Minn. restaurant group stays fresh by embracing changing culinary trends

Minn. restaurant group stays fresh by embracing changing culinary trends

When Mike Currie befriended Jerry Zubay more than 30 years ago, the two men weren’t thinking large. But they were working hard enough for a restaurant chain in Rochester, Minn., that they thought they might as well open up their own place there.

Little did they know their idea would develop into six hot concepts in that thriving Midwestern community.

“Night after night, I can’t believe it,” said Zubay who, along with Currie, oversees the Creative Cuisine Co.’s restaurant operations. “It’s still kind of a stunning feeling to see a dining room full of people, to see them enjoying what you’re doing.”

While the partners’ business journey has not taken them away from Rochester, it has taken them through changing culinary trends over three decades and various concept incarnations.

Today their five restaurants—City Cafe, Newt’s [3], Broadstreet Cafe, RedWood Room [4] and City Market [5]—generate annual revenues of about $7.5 million. The concepts range from white-table-cloth fine dining at Broadstreet Cafe, with an average per-person check of $50, to the 70-seat Newt’s, whose customers typically spend $8 for a meal anchored by a juicy burger. RedWood Room is a gourmet restaurant and jazz club. City Cafe features fresh seafood, while City Market offers Midwesterners a taste of New York-style deli sandwiches to go.

Creative Cuisine Co. [6] also owns the local Broadstreet Baking Co. specialty bakery, a storefront adjunct to Broadstreet Cafe that boasts artisanal breads and custom cakes.

Four of the restaurants occupy two buildings. All the restaurants are within five blocks of one another and near Rochester’s world-renowned Mayo Clinic.

The restaurants have racked up many awards from the local Post-Bulletin newspaper and Rochester magazine. Among those honors were designations for City Cafe as best restaurant for the past two years, for Newt’s as having the best burger for four straight years, and for Broad-street Baking Co. as this year’s best desserts source.

Changing with the times is a part of the company’s competitive formula, according to its owners and customers.

“I don’t want to be the ‘leisure suit’ of the culinary world,” Zubay said. “So we’ve closed restaurants and redone others. We’re constantly looking for what’s new and different.”

To understand how the company has evolved, consider its first restaurant: a typical supper club that served prime rib and steaks and a big, complimentary bowl of peel-and-eat shrimp to start off each meal.

Currie and Zubay opened The Bank Restaurant, as it was called, in 1978, in a former bank building. But when sales started to slump, they closed it and opened Henry Wellington’s a block away, featuring Wellington steaks. No shrimp was served and prices were lower.

Then about four years ago Henry Wellington’s morphed into its current incarnation as City Cafe, with contemporary American dishes featuring seafood flown in from the coasts.

The owners do not mince words when they talk about the origins of their concepts, admitting that they are copies of other successful restaurants.

“It’s a lot easier stealing ideas than coming up with our own,” Zubay quipped.

They modeled the Bank, for example, after the Broker restaurant in downtown Denver, which is situated in a former bank vault and still is known for dishing up steamed Gulf shrimp to start every meal.

Over the years, Creative Cuisine’s owners have traveled throughout the United States, visiting such cities as San Francisco, New York and Chicago in search of cutting-edge restaurant formats with good food.

A few years ago, Currie jolted the business at Newt’s when he introduced an old-fashioned burger to the menu—a half-pound, griddle-cooked version, “where the juice goes down your cheek.”

Currie said that attention to detail and a love of the restaurant business have kept the company rolling.

“I think the one thing in restaurants is you either have a passion for it or you don’t,” he said. “If you don’t, don’t do it.”

Currie and Zubay have passed on that love to their families. The children of both men have been actively involved in the restaurants since their early days. Currently, three of Currie’s four children—Denise Villeneuve, David Currie and Mark Currie—are on the management team.

Villeneuve recalls working at the restaurant back in 1985 when there were not a lot of chain operations in Rochester.

COMPANY FACTS

NAME: Creative Cuisine Co.

HEADQUARTERS: Rochester, Minn.

YEAR FOUNDED: 1978

NO. OF UNITS: Five restaurants, one storefront retail bakery

CONCEPTS, TYPES, LOCATIONS: Broadstreet Cafe, fine dining; RedWood Room, upscale casual; City Cafe, upscale seafood; Newt’s, casual; City Market, gourmet sandwiches, salads to go; Broadstreet Baking Co., specialty bakery; all are in Rochester

ANNUAL SALES: $7.5 million

OWNERS AND EXECUTIVES: Jerry Zubay and Mike Currie, co-founders; Mark Currie, general manager, Broadstreet Cafe and RedWood Room; David Currie, general manager, City Cafe and Newt’s; Denise Villeneuve, director of marketing and public relations

“No one talked about food trends, but my dad and Jerry did,” said Villeneuve, who oversees public relations and marketing. “They tried to be up past where everyone else was. That’s what they instilled in all of us.”

The Creative Cuisine restaurants have made a mark on the Rochester business community, said longtime resident Sandy Keith, a leader of the Rochester Downtown Alliance.

“The company has just done a marvelous job of adjusting and meeting the culinary needs of this rather interesting and diverse community,” he said.

Rochester, which is Minnesota’s third-largest city, is best known for the Mayo Clinic and IBM headquarters. Because of those two companies, a substantial portion of the population is transient, and visitors to the city number about 1.5 million every year. The institutions also are largely responsible for drawing workers of diverse ethnicities and nationalities. The cosmopolitan character of Rochester demands new and creative restaurants, Keith said.

Because of the Mayo Clinic’s dominance in the community, all the Creative Cuisine restaurants offer items that can be made without fats, dairy products or oils, for patrons who are undergoing medical tests. Menu options also include gluten-free and MSG-free items.

One of the rules of the business is that members of the waitstaff “own” their tables. That means that if a customer is not happy with an order, the server can take it off the tab.

“It’s kind of scary putting down $20 on a dinner you won’t like,” Zubay said. “We try to take the fear out of it.”

Eric Pater, head chef of City Cafe, said he likes working at the company in part because he has carte blanche to create new dishes.

“That’s definitely my place to experiment and challenge myself,” he said. “It keeps things new and exciting.”

Creative Cuisine could have grown larger by now, Currie said, but its leadership team has wanted to remain true to the spirit of the company by never risking its ability to care for employees and deliver an outstanding restaurant experience for guests.

“We’re just one big family, and that is more important to us than the money and the lifestyle,” Currie said.