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.
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.
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?
NIVER: Absolutely. And I really don’t care what people know about food. I really don’t care. I am certain they know more than me! I’ve got a better palate than them, but if you’re able to sit and read cookbooks and watch TV, you’re gonna know more than me on a bunch of stuff. There’s beer geeks, there’s wine geeks, there’s food geeks. … But the thing for me is how we do it. We’re not trying to do this like somebody else. And we want you to enjoy our interpretation of what we do. How you like medium rare, how your mom cooks medium rare, and how we cook medium rare could be three different things. This is how we do it.
HEAVY TABLE: Has the development of online reviews — Yelp and so forth — affected you?
NIVER: I don’t look at [Yelp] anymore.
HEAVY TABLE: Why?
NIVER: I think there’s a deficit of people who really understand the process. Anybody who Yelps is taking it from their perspective — and they should, because when you sit down, perspective is king. But … I try every day to make it right in the moment, at the moment, and this place is so small, it’s hard for you to get by me without me knowing that you’ve had a mediocre time. And sometimes I’ve tried to give you a better time, even though it might not have been perfect, because we are all fallible. But once you leave these doors, you can say and do what you want. If you’re in here and I can help you? Let me know, and I’ll do that.
HEAVY TABLE: In this business, you’re gonna have lots of frustrating encounters. You’re gonna have terrible nights. How do you deal with that?
NIVER: I don’t! … No rational human will ever learn to deal with that. It’s a day-to-day, night-by-night basis. Again, people come to us from all different positions, and really, what it boils down to is just how you deal with these situations night-to-night. There’s a little bit that I do with Twitter, which is the only online social media that I do. … That helps me maybe get some of the frustrations out, but really, the point of some of the Twitter stuff that I do is to make people aware of themselves.
HEAVY TABLE: Educational?
NIVER: I’m not here to educate you. I may bust your balls a little bit, but it‘s funny. We had a guy come in here the other night, and he’s got this beautiful blonde in tow, and he looks at me and he’s like, “Hey, JD!” [JD Fratzke is the chef at The Strip Club; pictured below, right] You know? Like he’s the top-notch dude. Like he knows us all, dragging his lady in. I’m like, “I’m not JD, bro. … What’s your name again?”
dude to me(trying to impress his lady by knowing everyone): "Hey JD!"
me: "I'm Tim. Whats your name again?"
— niver (@tniver) October 2, 2014
On Twitter, that’s mostly just making people aware of themselves. The father … asks the son, “Son, what would you like to drink?” And the boy says to me, “I’d like a Coke.” And the father looks at the son and says, “Please?” And the son looks at me and says, “Please.” And I say, “Yes, young man. I would be happy to get you a Coke.” And then the father looks at me and goes, “I’ll take a Miller Lite.” There’s no please!
So, we tend to apply things to other people and not ourselves. And then we forget as we’re asking somebody to bring us something — yeah, you’re paying me to do it, I get it. But I’m also offering a service and hospitality to you in an environment that is expensive to maintain. So, I mean, it’s a two-way street, clearly, but there’s a lot of challenges in there. Did I answer that all right?
HEAVY TABLE: Absolutely. Have you received feedback about your honesty on Twitter?
NIVER: Yeah. I had a guy direct message me and say, “You really need to stop tweeting stuff about your customers, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.” And I told him to bug off! It made me mad! I’m out here representing this business. Maybe not how everybody would want me to represent it, maybe not even how my partners would want me to represent it all the time, but I’m also very careful and measured about how I present things to people. And I mean, you can read my Twitter, and … it’s not even business-related. It’s my Twitter. I also write poetry on there once in a while. I put it all out there. I do.
… I think people unfollow me and don’t say anything about it. I don’t have anybody in my industry say, “Hey man, you really shouldn’t do that.” I think most people in the industry enjoy the fact that I bust the industry’s balls! And that I bust not only, you know, inside, but outside a little bit. And I make this real for people … that you can have your own voice about this. You can have an opinion about your guests.
HEAVY TABLE: So running a restaurant, it’s tons of hours; it’s emotionally taxing. How do you deal with it yourself, but keep it from impacting your family, your home life?
NIVER: I can’t. I can’t keep it from impacting my home life. I can’t. I’m a sap, and I can tell you right now that I’ve not had enough time with my kids.
At this point, Niver teared up a bit. He said to our photographer, laughing, “Don’t print that! The picture anyway!”
NIVER: You make the time that you have quality, and that’s, that’s what it’s about. But, also, when they were young, I would be at home with them until noon, so I had my kids in my arms from ages 1 to 5 every day — a lot of parents don’t have that opportunity.
But at age 5, when they go to school, I lose ’em. They’re out; I’m out at midnight; they’re out at 7 in the morning. They’re back at 3; I’m home at midnight. So I have to protect days to be with my kids. Do not mess with me on those days!
But, you know, marriage. … There’s a lot in here that can destroy relationships: booze, money — people in this industry tend to have more of an instant gratification reflex. There’s more addictive personalities. You know? There’s social situations, it’s a touchy-feely business. So there’s a lot here that’s constantly chipping away at your armor and breaking you down. And I think now, for lack of a better term, I’m weathered and a little bit more impervious to the bigger sides of — especially my personal relationship with my wife, and I just included her in my business. I just said: “Let’s work together. You keep me off the streets; keep me out of trouble; we’ll work in one direction.” We do this together, and that’s got it’s own problems, but there’s no way to protect yourself from this stuff one hundred percent, and I have regrets.
Though when it comes to my children, I work on that. That I have to work on. I have to be there with them. And when I’m there with them, I have to be present.
And there are some things that get pushed aside in that, in that life-wake, but I need to do more. Plus, I can’t count on the future of anything, really. I don’t have a 401K. This isn’t a huge restaurant that’s a cash cow that supports me. I mean I’m still serving, man, and that’s partially because I have to. So I don’t have a big safety net at all. I’m looking to slowly needlepoint myself one, or whatever. The next place [St. Dinette, a new restaurant Niver and chef Fratzke are opening together] is a key component. But I know that I need three or four or five things going concurrently, over a period of 10 to 15 years — minimum — to get me through so that I may one day retire. I know that that’s the case, so that’s gonna drive me to do more.
HEAVY TABLE: Is there anything else you’d like to say that’s on your mind about running the front of the house, about service? Anything that you think about a lot, that you would love for people to know?
NIVER: Well, I think the most important thing that I’d like people to know is the fact that I do respect everybody. I do desire to take care of everybody very well. And I may not have to restate that, and I think people may say, “Well, of course, that’s your job,” but, while I don’t look at your Yelp reviews, it matters. Everybody that walks through that door is doing something for me and for my family. We have so much appreciation for that, every day, that I don’t get to tell them other than “thank you” when you leave. But I say to myself, literally, every day, how lucky I am. I know I am. I don’t take it for granted. I don’t take anybody for granted that comes here to help us do what we do. Maybe that’s it.