Future of Tin Fish is murky as owners step away

The longtime park restaurant will close at the end of the year unless a proposal from new owners is approved

Photo courtesy Tin Fish Minneapolis

The future of Tin Fish is up in the air as its owners step away with a plan to let three employees take over the longtime food vendor at Lake Calhoun.

Owners Athena and Sheff Priest opened the seafood restaurant nearly 14 years ago in the Lake Calhoun Refectory and are not renewing their lease with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which is now looking for a new agreement with a concessions operator for the lake’s pavilion.

Sheff Priest said after years of 14- and 15-hour days, he and his wife are now planning to entrust Tin Fish with longtime employees Peter Toft, Brett Drake and Joseph Skiba, all staff members who have been with the restaurant for at least 12 years.

Though the two plan to be somewhat involved with the restaurant if it continues, Priest said the new owners would have the energy and social media savvy to bring Tin Fish “to the next generation.”

“These guys are ready to find the next chapter for themselves and for Tin Fish, and take it to the next level,” he said.

What happens with Tin Fish is up to the Park Board, which has opened a request for proposals for the refectory’s next concessions operator. The deadline for submissions is July 7.

Shane Stenzel, a permits manager with the board’s customer service department, said the Park Board’s agreement is with the Priests, so a new ownership group is not guaranteed to continue on as the refectory’s restaurant operator. The board uses the same proposal process with all of its restaurant operators to renew and/or renegotiate its agreements.

The current plan is that Tin Fish will close when its lease is up on Dec. 31.

“We’re sad to see Sheff and Athena go. They were a great asset to our system. We had a great relationship with them,” he said.

After the request for proposals closes in July, park staff will work with a committee of stakeholders who will review proposals and make a recommendation to the board. The board is expected to approve a new agreement in early September.

Opening the process to new restaurant operators, Stenzel said, allows them to make sure the users of Lake Calhoun, or Bde Maka Ska as the board hopes to rename it, are accounted for.

Stenzel said he envisions there will be significant interest in the refectory space given its location and the popularity of the park. As part of the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes Regional Park, the area is the most popular park destination in the state with nearly 6 million visitors annually. A new operator would be in place by next spring, according to the board’s request.

President Anita Tabb, whose district includes the northeast corner of Lake Calhoun, said Tin Fish has “built a great reputation” over the years.

“Tin Fish did a fabulous job. I think their food was really quite good,” she said.

Priest said Tin Fish is good for the neighborhood and many of its young employees. For the lake’s regulars, he said the restaurant can continue without them. The two also operate a Tin Fish restaurant in Edina’s Braemar Park, which Priest said is under lease until 2019.

“We’re not an institution. [Tin Fish] is,” he said. “We hope it continues as Tin Fish.”

If the restaurant does not continue, Tabb said she hopes they attract a similar vendor from the Twin Cities.

“I hope we get local and unique vendors. I think that’s what makes it fun to come to the lake,” she said.

The Park Board is also seeking a concessions operator for a proposed year-round restaurant at Water Works, a new destination park site anchored by the former Fuji Ya restaurant building. If the $30-million project gets final approval in July, the board may demolish the building by September in order to reveal historic mill infrastructure buried beneath it.

In its place, the board is planning to embed a one-story glass building among the ruins for a year-round park restaurant, the first of its kind in the city’s park system. Tin Fish is open between the spring and fall, though summer is its most active season.

More information on the request for proposals is available at minneapolisparks.org.