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Back To The Beginning: With James Dayton Design

Back To The Beginning: With James Dayton Design

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.