Upfront With Nicole Weiler and Tim Mulhair

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Upfront is the Heavy Table’s effort to bring attention to the “front of the house,” and to generate discussion and debate about service in the Upper Midwest and beyond. Consisting of in-depth interviews, this series focuses on the experience of those who say, “Yes, Chef.” What, to them, constitutes “good service”? How do hosts, servers, bartenders, sommeliers, and managers navigate the dining environment as more and more self-identified “foodies” and self-appointed mixologists take to social media and dash off reviews on Yelp even before closing out their checks? How does front-of-the-house staff deal with the social, emotional, and physical demands of service? We really don’t know — so we decided to ask. (See the first installment of this series: Tim Niver of Strip Club Meat and Fish.)

Q AND A WITH NICOLE WEILER AND TIM MULHAIR

A few months ago, we met Nicole Weiler, a razor sharp, vivacious woman who splits her time waiting tables between Barrio in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport (Terminal 2) and The Craftsman in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis, all while studying at the University of Minnesota. Because Weiler could compare food service in the airport and “streetside” (server lingo for restaurants outside the airport), we knew we had to interview her for this series. She brought along Tim Mulhair, an insightful, charismatic bartender who also does double-duty at the airport (Barrio) and streetside (Jet Set in downtown Minneapolis). Weiler and Mulhair previously worked together in the G-concourse in Terminal 1, but left for Barrio just before G-Concourse implemented iPad service — both feared the new technology would reduce service to food delivery. Over an epic dinner at Corner Table, we had a lively conversation about the peculiarities, challenges, and opportunities of serving crowds who always have a flight to catch.

Job Security

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

HEAVY TABLE: What are some of the biggest differences between serving in the airport and outside the airport?

NICOLE WEILER: Well, it takes a long time to get to work, for one! And you still have to go through security every day and pay for parking. You get a staff rate, but … And making sure that you keep track of your badge, ’cause … if you lose that badge, it’s a hundred dollars to replace it. … And you can only lose it twice. The third time, it will be surrendered, and you can’t work in the airport for two years.

… You have to pack your bag correctly. You can’t bring your favorite drink into work. … If you want to have kombucha or something while you’re working, you have to go buy it at that inflated, five-dollars-a-bottle price.

TIM MULHAIR: And I think not having regulars, not having your friends come by to see you. It’s a weird thing. … People are like, “I can’t even go look at your restaurant, because it’s behind security.”

HEAVY TABLE: How often do you have to have trainings about security, regulations … ?

WEILER: We don’t?

HEAVY TABLE: You don’t?

MULHAIR: Not once you’re badged. … Which is an interesting process.

WEILER: You have to be fingerprinted and have an FBI background check to work at the airport.

Surdyk’s Flights To Open Second Location and August 21 Tweet Rodeo

The latest from Twitter: @surdyksflights announces a second location in the airport and @PottersPasties reveals that they do, in fact, sell par-baked pasties.

Ike’s on Summit at MSP Airport

Louie the Loon: Ike's on Summit at the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport
DWITT / Heavy Table

Delta and OTG Preview New Menus at Concourse G

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Sometime next year you’re going to be able to order this as you sit in the airport, waiting for the crew to arrive for your delayed flight to Cleveland: fennel-cured whitefish from Lake Superior, drizzled with a black pepper dressing and served alongside a fresh, crunchy fennel slaw and a hearty brown bread panzanella. It might even take the sting out of going to Cleveland.

That dish was created by Lenny Russo of St. Paul’s Heartland restaurant, but it won’t be cooked by him. He and 10 other noted area chefs have lent their names and expertise to restaurants coming to Concourse G. Restaurant management company OTG Management won the contract to operate the concessions on the concourse in May, beating out the larger and more established HMSHost, which operates most of the other airport restaurants.

Some construction has already begun on Concourse G, as old tenants vacate. OTG takes over concessions at the gate January 1 and will gradually roll out amenities over 12–18 months, according to Rick Blatstein, OTG’s CEO. The first three restaurants are tentatively scheduled to open in July: Mimosa, a brasserie and raw bar created by Meritage’s Russell Klein; Shoyu, a modern Japanese restaurant by Tanpopo’s Koshiki Yonemura; and Minnibar, a sandwich cafe by Andrew Zimmern.

While there will be seating in the restaurants, there will also be “iPad bars” throughout the gate area, loaded with menus that allow customers to order from any of the eateries on the concourse.

Blatstein explained the concept this way: “Travelers have some gate anxiety” — you’ve been there: You want a sandwich, but are afraid to miss an announcement in the gate area — “So let’s bring everything to them at the gate. We’ve rethought everything. We’re not going to act like we’re inside an airport. Anywhere you sit you’ll be able to order food.”

Delta and OTG previewed some of the menu items at an event last night at Heartland.

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Andrew Zimmern showed off the “Sven and Ole,” a mild meatball sandwich (akin to meatloaf) with pickled cabbage, which will be on the menu at Minnibar.

Koshiki Yonemura, chef and owner of Tanpopo, previewed the crunch roll that will be available at Shoyu. Light on the spice, it includes tuna, Dungeness crab, masago, and avocado, with a light touch of yuzu. Yonemura is consulting on Shoyu.

Erick Harcey’s Minnesota Beer Hall will serve crispy croquettes, filled with creamy potatoes, smoked chicken, and cheddar cheese, while his second concept, Custom Burger, will have lamb burgers with feta fondue on the menu. Harcey is chef at Victory 44.

Delta Proposes New MSP Dining Options

Courtesy of OTG management

When Delta announced on Tuesday that it was “redefining” dining in the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport with 12 new restaurants, all attached to beloved names in Minnesota chefdom, there was both excitement (“Real food at the airport!”) and skepticism (“Real food at the airport? Yeah, right.”)

Both, as it turns out, are a little premature. Although Delta announced the names of the participating chefs and the management company, it won’t be able to sign an agreement until the Metropolitan Airports Commission signs off on the deal, according to Delta spokesperson Leslie Parker.

While Delta holds the lease on Concourse G in the Lindbergh Terminal until the end of 2020, its rights to the concessions on the concourse end December 31, 2015. At that time the rights revert to the MAC. In order to sign a long-term lease — as anyone making tens of millions of dollars in improvements would want — the MAC needs to be in on the deal.

The commissioners will meet in June to discuss the proposal and vote. MAC spokesperson Patrick Hogan says of the new Concourse G dining plan, “It’s an exciting proposal and we’ve been impressed by what we’ve seen… but it will come down to whether the dollars make sense.”

Courtesy of OTG Management

If the dollars do indeed make sense for the MAC and all goes according to plan, in January 2012, New York–based OTG Management will begin opening the dozen new restaurants along Concourse G one at a time, although the order has not been determined yet.

Choosing OTG over the incumbent, HMSHost, represents a significant change. HMS, which operates in more than 100 airports around the world, holds most of the concessions at MSP, even contracting to operate some of the non-chain restaurants like Ike’s and French Meadow.

OTG, on the other hand, operates in just nine airports — and in some of them just a Dunkin’ Donuts or two. But at the JFK JetBlue terminal, OTG has created what Food & Wine magazine has called “an unrivaled culinary monopoly on airport restaurants.” Then, the magazine notes, “LaGuardia’s Delta Terminal may soon be giving JFK’s JetBlue Terminal some healthy competition for top airport dining.” Surprise: Those restaurants, too, were created by OTG.

The modus operandi in New York is similar to what OTG is using at MSP: Get well-known chefs to create concepts, menus, and recipes and provide a little training and quality control over the course of the coming year. OTG owns, manages, and staffs the restaurants.

That’s something Chef Lenny Russo of St. Paul’s Heartland wants to make very clear: When (and if) the Mill City Tavern — the restaurant attached to his name in the proposal — opens in Concourse G, it will not be his restaurant. He is serving as a consultant. His name’s not on it, and it is not attached to the Heartland brand.

“If [customers] go in there expecting to see Lenny Russo, Russell Klein, Doug Flicker standing on the line, then they’re fooling themselves. That’s not what [OTG] contracted us for,” Klein says. “Is it going to be what you’re going to get at Meritage or at Heartland or at Tanpopo? No, but it’s going to be close.”

Russo says that he will provide OTG with four seasonal menus, recipes, a week of on-site training, and quality control — meaning he’ll eat a couple of meals a month in the restaurant and provide feedback to the chef there. He has also turned over his list of local farmers and purveyors to OTG and is encouraged that the management company has already met with some local farmers.

MSP Airport Dining Takes Off

The local Delta hub at Concourse G is up for some ambitious gastronomic updates beginning in January 2012, including restaurants with menus overseen and / or created by chefs including Lenny Russo of Heartland (Mill City Tavern), Russell Klein of Meritage (Mimosa), Doug Flicker of Piccolo (Volante), Ann Kim of Pizzeria Lola (Vero), Erick Harcey of Victory 44 (Minnesota Beer Hall), and Andrew Zimmern (Minni Bar). The news has been bouncing around for less than 24 hours, and already the local fooderati are cracking wise. Karl Gerstenberger writes: “I question whether we have the base of talent in Minneapolis St. Paul to do anything but dismal representations of local foods. Isn’t the point of being in a place to be in a place? If you want a juicy lucy at Matts, get off your airport a** and go have one. Patronize local restaurants, not facsimiles of local restaurants.”

Eating at MSP and Morning Roundup

Rachel rounds up the best eating that MSP (the airport) has to offer, a blogger sounds off on some restaurants’ bewildering and pricetag-free oral recitation of nightly specials, a long-form interview with cheesemaker Andy Hatch (of Pleasant Ridge Reserve fame, and maker of the new Rush Creek), Cannon River Winery is producing a special dessert wine for the St. Paul Winter Carnival, Well Fed Guide to Life heads out to Kings Wine Bar, The Sample Room is rolling out a new seasonal menu (PDF of dinner here; our review of The Sample Room here), an incident of “workface” at Pizza Luce, and a snow soup story over on Trout Caviar.

Surdyk’s Flights Wine Market & Bar in MSP International Airport

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Step up to the well-lit bar at Surdyk’s Flights, and all anxiety melts away. Chat with the friendly staff, order a Bellini, and wile away the time before your flight without succumbing to the gray-themed decor, cramped quarters, and screaming children that inevitably share your waiting time at the gate.

A veritable haven for the food- and wine-obsessed, this new wine market and bar seems out of place in the hustle and bustle of the just-past-security airport mall, a place where every stand, every shop’s sole purpose is to sell you something on-the-go (a bitter depth charge, a trashy magazine, a new SkyMiles credit card) before you head off to your final destination in some other locale. Here, an entire wall is lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves of wine. Deli cases are filled not with plain ham or turkey sandwiches, but instead with long, stick-like baguettes stuffed with prosciutto and arugula and plastic boxes filled with fresh salads and cheese plates. Minneapolis-made chocolate bars from local chocolatier B.T. McElrath are prominently featured; so are buttery croissants and colorful French macaroons. High-backed booths and gleaming bar stools beckon you to sit back, relax, and enjoy.

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

The Surdyk family was present at their grand opening event last Tuesday night, and it was clear they are excited to expand. “This is something my father would never have done,” said Jim Surdyk, whose 24-year-old son Taylor is CEO of the new venture. Clearly, this new endeavor is indicative of the modern Surdyk’s business plan– one willing to tap into new and uncornered markets while working to provide old-school service, attention to detail, and artisanal ingredients and combinations.