While many restaurants are scaling back or closing during the pandemic, one restaurant group is planning to debut two new venues this summer. Brian and Sarah Ingram, owners of Hope Breakfast Bar, will open the Gnome along with culinary director Justin Sutherland at the end of this month, and Woodfire Cantina later this summer. In addition to the ambitious expansion, the team is emphasizing charitable contributions and cultivating a culture they say will prioritize the well-being of workers. The company formed to open the new eateries is called Purpose Driven Restaurants.
Before opening Hope Breakfast Bar, Brian Ingram knew that his first restaurant as an owner would be a departure from the corporate restaurant settings that had been at the center of his considerable culinary experiences.
What concerned him most in many larger corporate settings some workers were treated as cogs in a machine, assets to be acquired and then disposed of when they no longer functioned. Kitchen staff in particular put in 60 hours a week; expectations were high and impervious to the realities of the human experience. Sick in bed? You’d better be at death’s door. Your dad died? Wrap up the funeral and get back on the line. Every plate had to be perfect, and it had to be done yesterday. Make it to the end of the night and then cool those revving engines with your fellow cooks at the bar. Ingram saw the burnout, the addiction issues, the families that fell apart.
Ingram met his now-wife, Sarah, on the job. She was a server. They fell in love, and he credits her with shifting his view about how restaurants ought to operate. “I’m fully capable of being the a-hole,” he says. He would hang up the phone after a full-volume conversation and she would gently prod, “What if that was someone’s mother? What if they are having the worst day ever? Did that help?”
The duo worked out a business plan. Ingram took a deep breath as he planned to exit his hard-won, high-paying job. He’d worked his way up to a six-figure salary, overseeing New Bohemia, a then-growing chain of beer and sausage restaurants. The couple met with multiple banks to seek financing. They were turned down everywhere they went.
Ultimately, Hope Breakfast Bar opened in September 2019 entirely funded by themselves, family, and friends. In addition to being an all-day breakfast restaurant in a converted historic firehouse, it would also fuel a nonprofit called Give Hope, funded by 3 percent of the profits of the restaurant. Plus, the restaurant holds events, where 100 percent of the profits would benefits charities like Shine a Light and Special Spaces.
The response to the restaurant’s opening was almost immediately positive. People loved the airy room, filled with greenery, and the over-the-top food items, like carrot cake pancakes with cream cheese frosting.
Then, in early March, the St. Paul Public Schools teachers union went on strike. Hope Breakfast Bar joined several other area restaurants offering free meals to those out of work and out of school. Next, the pandemic hit.
On March 17, Minnesota’s governor shut down all restaurants and bars as gathering spaces. The Ingrams had to send their entire staff home, not knowing when they could come back to work. “Our staff aren’t just employees; we’re a family,” says Sarah Ingram. It’s a sentiment so often repeated that it sounds trite. But instead of sending employees links to unemployment forms, Brian pulled out his checkbook to help as much as he could, for as long as necessary. It took just 10 days for the Ingrams’ business and personal checking accounts to reach a zero balance.
At the same time, other restaurant owners and chefs were also laying off their staff. One was Justin Sutherland. The local chef-owner of Handsome Hog and culinary leader of the Madison Restaurant Group, which includes Ox Cart Arcade, Public Bar and Kitchen, Gray Duck. Moments after the shutdown was shared with his staff, Sutherland stood in front of a full cooler inside Lowertown’s Public Kitchen and Bar. He called his friend and neighbor, Ingram. The two live in the same apartment building and had bonded over shared stories of working for the big guys, but wanting to build a new kind of restaurant culture.
“We gotta go,” said Sutherland said looking into a full walk-in cooler. Sutherland rose to national prominence after an appearance on Bravo’s Top Chef Season 16. Up until recently, he had been traveling around the country with invitations to attend culinary events, rubbing elbows inside that swath of celebrity. On that day, Sutherland realized he, like his entire staff, was out of a job. Rather than process the emotional fallout of the experience of laying off friends he had worked with for years, the chef put his head down and kept working. Clad in his omnipresent “In Diversity We Trust” baseball hat, he shifted into action mode. Within two hours of learning about the shutdown, his restaurant coolers were being emptied to feed people for free.
At one point we were making almost 500 meals a day to send to hospitals.”
Public began to serve as a hub for feeding health care workers, attendees at the George Floyd protests, and kids out of school. Alongside Sutherland was chef Aaron Cave, who had worked at several of his restaurants. “At one point we were making almost 500 meals a day to send to hospitals,” says Cave. “It felt good being busy. Although, technically, I was unemployed. And then, when Justin introduced me to Brian, and he was doing the same thing, it all started to make sense.”
People came for food at Hope Breakfast Bar at all hours. Other restaurants and companies continued to donate food. A table was placed out front, and social media posts shared what was available at any given hour. Brian Ingram shared his personal email address, inviting anyone in need to send him a message.
The stories of the people they serve are omnipresent for Brian and Sarah Ingram. In the restaurant, prayer cards are delivered to every table. “It’s remarkable what people will share, not knowing who is going to read it,” says Brian Ingram. “I need a new boyfriend or car.” “I hate my job.” “I just lost my child at Children’s Hospital,” which is across the street.
A mother, her children, and a dog arrived one day with towels covering the windows of a nice-looking SUV. The mother explained she was fleeing an abusive relationship and everything they had was in the car. She just wanted to get the kids some food. Sarah Ingram returned to the restaurant and promptly burst into tears. “Brian, we need to get them money. We have to get her gas. We have to help,” she said.
On a recent sunny afternoon, the Ingrams were surrounded by check receipts, prayer cards, and letters, trying to explain why and how they do what they do. It’s a daily struggle to keep up with the demands of business, and the needs of their community.
Minnesota’s unemployment is 9.9 percent, up 1.2 percent over last month and 6.7 percent over 2019. According to Twin Cities Business, more than 695,000 people have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March.
Meanwhile, business at Hope Breakfast Bar is booming. The city of St. Paul allowed them to shut down Leech Street, a tiny street outside the restaurant, and take it over for patio space. Still, the employees — the people — come first, the owners say. Last week, on a sunny Tuesday, temperatures were creeping up close to 100 degrees. Sarah reached out to Brian, saying, “We’re dying on the vine out here.”
“Shut it down,” said Brian. Even if reservations needed to be canceled and people turned away, he wasn’t going to risk the health of his employees.
“I’ve never been so excited to be a part of something,” says Cave, who is working inside the Gnome, getting it ready for opening, and will lead the pub’s kitchen. He joined the business through Sutherland, who will serve as the culinary director for a new restaurant group with the Ingrams.
“When Justin told me he was doing this with Brian, I was like, I’m down,” he says. Along with Cave, Sutherland is hoping to bring in many familiar faces that he’s worked with in the past. The culture the Ingrams are creating is part of the draw for him. “We’re just trying to tweak this restaurant industry so it isn’t so shitty. It doesn’t have to be that way. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. But we don’t have to be miserable — it can be a lifelong endeavor. You can maintain it if it’s done correctly.” That means initiatives such as mandatory time off. Once the Gnome is up and running, Cave has his calendar blocked off to be with family. His phone will be off and he will take that time.
The Gnome is expected to open in either late July or early August in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill with everything from a $10 burger to a massive $110 steak, with over 100 taps running local beer, cold-brew coffee, Champagne, tiki cocktails, and more. Perhaps most anticipated is its expansive patio.
The second operation will be Elotes Wood Fire Cantina, in the former In Bloom space inside St. Paul’s Keg & Case food hall. When Ingram and Sutherland toured the space, the two took one look at the restaurant’s 20-foot hearth and immediately began thinking of roasted meats, street tacos, and margaritas. The restaurant has no traditional ovens or cooktops; everything has to come from the fire. Ingram lived for years in Southern California and has fond memories of driving down to Baja.
“It will be a place where you can come, get a $3 or $4 taco, drink a margarita on the patio, and do your art,” Sutherland says in reference to the nearby artists’ lofts in the historic Schmidt building, adjacent to where Elotes will be.
In announcing the opening social media follower asked whether these two chefs, neither Mexican, should be opening a Mexican restaurant? While both chefs balk at the notion that they can only cook within their ethnicity, the duo also launched into impassioned stories about the people they work with. “For me, cooking is sharing,” says Ingram.
The restaurant’s kitchen will reflect the multiethnic cooking teams the two already rely on in their other businesses. The intention is to build a restaurant that with complement the neighborhood, as well as other nearby Mexican eateries like the casual ease of Tavail Grill, or chef-owned Pajarito, not tear anyone down.
Elotés is still working on what it will become, the plans are still early and recipes are being developed with an assembled kitchen staff, including members who are Latino. None of the important decisions Ingrams and Sutherland make happen in a vacuum, it is an evolution, and one they will continue to work alongside the people they count as coworkers, employees, and continually refer to as family.
The thing about a movement is that it’s rarely a clear, straight, or easy line. The road to a better world, one where service industry workers are cared for in the face of historic unemployment, global pandemic, and one where neighbors in need of a hot meal are served with a side of dignity, is a long one. It’s an ambitious goal that has brought tremendous strain on the Ingrams, but that is where the hope comes in. While experiencing this rare gift of success in an industry that has faltered in this past year, the Ingrams vow to continue to continue to work to put more good into the world.
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