Mike Brown, Bob Gerken and James Winberg recall the tears, beers, and gorilla warfare of the first year inside Robbinsdale's dining destination.
The unseasonably warm morning sunlight shines on a couple of twenty-something guys sitting on a curb in Robbinsdale. One scrolls through his phone, the other takes a pull off a cigarette before they are joined by a third, scruffy young soul who appears to be minutes away from rolling out of bed. It's just 10:15 in the morning and already there is a line forming outside of Travail Kitchen and Amusements in Robbinsdale. At 10:25, co-owner Bob Gerken appears, nods at his crew and unlocks the door. Several more young cooks pour out of nearby cars and crevices and make their way inside.
We can't afford to make million dollar mistakes.
Mike Brown is next to appear, clutching a bakery bag and 16 oz. coffee cup. The sun seems to be assaulting his large brown eyes. He cringes against its strength before passing through the door and coming to life inside the the restaurant that he, his co-owners, friends and family literally built.
Travail is not just a singular dining experience, but a restaurant built from tenacity and a few crazy ideas. What's easy to miss in the thumping music, carnival midway-style stuffed animals hanging from the ceiling, flying food and astounding flavors delivered to the guests, is the bare bones fact that the chefs behind all this fun take their business very, very seriously.
"We can't afford to make million dollar mistakes here," said Mike Brown. "Simply because, we don't have a million dollars. At most, we could make like a couple hundred dollar mistake." They begged, borrowed and scraped together the funding from friends, family, including their parent's life savings to open the first Travail in a quiet suburban mainstreet cafe space.
I was looking out and there was no noise, just snow and... I died. I realized I was just truly blessed.
The success of Travail 1.0 was a revelatory experience. Chefs were servers and the astonishingly affordable tasting menu soon had guests willing to line up, crowd in and endure long wait times for a part of the communal dining experience. None of this should have worked. The location was far from the haute dining scenes in town. These guys had run kitchens before, but never owned a restaurant and there were no deep pocketed investors to draw upon. Plus, this is Minnesota - one does not simply sit next to a perfect stranger and dine. It's not how we do. However, soon the national media was taking notice of the little cafe that could. Before long, Travail had outgrown the humble beginnings.
What followed next was a closely documented journey from storefront to building a new restaurant that included a beloved pop-up, wildly successful kickstarter campaign and a whole lot of late nights for the crew.
While they toiled away at the new location, they also spent sleepless nights worrying about their staff. When asked to describe the first year of business, the word that comes to mind is "anxiety."
We were the Fuck It Crew.
Brown recalled, "I cried. I remember, I was at my house with my wife and holding a cup of coffee - we had been working 14 - 18 hours a day. We only took Christmas off. We celebrated New Year's there." As he speaks he's back in the moment, shoulders rounded and eyes blinking slowly. "We were the Fuck It Crew: Bobby, James, Kale [Thome] and I, plus a few randoms. The Fuck It Crew would put up sheetrock and just do anything that needed to be done. Anyway, I was looking out and there was no noise, just snow and... I died. I realized I was just truly blessed. It's the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life."
The restaurant is peppered with little touches from the crew of exhausted chefs and the friends who pulled together to create Travail. One late night's construction was fueled by Bud Light. There's a bottle cap plastered into the wall under the bar.
Once the space was open, they did a super soft opening. Many of their crew hung on during the tenuous time between UMAMI closing and Travail opening, there was no cooking to be done, no pay, no jobs, but the core would still show up and serve time on the Fuck It Crew.
It's easy to forget how ridiculous that was. We all got hurt.
And then, it was opening day. They softly opened with an expanded staff. Out of some 16 new hires, nine quit the first week. They hired seven more, four of those quit. The frenetic work pace was intense. Months past before they took their first day off.
"It's easy to forget how ridiculous that was," said Bob Gerken. "We all got hurt. Our arms cramped up," he gestured at Brown. "The muscle just seized. We lost feeling - from holding tweezers. We're walking around with these claw shaped hands that wouldn't move - trying to massage the muscles to loosen up. James threw his back out - he's still dealing with that."
James Winberg had been at the chiropractor prior to our meeting. "Sitting is the new smoking," he said by way of greeting his co-owners with when walking into the dining room.
"We'd never done this before," Gerken continued. "We hadn't had a bar before," suddenly the chef/servers needed to be able to concoct these complex drinks. "We'd never had a Rookery."
It's trying to grab the moon
Winberg sums up the experience more simply, "The first six months were hell." Each chef and their team picked their fort and defended it against the marauding hordes. Each night, the guests would line up outside before the doors opened for service and the chefs would hunker down, prep like crazy and do everything possible to hold their ground. "We never caught up. It's an unattainable goal."
"It's trying to grab the moon," said Brown. "You know, you can see it right there, but it's always just out of reach."
You need the diners to make this work. It's the soul of your restaurant
At the time, "Our goal was just to keep our business alive."
The main goal of every Travail experience, of every meal these chefs serve, is to create a great dining experience for every guest. "You have to make them feel special. We want to connect with people and make them want to have that connection again. Every diner needs to feel special. You need them to make this work. It's the soul of your restaurant."
"That's part of why I think we lost so many chefs in the beginning," Gerken continues. "This is a lifestyle. This is so much more than just a restaurant. Those who left needed more personal time and there is nothing wrong with that."
If you have never had the pleasure to experience the Travail tasting menu, it's best to buckle up. Forget conventional plates, put out your hand, open your mouth: buy the ticket, take the ride. The music is thumping, the chefs are calling out to each other to the other guests and before you realize what's happening, your cheeks are burning from a goofy grin that's been plastered across your face for an hour straight.
It is not just the show that you're an active participant in, it's the subtle and complex flavors found in the food. Often a single bite unfolds into an intriguing story that washes over the palate.
"A tasting menu is a curated experience that's more personal," explained Winberg.
"I like a la cart, too," says Brown. "But this is about building an experience."
Throughout the past year, the restaurant has evolved. They put out a second chef's calendar (a tradition we hope will continue every year). Brunch service has been added. Several chefs have hosted pop up events to allow them to step off the line and try their hand at creating their own menus. Plus, perhaps most notably, Travail has come as close as they ever will to taking reservations. They recently added the ability for some diners to buy tickets for dinner service.
The decision to allow people to save a seat was a response to guest feedback. Although, this was hardly their first foray into ticket sales for dinner. The UMAMI pop up that they had held during Travail's construction was entirely ticket based sales. Plus, several other successful restaurants with tasting menus have sold tickets to guarantee seats.
The most common feedback they heard from diners was, "There's a line... it's too loud. The music is never going away," said Brown. The line was able to managed. Now, 65% of the building remains first come, first serve, but one third of guests can be assured they have a seat by paying ahead.
Heading into the second year of business Travail is ready to walk. "Our first year was infancy," said Gerken. "Now, it's a toddler."
The quality of the cooks has improved. The staff turnover has slowed dramatically and the chefs are confident in the team they currently have. A daily rhythm has settled in. Young cooks arrive in the early morning light to char onions, drill holes into egg shells and scoop spheres from peeled potatoes.
You can pack just a shit ton of people in that tiny space and get a feeling of what it was like when that was the original Travail.
"At first it was just trying to not die," said Winberg. Now, they work to refine the experience, the menu development and execution and "slowly putting in the building blocks," added Gerken.
Training has also become a more solidified process. Chef/Servers learn it all: making bread, sauces, teaching other cooks how to be prepared for service, to close, hold a meeting, write a menu. That is part of the purpose of the pop ups that they will continue to host. It's a chance to give the next generations a first chance to shine. The goal is to raise the talent not just inside the kitchen of Travail and The Rookery, but to go on to run their own kitchens some day. We are just at the precipice of that next generation beginning to lead our market.
"It's what fortifies the food," said Brown. "We're training sergeants and lieutenants. We could never have done this in that old location. That place was built for guerilla warfare. That's why Pig Ate My Pizza still has that vibe. You can pack just a shit ton of people in that tiny space and you can get a feeling of what it was like when that was the original Travail."
We're going to focus on what we do best.
So, what of the future? Learning to run from walking inside Travail and continuing to listen to the customers. The most obvious changes will come as The Rookery now benefits from their full attention. "We're going to bring [The Rookery] back to old Travail and focus on what we do best," said James Winberg.
It's an adjacent space, but it's also different. The team will now back up Kale Thome and develop a stronger Rookery personality. That could mean bar food, done as only this crew can imagine. "Unless we change our minds," laughs Gerken.
No matter where their inspiration leads, hungry food fans are bound to follow.
All photos by Stephanie A. Meyer