It's not hard to picture a youthful Tim Niver, armed with two spatulas, working the grill inside a small-town McDonald's. His curly hair would have sprouted from the top of that visor, unruly and mischievous like the bastard child of a fry kid and the Hamburgler. His face would have worn a mask of intensity. He has always been driven. That was true even then, when he was just a kid working his first job.
It was cool back then!
Tim Niver was born in Syracuse, New York, but spent his childhood in a small town south of Buffalo. It was while he was in high school that he was first employed in the service industry. "It was cool back then! There are things that I remember from there that are applicable today. They called it McDonald's University. It was kind of a big deal that there was standardized training. You could go into any McDonald's and get the exact same service. It's the same thing Danny Meyer is doing just fancier." There's a comparison that the Union Square restaurateur likely hasn't heard before.
"It gave me a sense of what volume is." His Sundays would begin at 5 a.m., relieving the truck of it's 580 boxes and stacking things in the basement, a maze of metal racks piled with cartons, to-go gear and toys. "I always had a sense of organization," he recalls. "That was where it started."
"After graduating college, I got into a 'real job' and failed."
His next industry job was at The Italian Fisherman in Bemus Point, New York. It was a seasonal restaurant. "Dan Dalpra ran it and still does. He and his manager Amy were my first introduction to the restaurant business," Niver said. "Amy was both a server and the manager. " Early in my career I saw someone who was amazing at doing many things at once, table side service in addition to running a whole restaurant. My sister got me a job bussing. I learned it all. Dan wasn't my favorite dude, but he had this uber successful, seasonal restaurant. Maybe I could have learned more from him," he joked.
Throughout his senior year in high school and into college, Niver worked at a restaurant. "It's a beautiful craft that you can take with you anywhere you go." For a year he studied in Spain and upon returning substitute taught Spanish for a while.
"After graduating college, I got into a 'real job' and failed. Meanwhile, my buddies were smart enough to head out to Colorado to live the ski bum life." Niver snagged a couple of shifts at The Italian Fisherman that put $400 in his pocket. He threw everything he had into the back of his 1988 Dodge Charger and headed west. Once there, he settled in on a mattress on the floor and picked up some construction work. Eventually, he found a server job first during the morning buffet and then working his way into the nighttime crew. "All those night time servers were so cool. Amazing," he remembers.
It was during this time that Niver worked under Graziano Buzzi, "He was the first true front of house manager I worked with. He was at the door, greeting guests, escorting Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford to their table. Then, he'd go in back, fire risottos and critique me before returning to the front door. He was a true and classic maître d: vocal, positive, classy, well-dressed and a little intimidating." There was an ambiance that this level of service created for the guests that allowed for their guard to come down and conversation to flow freely.
"That's how I learned that Kathie Lee has a tilted uterus and it was hard for her to get pregnant," Niver said.
"That's also where I met Christy," the lovely young lady who was destined to be his wife. "We hung out there. She was also a server." Eventually, Christy decided to return to her home state of Minnesota to get her Masters at St. Thomas. "I chased her back here."
He taught me the old school, respectful way to deal with things.
At this time, our young hero had plenty of server experience, but not much understanding of the business behind a restaurant. His first job in the Twin Cities was at Spike's sport bar in the Hyatt. Upstairs was Pronto and Manny's Steakhouse. "It was there I interviewed with one Michael Larson. I said, 'I'll be your best server in two months.' He said, I've got people who have been here for two years." Without pause Niver repeated, "I'll be your best server in two months."
Rather than putting the cocky kid on the floor Larson, who was a longtime fixture at Parasole restaurant group and now owns and operates Digby's in Roseville, granted him a position as a food runner. In two weeks an assistant manager quit and Larson agreed to give him his chance. "He and Alfonso were my mentors. Alfonzo could whisk you away from the front door and lead you to the worst table in the restaurant, but it felt like you were being carried off to a beach in Vera Cruz."
Meanwhile, Larson was the business guy. Niver remembers when he contradicted his boss in front of others. Larson brought him into the back and quietly corrected him - not unlike the Godfather - never tell anybody outside the family know what you're thinking again. "He taught me the old school, respectful way to deal with things. You'd walk in the morning and he'd be reading the paper. He'd say hi without even looking up, but he wasn't just reading the paper. He was ruminating about how the day would go. He always had several things going on in his mind. He was very sure of what was going on and how things were going in Parasole." It was there that Niver learned that service was a guideline to the way people should live. "That was vital for me."
At the time, this was when Buca was getting rolling. What began with red and white checked tablecloths, dripping candles in wine bottles, family style service and mashed potatoes that continue to inspire rave reviews would eventually become a very large restaurant operation with several locations across the country. Niver had the opportunity to be a part of that expansion, which likely would have been a lucrative road to travel.
"At that time, my wife and I were like, 'fuck it. Let's take everything and move to New York. So, we did that." However, finding a job wasn't as easy as expected. Although, when he left Niver had been the general manager at Pronto, the Minneapolis resume didn't impress prospective New York employers. "It took me 45 days to get a job. I had a rash on my hand from carrying my attaché case with me."
He worked at the Satay restaurant group and then at First for Sam Demarco, located on first and first in New York. DeMarco approached him about moving out to Las Vegas to help him open the Bellagio. "We had so much fun in Vegas my wife got pregnant," Niver remembers fondly.
As we in Minnesota have trained our beautiful, flaxen haired young women, Christy had gone out into the world, found a talented husband and brought him back home to help raise a family and grace us with some fresh restaurant talent. "It was Sam who gave me a recommendation for [Marcus] Samuelson." Thus began a great time of eating adventures, including dinner at El Bulli and a job inside Minneapolis' lauded Aquavit. "I've worked with geniuses the entire time," Niver says when looking back over his career.
Service training involved a regimented, Swedish-style of training. The restaurant was already up and running when Niver first joined the team. "On my first night I walked in the back room just off the main dining, behind the door all the servers were drinking wine and smoking cigarettes." He remarked, "'Oh, this is how it was here. Tomorrow, this won’t happen again.' These are the best people in the city and yet, behind the scenes, people weren't upholding the way they were in the front in the back. Aquavit was very much about keeping a New York status."
The Minneapolis outpost wouldn't last long, shuttering in 2003. "Aquavit was amazing. It didn't need to close. We were doing fine. I think Marcus realized it was going good, not great. The restaurant wasn't making money, but it wasn't losing any either."
From fine dining, Niver launched into opening Martini Blu, an interesting concept that sprang from the people behind Lifetime Fitness. The restaurant struggled to find its footing, "We almost got it to break even and then there was talking of changing more things. I realized, I didn't want to go on this ride."
From there he went to work at Axel's in Mendota Heights. The location was an easy commute from his home and a great job to provide a steady paycheck while he worked to get the Town Talk Diner off the ground.
"I was working for Charlie Burroughs is another genius. He’s had other businesses that fail and you just don’t quit. It’s all about progression, positivity and perspective - always gaining perspective."
The perspective Niver found there was that, "I had done all this stuff in my career, Aquavit, the Bellagio and after all that I found myself working in Mendota with a wine-themed tie and a white button down shirt. They accepted me and brought me in. They have been supportive and still come in to eat at the Strip Club."
Before the St. Paul steakhouse with the cheeky name came Niver's first experience at being a restaurant owner with a now legendary run at the Town Talk Diner. "I had experience, but no clue. So, different. We made a ton of mistakes. You wouldn’t know it – food and service and always good."
Niver and crew knew they were in trouble when Gary Schiff, the city council member informed them, before there was even so much as a meeting on the topic, that they would never be approved for a liquor license. The police had been called too often to the neighboring restaurant.
"When you write a business plan, when you write a menu, you have no idea how it’s going to be. I love this dish – people hate it."
Imagine what this would have meant for the future of cocktailing in the Twin Cities. There would have been no Nick Kosevich as we now know him, no boozy milkshakes, no Jesse Held. Lucky for the rest of us, the licnese was eventually approved and the historic sign sparkled like it hadn't in years.
The tenure of The Town Talk was such a special time that there is fierce nostalgia for those days. There are drink shakers who have claimed to work there, just to claim the cred. The brief time on the Minneapolis restaurant scene has become the stuff of legends. Cocktails became more than just a cosmo. The mix masters behind the luncheon counter were doing daft, crazy things, much to the delight of diners. The food was based in diner fare, but done unlike a greasy spoon. Braised meats the texture of fine silk graced the hash, line-caught fish were delicately prepared with dazzling sauces.
The drink menu at The Strip Club Meat & Fish. Photo by Stephanie A. Meyer
"When you write a business plan, when you write a menu, you have no idea how it’s going to be. I love this dish – people hate it. You have no idea what it’s going to be. You might come up with an end result that might be what you love, but no one wants to buy it," Niver said.
The restaurant was filled with incredible talents, Aaron Johnson (Niver's business partner at Town Talk), David Vlach - the opening chef, Nick Kosevich, Adam Johnson, Ben Johnson, Adam Harness, Jesse Held. "It worked... until it didn't." Aaron Johnson and Niver sold their partnership to chef Tor Westgard who sold the restaurant to the Theros Group. They also own the St. Clair Broiler. Not long after the sale, the Theros group has a full financial crisis after it was revealed that their accountant had been embezzling from the restaurant group. She later pleaded guilty to swindling them out of $540,000. Jimmy Theros admitted to the financial woes contributing to the closure of the Town Talk Diner. Still, the soul of the restaurant had departed with the team.
"When someone told me they had table tents that broke my heart," remembers Niver. "Fuck, really?! What happened was that it didn't work the way we wanted to. There isn't a bad thing to say. You can't plan for everything. Thank god the writing was on the wall."
While they were being handed an award for doing such great work on Lake Street, Niver was approached by a man who said, "I've got an award for you." He handed Niver a sheet of paper with a picture of the building on Maria Avenue in St. Paul. "I was like, this guy is crazy."
He set the paper aside and nearly forgot about it. One day Tor Westgard plucked it off the desk, "What's this? Should I throw it away?"
Niver almost said yes, but then paused a moment. He looked over the aged brick building again and turned to Aaron Johnson, "A.J., let's go check this out." The cozy size, curved staircase, old world details seduced the men.
In the end, it was easier to walk away from Town Talk because he had already strung his safety net: The Strip Club Meat & Fish opened to rave reviews seven years ago. At the time, grass-fed steak wasn't nearly as common. In fact, the idea that the menu would be built around what was genuinely thought of as a tougher, gamier piece of meat was unheard of. J.D. Fratzke was brought in from Muffuletta (another Parasole restaurant) to run the kitchen and convince the grass-fed averse with a deft hand and seriously sexy menu.
Niver assembled a team for the front of house of people who would become more than just employees, but family. The employees also treat their customers as though they genuinely care about the dining experience. Although, the style is far from the traditional French style - servers wear black t-shirts. Niver warmly greets guests, asks after their kids and is cheeky enough that he'll put the occasional rude patron, graciously, in his or her place. "It's a far cry from Aquavit where I was buttoned up and only referred to as Mr. Niver. There was none of this Niver or Tim or anything." They have been regularly recognized for some of the best service and one of the best restaurants in St. Paul.
Service hasn’t evolved, I think it’s devolved.
Niver mused, "Service hasn’t evolved, I think it’s devolved. Service is so hard. Service isn't an issue until it’s bad. You see people opening counter service because they don’t want to deal with the labor or the technical aspect of table side service. Can’t we just give you a number and focus everything on the food? That's one problem. Another problem the celebrification of the chefs. People want to be a chef and it’s a status thing. These service guys were always the stars of the restaurant.
"There aren’t so many people looking to be great mangers. For one, you have to deal with people. No one wants to deal with people anymore. Interpersonal experiences are lost. I don’t think people have the same skills anymore. 'I’ll just text ya. I’ll just get on Open Table.' But I’m going to talk to you. As an adult human I would like to you show up and I’ll take care of you. We make an appointment together," said Niver.
"If you had to name the top 10 chefs – you can do that. Boom! Top 10 front of house guys? You could get to 4. I can train you in the technical aspects of how to serve, but I can’t train you to be nice to people. You have to have come to the table with a desire to serve."
Chef J.D. Fratzke and Tim Niver inside The Strip Club. Photo by Stephanie A. Meyer
Although, it's about as easy to talk about service as it is to dance about eating, Niver attempts to articulate why he has garnered a reputation as one of the best in the business. "I gravitate toward the idea that what we provide is an honest experience. In essence, I’m just being true to myself. Because I’m able to do that in my own place. I can do that. I hire people I know that are family. They understand that this little place is supporting their lifestyle – until they want to go do something else. Knowing who you are and having an identity... It comes from that. We talk about points of service, but I don’t get preachy."
Last night's pre-service meeting ended with, "You know what you need to do to do this right… So, do it." It’s as simple as respecting where you work. "You don't want to hurt anything where you work."
The team inside the Strip Club is looking forward to opening their hotly anticipated Saint Dinette restaurant in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood. To run the front of house at Saint Dinette, Niver has brought Laurel Elm into the fold. "She has been amazing," he enthuses. "She's smarter than me. She's a far better server than me."
He is entrusting her and the team assembled for this next venture with his dream of the future. "I'm giving them the keys to my car and we'll see how it goes." He pauses, "I'm still in the back seat... a little bit. I might do a little backseat driving. But we'll see how it drives. I'm asking them to carry my torch." The man can mix a metaphor.
There's an old adage that if you open a small restaurant, you'll probably die in a small restaurant. Niver has several creative ideas swimming around his brain, but the plans for Saint Dinette have been percolating a long time. This is the restaurant he wants to open and the service will continue in the spirit of what the Strip Club has built. The less formal style of serving seems to be the trend in the industry. The white tablecloths are gone; there's only one fork. Part of that is industry demand and part is the Niver School of Service.
Not that every restaurant he's walked into has appreciated his drive, opinions or confidence. "I forget who was hiring at D'Amico Cucina... I interviewed for a manager position there. I offered to try out of the job. I tried out by working the floor, clearing the table... they said things went well, but Bill Summerville [now of Spoon and Stable] got the job."
He concedes, "I know my career choices are risky, but i love it. In ten years will [the Strip Club] be a classic or will I be selling food for Sysco? My hope is to have four or five restaurants that are real restaurants that can support me until I step back - if I can. I might be a Mancini at the door every night. You never know."