When best friends Ted Casper and Mike Runyon bought the Nook in St. Paul on October 1, 2000, the small burger restaurant already had a long history. Founded in 1938, the Nook has been serving its cheeseburger and hand-cut fries for more than 70 years; nearly thirty of those years (1967 - 1997, according to Casper and Runyon) under the ownership of Mickey Brausen. Casper and Runyon grew up going to the Nook with their fathers, who were also best friends from their days at Cretin-Derham Hall High School, just across the street (which the younger Casper and Runyon also attended). After buying the Nook when they were only twenty years old, the duo have seen the spot through a devastating fire, a second location (Shamrock's), and multiple visits from diner/drive-in/dive legend, the Food Network's Guy Fieri.
We sat in a basement booth with Casper and Runyon this week and talked about what makes a killer burger, raw onions vs. fried, the history of the Nook, and good old St. Paul restaurant pride.
How did you decide you wanted to buy the Nook?
Ted: We were both college dropouts, and we needed something to do. We were unemployable, so we had to buy ourselves a job. Mike: And, truthfully, we've been in this industry our whole lives. It's the only thing we've ever really known how to do. Ted has a long history of restaurateurs in his family: his grandfather, his father, and a lot of his uncles, his cousin. I didn't have a big family tradition behind it, but fell into being in restaurants through Perkins and then Punch wood-fired pizza with John Serrano. Mike: Our dads were best friends growing up in high school, so they kind of put us together and asked if we wanted to get together on the whole thing. Ted: We grew up kind of like cousins. His parents are Uncle Pete and Aunt Jan, and my parents are Uncle Tom and Aunt Sheila to him. We're not actually related, but we just grew up like that. Mike: But everybody will come in and say, "Oh, I saw your brother the other day," or "I saw your cousin." Ted: Which is easy, because neither of us have any brothers. Mike: We know who everybody's talking about.
Are your fathers involved in the business?
Ted: They're our number one go-to consultants. My father is the general manager at our other restaurant, Shamrock's. And he's been involved all the way through, as well as Mike's dad. Helping us get going early on and helping us come up with new ideas, and, of course, helping us launch our second location, Shamrock's. Mike: They're probably one of our most honest critiquing people. They're not afraid to tell us if they think something needs to be changed or if something's not going the way that they think it should be going. They're a very important part of how we grew up and how we handle what we're doing now, so it's very important to get their honest feedback.
So what's a criticism that your dads have had?
Mike: I can say one right off the bat. When we took over Shamrock's, there was an open kitchen, and we needed to put up a wall to create some barrier between the kitchen and the front of the house. Ted: Pete recommended to put that up. Lot of little things like that. Mike: Just like that. It's not always food related. It's like, maybe we should get a jukebox and put it over here, maybe pull-tabs would be good to start raising some money for certain organizations. Ted: I think my father, in particular, has been instrumental in helping us build some of our initial menu items and pushing us in certain directions, and teaching us how to build a menu. Mike: Idea makers, you know what I mean? But it's easy for us to talk to them because we think the same way. Ted thinks a lot like his dad, and I think a lot like my father. They were best friends. And we've become really, really, really good best friends because of it.
When you were looking to buy a place, why did you choose the Nook?
Ted: That again goes back to our fathers, because they helped us get going initially. I think they both had their eye on the place, ever since they went to high school across the street. As did we, when we went to high school across the street, Cretin-Derham Hall. This place has been here almost as long as that school has been. And it's just kind of a Cretin tradition, and a neighborhood tradition. I remember coming here when I was a little boy and sitting at the bar and having a burger with fried onions with my father, back when the Brausen family owned it, as I'm sure Mike remembers, as well, when he was growing up. So I think it's just one of those places that was just waiting for some new ownership, to breathe some new life into the place, and it just so happened that we got to be the lucky two to do so, back in 2000. Been here ever since. Plan on being here forever. Mike: They say it's a young man's game, and we were definitely young when we took it over.
How old were you?
Mike: 20 years old. And you know, we had the will and the drive and the want to make something go of it. And we got to live it out year by year and see some things grow. And we had Mickey come back and teach us the way she used to do it; I think that was probably one of the most instrumental and? Ted: Fun. Mike: Yeah, fun things we got to do with the place, was actually working with a little bit of history with it. So, it's been neat. We're just another person in the line of the life of the Nook and its history, and it's pretty nice to be able to live that out. Ted: To put our stamp on it.
What are a few things that are the same as the Nook used to be and what are a few things that are different?
Mike: The burgers are the same that they were when Mickey had them, and possibly the same even before Mick had them. When I came in, when we took over the place, and possibly still the same, I still remember having a cheeseburger with a 1919 root beer. And today, it tastes the exact same as I remember eating it when I was six, it tastes the exact same as my father remembers eating it back in high school in '69. So, that has never changed. Now, we've brought in some new menu items or maybe upgraded the menu. Instead of having five different burgers, we're getting close to having probably 25 different burgers. One of the burgers that's most popular in Minnesota is the Juicy, and we introduced that here in our first couple years. Ted: I think the important things, you never want to change. And the three number-one most important things we have on our menu are fresh-ground beef, fresh bakery bun, and our fresh-cut fries. And that package together speaks for itself.
How do you come up with the new burger ideas?
Ted: Usually collaboration. We do let our chef, Raphael Looney, who's been with us a number of years now, at least going on ten. Very talented at what he does, and very creative. And he'll come up with an idea, but maybe it's missing one recipe, and Mike or I will come up with, well, why don't you add this sauce to it. So a lot of times it's collaboration, and we're not egomaniacs, where we need to take credit for everything that happens here. We trust a lot of our staff to come up with ideas.
What's the most popular burger on the menu?
Mike: The Juicy, obviously, is probably number one or number two. Ted: Around lunchtime, we sell a lot of bacon cheeseburgers or variations on bacon cheeseburgers. I don't know what it is. People who didn't get their bacon for breakfast are getting their bacon fix.
What was it like to have Guy Fieri come here and to be on the Food Network?
Ted: It was an honor, it was a little surreal at the time. We were in shock, and didn't really understand what was taking place. Having that national exposure, I mean, you can't pay for that kind of advertisement.
Did it change the business?
Ted: It brings people in from all over the country that follow that show. I mean, I knew it was a popular show, but now I really know how popular of a show that is. Mike: We were one of the earlier shows that was on, we were the number seven or eight show. We hit it real early. When he came in, nobody knew who he was, which was nice, because we could kind of hang out with him buddy buddy. Ted: And he's been back, what, one and a half times since then? One time, we did another show after we had recovered from the fire. And then we were on again for a cameo appearance, where they just came in and took a quote from us for another episode.
How have you recovered from the fire?
Ted: It was a really tough time. I don't want to equate it to something more tragic, but there's only certain things that can be worse than something like that, when you've put your blood, sweat, and tears into building up a business and it's going really well. It's just devastating to go through something like that. Obviously, it doesn't equate to certain other things. But we knew, day one, we're going to get through this. And I'm glad I had my business partner to lift me up when I was down, and I'm sure I was there to lift his spirits when he was down. We were able to create a more functional space. This is not a good reason for a remodel, but we took advantage of the time to say, well, what can we do to make the space more functional. And so there's always that silver lining there. Mike: There's nothing you can learn in your lifetime before a fire, before a major accident or occurrence, that can prep you for it. You can't go to school for it. So it's trial by fire, literally.
And you were able to save a lot of the stuff in the restaurant?
Mike: Yeah, we lost a lot of stuff, too. But we got to keep some of it. Ted: Some things refurbished, too. Mike: We tried to keep the old look of the place, as close as we could. That's one thing we didn't want to do, was change it too much so you walked in and it was The Ritz. We wanted it to be the Nook. Ted: We cut out the old bar, from the Schmitt Brewery. And that took a lot of man hours. Mike: To sandblast it, restain it, relaquer the whole thing. But it's the original. Ted: That's the first thing you see when you walk in the door, and that's the same as it was before the fire, and it was worth it, I think.
Do you have a favorite piece of memorabilia?
Ted: We lost one of our favorites, and that was the Speedo collection that we were starting up above our kitchen doorway. A Pat Mancini Speedo and a Danny O'Gara Speedo, and there were a couple other restaurateurs in our neighborhood and friends and mentors to us that we threw a couple parties to honor them, and we got their wives to turn in their old high school swimming team Speedo and we had them framed. And some people say that those Speedos were too hot to handle, and they started the fire.
What makes a Nook burger special among all the burgers in the Twin Cities?
Mike: I think it's the long-lasting legacy–you're not just buying a burger, you're buying a little piece of history when you walk in. It's been around for a million years. We're not doing anything different than how Mickey was doing them. So maybe hers was what made it all special. There's a little bit of extra time and love put in to cutting fries and patting your own burgers. Getting that good quality beef, caring about that beef and never letting that quality go.
Where do you get your beef?
Mike: W.W. Johnson, which is Angus Chuck. Ted: We have an exclusive grind for ours, it's a butcher's cut that's selected just for our restaurant, and Shamrock's. So it's Ground Chuck, but it's an Angus breed, it's a choice product, and it's as fresh as possible, no excuses. We get that delivered, on average, four times a week. Mike: It's a special grind that's been used since Mickey was here. Chuck is the best of the best. Ted: It's whole muscle, it's guaranteed from the chuck roast cut, which excludes any cuts that are less desirable. Mike: It holds in the moisture, it holds in the way we sear our burgers and how they get grilled. And it's perfect for what we're doing.
And what about your bun?
Ted: We used to get them from P.J. Murphy's down the road. I don't know how else to explain it to you, but they dropped us as an account. At the time they were going through some changes, they wanted to be a gourmet wedding cake place. Mike: That was six years ago. Ted: They've since approached us to go back to them, but we've found a product that's fresh-baked every day at St. Agnes Bakery, it's delivered daily. Mike: It's a local bakery. Ted: They've been a little more consistent in their size and flavor, so we haven't switched back. Mike: And we sit and talk with a lot of different purveyors, bun purveyors. We're always trying to earn our business. And they might be able to save us some money over the long run, but the quality's not there. We haven't found anything to match that.
And tell me a little bit about your french fries.
Ted: We have to get a certain kind of potato breed that has less moisture, so it doesn't brown right away in the fryer. And those are Burbank Idaho breed, and we won't accept any other kind of potato. It's got to be the Burbank breed. And that's a variation you wouldn't notice by looking at it, you might not even notice by cutting it open, it's just in its performance. We have to pre-order those when they're running out. We have to stockpile those because we want that consistency. We're nothing without consistency. If you come in one day and they're great, and then you come in the next day and they're soggy and brown, you're not going to come back. It's a process that goes back to Mickey Brausen. She was getting the same potatoes in, and what you do is you soak them in ice-cold water with a splash of distilled white vinegar overnight. And that pre-blanches them, takes some of the starch out, and then they crisp up a little better. That's a secret I shouldn't be revealing, though. Mike: There's parts of this that's like, what should we reveal and what shouldn't we. But I think it goes back to that whole ego thing. We're just trying to do what we do well here and we're not worried about other people, we're worried about us doing something good.
If you had to pick one thing from the menu to eat for dinner tonight, what would it be?
Ted: Classic cheeseburger, fried onions. French fries and a 1919 root beer. Mike: I'd do the exact same thing, but with raw onions. I'm a raw onion guy. I like that crispness, that heartiness of the raw onion. I'm sure you like the flavor of the fried onion.
Do you sell more raw onions or more fried onions?
Ted: Probably fried. Mike: I bet you fried takes it. Ted: I would say fried by a long shot.
Where else do you like to eat in the Twin Cities?
Ted: Shamrock's. Mike: There's a couple places I really like. I'll be a big, long advocate of Punch Pizza. John's got a big part of my heart. That would be my number one. Ted: I'll name off a few. Skinner's for pizza. Mancini's for a nice steak. My uncle's restaurant, the Cherokee Sirloin Room in West St. Paul or Eagan, for a steak. I'm kind of a meat and potatoes guy, so I'll go out for steak three times a week if I can. And I suppose just to go out and have a good time, we go to Tiffany's or O'Gara's, and they all got good food as well. Birchwood Café in Minneapolis. Mike: Birchwood Café does an unbelievable job. I also like the Meritage, and I also think The Strip Club. I think if you look at that whole laundry list of names, every one of them is in St. Paul, except for the Birchwood. Ted: Are you going to throw Cossetta's in there? Mike: Got to do Cossetta's, yeah. Cossetta's for fast, easy-going. But it is, it's St. Paul. And the thing with St. Paul is that we're all family-owned, we're all mom-and-pop joints, we all get along very, very well. If something ever happened, one of us is always there to stick our neck out for the other guy. We're a very proud little city. It's very unique. I don't think there's another city like it.
· Casper & Runyon's Nook Official Website
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