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.

Upfront with Tim Niver

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Series Introduction

We’re currently living in an age of the chef — the Iron Chef, the Top Chef, the Master Chef. Celebrity chefs make cameos commercials and TV shows (HBO’s Treme managed a good three or four in a single episode), while dedicated eaters and food writers wait with bated breath for known commodities to open their next kitchen. It’s understandable to think that restaurants sink or swim with the skill (and reputation) of their chef — many high-end places, after all, are known simply by their chefs’ names: Daniel, Jean-Georges, or closer to home, Vincent. This fascination with chefs and their craft, their genius and madness, their principles and drive, can cause us to overlook the people who night after night, set the mood, deliver our orders, answer our questions, cater to our dietary restrictions, and patiently put up with our picture-taking, texting, and tipsy chatter.

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 will focus 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.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Q and A with Tim Niver

The subject of this series immediately brought to mind Tim Niver. The two restaurants that he’s part-owned and managed, The Town Talk Diner in Minneapolis (which closed in 2011 and re-opened under new ownership as Le Town Talk) and The Strip Club in St. Paul, have developed reputations as fun, lively spots that make diners feel like regulars. A successful restaurateur, general manager, server, (and tweeter), Niver has earned his reputation for openness and brutal honesty. Who better to kick off Upfront?

We met Niver at The Strip Club to talk about his career, personal life, and his life on the front lines of food. Niver was thoughtful, candid, and unsparing. After a lively discussion about his professional background, which ranged from counter service at McDonald’s to general management under Marcus Samuelsson at Aquavit, Niver dove into his approach to the service and dining experience of The Strip Club.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table
Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

TIM NIVER: There’s a conviviality among everybody who works here. There’s also a sentiment that we do give a shit. We do care — really. But we also want to do this how we do it. We won’t compromise how you want it to be for how we want it to be. And so we’re asking [diners] to accept us how we are and for who we are. … I think people really grab onto that because it’s not fake. You can’t fake that. There are variables that we deal with that change every day. We’re kind of the same. You’re different. You walk in and you’re different. What you bring to the table is different. So we just try to be us, and you can hopefully accept us for us and [vice versa]. The shroud is pulled off, you know? This is where everybody can be themselves.

HEAVY TABLE: It seems that people today are really into food, serious about it. Have you seen a change in the clientele in terms of how diners interact with the front-of-the-house staff?