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.