Baseball91's Weblog

December 2, 2016

Do Too Many Cooks Spoil the Re-opening?

Filed under: Minnesota,St. Paul,St. Paul Pioneer Press,Uncategorized — baseball91 @ 4:46 PM

Restaurants in the Age of Free Agents. Nostalgia for old places, with the Team of “dazzling chefs and restaurateurs.” Kevin Fitzgerald. Josh Thoma. Jack Riebel. These are owners of the The Lexington, a restaurant in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The managing partner is Lorin Zinter for the ownership – Josh Thoma, Kevin Fitzgerald and Jack Riebel – of the Lexington and Il Foro. The Team had been busy filling a hole of missing Italian eateries in downtown Minneapolis. Behold Il Foro!

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Jack Reibel fondly remembers his days as the up-and-coming chef inside the kitchen when the address went by the name of Goodfellows which had a nine-year (1996-2005) run here [before that this had been The Forum Cafeteria]. Il Foro brought on Troy Unruh, who had worked in the Goodfellows kitchen with Riebel, to serve as executive chef.

Opened. The 11-month-old effort. Now closed. This Team composed of superstar cooks planned to open Il Foro first. Il Foro closed in May 2016. Like The Lexington Restaurant in St. Paul, closed since 2013. The Lex then had been under different ownership.

The best laid plans of mice and men. Opening of The Lexington was to follow some time in the spring of 2015, said The Team. After 30 years of cooking, Jack Riebel won a James Beard Award nomination for the Butcher & the Boar. Being mentioned in the top 25 best new restaurants in America, as a semifinalist, he is part of the Team.

Riebel, formerly of Butcher & the Boar which is open, remains in place as the executive chef at The Lexington. Butcher and Boar opened in 2012; Riebel’s co-owners bought out his share of Butcher & the Boar in 2014. At that time he told Mpls-St Paul magazine that he no longer was involved in the restaurant’s operations. He described the split as being friendly. The Butcher & the Boar building just sold for $6 million reported in September 2016.

Knowing that they needed another partner, enter Lorin Zinter, former co-owner with Jim Christiansen of Heyday; yes, Restaurant of the Year, Heyday. Zinter left Heyday to pursue an opportunity at soon-to-open Italian eatery, Il Foro. Zinter had been the front-of-house hospitalitarian at smoothly running Heyday.

At this point, the Team is about 20 months behind schedule with the mentioned re-opening of the Lex. The Il Foro ownership – Josh Thoma, Kevin Fitzgerald and Jack Riebel – wouldn’t talk to the Star Tribune about the demise.  And no one in St Paul seems able to find out what transpires inside The Lex.

How does this team of chefs eat?  Where is the money?  Who is Josh Thoma? Or where has he been? In a joint venture with Chicago’s Four Corners Tavern Group, whose owners visited the Minnesota Smack Shack, proposed a partnership in what became a 10,000-square-foot restaurant at he base of the Google building in the Chicago West Loop, which opened April 21, 2016 and seats 300. Co-founder of La Belle Vie and Smack Shack, with his Smack Shack partner Kevin Fitzgerald, Josh Toma’s Smack Shack started as a food truck zipping around Minneapolis, the first legal food truck in town. Founder Josh Thoma, six years later, has two Smack Shack: a 200-seater in Minneapolis which opened in 2013 and the Chicago location.


In June 2010 StarTribune story, Tim McKee’s partner in La Belle Vie, Solera, and Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque, Josh Thoma, who more recently entered partnerships with the Barrio (with McKee) and La Grassa restaurants – stood accused of improperly transferring funds to the tune of $100,000 between Bar La Grassa and into two restaurants — Solera and Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque — via La Belle Vie. Thoma’s partnership at Bar La Grassa is history, as he and his longtime business partner, Tim McKee, were no longer managing Barrio.  City Pages quoted Thoma, “It was just one of those things where I told the accountant to make it work.  To a degree, I didn’t know how much was going where and when, although ultimately I’m responsible.”  City Pages reported that Thoma and McKee repaid the funds by relinquishing their stake in Barrio, and Thoma’s equity in Bar La Grassa.

La Belle Vie, the last bastion of fine dining in Minnesota called it quits, on October 24, 2014. La Belle Vie chef/owner Tim McKee made the announcement that he was closing his restaurant, one day short of their tenth anniversary in Minneapolis. Before that La Belle Vie had been open for seven and a half years in Stillwater, Minnesota.


City people in Minnesota leave the city on summer weekends. Fourteen years after opening the doors to the original Heartland location on St. Clair Avenue, Lenny Russo announced in October that Heartland would be closing the doors in downtown St. Paul.

It is next to impossible to make money operating a restaurant on the profits of 9 months of the year. “If all of those people would have come in twice more a year,” said Tim McKee on the closing of La Belle Vie, “we’d still be open. It’s so important that if there’s a restaurant or business in your community that you feel is important, you’ve got to make it your mission to support them. Otherwise they will close.”


What is the state of the union of good restaurants? A cursory list of Tim McKee mentees, both at now-closed Solera and at La Belle Vie, would contain Sameh Wadi of the recently announced closed Saffron; Jack Riebel of the recently announced closed Il Foro, and Minneapolis’ most recent winner of the Food & Wine top ten chefs in America, Jim Christiansen of Heyday, which is actually open.


Keeping The Lexington’s name, renovating and giving the place a more casual atmosphere, with plans to renovate the structure and add a rooftop patio, these three Saint Paul-born big-time operators led by Josh Thoma and Kevin Fitzgerald of Smack Shack seem to be leaving Jack Riebel waiting. A news conference at The Lexington restaurant was where St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman introduced the trio of new owners, in November 2015. Speculation about the new owners ran high, until the names of the owners were released, followed by the theme of stagnation, just keeping a lady waiting.

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3 Comments »

  1. First established in 1973, distinct from monthly sewer and water bills, a sewer access charge pays the debt service for underground pipes and wastewater treatment plants already built to the Metropolitan Council.

    “Behold the municipal sewer access charge, the connection fee ‘intended to cover the infrastructure cost of linking more potential volume to the metro’s sewer system‘ — in other words, poop. The Met Council’s one-time sewer access charge are distinct from monthly sewer and water bills, having nothing to do with bathroom usage. The simple thinking of the politicians appointed to The Metropolitan Council is, any remodel or change of use — even new outdoor seating — has the potential to add capacity, and added capacity might mean more poop. Every chair in a restaurant represents a potential pooper – even an empty chair. Businesses which date back decades can get hit with a five-figure or six-figure connection fee as they expand or remodel. So businesses are charged accordingly. The yet-to-reopen Lex under new ownership worked to get 80 percent of their charge waived by the Met Council. Jon Commers represents most of St. Paul west of Interstate 35E of the Met Council, where The Lex got hit with a $67,000 remodel-fee by the Met Council.” -Saint Paul Pioneer Press

    And new poop seeking access to old sewer lines is taxed more heavily than old poop. Following the logic of the unelected Metropolitan Council: should their be metrics concerning where and how these restaurant patrons actually shed their calories? Why should a business get hit what happens later in the privacy of a home? How much time did a patron spend there? If it was like the dram shop laws, there should be metrics demonstrating that the food of the restaurant actually caused an increase in the potential volume to the neighborhood metro’s sewer system.

    The Dram Shop Act (in 38 states) makes a business which sells alcoholic drinks or a host who serves liquor to a drinker who is obviously intoxicated or close to it, strictly liable to anyone injured by the drunken patron or guest.

    Comment by baseball91 — December 21, 2016 @ 12:11 PM | Reply

  2. Interestingly, Josh Thoma’s Chicago Smack Shack which was twice as big as anything he had going in one place in the Twin Cities, just closed up in March 2017 after operating for one year in the same bdlg that housed Google’s Chicago office.

    In the Twin Cities, maybe there is this divide like F. Scott fitzgerald wrote. As ‘city people’ in Minnesota leave the city on summer weekends, for the lake. And those who never can afford to eat out regularly are left behind. Young people saving for their first home? The demographics might suggest that a generation that grew up in the suburbs had no reason to come into the old haunts in the city to eat. As the world turns, more and more old establishments are becoming dis-established, much to the despair of the un-elected Metropolitan Council.

    Comment by baseball91 — May 23, 2017 @ 11:05 AM | Reply


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