agreement. The owners could have paid an additional 10 percent of their revenue for upgrades to the facility, or they had the option to let their contract lapse without paying for upgrades. They chose not to, relieving them of $313,000 in facility upgrades. 

Had they been paying those, Fine said the new contract would equate to a rent reduction, from a 25 percent rate to 18 percent. 

Either way, the new lease will last for three more years, and then it will be re-opened to new bidders. 

Ugly negotiations

After the Park Board unanimously approved a new Tin Fish contract, Sheffield Priest stood in the halls of the Park Board Headquarters talking to reporters. The owners of Sea Salt Eatery at Minnehaha Park passed him, and Priest stepped aside to wish them good luck — or better luck than he had in his negotiations. 

Sea Salt — another extremely popular Park Board vendor — has a contract with the Park Board that expires this winter. Those owners pay even less rent than Tin Fish — 12 percent of revenue with no requirement for capital improvements. 

Priest said negotiations were very difficult, with the Park Board proposing ever-changing terms of the lease and dragging its feet when Tin Fish wanted to make improvements to the building. Sheffield Priest said they’ve been waiting for the Park Board to update its master plan for Lake Calhoun, so they aren’t investing money in amenities that will later have to me removed. 

What made Sheffield “hot,” however, was when Fine used Tin Fish’s profit and loss documents to speculate that the couple was making over $250,000 at a public meeting. Priest said those documents were marked confidential, and said Fine commenting on them was “inflammatory.” 

Following those remarks, the Priests said they met with Park Board officials to continue discussing the lease. 

“We told Bob Fine if that bull**** goes on next week [at the Park Board meeting], we’ll hand over the keys {to the restaurant},” Priest said. 

Priest said Fine’s guess on their profits and salary — which Fine said he based on estimations of employee wages at $8 to $10 an hour — was incorrect, but Priest did not divulge the true number. 

“That is 100 percent conjecture on his part,” Sheffield Priest said. “He is not in the restaurant business. He does not understand restaurant dynamics or financials. He is being inflammatory. He is absolutely making up that number, and we’re not going to comment in any form as to what our salary is, because it’s not material to this negotiation.”

Fine argued that since the Priests were asking for what he believes is a rent reduction, they should hand over their finances, and that once those documents were given to a commissioner, they become public record. Park Board attorney Michael Salchert confirmed that those documents became public record when they were faxed to the Park Board, even though they had a cover letter saying they were confidential when they were faxed over. 

“Anybody will tell you in the real estate industry, when a tenant comes in and asks you for a reduction in rent, the first thing any landlord is going to say is ‘give me your financial statements,’” Fine said. 

Fine said that much of the negotiations went bad because four Park Board commissioners — John Erwin, Liz Wielinski, Anita Tabb and Jon Olson — had all tried to negotiate with the Priests on their own, instead of letting Park Board staff handle it. 

“It turned out they were all negotiating last month, and you had eight or nine people negotiating,” Fine said. “Some staff people, some commissioners. And that’s not the way it should be done.”

Sheffield Priest, in an e-mail to the Southwest Journal, said only Erwin discussed lease terms, and the other commissioners only talked with him about the process, not lease specifics. 

Tabb said she was out of town for much of the negotiation period, and her conversations with the Priests were limited to e-mails about the process, not the specific contract. 

Tabb also said she wasn’t in favor of risking the loss of Tin Fish for a few percentage points on their commission. A new restaurant might not fit the community like Tin Fish, she said. 

“I’m not sure that’s what I want to do, because then it prices a lot of people out of the market,” she said. 

Arlene Fried of Park Watch — a citizens group that monitors Park Board actions and blogs about them — said the Park Board should have hired a restaurant consultant in order to get a better idea of what rent should be at the location, rather than basing it off of the Priests income or their old contract. 

The Southwest Journal spoke to a couple of industry experts and they said restaurants rents are generally less than 10 percent of gross sales. 

“(A restaurant would expect to pay) six to 10 percent. If you get over 10 percent, that’s a red flag. That’s not good,” said Andrea Christenson, a commercial leasing agent and vice president of Cassidy Turley. 

In the end, Tin Fish’s popularity helped push the contract through. A group of neighbors rallied for Tin Fish on March 17 at Lake Calhoun. Neighbor Sarah Sponheim said the group colleted over 350 names for a petition. 

Commissioner Annie Young said she got more e-mails about Tin Fish than from other controversial projects. Fine called the email response “massive.”

“I got lots of e-mails. I got lots of telephone calls,” Tabb said. “It was clear that people really were interested in having this specific restaurant stay around.”

 

 

Tin Fish contract at a glance:

Last year, Tin Fish paid the 
Park Board $169,000 on 
$1.1 million in sales, or 
about 15 percent.

The new contract will have Tin Fish paying the Park Board $208,468 on an estimated $1.14 million in sales, or 
18 percent. Of the rent paid, $34,000 will go toward improvements to the facility. 

The old contract had an option for Tin Fish to pay an additional 10 percent of their revenue to capital improvements. Tin Fish declined that option. The new contract forces them to pay 
3 percent of their revenue to capital improvements.  

 

Where does the money go? The Park Board brings in about $856,000 a year in concessions revenue, which helps fund athletic facilities, the Lupient Water Park and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.