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Alma has been welcoming guests with authentic hospitality and diverse, contemporary American cooking for nearly two decades. We offer a casual, comfortable environment worthy of both celebrations and everyday visits, 7 days a week.

Alma now offers two distinct dining experiences: The Cafe and Restaurant. The Cafe is an all-day, a la carte, walk-in setting with bakery counter, bar and table service. The restaurant features 3-course fixed price menu for dinner only.  

We also offer seven guestrooms for overnight stay. Our comfortable, well appointed domestic spaces will be appreciated by travelers looking for a vibrant urban location as well as locals looking for an convenient getaway.

Opened in 1999 by Chef / Restaurateur Alex Roberts in a historic firehouse & adjacent speedboat factory, the spaces were reimagined and designed by James Dayton Design and Talin Spring in 2016.

Our approach towards the operation of Alma is truly collaborative, and we believe that every single member of our team is integral to our success. We are committed to creating a learning environment where all staff can thrive.


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The Restaurant Alma dining experience is built around the highest quality ingredients featured in a seasonally changing prix fixe three-course menu alongside a wine list carefully selected to compliment our cooking. Led by Chef de Cuisine Lucas Rosenbrook, our kitchen features many local and organic products and is built upon the same traditional foods that have well-nourished people for generations. Our entire menu is handcrafted using both timeless and innovative cooking techniques resulting in delicious, heartfelt cooking.

Dinner only. Open daily at 5:00pm. Close at 9:00pm Su-Th, 10:00pm Fr & Sa.
Reservations recommended.
Private dining spaces available.


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With simple yet sophisticated cooking and a robust beverage program, the cafe is an ideal place to stop by anytime of day for a drink, snack or full meal. With two relaxed, light filled rooms, the cafe serves as a neighborhood gathering space as well as the living room and main dining room for guests of the Alma Hotel. Chef de Cuisine Matti Sprague and Executive Pastry Chef Carrie Riggs collaborate to create a menu anchored by whole grains, long fermented breads, fresh seasonal produce and sustainably sourced dairy, meat & fish.

Early menu 8:00 - 11:00am, 8:00 - 10:00am Sa & Su
Day menu 11:00am - 2:00pm, 10:00 - 2:00pm Sa & Su
Bar menu 2:00 - 5:00pm
Night menu 5:00pm - 10:00pm Su-Th (close at midnight Fr & Sa)  
Open daily. Limited Reservations. 


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Located in a historic building within the oldest riverfront neighborhood of Minneapolis, each of our seven guest rooms is unique. The spaces and furnishings were designed and curated by Talin Spring of Spring Finn & Co to create an intimate backdrop for the experience of our visitors using tactile materials such as wood, brass, vintage and new textiles, velvets, grass, and leather. More than a hotel room, our rooms are domestic spaces intended to create a peaceful environment complimented by natural light and high ceilings to make guests feel like they are staying at a friend’s home. 

Our Cafe and Restaurant are the heart of Alma and your kitchen and dining room while staying in the hotel. You are always welcome to head down to join us and will be received as a special friend. Our guests can ask us anything they wish, we will do our best to satisfy all requests.

The riverfront is our back yard with beautiful views, walking paths, nearby bike rental and convenient access to downtown. Great local destinations include the Stone Arch Bridge, Guthrie Theater, US Bank Stadium, and Mill City Museum, to name only a few. Our staff can guide you to any city sights, attractions, and restaurants, starting with our award winning Restaurant and all-day Cafe.

The following features can be found in all guest rooms:

  • Custom designed beds, furniture, open closets, oak desks and shutters, hand-made from local White Oak by Marvin Freitas of Form Co.
  • All natural cotton bedding and linens, custom hand woven wool throws.
  • American made eco-friendly pillow top Keetsa mattresses with organic cotton cover. 
  • Down comforters and pillows (hypoallergenic upon request)
  • Spacious white & brass tiled walk in showers
  • Exclusive organic bath amenities by Bespoke Body & Wellness 
  • Contemporary fabrics from Milan and London by Arjumand’s World Idarica Gazzoni and Jennifer Shorto, as well as hand-selected vintage fabrics and trimmings.
  • Hardwood floors and hand woven vintage rugs from Aubry Angelo unique to each room
  • Curated art including Japanese vintage calendars, woodblock prints from Lebanon, vintage wooden dessert molds, paintings, pottery, drawings, and photography sourced in Central Asia, Argentina, Delhi, Paris, and Minneapolis.
  • Custom woven baskets by House of Talents.
  • Refreshments produced and curated by Alma. 
  • 40” flat screen LCD HD television with premium cable.
  • Complimentary high speed internet service with wired and wireless access 
  • Ceiling fans, zone controlled heat & AC. 
  • Local newspaper, iron & ironing board, hair dryer, luggage rack upon request

To contact our innkeeper Laura, please email innkeeper@almampls.com


Hours & Location

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528 University Ave SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414


Sunday – Thursday, 7:00am–10:00pm
Friday and Saturday, 7:00am–12:00am


We open for dinner service at 5:00pm, 7 nights a week.


Private Dining

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Overlooking the restaurant dining room, Alma’s semi-private mezzanine is the perfect setting for intimate celebrations, professional gatherings, or small parties of up to 16 people. We offer a seasonal, 3-course prix-fixe menu tailored to your preferences beginning at 5pm Sunday through Thursday evenings.

For More Information: Please contact Hannah Bredahl at events@restaurantalma.com or 612-940-6192


With a variety of accommodations for up to 60 people, Restaurant Alma offers a warm, intimate space for private events. Our dining room features high open beam ceiling, exposed brick columns, banquette seating and concrete floors. Full buyout is available seven nights a week.

Restaurant Buy-out: 60 seated

For More Information: Please contact Hannah Bredahl at events@restaurantalma.com or 612-940-6192

Events Inquiry

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Chef Alex Roberts plans boutique inn above his Restaurant Alma

Minneapolis / St. Paul Business Journal

Easy Pheasant Hunting

Minnesota Monthly

2015 Best Restaurants

Mpls St Paul

What’s Happening Inside Restaurant Alma

Eater Minneapolis | Sep 28, 2016

City Guide: Minneapolis

A Cup of Jo | May 12, 2016

Alma Bakery Pop Up Makes Glorious Holiday Return

Eater Minneapolis | Dec 16, 2015


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Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

 T H E  C A F E  ( A T  N I G H T ) 

The lights get lower and the cocktails shakers get a workout when Cafe Alma transitions from dayside to nightside. We stopped by on a chilly evening to take a look at all the coziness happening behind the double doors during dinner hours. 

The two main seating areas. 

A crowd favorite: house-made rigatoni with spicy pork ragu, tomato, kale, and pecorino.


Whiskey sours get a finishing touch of Bittercube bitters.

No better sight than clean plates and an empty bottle of wine. 

Miso-glazed salmon with dashi, spinach, and cucumber.


One of the many Alma classics returning to the Cafe: littleneck clams with chorizo, white beans, tomato, and grilled bread. 

Roasted half chicken with crispy smashed potatoes and sauce “No. 94”


Buttermilk fried quail with white corn grits and maple roasted onions.


A spritz, which is a low-proof cocktail served on tap.


Marinated olives and white bean hummus. 

The nightside menu features both large and small plates, and sharing is more than encouraged. 

If you’re too tired to drive home, grab a room at the hotel upstairs. Otherwise - we look forward to seeing you next time. 

Thanks for joining us - and sneak peeks of the Restaurant and Hotel are coming soon! 

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016


Those dapper gentleman of Bittercube Bitters - what more can be said that has not already been whispered (okay, shouted) from the rooftops of every trendy bar in the Twin Cities? They’re charming, hilarious, generous, and whip-smart - not to mention masters of the cocktail. Bittercube created the cocktail program for Alma’s new full bar - and Nick and Ira kindly sat down with the Alma blog to talk about it. Fair warning: hilarity ensues below. 

AB: How did originally come to be involved at Alma? 

NK: Ira would like to be in control of the conversation. 

IK: I would like to talk about your camera first. Just kidding. Well, Alex and Nick go way back - they’re kind of like two peas in pod. They do what they do really well: Alex on the food, Nick on the drinks. Nick can explain that relationship a lot better than I can, but that’s what it started with. 

NK: Yeah, so in 2009, Alex would come to Town Talk Diner after work and talk to me about flavors - I remember this gazpacho drink that we did. I was making this drink: tequila and gazpacho, and we ended up talking about onions and oxidization, and how you have to put the onions in fresh, but the other ingredients need time...when he’d come in and I’d make him different drinks and he’d always be talking about balance and flavor. I’ve always had a wild amount of respect for him. He’s such a good human being. From there, we continued to become close friends. We did a couple off-sites with Alex, for charity events and stuff like that. Then, it must have been two years ago - we started talking seriously about something maybe happening here with the bar. First we did the low-proof program at the Restaurant, and the way that we worked together was very cohesive. I’m from Minnesota. I grew up here. My restaurant roots are here. Alma, and Alex, are extremely important to this community - and they’re extremely important to me. The work that I got to have him taste and test early on in my career were very pivotal experiences. 

AB: What’s the philosophy behind Bittercube, and what you do? 

NK: I’ll relate it to Alma. When I think about the food here I think: there’s local, organic, natural, regional-specific, cultural stories. The plates are telling stories, and it’s not like “oh, here’s a Thai dish”, it’s like “oh there’s a village in Thailand, and they do this dish, and this is our interpretation of it.” I find that really exciting. Alex talks a lot about history: everything they’re doing is historical, using techniques from the last hundreds of years - and, well, the cocktails are the same way. 

IK: If we just came in and put the same Bittercube cocktail program in every place - we wouldn’t be as dynamic and interesting as we’ve become. Every place we go has an identity. This place stretched our identity. It forced us to do something new that we haven’t done before. This was a place where had to take the idea of truly fresh ingredients, of local ingredients, and incorporate them in a way we haven’t done before. And I think that’s because we really, really respected the food. 

NK: There’s a certain level of responsibility...it has to make sense. 

AB: So what does the program look like, taking all those things into mind? 

NK: If you look at the menu - there’s two sides: one side is like, classic cocktails. All drinks that are a hundred years old. There are variations, but they’re pretty rooted in the classical formulas. Side B is Alma inspirations of those same classics. So you have a daiquiri here that’s a classic daiquiri, and then you have one over here that’s made with peppermint extract and cotton candy. A sidecar here, and then over here a butternut squash drink. They’re the same drink. The same roots - but they’re looked at differently. The seasonality is really exciting. We have a few more pieces of equipment coming that’s going to allow us to utilize seasonal produce in the winter: squashes, that sort of thing. We really want to have the menu be ever-changing, just like the food menu. This bar is also so beautiful to workout! Ira designed the layout, so it’s really good to work in, and we have this amazing team coming together. It’s been really exciting. 

AB: What does the future of the cocktail program look like? 

NK: I think we’re off to a really good start. It makes sense, hopefully. It ties into everything. The classics will probably stay pretty close to the book, and on the other side of the menu we’ll be seeing a change every month of so. 

IK: I’m really excited about the bar team. Nick kind of said it earlier - but the staff is great here. We feel really good about this staff, and everywhere we do a program we want the bartenders to be involved. The first step is getting everything down, being able to make the drinks at a timely clip, seeing the bar...but once that’s mastered, we get on to them starting to express their identity and power and flavors. I think it’ll be exciting because this menu will change seasonally. Right now it’s squash, it’s root vegetables, but once spring hits it’s going to be an entirely different type of program because we’ll be utilizing the produce that becomes available. I’m excited for the bartenders to give us their input. Their drinks are going to make it on the menu. This menu is not about Bittercube - it’s about Alma. Once we get into the second and third season...it’ll be theirs. 

NK: That’s the hope: we set it up, we educate, and then we hand it over. 

IK: When we start programs, I think there’s this misconception that we’re like - egomaniacs. And we’re telling them they have to stir counter-clockwise because we’re assholes. But in a few months, it’s not going to be our drinks! And we’ll always be around to curate and to make sure, but one of the best parts for me, for us, is seeing the staff take ownership. That will be so great here. 

AB: Craft cocktails are something that can be very intimidating to a lot of people. What are some resources you can suggest for understanding the drink? 

(A bartender comes over and places a drink in front of Ira)

IK: (sung) Breakfast is serrrrrrved! 

NK: The best place to start is a great bar with educated bartenders - who are eager and happy to share their knowledge. The craft cocktail world has such a juxtaposition of things happening in it, where you have these amazing bars that have reputations of arrogance and bad attitudes and long ticket times - 

IK: You want some? I’ll hold it for you. 

(A pause while they share the drink.)

IK: That’s f-ing delicious. 

NK: It’s on tap!

IK: That’s sherry cobbler. 

NK: Wait, where were we? 

AB: You were talking about great bars with great bartenders - do you ask questions? Do  you buy a book? 

IK: So in our mind, it’s all about finding pillars in cocktails You can get a cocktail book that has like five thousand recipes. You can read a flavor bible that has seventy thousand connections. That’s all great, really, but in our mind it’s about pillars. Find some formulas and ideas that work and make sense. Once you have that you can find new colors to put into those pillars. You have a canvas, right? It’s like: here’s the canvas, don’t go outside of it. Here’s a recipe. One recipe. Don’t go outside of the canvas, just find new colors to paint on it. That’s another thing we teach bartenders: don’t think you need to reinvent the wheel. It’s the same in food, right? Mirepoix is mirepoix for a reason. A daiquiri is a daiquiri for a reason. We’re not going to re-invent it. We can put squash in it and elevate it - but at the end of the day? It’s a daiquiri. Find the pillars. Understand a few drinks. Make those drinks until you feel like you can add some things you have lying around. That’s going to be an infinite amount of cocktails right there! Right at home! In your spice cabinet! Just with what you have around. For us...it’s simplicity. 

NK: ...which is a funny thing to say when you have a drink that has edible glitter inside of it. 

IK: Or activated charcoal. 

NK: Winter perfume. 

IK: Twenty-two ingredients. 

NK: But you can break down those crazy things. Like the starry night drink: at the end of the day it’s just a French 75. Really manipulated, but it’s a French 75. It helps bartenders to, because it helps them be able to educate their guests. If you can connect it to something historically, it kind of removes the arrogance - the “I created something!” Our true job is to be hospitalitarians. Not mixologists. 

IK: ...the straw should go right in the middle. Right in the middle. So. Good. 

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

T H E  C A F E :  D A Y T I M E 

Cafe Alma is open for business, and we are jumping out of our seats with excitement! Every day from 7:00 AM to 11:00 PM (with an extension until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, so you can get that last nightcap in after a night out), we’ll be here to serve you. Words cannot accurately express how grateful we are for your continued curiosity, support, and engagement, and we can’t wait to finally share our space, food, and hospitality with you and yours. Here’s a sneak peek at our first couple of days of service, so you can see what’s behind those double doors. 

The tiling in the entryway. 

The pastry case, with plenty of sweet and savory treats. 

A selection of breakfast, brunch, and lunch items are available on the day menu, as well as juices, warming bone broths, pastries, and drinks.


Griddled brioche with pears and marscapone. 

Duck liver pate bruschetta. 

Chef Matti Sprague. 

Plenty of working space at the bar to bring your laptop and have a latte (or a cocktail). 

A full cafe. 

Maggie Whelan. 

More cafe seating. 

The natural beauty of  shallots in a beautiful bowl by Guillermo Pottery 

Our naturally-leavened bread can be enjoyed in house... 

...or you can grab a loaf to go for tonight’s dinner.


There's plenty of options to choose from. 

And while you’re here, why not grab a cup of coffee? 

Can’t wait to see you soon. 

Stay tuned for more sneak peeks - including the cafe at night, hotel, and restaurant, coming very soon. 

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

B A C K  T O  T H E  B E G I N N I N G :  W I T H  J A M E S  D A Y T O N  D E S I G N

The Alma blog arrives a bit tardy this week - but for a good reason, we promise! THE CAFE IS OPEN, FRIENDS! Lots more on that later, but for now let's go back to the very beginning with James Dayton Design, the architecture firm that helped build the new Alma from the ground up. Patrick Regan (center, above), Rob Hunter (right, above), and Abby Jensen (left, above), were absolutely integral to the process. They’re also super gracious, kind, and funny, and it was an honor to meet with them at their office to discuss Alma, architecture, and community. 

AB: We want to start off by asking how you guys got involved in the project. We know you worked with Alex on the design of The Bachelor Farmer - what was that experience like, and did it draw you to this project initially? 

RH: There was not yet a chef when we started doing The Bachelor Farmer, so Eric Dayton, who was a frequenter of Restaurant Alma and knew Alex, suggested him to help us. It’s very hard to design a restaurant without a Chef - you need a Chef to design the kitchen! Alex was kind enough to come into our meetings and help us design the space, which was really really terrific - invaluable, to be quite honest with you. We finished that project, and then about a year later, we did a little bit of work at Brasa St. Paul - helping to manage the sound over there. When he approached us with this project in 2013, we were really excited about it. 

PR: Alma has been so important in Minneapolis in creating the current food scene that being a partner in this project has been a dream project. 

AB: What are the differences between starting from scratch on a structure and renovating a very old building, like the Alma space was in? 

RH: The building is part of Saint Anthony, which is the very first part of Minneapolis, so taking an existing urban building in a very old part of down, and then making it a viable commercial and civic space - it’s a really wonderful project. 

PR: I would say any project, whether it’s new or existing is only so strong as it’s concept. Alex came with this incredibly coherent concept - as he said: “The Original Inn”. That’s a place for a traveler to stop and then go downstairs and have a meal. It’s something you are starting to see across the country, in other cities, but it hasn’t in Minneapolis. Obviously, Alma is very well-established, but what was really compelling was stitching all the concepts together in a coherent way, so they all fall under the “Alma Umbrella”. But certainly working with an existing building is very, very challenging. It’s been around for over a hundred years, and you think  you know what’s behind that wall, but - you don’t! But it’s so important to do what Alex is doing for this building and the neighborhood - not only from an architecture standpoint, but from a food and hospitality standpoint. 

AB: How does a historical context for architecture play into this project? 

PR: I think there’s this unfair perspective that Minneapolis is all glass and steel and Saint Paul is all old-fashioned neighborhoods. This building is a good example that some of the oldest structures in Minnesota are in this neighborhood in Minneapolis. 

RH: This building was originally a fire station for this neighborhood. From its very origins, it’s had a great importance to being an anchor for the neighborhood, it’s had a great civic importance. That’s why I think it’s so appropriate that Alex has taken over the whole building - it’s re-establishing that importance. From a city planning perspective, it’s becoming increasingly more important to put businesses like restaurants in neighborhoods, and not just in the downtowns. Alma was one of the first restaurants in the twin cities to use that model - to strive to be a neighborhood place. 

PR: When you get into the building, it’s fun to be able to respond to the building. For instance, when you go into the entry, you can see the circle where the old fire pole was. 

AB: What was the process of this project like? 

RH: The clarity of Alex’s original concept was a genesis. It was such a strong concept that I think it carries through to the final result - which is not an easy thing to do! 

AJ: When we were working on the Bachelor Farmer, Alex got to see a little bit of our process and I think he wanted to have that more concrete, set timeline on his project. So we could help him with that. 

RH: Alex has so much experience - we’ve learned so much from him. Everything from how a kitchen operates and flow, all the way to the organization of items best for hospitality. 

AJ: Really early in the process, before we had even started working, he invited us over for lunch. We sat in Alma and he made a couple dishes just to have us see and experience that. He wanted the ideas to spring from the food, rather than have the food fit into the architecture. 

AB: What are some of the new things people can expect to see, in addition to the update of the original space? 

PR: One important step is now the entry. The entry to any building is important: it’s your threshold, it’s your welcome mat. You go into the entry at Alma and now there’s a choice: you can go into the cafe, or the restaurant. There’s slightly different lighting and subtle changes between the two spaces, but they’re using the same language. 

AJ: That was a lot of the conversation - how does this work for night and day? Have a daytime Alma that could work for any event. 

RH: We’ve always talked about this - this is a vehicle for Alex to do what he wants to do in the future, and this is the vessel for that. Among the earliest conversations and consistent throughout is that there’s an authenticity to this building, and there’s an authenticity to the food. So these things shouldn’t work against each other. They should work in concert with each other. The goal has always been to create meaningful authenticity. 

AB: What is it like to lay the foundation for a project like this? What were the first things you planned? 

AJ: The entry. It changed everything. It’s really thinking about a customer’s experience when they’re in the building - and it’s complicated! You don’t want to change Alma too much, you still want to have a similar entry - and then you have to have one for the cafe, and hotel, and private event spaces. So it’s all these different things coming together into one space. You always have to keep in mind how to leave enough space for customers. 

PR: For as small as the entry space is, there’s a lot of great things going on. You have a visual experience with these beautiful tiles, and a tactile experience with these brass hand rails. It’s a different volume from what Alma was originally, but there are subtle moves that connect to Alma’s history over the last (almost) twenty years. 

AB: How do you hope people feel when they’re in the building? What do you hope they notice?

PR: Welcome. 

RH: Hopefully they notice the smells first!

AJ: Hopefully the architecture doesn’t jump out at them! Hopefully it just feels homey, and welcoming. 

PR: I think architecture plays into your memory a bit. Architecture could be a big word for capturing the feel of your newspaper and the smell of your coffee and the taste of your brioche. It all happens in a building and we call it architecture, but really it’s a phenomenological experience - it’s not the space you’re in. The space is just the wrapper. 

Sunday, November 6th, 2016

N A T U R A L  B E A U T Y :  W I T H  M A R G O  R O B E R T S

Margo Roberts glows - yes, physically, literally, (see completely unphotoshopped picture above for evidence) - but also in the more ethereal sense. She is one of those people who radiates kindness and openness, the kind that makes you want to shout embarrassing things like “YOU ARE SO PRETTY AND SMART AND NICE AND YOU SMELL REALLY GOOD” halfway through an interview...not that we did that. We have self control. The Alma Blog met with Margo this week to discuss the connection between food and beauty, and how the new wellness products in the Alma Hotel will carry on the philosophy and values held by the whole organization. All we can say is - if they’ll make us halfway as awesome as Margo - we’ll take a case. Or seven. 

AB: Usually we start off by asking how each person got involved with Alma, but that seems like sort of a silly question here, [Margo Roberts is married to Alex Roberts] so we’ll ask how you got involved in being an alchemist and how that became a part of the hotel. 

MR: It started around the time the kids were boorn - my eldest, August, who’s now ten years old. When I was pregnant with him, Alex and I were obviously focused a lot on healthy, traditional foods. But after August was born, that nutrition focus evolved to also include what we were putting on his skin. I began to notice how products were so full of chemicals and toxins, and so I decided to start making my own stuff at home. So it started with my kids. One of my sisters also makes natural skincare products, she makes these beautiful body butters. She and I were thinking about going into business together, and right around that time our friends at Alchemy365 fitness studio wanted some natural skincare products for their gyms. So that became my first business venture, making air mists and massage oils for them. 

With daughter Nia. 

AB: You make creating skin care products sound so casual! What’s the process of learning to make something you’d usually pick up at a drugstore?

MR: Well, I read a lot. I did a lot of research. One of my passions is blending oils. I consider myself sort of a self-taught perfumist - I love learning about the therapeutic properties in different essential oils. Whenever the kids were sick or not feeling good, I would combine different oils to help cure their ailments. So I did a lot of my research in this kitchen! I started by going to the co-op and reading what was on every label, then bringing it home and feeling the texture and consistency, really looking at it...then I would go to the library or do a google search, to try and figure out how to make that product on my own without incorporating any of the additives or chemicals that were in the products at the store. I worked with a friend, Jessica Werman, who calls herself “The Soap Lady” in Minneapolis. She teaches through community ed programs here in the Twin Cities and she taught me how to make cold-process soaps. We also worked together on developing a conditioning shampoo for the hotels. I used her as a resource quite a bit. 

AB: How did that turn into making products for the hotel? 

MR: Well we knew that we wanted something organic, and locally made - the same aspects Alex uses in his cooking. I did research on what brands of luxury body product  are used in boutique hotels. The products feel really nice, but when you look at the ingredient label there’s like fifty hard to pronounce ingredients there! So we knew we didn’t want those in the hotel rooms, because that’s not what Alma is about. Everything is from the earth, from a farm, plant based.  I’m a firm believer that whatever goes on your body goes in your body, so I thought about how I could avoid any chemicals or synthetics being used in the hotel rooms. For example, an incredibly common ingredient found in most skin care products is sodium lauryl sulfate. When you research this ingredient, you begin to realize it’s a pretty harsh toxin. But we all use it every day! It’s in shampoo, toothpaste, dish soap, clothes detergent. In small amounts our bodies can probably handle it but when you’re putting it in your body through different channels all the time, it creates a build-up which I believe can be damaging to your health. As much as Alex cares about using ingredients that are good for you in the food, that’s what I wanted to do with the skin care products.

AB: What are some products that will be available in the hotel? 

MR: The cold process soap, the conditioning shampoo, a body oil, an air and body mist, and a body wash. The body wash and shampoo are an organic, aloe-vera based soap product. Then I’ve added healing oils into both, like a sweet almond oil and organic coconut oil. The body oil is a massage oil, or something you can put on after a shower to moisturize your body. That’s made with all organic products as well, a combination of sweet almond oil, apricot, and sesame oil. There’s these little coconut glycerin bars as well, like this one I made this morning. I put in a little gold mica mineral to give it a little bit of pretty, shimmery color. That’s made with vanilla - I was up at five this morning trying out that one! The cold process soaps have different scents, but most things will carry the signature Alma scent. 

A glycerin soap with gold mica. 

AB: What is the signature scent? How did you develop it? 

MR: When thinking about creating the Alma Scent, I knew I wanted it to smell delicious, so it evoked thoughts of food. I love lemon essential oil because not only is it a beautiful scent, but it has such powerful health properties, so I knew I was going to use lemon. At Alma, Alex uses a lot of lemon and a lot of herbs in his cooking, so I did research on the different herbs and their properties to decide what would be the best fit. Thyme really stuck out to me for it’s skin healing properties, and if you put it in your hair it makes your hair thicker and fuller feeling. It also happens to smell really good with lemon. I combined cedarwood, bergamot, and grapefruit to round it out and give it brightness. And That’s the signature Alma scent. Once I find the scent, I create the product: body wash, shampoo, bar soaps...

AB: Will people be able to buy the products offered at the hotel? 

MR: I’m working on a website right now . We’re also planning to have little market pop ups in the Alma space in the future and some of my products are currently available at the Alchemy studios. I’m also planning a collaboration with Beth Joselyn, the owner of Kid Yoga Minnesota  to make some kid-friendly aromatherapy products for her studio as well.

AB: How do you hope people feel when they walk into the hotel? 

MR: I think the scent I’ve created conjures up appetite. It smells good; it’s natural. I hope it makes people feel beautiful, relaxed, and a bit hungry! 

Sunday, October 30th, 2016 

E D U C A T I O N :  W I T H  M A R K  A N D R E W S 

Mark Andrews is well known around Alma and both locations of Brasa for being a powerful and driving force for change - someone who gets things done. He values learning, and over the years has helped staff members with everything from learning about cooking techniques (what’s sofrito?!) to organizing their personal lives (how do I file my taxes?!). Always willing to answer a question or lend a hand, Mark is a natural as the Learning and Staff Development Coordinator. The Alma Blog got to chat with him this week about what makes the Alma Group a great place to work, and how learning plays into every aspect of a job. 

AB: Why do you value working at the Alma Group restaurants ? How has your role here developed over the years? 

MA: Many of our staff value working at Alma and Brasa because of the opportunities for learning and growth that are present here, and over the past eight years this has held true for me. For five years, I worked at Brasa Minneapolis as a line cook, kitchen manager, and general manager. I got to work with so many amazing people, and learned a ton about what it means to be an effective leader and manager. After that, I worked for three years the Operations Coordinator for our organization, during which time I learned about creating systems, change management, and business finance. Currently, my role is as the Learning and Staff Development Coordinator for Alma and Brasa. My job is to support our culture of learning and growth through training, leadership development, and team building. We encourage our staff to explore who they are both professionally and personally; to take risks, make mistakes, and to grow stronger because of it. I feel privileged to get to be a part of this learning process.

AB: We got to chat with Michelle last week about creating culture in a restaurant - what has your experience been with culture?

MA: Creating a positive culture has a lot to do with attracting and retaining positive people. Alma and Brasa are staffed by almost 200 incredibly positive, bright, creative people who maintain this culture every day they come to work. There's no secret formula for this, and it's something we're always striving for. When you look around, you see it in small but deeply meaningful things: saying good morning with a genuine smile, sharing a staff meal before or after service, and in the ways that our teams work together. 

AB: How does this play into management and the training of managers? 

MA: As a manager, you can impact it by cultivating an environment in which everyone feels respected and appreciated for who they are and the contribution they make. We talk about hospitality as being both external and internal: paying attention to the way we make each other feel is central to the service we provide our guests and to how we work with one another. 

AB: What training techniques and philosophies are you hoping to use in the coming year, with the opening of the new spaces?

MA: We believe that the real magic of cooking and hospitality can't be turned into a recipe or exact set of instructions, and that's true...but we're definitely starting to identify essential parts of the process. Eating well and having fun are on the top of the list. But having a learning mindset also has a lot to do with it: while training usually has a set relationship with time, learning happens everyday. This is at the heart of how I'm approaching this work. No matter if you're a trainer, a trainee, a new employee or a twelve-year veteran, we all can learn something from each other. I'm looking at what has made us successful over the past 18 years, identifying best practices and attempting to create a shared language for it. As we continue to grow as an organization, it is essential that we maintain positive, supportive learning environments. 

AB: How is that executed? 

MA: We're developing ways to make our training more intentional and impactful by training our trainers to understand their role as facilitators of learning. We're creating clearly defined expectations, ensuring that the appropriate levels of support are available to help staff develop, and providing engaging opportunities for our staff to learn about things that interest them. In addition to the skills and core competencies that comprise the work we do every day, we engage our staff in activities that encourage learning about communication, conflict resolution, problem solving, leadership, teamwork, and how to run a business. Whether an individual pursues a professional career in the hospitality industry or chooses to follow another path, we strive to make Alma and Brasa places that set everyone up for success as curious, engaged, lifelong learners.

Sunday, October 23rd, 2016 

C R E A T I N G  C U L T U R E :  W I T H  M I C H E L L E  N O R D H O U G E N 

Not many restaurants have a Human Resources department, and even fewer have someone like Michelle Nordhougen. She is the very human heart of the Alma Group, traveling between Alma and both locations of Brasa, and making each and every employee feel valued, heard, and acknowledged, whilst giving them true opportunities for growth, as well as a sounding board for every single concern. Endlessly approachable, Michelle talked with the Alma Blog this week about workplace culture, an undervalued element in most of the Restaurant Industry. Of course, by the end of the interview, she had flipped the table, and we ended up talking about ourselves...without even noticing it was happening! But that, that, is the magic of Michelle. 

AB: Can you talk a little bit about your role - both in the restaurant as is and how it will be, given the expansion? 

MN: My role has been morphing a little bit with the growing number of employees - a lot of it continues to be systems: hiring, recruitment, development, performance support. I’m still very interested in the philosophy of what human resources are - about the resources people require to develop their own resources. But also there are many policy and legalities that need attention as we’re growing. There are differences between each of our locations: a cafe is different than a restaurant, Brasa Minneapolis is different from Brasa St. Paul, and with ACA compliance,  pending FLSA changes and other wage and benefit concerns I am continually seeking greater understanding, branching out to keep our policy manuals up to date and reflective of our organization. 

AB: How has hiring been going? 

MN: It has been fun to be part of team interviewing, and sharing best practices with a whole new crew of hiring managers as well as ideas about what we’re looking for: not just skill sets, but a growth mindset: people who want to come in and contribute and learn and grow. Not necessarily intending to stay here forever, but to be absolutely engaged while they’re here and know that they can be  provided continuing opportunities. 

AB: What do you think of as “The Alma Mindset”? What do you look for in new candidates? 

MN: A lot of it has to do with curiosity - an interest in learning and developing, and being a part of a community that is wanting to challenge you - not to the point of discomfort, of course - but more to the point of feeling like you are reaching towards you own potential. What we are looking for is individuals who want to be here, not only to discover what they can do for the team, but also what the team can do for them. 

AB: How have you seen people start here and fulfill that growth potential? 

MN: One thing that is very indicative of the positive and learning culture that Alex [Roberts] has built is that many people have been here five to fifteen years. That has a lot to do with those people being given the opportunity to step into another set of shoes - there’s those who follow a traditional trajectory (dishwasher, line cook, sous chef, head chef), but there’s also those who start in the kitchen and become front of the house managers. Even in some situations it’s about trying something and finding that if it’s not quite the right fit, there might be another opportunity down a different avenue. Over the years, there are multiple examples of that: of somebody starting in one position and veering off and doing something else. Even myself - I started as a part time office manager and payroll person, and when the time was right was given the opportunity to explore a larger role. This organization believes that skills can be acquired, character can evolve. The desire to grow, is a necessary ingredient. We hope that our staff learn things here that can apply elsewhere: not just at this job or the next job for the next organization, but in relationships and in life. 

AB: Your role is so big already - how does it feel to have it grow as the company does? 

MN:  It feels right. It is about separating from the idea that it is about one role or one person. Like trying to articulate and demonstrate the eye contact that’s necessary for people to really see one another. One person can’t hold down that part of an organization, it has to be everybody. Everybody wants to be looked at and to be seen. So the more clarity we can provide about how habits, or ways of connecting with people happen, the better. It’s about the actual doing, making sure it’s in practice and not just talked about. Saying “hi” to everyone when they walk in the door can’t lose it’s excitement. It’s really important to see people. There are always those times when people are having a rough day, and while we may not know the full story and we don’t need the whole story, I believe that having someone look at you and say: “Hey. How’s it going?” is building the right environment. It’s camaraderie. It’s true caring.  

Sunday, October 16th, 2016 

P L A N N I N G  T H E  D E T A I L S  ( P A R T  T W O ): W I T H  T A L I N  S P R I N G

Talin Spring is, without a doubt, one of the loveliest people we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Gracious, warm, and beautiful, she exudes creativity and thoughtfulness in every look and sentence. The Alma Blog was lucky enough to join Talin in her home, where she shared plans for the hotel, design inspiration, and wise words. 

AB: Do you mind sharing a little bit about yourself and where you’re from? 

TS: So I’m Armenian originally and was born in Istanbul, but I moved to France with my parents when I was ten years old, and I lived in France most of my life. For part of my graduate studies I came to Columbia University in New York, where I studied International Affairs and Finance, and that’s where I met my husband, who’s an American. He spoke French already, so we moved back to France and lived there together for seventeen years. Then ten years ago, his job brought us to Minneapolis. It took me awhile to get used to it but now I love it. I’ve met incredible people. I always say I stay here for the people! 

AB: How did you get involved with Alma and the Hotel? 

TS: I met Alex through a common friend, Jon Wipfli, of The Minnesota Spoon. He was doing a potluck dinner, and that’s where I met Alex, who told me about the project. It sounded exciting, and I said: “oh, can I be your innkeeper?” We didn’t see each other for another six months, but when we reconnected, one thing lead to another and now I’m doing the whole hotel! 

AB: What are you doing for the hotel? 

TS: Everything from what’s on the walls to the design of the bed...every single item, basically. And every room is different! They all have a link to each other, obviously, but we wanted them to be very independent. It’s overwhelming sometimes, but all in all it’s very exciting. It’s probably the most exciting project I’ve worked on. 

A table and chairs that will be in the suite room at the hotel. 

AB: Can you tell us more about all the rooms being different? How are they different? How are they the same? 

TS: We have seven rooms - six upstairs and one downstairs. The ceilings are very high, so I wanted to put a canopy bed in each room. For me the bed is very important, it’s sort of a refuge, especially in a hotel. Marvin [Freitas] and I have worked on beautiful beds with brass inlays; some of the beds will have full canopy and some won’t, because in certain cases we didn’t want to block the light from the window. All the textiles are different ( some are vintage, some are new), the vintage rugs are different, all the artwork is different - we have open closets, with all custom woodwork. There are a lot of intentionally tactile things to make the space homey and cozy, in contrast to the outside world - especially in the winter. 

AB: How do you hope the Alma hotel feels? 

TS: Like a safe place, where you can dream, relax, regenerate and go face the world...a shelter....you can be well upstairs and then go downstairs to delight your senses. You eat a delicious meal surrounded by people in this beautiful cafe, or restaurant, with its open kitchen - then you go up, close your door, and close your eyes… just like in a home. I hope people feel warm, cozy, and most of all - human. A comforting place emotionally and physically. I have a lot of older furniture pieces - like this table. I like giving new life to old things, so there’s interplay. There’s that and then there’s the wood, probably the most human material, sourced locally, that Marvin used to make the beds, the shutters, cabinetry, and desks. We tried to give a physical connection for people: things they want to touch, curves they want to circle with their fingers, objects that make a sound. Nothing is perfect because everything is handmade.The building isn’t perfect - it’s an old building, the walls are not perfect. There is a sense of time and care in everything that’s handmade and we want people to feel that there’s a life in every item that’s put in the room.  

Sunday, October 9th, 2016 

I N  T H E  K I T C H E N:  W I T H  M A T T I  S P R A G U E  & C A R R I E  R I G G S

Or more accurately, the proofing room, where the Alma Blog recently hid away with Matti Sprague (Chef de Cuisine, Cafe Alma) and Carrie Riggs (Executive Pastry Chef, Restaurant and Cafe Alma). Matti and Carrie are fun and boisterous, even at nine the morning, eager to talk about food and the Alma of the future. 

AB: Can I ask you both briefly about your journey to Alma? 

MS: I started at Alma in 2006. I was working in Duluth at the time and decided to move to Minneapolis to study video production, but one of the Chefs I was working for [in Duluth] convinced me to pursue a culinary career instead. By the end of the summer I moved here, I had a call from Alex and a foot in the door. I eventually worked my way up to Sous Chef, and now, just over a decade later, I get this cool new opportunity. Being here for so long feels pretty great. A lot of people ask me if it ever gets stale, and I always respond that it hasn’t - there’s always a series of new challenges and new opportunities. And besides, I just like the food so much. 

CR: So I was working as a teacher but I wasn’t sure that it was what I wanted to do forever, so I went to Asia to travel around. I found myself really taken with the pastries there, and after I came back to the States I took a leap and made a career change, which ended up being the right move. I came to Alma three years ago, and the now infamous story is that I was the very last applicant, and Mike [Berger, Chef de Cuisine of Alma at the time] had already made the cut-off. But Michelle [Nordhougen, the Alma Group Human Resources Manager] said: “Just one more! Just look at this last one!”, and that was me. So thank you, Michelle! I never expected to actually get the job. In fact, I almost didn’t apply because I thought they’d never pick me. But my husband (boyfriend at the time) said “You can let them decide that”. Since then I’ve been pretty busy growing the pastry and bread program, doing pop-ups, getting involved with Farmer’s Markets, helping to organize events - I like new challenges all the time! 

AB: How does it feel with the Cafe opening, with you two being the leaders of the kitchen? 

MS: Well it certainly feels like kind of a lot to wrap my arms around, but the most important thing for me right now is being surrounded by the rest of the team and working closely with them. I’m very excited for it and also, you know, fairly anxious, we’re getting close to opening - but I see a really great opportunity to see through some of the things we’ve been talking about for the last few years. I’ve always imagined what some of the Alma dishes might look like in a more casual setting, so it’s exciting to actually present them in that way and expose them at a more accessible price point. 

CR: Going from Pastry Chef to Executive Pastry Chef can be overwhelming on some days, but other days I’m like: “Yes! I’m ready! Let’s open tomorrow!” I’m so excited to grow my team, get new people on board, and try new things. It’s going to be really different than what people have seen at Alma in the past, because we don’t have much reason to use pastries like croissants, so being able to produce it all the time is pretty exciting. 

Savory Pastries at one of the Cafe Alma Pop Ups.

AB: So what can people expect to see from the menu at the Cafe, both in pastry and savory? 

CR: For sure croissants and variations on croissants both sweet and savory, for sure Kouign-amann because they’re my favorite. I’m working on a chocolate Kouign-amann that I’m pretty excited about. You’ll see the hand pies that were pretty successful at the farmer’s market, Bostock - 

MS: What is Bostock? 

CR: Bostock is twice-baked Brioche, sometimes with fruits on it, sometimes with almond cream...it’s a really good sweet pastry. There will be a variety of breads we’ll offer all the time, mini-pies, mini-cakes, and cookies! Our “Scouts Honor” cookies, which is our take on a Samoa Girl Scout Cookie. 

MS: A lot of the savory menu will be pulling from older Alma traditions, so you might see dishes like the duck liver bruschetta with port wine jus, apricots, and bacon. We’re reviving a classic Portuguese-style stew with roasted chicken, chorizo, clams, white beans, and tomato, and our smoked whitefish salad with marinated potatoes and pickled jalapenos - that’s something that’s developed over the years but has become sort of a mainstay, and we’ve been able to re-interpret it for the Cafe menu. A lot of things like that, only presented in a more accessible way. We’re hoping to let the food speak for itself. 

CR: I think one thing that’s super exciting about the cafe -that will shine through- is how much pastry and savory is going to cross over on the menu. There’s been so much collaboration, from the brioche in the morning for breakfast, to yogurt and granola, to the buns for the burgers, or breakfast sandwiches - we’re able to work together in a way we’ve never had before. It makes it feel like one experience: it’s not like there’s a pastry counter in the front and a restaurant in back, it’s woven together. 


"Scout's Honor" cookies. 

AB: What has that been like - developing the menu as a team? 

MS: It’s been pretty fun. I think individually we come up with some pretty tasty things, but it’s always awesome to collaborate. Someone else will always have an idea that’s slightly different than what you were thinking, and it almost always ends up being in a better place than if you were just doing it by yourself. 

CR: There’s a breakfast item I’m pretty stoked about that we’ve been calling “super french toast”, and I think it’s gonna be pretty damn delicious. 

MS: Yeah! The super french toast was developed by Alyssa [another member of Alma team Pastry] and you over the years, right? 

CR: We were inspired by a cook book we both love, Ottolenghi - it starts with making an egg bake casserole out of brioche and then sautéing it afterwards so it’s twice-cooked. We’re going to have a sweet version and a savory version. The savory version will be kind of like a Monte Cristo, with - you know - 

MS: Caramelized onions and smoked pork belly. 

CR: The sweet version will be pretty seasonal based on the fruits we have available, but probably roasted stone fruits and mascarpone with vanilla infused maple syrup. 

MS: A dish I’ve gotten really excited about developing is a pork blade steak, which is essentially pork shoulder that’s been cross-cut, and then marinated - or tenderized - then grilled - or griddled - so it’s caramelized...it kind of ties in with the bigger picture of elevating humble ingredients. What I’m really looking forward to is seeing how Alma is viewed through a different lens, and being able to connect with people who maybe fine dining isn’t their thing, or can’t enjoy Alma as frequently as they’d like to because of the price point. I think it will be great to have the Cafe as that window for people to experience Alma in a more everyday kind of fashion. We want to take the same intensity, approach, and focus that we have for Alma and deliver it to casual cooking. Because it deserves it. 

AB: Why does food excite you both? What about it brings you to work every day? 

CR: I think the fact that you can never totally master it. You’ll always have an opportunity to keep learning. Because I never stop learning, or experimenting. I love to keep reimagining, re-discovering, finding new techniques or a more streamlined way to do things. Plus, I love food from the ground up: how it grows, the farmers that produce it, how you care for it - I think it’s really important. It’s all magical to me. To be able to take that product and turn it into something totally different, something that people enjoy, that makes them smile - it’s magic. 

MS: Aside from it being delicious and nourishing, and, you know, essential to survival - I think the personal connections people make with food is amazing. You can tell so much about a certain person by their views on food and eating. I don’t want to get romantic on the whole topic, but - 

CR: No, get romantic!

MS: Food often does tell a story. There’s a connection with everything, and food that’s being done really well always does have a personal connection, whether it’s a Michelin-starred chef or your grandmother rolling hand pies or making kimchi, there’s always an intention and a reason why it’s happening. I’ve always really liked my role as a Chef because I feel like a storyteller. I don’t mean fabricating a story but trying to present something that brings people back to a place they remember. That’s where the deepest connections to food are created. 

Sunday, October 2nd, 2016 

P L A N N I N G  T H E  D E T A I L S:  P A R T  O N E

W I T H  M A R V I N  F R E I T A S

Marvin Freitas is instantly likeable, and within five minutes of shaking hands he was guiding the Alma Blog all over his studio - showing us plans, pictures of his kids, and teaching us about different types of furniture detailing. Working with designer Talin Spring (look for her in part two of this post), Marvin is building much of the furniture for the new Hotel Alma, as well as restoring several historic pieces for use in both the hotel and cafe. 

AB: Tell us about yourself - what is it that you do? 

MF: Well, I do everything: woodwork, metalwork, glasswork. I keep everything in house. You can see where I do most of the wood over here, and then we’ve got a mill for custom hardware and over here is where I do the welding. So I do a little bit of everything. 

AB: How did you get involved with Alma? What are you doing for the hotel?

MF: Talin [Spring] reccomended me to Alex. We met through social media, everything through social media. It’s such a huge part of the buusiness. She designs the stuff and I make it. We’re doing all the beds, the shutters I’m going to make - Talin designed them to be a very European-style shutter - very intricate. On the beds we have a brass inlay on the headboards...it’s going to be very cool. I’m very excited to work with Alma. I feel like it’s kind of the best client to have...Alex is extremely respectful and cool to work for. I’m trying to truly do the best work I can, and to use the best quality product. 

The brass for the headboard inlay.

Marvin's studio. 

 Design plans. 

Inspiration from Talin Spring. 

AB: So what can people expect when they walk into Hotel Alma? 

MF: I think it’s going to be beautiful. It’s going to be elegant, with a good vibe and a lot of thought put into it. 

Drawers for a desk. 

MF: Here, come over here and I’ll show you some of the older pieces we’re restoring. Here’s a secretary desk that will be in the suite. The sides swing out on this, which is so cool. It’s really old, like a hundred years old, and it’s local, it’s from Fairbault. The detail on this is phenomenal, it’s amazing. I’m refinishing this, but you don’t want to be too fancy, you don’t want to mess with it. We’ll weld new legs and wax it. 

Sunday, September 25th, 2016 

A  C O N S T R U C T I O N  U P D A T E: 

  W I T H  J O R D A N  D I C K  

A N D  T O N Y  W E S T L U N D 

Jordan Dick is funny and personable, the kind of guy you’d call if your oven broke the night before Thanksgiving or your pipe burst at four in the morning. After spending years in the kitchen at Brasa St. Paul as a Line Cook and Kitchen Manager, Jordan became a General Manager, recently working at Brasa Minneapolis. Now he’s Operations Manager for the Alma Group. A good part of his job encompasses all the working elements of restaurants that most people never think about: the phone systems, computers, software, circuit breakers, kitchen equipment, and other day-to-day elements that are essential to creating an exceptional guest experience. We walked through the ongoing construction at Alma with Jordan, stopping to talk to Tony Westlund of Diversified Construction along the way. 

The new prep kitchen at Alma

Behind Jordan is the new Deck Oven, a crucial part of our bread program, which you can read more about in our interview with Tiffany Singh. 

Setting up new equipment for the pastry team. 

AB: What are some of the changes that guests can expect to see to the new Restaurant Alma? 

JD: A lot of the changes are going to be sort of imperceptible, the kind of thing where people will know something’s different but they won’t necessarily be able to put their finger on it. The kitchen will open up into the Café kitchen, so you can see all the way through. The floors are freshly poured concrete, the stairs to the mezzanine go the other direction. A lot of these things are changing based on seventeen years of experience, it’s giving us an opportunity to use all the feedback we’ve collected about how guests really interact with the space, and how to make the experience better for them. For example: the reason we’ve flipped the stairs around is because it used to be that when a guest came down from the mezzanine, they were facing the dining room and it became a sort of unintentional grand entrance to the bathroom. Now it’s going to be much more comfortable for everyone. 

The new space starting to take shape. You can see the flipped-around stairs in the background.

Currently a work zone. The original kitchen pass and hoods will stay in service at Restaurant Alma. Behind is where the Restaurant kitchen now joins the Café kitchen.

The original wine glass rack, which will be put back up upon completion of construction. It will be one of many familiar elements returning to Restaurant Alma.

The café service kitchen.

JD: There are some really great details happening in the new spaces. Little things that make a difference. Every room - the Café, the Restaurant, and the Private Dining spaces - are controlled by separate audio switches, so you can be running different music in all of the spaces. We’re also adding a tap system with ten taps. We’ll be featuring local beer, of course, but also hard cider, keg wine, even pre-batched cocktails.


A run for tap lines.The rarely-seen insides of a draft system. 

The new cafe bar. 

JD: There will be a couple different forms of service. From 7:00 A.M. to 10:30 A.M. daily, the “Early” menu will have sweet & savory pastries, items for grab-and-go, and also a small menu of warm items from the kitchen. Think egg sandwiches on freshly baked rolls and a signature warm cereal. During the early period we’ll either pass the item to you immediately or call your name when it's ready. You can grab a seat in the front room or at the bar with a cup of coffee in hand. At 10:30 A.M. the “Day” menu will bring full table service and a larger menu composed of brunch and lunch items. Of course, the front counter will remain open for grab-and-go all day, so you’ll have tons of options. 

Tony Westlund is with Diversified Construction, and worked as a help build Brasa St. Paul as carpenter when it opened in 2009. It was there that he developed deep respect for Alex Roberts and his vision for restaurants, and when the opportunity came around to be a part of the Alma project, Tony lobbied for the chance. 

AB: What’s your official role here on site? 

TW: I’m the project superintendent. So the project manager sells the job, bids the job, and gets the job, and when they have everything together they hand it off to me, and I’m the organizer. I oversee all the subcontractors and what is happening on the project day-to-day. Here I’m executing the vision of James Dayton Design (Architects to be featured in a later post) and Alex. I have to make sure that the whole team is on board, working together properly and putting all the pieces together. 

AB: What have been some challenges that have come up in the process? 

TW: It’s an old building, and with that you’re going to have some unforeseen structural issues. As you go through you have to constantly visualize and re-visualize what’s going on. But it’s not so much challenges as part of the business, changes happen. It can be challenging, but in the end your job is to deliver the vision, and I’ll do whatever I can to make that happen. Sometimes it can be a really simple process, and sometimes it isn’t. That’s all part of the job. 

AB: Why did you lobby to be a part of this project? 

TW: Because I worked with Alex before. The environment he creates is so positive. He encourages everyone on site every day: shakes a lot of hands, makes them feel - well, you know, I guess he doesn’t make them feel, it’s just who he is. He’s so genuine. He wants them to feel welcome in his space and really recognizes people doing a good job. It’s really important. It keeps morale around here high. To work with a client like him is a blessing. There’s a lot of great clients, but he’s exceptional. 

AB: What’s been the most exciting part of this project? 

TW: Being a part of a historic building. Getting to see transformation happening is always exciting and rewarding, and I’ve never worked on a project like this - seeing this building come alive has been great. I hope when people walk into the new space, they see quality - that’s important: precise lines, correct placement. I’d also like to see people smile when they walk in. The satisfaction they feel at seeing this space transformed. We’ve exposed more of the original building. It will be beautiful to most people and maybe not beautiful to some, but I’ll know we accomplished what we set out to do.

Custom lighting from Montreal 

JD: In the Cafe and Hotel we’ve painted the ceiling white, which brightens the space a lot and helps hides some of the wires and mechanical. It all blends in, which is nice, but keeps it open - the restaurant space has always been open. The natural materials like old brick and brass next to the white ceiling is really looking good.  

Paint swatches at the hotel. 

The hotel, beginning to take shape. 

Tiling the bathrooms in the hotel. 

JD: A lot of my world right now is how everything gets from point A to point B - the internet and wireless cables, the phones. Stuff that just functions in a hotel that you don’t think about, but someone has to say: “Yes! This is how we want this to be set up, how we want this to go, let’s call this extension - whatever”, and map it out so it all works smoothly. I’m nerdy about the mechanical, so I get really excited about it. Seeing the big, huge metal conduit and the massive breaker boxes. Those are mind-blowing. To see that all come together, especially with the electrical, and see it get done really well - it’s been so cool to see what goes on behind the walls. We take this sort of stuff for granted, but we’re talking conduit THIS big (the width of a very large boa constrictor). It’s like lifting up the hood of a car and seeing that engine underneath. And it’s pretty impressive. 

AB: How do you hope people feel when they walk in this space? 

JD: The vision has it laid out: warmth. I hope when people return to the Restaurant they feel like it’s Alma, sure maybe with a wall opened up and nicer furniture, but they’ll be able to see the basic layout is the same and that the staff and food is much the same. With the Café, I hope it’s an extension of the hospitality created at Alma. I want people to feel warmth, to feel welcome - almost an “extension of home” vibe. To think of the hotel as your bedroom upstairs, and the café as your living room/breakfast nook, with the restaurant as your formal dining room. Hopefully it’s something that people want to come back to. I want it to hit that level where people say “yeah, this gonna be my spot. This is where I’m going to come every Tuesday morning and have my latte and croissant.” That’s my hope for it. 

Sunday, September 18th, 2016 

G I V I N G   B A C K : 

E X P L O R I N G   A L M A ' S   C O M M U N I T Y   P A R T N E R S H I P S

W I T H   A S H   R E Y N O L D S

To know Ash Reynolds is to know a truly compassionate soul - she’s warm, funny, a keen listener, and generously aware. After spending years as a server and supervisor at Restaurant Alma, Ash helped to open Brasa St. Paul, and then built the Brasa catering department from the ground up. Now she’s the Manager of Communications & Community Relations for the Alma Group, and Ash has dedicated herself to using the resources of three successful restaurants to give back to the community that surrounds us. The Alma Blog accompanied her on a trip to the headquarters of Youth Farm - one of the main organizations the Alma is partnered with. We took a walk around South Minneapolis, exploring the Youth Farm gardens and talking with staff, and learning about what it truly means to help enrich the community you’re in. 

AB: Where did Alma’s community partnership program start? 

AR: When we opened the doors in 1999, it felt innate to support the community we were working in. So from the very beginning we started supporting Marcy Open school, which is the closest elementary school to Alma, with any sort of donations they asked for. Then over the years that’s grown to where we are now the main caterer and provider for their Arts Gala, and that Gala feeds six hundred people a year. 

AB: And now we work with a lot of schools, yes? 

AR: Our involvement with Minneapolis public schools is substantial, and it gets to the root of our philosophy on nourishing people: they feed thirty-four thousand kids a day. We have an involvement with them on building relationships with local farmers, taste testing, and doing focus groups with kids to taste new recipes they’re working on. The Brasa curried chicken bowl is currently on the menu at Minneapolis public schools, and we know that by being involved with them we’re able to lend a different kind of credibility to the food and endorse what’s going on there, because everyone thinks about school lunches as being kind of...you know. Not very good. But they’re really changing that in Minneapolis. A lot of the same vendors they use, like River Bend Farms and Dragsmith and Open Hands, are vendors that we use too. We’re able to support getting that level of food quality to kids, which is significant. And really enjoyable. 

AB: When did your role start to emerge, as someone who is dedicated to the giving side of Alma? 

AR: My role started about seven years ago through Brasa’s catering program. As I was handling the donation requests that were coming in, we decided to formalize what our donation program would be going forward. We really wanted to focus our non-profit involvement locally - mainly with organizations that work to promote sustainable farming, farming education, land stewardship, hunger relief issues, and the wellbeing of children. In 2013 we began a relationship with Minneapolis public schools and their True Food Chef Council. The initial project was putting salad bars in what I think was eight elementary schools, and so we did fundraising in both Brasa locations for that. We also decided, during that fundraising project, to donate a dollar from every Alma tasting menu to the effort. What was amazing was that it invigorated the staff so much - to be able to give back in that way and have a tangible part in providing good food to kids, that we decided to roll it out into a monthly program. Once that happened, we decided we needed somebody dedicated to it, who is connecting the non-profits and promoting it socially, so that our customers can know about it. 

AB: So that was where the “Giving Program” that we know today came from? 

AR: Right. So in January 2014 it was officially launched, and since then we’ve worked with about twenty local non-profits. We also work from the ground with organizations like the Sustainable Farming Association and the Farmer’s Legal Action Group. The Farmer’s Legal Action Group provides legal assistance to mostly immigrant Farmers who are trying to work land and finding resistance from the communities they’re in. We work with them, we work with food groups trying to get fresh fruit and vegetables to the food shelves, we work with youth development organizations...as of August 31st of this year, we’ve been able to donate seventy-nine thousand dollars. Now that we’ve extended the program to Brasa (fifty cents of every cornbread at both locations of Brasa are now included), we’re hoping the effort will increase the donation amount to about five to six thousand dollars a month. 

We learned that small non-profits, like Appetite for Change, which is based in North Minneapolis - are on a shoestring budget. The first year we worked with them, they were able to hire a bookkeeper to get their books in order for their kickstarter. We now understand that even relatively modest sized donations can really help.

AB: I know Alma has events with these non-profits several times a year - can you talk about those? 

AR: Well, on Sunday is the third annual Taste of the Farm Dinner, which is Youth Farm’s largest fundraiser of the year. It’s held at the home site of Youth Farm. There will be tours to some of the farms by the students, since there are three farms within a three block radius of the headquarters. Brasa & Alma will be providing food, and we’ve also been working with wonderful local companies like Able Seedhouse Brewery, Tattersall Distillery, and Dogwood Coffee as event partners to bring all the necessary pieces together required to create a great dinner event. Other things we do are setting up field trips. So we can actually visit a Youth Farm site in the spring and help clean up the garden beds with the kids and team leads Or we go to one of the small communities that the Farmer’s Legal Action group may be working with to see the Hmong Farmer’s Association in action. These events are important because in addition to our support, we’re networking for these non-profits, helping introduce other restaurants and organizations to hugely important work and organizational missions. All these organizations inspire us, and we want the public to know about them, and to learn about them. 

Youth Farm’s Markus Kar and Jesus Perez in one of their gardens.

AB: What is the vision behind the giving program itself? 

AR: At the very core of our philosophy at the restaurants is that our purpose is to nourish well being. We nourish people at the restaurants with the food that we put on the table. Food that makes you feel good, food that will help people thrive. Our donation program is all about nourishing well being in the community - whether helping bring fresh, local produce to kids in a public school salad bar to supporting larger systems that will care for the soils that feed us all.

AB: What are some of the hopes for the program in the future? 

AR: I think our real goal is to build the awareness of these small organizations that are working in the Twin Cities. We have a platform - both from Alma and Brasa - that gives people an opportunity to hear about these non-profits where they otherwise would not. And maybe three people who read about Urban Roots at Brasa tell three more people, and it snowballs from there. If we can continue to broaden the awareness of Appetite for Change, of Youth Farm, of Gardening Matters, of the True Food Chef Council, we know we can make an impact on the bottom lines of these groups. 

L-R: Youth Farm Director Gunnar Liden, Associate Director Amanda Stoelb, Ash Reynolds, Brasa St. Paul General Manager Megan Gall.

C O M M U N I T Y  P A R T N E R: Y O U T H  F A R M

Executive Director Gunnar Liden and Associate Director Amanda Stoelb: 

AB: What is the impact of working with Alma and Brasa on Youth Farm? 

GL: It’s amazing having leaders in the restaurant industry be a part of not just the “volunteering/ feel good” aspect of things, but really being involved in our mission in supporting young people and food for change in the world. That’s what we’re trying to do, and it’s what Alma and Brasa are trying to do, in the different ways, but to the same end. Alma and Brasa have been instrumental in supporting that work, but also in helping us do the things that we’re not good at - not in a weird way, but because it’s not what we do. I get that lean-in aspect from Ash, where she says: “yes, we know how to do this, and we know how to do this well, and we care about what you’re doing, and we want to help you make you make an impact.” She always leads with “How can we help?”, which is not always the response you get. 

AS: That’s a very unique question when someone approaches us and wants to partner. Very rarely do we get asked what we need. A lot of people come in with how they want to help, and I feel like the Brasa/Alma partnership - and also the additional restaurant partners their partnership has brought in - is really authentic. We really get heard when we say what we need, and when we come back with ideas, the response from Ash is, ninety-nine percent of the time: “Yeah, let’s see if we can figure it out.” 

GL: We have other great partners in other places, but I feel totally respected from Alma and Brasa and the staff, from people who are at every level of the organization, and I appreciate that. A lot. 

AS: I appreciate that Alma/Brasa walks their talk in terms of supporting local food in a way that’s also really unique. It’s easy to talk. And you can walk that talk within your restaurant space, but it’s an entirely other level to actually go out into the community and take it to the next level, finding people who are doing work that you’re not doing, to help create this really holistic system. The on-the-ground impact, really practically, is huge. We’re able to raise money in a way that fits with us. We’re a small non-profit. Pulling off an event like this [the Youth Farm Dinner] is not easy. 

GL: This event is going to raise close to forty thousand dollars for us, and then we have the other money that Brasa/Alma raises for us. We never ear mark that money ahead of time - but that’s almost a full time staff person’s salary! That pays for our high school interns throughout the school year. 

AS: The money is important, but there’s also another factor - we’re an organization that really values transparency. It’s amazing to not only have partners that will raise money, but who will actually come out here and do farm work! Everyone on our staff knows Ash. That’s a big deal at Youth Farm. Because we have that culture of ownership, our staff feels like they own every piece of our work, so if they didn’t know Ash - it would be weird! Our staff knows that they can call her with questions. So there’s that very tangible forty-to-fifty thousand dollars a year impact, and then there’s these softer things that are really important, and really valued.

Sunday, September 11th, 2016

W O R D S  O N  W I N E: A N  A F T E R N O O N  W I T H  J A M E S  H I R D L E R 

Anyone who has sat at Restaurant Alma’s bar in the last sixteen years already knows this, James Hirdler is the easiest person to talk to in the universe. Last Saturday the Alma Blog got to sit down and chat with him about wine lists, training servers, and how you can order wine that pairs well with food - and makes you sigh with happiness - even if all you know about wine is that it comes from grapes. We’re not quite sure whether it’s his soothing voice, his vast expanse of knowledge, or his completely unpretentious approach to wine, but hanging out with James Hirdler is like hanging out with your favorite professor from college who also happens to be your favorite older brother.

James has worked at Alma since 2000. He started as the Service Manager, learning about wine from his mentor, Jim Reininger, and then took over the wine program when Jim retired in 2008. He’s mentored generations of Alma front-of-house staff, and his passion for creating a healthy work culture and the pursuit of knowledge shine through in every question we asked him. We hope you enjoy these words from James and much as we did.  


AB: Tell us about how you came to Alma.

JH:  I had previously worked with Jim Reininger [the former co-owner of Restaurant Alma] at Lowry’s. I was going to meet an old friend at Dunn Bros, which is what this space [Café Alma] used to be. We peeked into Alma – they had just opened – and I saw some of the original staff from Lowry’s, so I stopped in to say hi to Jim, who offered me a job on the spot. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to waiting tables, so Jim said: “well, why don’t you just run the front of the house?” And that was that.

Jim, Alex and I worked together to put systems in place to help things run better. We were surrounded by talented people, but when it got busy, I learned we couldn't rush our way of cooking. What I really liked from the beginning was that Alex wasn’t going to put a single thing out of the kitchen that wasn’t up to his standards. So if we got really busy, there was a wait. It was nice that there was never an issue, at any point, with food. We didn’t have to think about that – it was always going to be good.

AB: How did you learn about wine? What was different about Alma’s wine program from the other places you worked?

JH: Well, first of all, early in my career I learned everything from Jim [Reininger]. When I first met him in the late 80’s, he worked at Sherman’s Café –  they didn’t serve wine, but he instilled knowledge in us, having us over to his house to share wine and talk. He did wine programs at the New French Café, and then at Lowry’s – where I really started to learn from him. I then worked at a couple places where Jim wasn’t, and I got to see what didn’t work in a wine program: where everything is about price points, buying the cheapest wine for the cheapest price and then selling it for the highest amount possible. Then I went to the 510, where the owners were very versed in wine. They specialized in Bordeauxs and wines like Opus One and various other hundred dollar bottles, which at that time in this area, was very cutting edge. That’s where I learned about higher-end wines and got to taste them. But I realized what I really wanted was more of the stuff I learned from Jim at Lowry’s, so when I found this place [Alma] it was perfect.

The things Jim liked about wine are the things I appreciate in everything: he liked wine to be charming, and he liked it to be distinctive. The same goes for people and food. What he liked about wine was reflected in how he lived his life. It was very cultured, and that didn’t seem like the traditional restaurant I had seen. There was something going beyond. The main thing about Alma -  the wine, the food, the people – is that it was healthy right away. When I thought I didn’t want to go back to a restaurant job, what I really was looking for was a healthy organization of some kind. Wine had been my number one passion in my professional life, and learning about it was hard to do in the Midwest. It was either this, or I would have gone to New York City or San Francisco. Alma was a little slice of all of that: little bit of San Francisco, in the atmosphere, New York in the cooking, and it was still Midwest – friendly, and healthy. A great combination of everything. In the end, I knew I would be a better person for working here.

AB: What was your journey at Alma in regards to wine?  

JH: When I first took over the wine list, it was huge. I wanted to put everything on it, I was so excited, and the wine list had no focus. Eventually it was like: “wait a minute, that costs money, and you have to sell it!” If you don’t sell it – you can’t really carry it. There was always an emphasis on working with what we had. We had this much space, we had this much money for inventory. It’s valuable to see the genius in working within your means. Alex was always clear: “We’re not going to buy a fancy light fixture until we have the money to pay for it.” The same went for wine too, and it was a great lesson.

Also, I always wanted to see if I could get the best of something. To this day I am always searching for the best wine from the best region at the best price – can I find that one wine? When I finally get that bottle in my hand, it feels like such a success. Usually the best wine is not the most popular or the biggest name. Making a connection through introducing a great wine to people is such a joy, and once they taste a wine they love, it gives credit to everything else on our list. There’s a lot of really good wines for thirty dollars. I don’t like overcharging, and I am determined to keep wine interesting. 

AB: So how do you put together a wine list? 

JH: I am lucky enough to work in a place where the dishes are eclectic. If you work at steakhouse, you buy those big cabernets and burgundys, because you do want to buy towards what the kitchen tends to make. Here, every component of each dish is well thought out, so you can pair the wine with any of those components, which gives you freedom. It’s also fun. I like a little bit of everything, and the wine list reflects that. Alex finds inspiration from everywhere, and you can’t find a single category, really, for the food. At first, all I could do was taste the sauces and look to traditional pairings, but I learned we couldn’t have just one style of wine to go with a dish. We had to have a variety. It’s good to use the traditional “101” wine and food pairings as a guide, looking to the flavors of each component in a dish as a guide, but at some point you need to let your taste buds take over. Nobody likes the term “think outside the box” but you have to put your own stamp on something. 

As I spent time on the floor, I found a lot of people wanted to start their meal with a white and move to red wine for the entrée, and there was a lot of seafood on our menu, so then I had to find reds that pair with seafood. For a long time that went against tradition. Of course it's hard to beat a Chablis Premier Cru that pairs perfectly with seafood, but If you pair white wine with seafood because just because you think you are “supposed to” you might encounter a strange acidic component that makes some fish taste sour, or even metallic. You have to look at wines individually. Pairing red wine with seafood is commonplace now – light bodied reds, because you’re usually not just getting a piece of fish on plate – there’s other things with it. You’re pairing the components – not just the protein (with the exception of richer meats - you allow the natural fats to bring out new tastes in the wine and favor the protein over the components). 

From the start, the main point of what I learned from Jim was that food and wine will taste completely different together. Food doesn’t taste the same without wine, and vice versa. If you’re just having a glass of wine at home by itself – which is great – it’s going to be a different taste experience than alongside food. Both are good. Wine should be fun, just have fun with it.

AB: So how do you pair? How do you do it at home? Is it technical or intuitive?

JH:  Like in just about anything, it’s nice to understand traditions. It makes it even more worthwhile when you find something surprises you. The first person that had foie gras with sauternes – a dessert wine, in the middle of the meal – was like: “bingo! Eureka!” There’s different methods. The traditional method is if something was grown in a certain place (and there was limited transportation back then, they grew the wine and the food next to each other), you’d pair those. You’d have briny white wines grown in the Loire that go with shellfish because that was the diet. Same with Spain: maybe you’re in Priorat, you’re in the middle of a desert, and all you have is this type of food, and the wines that you grow inherently go with it. That’s how it was way back when. There’s a legitimate thing about that. Then we got better at cooking and better at growing wine, and everything now is a little bit subtler. Knowing the basics is good. Let’s call it respecting tradition.

If you are at home and you want to pair something, there’s actually something really exciting about trial and error, because there’s no such thing as “right” and not everyone has the same palate. Our relationship with wine is evolving with the world of food. We now have an opportunity not to grow our food and our wine next to each other. We’re surrounded by so much that I recommend taking advantage of it. Find your own tastes. Try the traditional pairings and learn from them. Most people would never drink Australian Shiraz without a big, fatty lamb shank or something like it, and that’s a shame because as time goes on, the Shiraz from Australia has gotten subtler, the wines deserve to break away from some of the tradition that’s trapping them in a single role. Besides, some traditional pairings might not work for people. You don’t have to like Cabernet! Find something else that pairs with your steak! Who knows, it might be perfect.

AB: What are some good resources to learn about wine? Especially for people who don’t work in the Restaurant industry.

JH: Let me tell you, the best invention ever for anything, and it might be the world’s downfall – is the internet. I gotta say, it’s a lot of fun buying wine books, and I do it all the time - I love books. But if you’re making a dinner, and you don’t want to spend two weeks reading a book, you can go to the internet and search “Pheasant pairings” or “sauce pairings”. It seems like that would be the lazy way out, but what’s fun about that is there’s a lot of different opinions. It’s fun to read different people’s takes on the same thing. I don’t mind learning from anyone. So, short term, I would definitely recommend the internet, and then everyone should get a copy of Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible. It’s two things: it’s very easy to read, and it’s Danny Meyer’s favorite wine book, and I respect him. It was Jim Reininger’s favorite wine book too, and you can put it on the coffee table and just page through it because every page has something. She talks in such an entertaining way that even if you don’t like reading about wine, you can enjoy it.

I want to go back to wine being for everybody, and a lot of wine writers are determined to make it an “exclusive wine club” thing. It shouldn’t be that way, it should be friendly. Karen makes it friendly.

Another great resource is Twin Cities Wine Education. They put on wine classes twice a month and they’re great. Classes are fun – you get served wine and then you talk about the wine, and not in a condescending way.

AB: How do you order wine at Restaurant when you don’t know that much about wine? How can you help a server help you find something you like?

JH: If you have any idea of what you’re looking for, or even if you don’t, I would recommend having an open mind and letting the server guide you. It’s like getting your car fixed: either you’re the person who’s like: “I need to know every little thing you’re doing”, or you let the people who fix your car... fix your car. You’re there to experience what the place has to offer. Trust your server to guide you to something. If you want to bring a question – because you don’t want to get a Sicilian wine that tastes like pickle juice – you’d want to say something like: “Nothing too experimental”. But when I go out to eat, I don’t want to do too much thinking. I want to enjoy the night and the person I’m with. Have an open mind, trust your server, and if you’re looking for something specific – bring one quick question about body or flavor. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you like. If you like sweet, there might not be a ton of options, but we’ll find something for you. Never let the stigma, or the fear of someone being patronizing get in the way of drinking something you enjoy. No one should ever be patronizing when they talk about wine.

My last piece of advice is when you get a wine, don’t be afraid to say that it's not really what you’re looking for. There’s a thing these days where people get a dish and if they don’t like it, they won’t say anything, which is crazy. It’s the same thing with wine. If you don’t like it – send it back. It’s absolutely not a big deal. We’ll either serve the rest of the bottle as a special or we’ll send it back to the purveyor if it’s corked. You can send anything back. We want you to have something that you really like. Period. That’s it. Don’t even assume: “well, if they recommended this, it must be good”. None of that. If you don’t like it – send it back. You only have so many years in this life. You shouldn’t have to suffer through somebody else’s tastes.

AB: Can you talk about training servers in wine knowledge?

JH: This place is about explaining everything, influencing, teaching, and coaching. We don’t hire anyone who doesn’t inherently love food and wine. So usually they come with their own questions. If you find someone who is excited about the subject, they’ll have no problem learning how to describe it. During training, you want to find ways of talking about things that are exciting and engaging. If it’s not exciting or engaging, we need to discuss it – how can we make this better, together? That’s an essential part of the process. No one does anything really well when they don’t like it. People perform well when the highest expectations come from themselves. You want the server, by the time they hit the floor, to anticipate more questions than you even realize. Any question: “What’s good?” – they can work with that! Servers should be able to take a question and have at least three answers. When a guest asks for a certain type of wine, a server should already have several suggestions on hand. That comes from service staff tasting all the wines, several times, and giving them confidence to be able to say: “I totally get what you’re saying, and I’ve tried this, and I love it, and I think will you, too.”

AB: What wines are your current favorites when you drink wine?

JH: My preference is complicated, but easy too. I like simple things that are elegant. Right now for whites it’s Savennieres, which is a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc. For reds, I like Barolo. I like Italian reds. Traditional, simple, elegant, romantic. There’s something romantic about wine anyway, but there’s definitely something romantic about traditional wines.

AB: How can people who may not know that much about wine go to the wine store and get something they like for a reasonable price?

JH: It starts with, number one, finding a person that knows what they’re doing. Keep going to that person, ask them questions, and let them guide you. Usually wine stores employ people who are knowledgeable and love wine, and they don’t have an incentive to sell you anything in particular. They want you to experience, the same way I do when you come to Alma. Also, do a little bit of your own research and have a direction. Research, combined with trial and error are building blocks for good questions. If you try something you like, whether that be at a restaurant or at home, write it down and then bring it to the store: “I liked this, what do you have that’s similar?” That’s how you get to know your own palate, and you can gain more independence in your choices as you go on. When you go to a wine store, skip the description on the back of bottle, skip the wine score, skip the recommendation from some wine article, go to whoever is working there and trust in the experience and passion they have.  Never be afraid to make a mistake. Never be afraid to try something new. If you don’t like it? It’s just an experience. At the very least, you’ll have a story.

Sunday, September 4th, 2016

H E A R T  &  S O U L:  A L M A,  U N T I L  N O W

“‘...so the question is, how do you give directions to someone without landmarks?’  Personally, I suspect that the problem will soon take care of itself: This neighborhood jewel seems to be well on its way to becoming a landmark in its own right.”

-  CityPages Review of Restaurant Alma, February 2000. 

Shoveling the walk: early 2000's. 

The year was 1999, and the idealistic, twenty-something Alex Roberts had returned home after a long stint in New York City, where he had been cooking in the kitchens of Gramercy Tavern, Bouley, and Union Square Cafe. This was right before the release of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, the very cusp of the “Celebrity Chef” era, and the exact moment before Reality TV became obsessed with cooking - but still at least five-hundred miles away from the popularity of Food Blogs, Food Tourism, Foodstagrams, and even regular use of the term “Foodie”.

The words “Farm-to-Table” weren’t yet commonplace. In fact, they were rarities. The opulent fine-dining era was beginning its slow unraveling, but it was still long before the casual fine-dining establishment that sourced locally and ethically became ubiquitous, especially in the Twin Cities.

Alex Roberts was significantly ahead of his time when he partnered with Minneapolis restaurant stalwart Jim Reininger (Co-founder of Lowry’s, Co-owner Sherman’s Bakery, Chef at The New French Cafe) to open the very modestly-sized Restaurant Alma, in a neighborhood previously completely unoccupied by any sort of ambitious dining project. The idea was simple: serve delicious, nourishing, real food to both neighborhood folk and those celebrating a special evening. Alma was food for everyone, but it encouraged people to challenge themselves and try new things. 

The pairing of Jim’s veteran business management experience, unique approach to wine, and baking talent, along with Alex, working for the first time as a Head Chef/Operations manager, created an environment that has mentored generations of staff (some that still work at Alma, sixteen years later). 

With Alma's twentieth anniversary just three years away, and the expansion from a Restaurant into a Restaurant, Cafe, and Small Hotel ahead this year - it’s fun to reflect on the journey. 


Jim, with some samples from his wine list. 

Jim, on the difficulties of opening Alma: 

“To obtain the license to open, we had to appear at a public hearing, the purpose of which was to secure “the grandfathered rights”.  An announcement was sent, at our expense, to all those who live within a certain radius of the property. On the scheduled day of the hearing, we were informed by the city that it could not take place because they could not find our "file." ...later that day they found it on top a filing cabinet. Unfortunately, it doesn't end there. On the day we were to open, we were informed by Licensing that we could not open because we were in a residential zone and could not operate a commercial business that served wine. I contacted the City Attorney, reminding him that very recently the voters in Minneapolis had passed a resolution allowing such businesses to open in restrictive areas that lay outside the zone in which such places could operate. I asked him: “so what did this passage mean to you folks in City Hall?”  He got back to me one day later and said that an Alma is precisely what the voters had in mind. He then contacted licensing and everything proceeded as planned. Blake Edwards of the Pink Panther fame would have loved this story.”


(Mentee of Jim Reininger, Restaurant Alma Maitre’d and Wine Director) 

James and Alex, circa early 2000's. 

James, on Jim Reininger: 

“I remember one night: it was a winter night and I was bartending. It was kind of late and the bar was full of employees sitting finishing side work and having an “after work” glass of wine. Jim came in from the cold, glasses fogged over and wasn't happy that it looked like we were sitting around drinking all the profits. He told everyone that it was getting late, and we should drink up and head out. When his glasses cleared up, he realized that there were still guests finishing dinner in the restaurant and they thought he was talking to them. So they all started to leave and Jim had to explain himself.  We all had a laugh. I poured him a glass of wine.” 


Alex and his (then-girlfriend, now-wife) Margo

Alex, on Alma traditions: 

“One of my favorites is how we started the tradition of dumping water on chefs in “sneak attack style” when they decide to move on. It’s a slightly twisted way we celebrate a person’s contributions. In the early days, one sous chef was invited to come to my home for a farewell party after work, when he arrived a group of us warmly greeted him outside his car then proceeded to carry him like a canoe and toss him into a portable hot tub waiting in my backyard. You should have seen his wife’s face! The next sous chef departure involved an early morning water balloon ambush during a dog walk. Let’s just say the tradition is still alive and well.”

Life on the line. 

Aaron Roberts (Alex's twin brother) contributed his carpentry skills to the building of Alma and many, many hours helping in the early days. Shout out to those 2000’s shorts! 

Margo Roberts, killing it in a leather jacket on a snowy winter night. 

Many thanks to those who have made the journey to Alma in all kinds of weather. We owe everything to you. 

All photos in "Heart and Soul" thanks to the generosity of James Hirdler. 

Saturday, August 27th, 2016

S E A S O N A L I T Y:  T A L K I N G  W I T H  C H E F S  M A G G I E  W H E L A N  & L U C A S  R O S E N B R O O K

Maggie Whelan and Lucas Rosenbrook (Sous Chef and Chef de Cuisine of Restaurant Alma, respectively), are refreshingly down-to-earth about food. They wax on about cucumbers instead of complicated gastronomy, holding a deep respect for the natural state of things that come from the earth. Both humble and easy to laugh, Maggie and Lucas sat down with the Alma blog this week to chat about seasonal cooking – what it is, what it means to them, how it plays into Alma, and who makes it all possible.

AB: So let’s start with the basics – what exactly is seasonality? It’s a buzz-word you hear a lot these days, in restaurants and in the food world in general.

LR: Seasonality is using what you can source from local and regional communities. In Minnesota, it’s kind of difficult, because our true “season” for produce is only four or five months out of the year. So we get very excited for springtime and everything that comes with it: ramps, morels, and foraged greens. We’ll get farmed lettuce, radishes…

MW: And asparagus! Asparagus was huge for us this year. We got it from a local guy -

LR: We got over 1200 pounds of asparagus!

MW: We had it all over the menu, it’s from this man named Scott who grows it. We got so excited about it. It was beauty.

The cool thing about seasonal cooking is that we can take advantage of things that we only get in Summer, and preserve them to use in the Winter. So it’s still local stuff: stuff like tomatoes that come from Twin Organics, or Riverbend Farms, that we roast and mill – and then we use them in tomato sauce all winter long.

LR: Last year, our preserved tomatoes nearly got us through the whole winter.

MW: You get everyone into it. We all compete to see who can roast more tomatoes. As long as they bring them to us, we can take care of them.

AB: What are some other examples of seasonality at Alma?

LR: We’ve, in the past year or two, developed a menu that has interchangeable ingredients. So we have a crepe that started off as a “spring greens buckwheat crepe”, and by the end of the year it was a “summer vegetable buckwheat crepe”, because those nettles and asparagus go out of season. We can have the same dish with different seasonal ingredients. Some people say they like the spring one better and some people say they like the summer one better. That’s something, moving forward, that I’m looking for. Looking for a main dish – like a crepe – starting from point A and three months down the road it’s a completely different dish.

AB: That’s really interesting – can you talk more about like “evolution” of a dish?

LR: So when a dish comes on the menu, we try to keep it as simple as possible: for example, two main elements. For example, a main: fish, and some type of a seasonal vegetable. We had this striped bass dish that started off with braised beans and peppers. When it first came on – of the eight ingredients, three of them were local. As the dish evolved and the season became more fruitful, by the end, we had local peppers, local beans, local cherry tomatoes – everything was local.

MW: As the order lists come out from the farmers, it’s really fun seeing what else we can make local on a dish. It’s a nice challenge. How many components on the menu can we source from here?

LR: It begins with me and Alex [Roberts, Executive Chef/Owner] talking about an idea. I’m a nerd, and whenever he’s around, I make him try the food. He’s got one of those minds where he can pick out exactly what the dish needs or he’ll say: “it’s a great direction, but let’s take a left here instead of a right”. It’s very rare that we have to take something off a dish, because we start so basic.

MW: And that lends itself very easily to putting more seasonal elements in as they present themselves. It allows a sense of flexibility for the changing seasons and what they offer.

LR: We started out a pork belly dish with fava beans in it, and ended up putting zucchini in it. What we found out was the zucchini worked even better than the fava beans, and we also realized that –

MW: Zucchini and Clams! They taste so amazing together.

LR: Exactly. Zucchini and clams. It taught us something watching the different vegetables change the dish and letting the flavors talk to us. It wasn’t intentional.

MW: Now we will always know that zucchini and clams are something that we can go back to.

AB: Can you talk about Alma’s relationships with local farmers?

MW: I had the opportunity this year to be in charge of the farm order, and I learned how to order produce and even proteins. Lucas and Matt [Sprague, Chef de Cuisine of Café Alma] taught me. We all [the Chefs] get the farmer emails and discuss it during the week, and then it’s on me to actually sit on the computer and map out what a week and a half of vegetables look like from different farmers.

LR: In years past, we would really focus on one or two farms. That worked really well and was very streamlined, but it makes the availability a little smaller than it could be. The last two years we went from three farms to more like six or seven.

MW: Last summer we had nine at one time! It was a little crazy and so fun! But we’ve always ordered from Greg Reynolds at Riverbend farms. Alex started working with him back in the day. Greg has always had a presence in our kitchen. He brings us the tomatoes we like!

LR: When Greg came in a couple of weeks ago, it was pretty awesome listening to him and Alex talk about how before the farm-to-table movement (when Alex was cooking in New York), you would go to the farmers’ market to get your vegetables. You wouldn’t necessarily have farms come to your restaurant. In Minneapolis, you had early adopters like Brenda [Langton, of Café Brenda/Spoonriver] and Lucia [Watson, of Lucia’s]. When they were doing it, it was considered a very progressive thing. Alex started working with Greg shortly after opening in the late 90’s, and we’ve continued to work with him. At that point [when Alex opened Alma], Greg was a young farmer. Now he’s starting to evolve his farm into less of a place for production, and more of a seed-saving and educational project.

This year, we worked a lot with Twin Organics –

MW: And he’s [Jacob Helling] one of Greg Reynolds’ protégés.  

LR: It’s really cool sort of carrying the torch, continuing to use the seeds that Greg gave to Twin Organics. It’s the same seeds. It’s essentially the same produce we’ve had since Alma opened.

MW: We started this year getting greens from him [Jacob Helling of Twin Organics], which turned into squash, and eggplant. We put an eggplant side dish on the menu just to get his fabulous eggplant in. That’s really fun – getting samples of things, being creative with them, and showcasing the variety in our side dishes. It turns into a really fun game: I think in week-and-a-half increments, figuring out what the kitchen needs, ordering enough so everything comes in on the right day but nothing ever goes bad. It’s strategy. Just like you do when you grocery shop at home – figuring out how much lettuce your family is going to eat before it goes bad in the fridge. We do that too. Just on a larger scale.

AB: What other produce farms does Alma work with, in addition to Riverbend and Twin Organics?

MW: Heartbeet farm was a big one this year. We worked with Dragsmith and Hidden Streams as well. They were all so great to us.

AB: Going forward, what’s the goal for Alma in terms of seasonality and locality in the future?

MW: I would like to see to streamline our ordering to order everything for the restaurant and café together, and support the local farmers even more. Ordering in larger quantities, and being more creative with our winter vegetables. Being able to preserve and get through the winter in more creative ways.

LR: That’ll be the biggest thing, I think. Having the expanded space to do more preserves and storing of food. If that’s making sausages or mostardas, or doing vinegars or sauerkraut. Next year, I hope to get an ingredient forecast where we can say “in August, let’s order all the cabbage and make sauerkraut”, so in November, we have house-made sauerkraut for the whole season.

MW: I want to be able to spend more time trying to source as intentionally as possible. As much as we can get from the farmers, we’re going to get. It’s so rewarding. Hopefully we’ll also get to do more farm field trips. It’s so fun when us cooks can see all those rows of eggplant lined up.

LR: We want to preserve what we’ve been doing for so long. Nothing is going to change where all of a sudden Alma is a modernist restaurant. We want to do what we do even better. The food will evolve naturally and hopefully, speak for itself.

AB: How can people who don’t work in a restaurant – people with home kitchens – cook the way Alma cooks? What can they do to replicate the seasonality and locality Alma practices?

MW: You can get a lot of the same stuff that we get from Riverbend at the co-ops. I know Greg supplies Seward and the Wedge. That’s the stuff we use, available to everyone. I think it’s really cool that people are more and more interested in it these days. When you eat at Restaurants, you can find out what you like and what interests you. Then you can go pick out those things that excite you at markets: whether that’s tomatoes or peppers or corn. The way things are displayed at farmer’s markets is so beautiful – it’s like a jewelry case.

LR: I think learned the most about seasonality and what to do with things by having a garden. If you grow tomatoes and cucumbers – it’s fun to grow it, but once it’s ready, you need to have a plan for it. You think: well, I can only eat so many cucumbers in my salad. At some point, you have to either give them away, or pickle them to preserve them. Same with tomatoes. You can only eat so many caprese salads.

MW: I don’t know – I haven’t found my caprese limit yet.

LR: Seeing what truly happens here, in Minnesota? That happens in a garden. Having a plan ready to preserve something and making a project out of it.

MW: Enough people have learned stuff these days that you can sort of ask around when you have questions. This is only my second year having a vegetable garden. You mention that you’re doing potatoes for the first time and three people come to talk to you with three different methods. It’s crowd-sourcing your information. Everyone has their favorite market, their favorite book on preserving. Bringing it up and asking questions is the way to find things out.

LR: I talked with Alex a while back about how our food comes to the plate at Alma. What it is – essentially – is a collection of really good cooking techniques that harmoniously bring separate ingredients together. With the food at Alma, the individual cooking techniques we use aren’t too involved. But being able to bring four techniques together in just right way, at just the right time...is. For example: we have a crispy poached egg dish featuring rajas, arugula and smoked mushrooms. So that starts with poblano peppers: peeling them, roasting them, then simmering them with sweet onions, marjoram and crème fraiche – just for the sauce. There’s smoked mushrooms: Portobello mushrooms need to be cleaned, smoked, roasted, and sliced. Then poached eggs that are trimmed, breaded, and fried at the last moment. It’s three elements that, if done at home, would take half a day. It’s pretty involved. As you master each element, like rajas, they become building blocks for future dishes. For example, rajas is great with scrambled eggs and corn tortillas and also great with grilled steak. By latching onto one or two cooking techniques, you can also apply them to different foods too. If you have a marinade you like on zucchini – try it on a different vegetable! Use it on eggplant, or butternut squash. That’s how you learn to cook intuitively.

The eggs and rajas dish. 

It’s been interesting working for Alex for so long, because people learn the “Alma way” of doing things. If you say “roast mushrooms” in the Alma kitchen, you could pick anyone to do it and they would all come out exactly the same. There’s technique, and a new cook here will have to learn how to do that. But that’s what defines a restaurant – each one has its own language. Food language.

Friday, August 19th, 2016

F L O U R / W A T E R / Y E A S T:  T H E  A L M A  B R E A D  P R O G A M

Meet Tiffany Singh. Before joining team pastry at Restaurant Alma, she worked under Steve Horton (Rustica) and Solveig Tofte (Sun Street Breads), learning the crumbs and crusts of professional bread baking. Tiffany isn't discriminatory in her tastes: she loves quick breads, sweet breads, slowly fermented sourdoughs, and alternative-grain loaves. She sat down with the Alma Blog this week to talk about the past, present, and future of Alma bread.

AB: Let’s start with starter. How do you begin when you’re baking a loaf of bread?

TS: There are so many ways you can start a bread. The most common examples are a traditional slow starter with flour and water that ferments over time using wild yeasts, like a sourdough, or commercial yeasts for a quicker bread, like a foccacia. 

AB: Don’t you have to feed a starter every day to keep it going?

TS: Yes! The starter we have right now at Alma we’ve had for about two years. We’ve named him Chauncey and we’re very dedicated to keeping him alive while our kitchen is closed. Me, Carrie, and Alyssa [the other members of the pastry team] have split Chauncey into thirds and we’re all in competition to take the best care of him in our own kitchens before we can move him into his new home.

AB: What your favorite types of bread to bake at Alma?

TS: We do a combination of breads that are straight doughs – those are breads that are mixed and baked the same days. Good examples of these breads are a country-loaf white or focaccia. Straight doughs are also great for using the products that are available to you that day (like nuts, seeds, or fruits). We also like pre-ferments, where you have to add water and salt to a percentage of the flour the day before – this adds a different flavor complexity and texture. The last type of bread we’ve loved including are naturally leavened breads: this is where Chauncey gets to be a star. We give these a long time to ferment, which creates even more complexity in texture and flavor - the bread most associated with this method is sourdough. 

AB: What about in the future? What can you do with the new space?

TS: The deck oven is coming very very soon. The ovens we had previously at Alma, which we’ll still keep, are conventional gas ovens, are like the ones you probably have in your kitchen at home. That limits the types of breads you can make. We’ve had a lot of success and perfected our methods as much as we can, but a deck oven has steam injection, dampers, and bells and whistles – that’s for real – and will really expand our options and what we can offer. What you'll see at the Cafe is beautiful color, good oven spring, and gorgeous crust. In addition to the new oven, we'll also have far more work space to experiment and invent. 

AB: The philosophy of Alma hinges so much on history and tradition. What influences do you pull from that? 

TS: Grains are a cornerstone of how societies live and are shaped, and we try to use different historical techniques combined with modern sensibilities to make all different kinds of bread. I have memories of baking with my mom, and I think everyone has those memories, or some memories associated with a loaf of bread. I think we all connect bread with some aspect of growing up, and I love tapping into that when I bake. One of our pastry chefs is from the Iron Range and has a recipe from her family for a thinly rolled-out yeasted sweetbread layered with a walnut filling and rolled up into a tightly shaped round. That's a great example of tapping into the mixed backgrounds and heritage of everyone at Alma to keep things fresh and gain inspiration. It's also a way to honor  the cultures we come from. We’re starting to really ask ourselves: how can we do more? That's endlessly exciting.   

AB: What about locally milled flour? Are you planning on using any of Steve Horton’s (of Rustica, who has recently opened up Baker’s Field, a new grain mill in North-East Minneapolis) flour?

TS: What Steve is doing has opened up a new world of freshness and locality to the Twin Cities bakery scene. We were lucky enough to work with his flour for a good amount of time before our original kitchen closed last week, and it was enlightening to see the changes in flavor, texture, rate of fermentation, and all the other variables derived from using flour that’s so, so fresh. It’s really special, and we plan to use Baker’s Field in many of our breads in the future.

We also have our own little grain mill at Alma, which we can use as farmers provide different grains to us for specials, which is also very exciting.

AB: Many people avoid gluten, or allergic to it. Is it a part of the Alma bread plan to include gluten-free breads?

TS: We’re very sensitive to those who have Celiac disease, and we understand it as a very serious allergy. Because we take it so seriously, we can not guarantee that Alma will be able to offer a totally, one-hundred percent, completely gluten-free bread option. This is just because of production space: if anyone has spilled flour anywhere in the workspace, that micro-dust is in the air and we can’t control whether it does or does not contaminate any gluten-free bread. We’d never want to produce a product that claims to be gluten-free and isn’t completely and totally safe for those who are allergic. That being said, we do hope to create some options for those who are are gluten sensitive and will continue to work to making bread (and pastries) that are delicious and available to all. 

AB: What are some types of bread that people can expect to see at the Alma Café? What will be new and exciting?

TS: We will definitely have an assortment of different sourdoughs, breads with flours from Baker’s Field and those milled in small batches on-site. We’ll be honing in on our own signature baguette, and whether it’s seasonal breads, holiday breads, or heritage breads – we hope to be continually striving to represent the evolving tastes of our community. Simply put: it’s bread for everyone.

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016

Welcome to Alma: The Restaurant, Cafe, and Hotel! 

We are proud and excited to announce that we are well on our way to completing the new Cafe and Hotel spaces. While Restaurant Alma closes for three months to complete renovations, we are keeping our proverbial doors open: inviting you to read a weekly blog that will chronicle construction, design, planning, and profiles of our amazing team.

The concept of a cafe with a small hotel above is nothing new -look no further than classic English literature to see the foundation- but we are doing it in a modern, accessible way. The ultimate goal: serving delicious, seasonal food and top-quality beverages in a casual and welcoming setting. The cafe will offer both sit-down table service and a daytime bakery/counter area where you and your laptop (or favorite book) are welcome to accompany our food and drink.

Clockwise from left: Alex at the top of the front entry stairs where guests will be guided up to their rooms after being welcomed by our host staff; explaining the divide of spaces on the first floor; the café bar area. 


L-R: Cafe Alma Chef De Cuisine Matt hanging out in the future Cafe counter area; Restaurant Alma Chef De Cuisine Lucas and Sous Chef Maggie planning kitchen layout with Alex. 

The cafe bar will feature 10 taps (rotating beer, keg wine & cider selections), a wine list of carefully selected bottles & glass pours by Alma beverage director James Hirdler, as well as drinks created in collaboration with local cocktail craftsmen Bittercube. Locally roasted and sustainably sourced coffee will be from Twin Town Roasters, with a full range of espresso drinks available all hours of the day.

Notes from the construction crew. 

Alma General Manager Mike taking a look through the construction zone

The backroom of Cafe Alma will connect to Restaurant Alma and double as a private dining room. 

After significant adaptation to the original firehouse building, all the Alma spaces will be fluidly connected for both dining and work spaces alike.

A view into the open cafe kitchen and bar area from the backroom.

From L-R: the back stairs leading up to the hotel; wiring and panels that make it all possible; Alex sharing his enthusiasm about 
our future bread & pastry production capabilities.

Team Pastry (Carrie, Alyssa, Tiffany) eagerly explore their new workspace. 

Alex in what is currently labelled “Room 7” of the hotel, our only guest room located on the ground floor. Great care has been given to hotel construction and acoustics, including double-walls and insulation, to ensure that guest rooms are as comfortable and calm as possible. 

The upstairs “suite” is our largest guest room, with a private outdoor patio featuring views of downtown Minneapolis. The suite can be used for small events and is an ideal location for a cocktail party. 

Food and beverage service will be available to all hotel rooms. Hotel Alma will have two rooms with king size beds, four rooms with queen sized beds, and one room with two full size beds.

Pretty soon the bones of the operation will be walled-in, finished, and ready for your getaway. 

Hotel Alma will be an ideal destination for business travelers, anniversary celebrations, stay-cations, U of M guests, sports fans, out-of-town foodies, and anyone that values high quality food and inspired hospitality. 

We are very excited to share our journey through the final stages of remaking A L M A into a restaurant, cafe and hotel under one roof.

With love,
The Alma Team. 

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

Coming Soon: The Alma Blog 

We invite you to check back in the coming days to see the launch of our new blog. The ALMA blog will chronicle construction progress, special events, design, menu development, hiring, and profiles of our dedicated team while we prepare for our first day as a restaurant, cafe and hotel.


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At Alma, we strive to bring together caring, warm and intelligent people who love to cook and provide hospitality to all. 

To inquire about joining our team, please fill out the form below. 

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