Muffuletta was a groundbreaker 40 years ago

Now, not only can we pronounce quiche Lorraine correctly, we can say “thom yum” and “spiedini” and have a glass of wine while we eat it.

 

In 1977, if you got hungry in St. Anthony Park and surrounding neighborhoods, your options were limited.

Muffuletta in its early days. Photos courtesy Parasole Restaurant Holdings.

True, there was a corner grocery store called Blomberg’s at the corner of Doswell and Como avenues, where Tim & Tom’s Speedy Market now stands. But if you wanted to go out, you could choose between ice cream and caramel rolls at Bridgeman’s or all-American fare at the Lamplighter Inn, both located at the corner of Como and Carter. Upscale coffee in those days probably meant someone had dropped eggs shells in the percolator and the only bakery in the area was a doughnut shop on Hampden Avenue.

Ethnic cuisine? Imported gourmet items? Forget it. And, above all, by law and custom both, there was absolutely nowhere in the St. Anthony Park where you could get a glass of wine or a mug of beer.

Then along came a new restaurant called Muffuletta, and all of that changed. Opened 40 years ago in Milton Square and still owned by Phil Roberts and his partner, Pete Mihajlov, Muffuletta signaled a sea change in the way the neighborhood thought about food.

“The Midwest was a wasteland of meat and potatoes in those days,” says Roberts, but he was a guy who liked to eat. On frequent business trips to New York City, he had encountered such then-exotic dishes as quiche Lorraine and fettuccine Alfredo, and he wanted to bring them home to Minnesota. The result was Muffuletta, named after a hero sandwich from New Orleans, which, like beer-cheese soup, is still on the menu. Roberts has no regrets about either of those dishes, although he does allow himself a retrospective shrug about the quiche: “For years, half the customers called it kee-ka lah-rain.”

The 1970s interior of Muffulletta.

Nowadays there’s barely a single Twin Cities neighborhood without its local café/bistro, what Roberts calls a “small, cozy 90-seat restaurant,” but in 1977 the concept was daring. Even more groundbreaking was the notion that respectable folks would want to have a glass of wine with their dinner. Muffuletta’s epic struggle to obtain the first beer and wine license in north St. Anthony Park is the stuff of local legend. But perhaps even more remarkable is the eatery’s longevity. In a business where the average life expectancy of new restaurant is “closer to two years” according to Roberts, Muffuletta is still going strong after four decades. In fact, it became the foundation of an empire. Roberts and Mihajlov’s company, Parasole Restaurant Holdings, has become one of the area’s foremost restaurant chains.

Muffuletta’s secret ingredient is “the right kind of culture in the company. … We’re not yellers. We buy the best product we can buy and serve it lovingly,” Roberts says.

“People feel at home here,” says general manager Carolyn Davis, who has been with the restaurant for more than 18 years. “Our restaurant is part of [the neighborhood’s] culture.” Davis also acknowledges that Muffuletta may have had a hand in expanding their customers’ gastronomic horizons. Over the years, she says, “People have learned a bit more about food.”

Where Muffuletta led, others have followed. The Como Avenue commercial area of St. Anthony Park now boasts at least a half dozen food-and drink-related businesses, including the newest entrant onto the restaurant scene, Karta Thai. Open since early August, Karta Thai’s mission according to co-owner Sandy Khunsri, is to introduce the neighborhood to Thai food.

“Thai food is in Minneapolis, but not here,” she says. And food is not their only first. Karta Thai is the first restaurant in the area to get a full liquor license, which Khunsri says, was “not easy to get it.” Neighbors had to sign a petition to allow it, and they did. “I got to say thank you to neighbors,” she says.

Khunsri grew up in the restaurant business in Thailand. After immigrating to America, she opened her first restaurant in this country in Seattle in 1990. But when her husband died unexpectedly at the age of 32, the grieving Khunsri hit the road.

“I stopped in Minneapolis in summer. This town really nice, but I didn’t know about snow and winter,” she says. Happily for local diners, by the time the weather turned cold, Khunsri was hooked. For 13 years, she worked as a chef at the original Twin Cities Thai restaurant, Sawatdee. Then, six years ago, she went out on her own when she opened the first Karta Thai on Central Avenue in Minneapolis.

Khunsri’s partner, Terry Spotts, says the restaurant wants to be known for the authenticity of its Thai flavors like galangal and ginger, but also for the careful sourcing of its locally grown foodstuffs. There’s even a nod to Bangkok-meets-Bemidji in dishes like walleye, prepared with your choice of sweet-and-sour, curry or ginger sauce. “The Walleye comes from the Red Lake Reservation,” says Spotts.

Locally sourced foods and an adventurous clientele have also been key to shaping change at the area’s best known corner grocery store, Tim & Tom’s Speedy Market. Tom Spreigl has been in the grocery business for more than 40 years. When he and co-owner Tim Faacks bought out the previous owners more than 22 years ago, Speedy Market was a milk-and-eggs convenience store tied to the Schroeder’s Milk Co. How things can change in just under a quarter of a century.

Where Speedy once carried a single brand of coffee beans in addition to the jars of instant and vacuum-packed cans of ground mass-market brew, it now devotes an entire wall section to boutique beans, many of them from local craft roasters. A similar variety prevails in the ice cream section and among the fresh produce.

“I won’t be boxed in as a convenience store,” says Spreigl. “Customers are willing to ask for what they want, and we’ll worry about where to put it.”

One trend that has taken off among time-starved customers is what Spreigl calls “value-added food products like pre-stuffed chicken breasts and pattied burgers.” The store has expanded its chef-run deli program, and it now makes salads on site.

Spreigl prides himself on his willingness to stock anything he thinks his customers might buy, and over the years, the store has developed a sense of humor in its merchandise displays. One year around the holidays, the store puts together an eye-popping display of a popular Minnesota-made cranberry granola that goes by the brand name Crapola, together with an even more riveting holiday item—imported tins of British treacle-and-raisin pudding labeled with their traditional name—Spotted Dick.

Spreigl says it helps that the neighborhood “has changed. It’s less prim than it used to be.”

Some of those locally sourced coffee beans that Speedy Market sells come from South St. Anthony True Stone Coffee Roasters. True Stone is one of several craft roasters and micro-brewers that has sprung up in the industrial areas of South St. Anthony in the last decade. Open since 2003, True Stone produces nearly 2,800 pounds of coffee a week, which puts it just over the limit for a micro-roaster, says operations manager and coffee buyer Teresa Woodward.

How have businesses like True Stone created a demand for upscale coffee in a population that would have been shocked to have been told in 1977 that someday they might consider paying upward of $4 for a cup of coffee? Part of it comes down to an “educational process,” Woodward says. By judicious offers of free samples and scrupulous adherence to standards of an “ethically produced, sustainable, environmentally friendly” product, she says, “we create customers that didn’t know they wanted great coffee.” She dismisses the charge of elitism. “Everybody appreciates good coffee. It all comes down to priorities. For some people, good coffee is going to be worth any expense.”

Muffuletta may have launched the local contemporary food scene from Como Avenue, but the trend did not stay confined to St. Anthony Park. Forty years ago, the commercial space near Midway Parkway on Pascal Street in Como Park was the headquarters of the American Evangelism Association, among other businesses. And in late July, after a long life as coffee shop, ice cream parlor and neighborhood grill, the space transformed itself—once more—into a pizzeria, Delicata.

Blessed with a large, fenced, open-air patio on a quiet street, Delicata wants to be known for the excellence of its pizza, says general manager, Noah Barton. “Also for our great—mostly Italian—wine list and our beer from local micro-breweries like Fulton, Lift Bridge and Fair State,” he says. “Mostly, we see a great opportunity to be part of the neighborhood.”

Forty years ago, if you were looking for food out of the ordinary in the neighborhood, Muffuletta was the only option. Now the possibilities seem to grow with each new season. So how do the pioneers feel about the competition?

“It’s not good to be the only game in town,” says Davis. Adds Roberts, “And it hasn’t cut into business.”

One bite too far

For 40 years, Muffuletta has been introducing diners to expanded gastronomic horizons and novel but delicious flavor combinations. Once it was the first restaurant in the neighborhood to offer such “cutting-edge” concepts as a wine list, and even now, it piques its customers’ palates with treats like roasted garlic butter and duck-flavored popcorn popped in duck fat.

Those were the days.

But there was a time when Muffuletta got out too far ahead of Minnesota taste, and the result, according to Phil Roberts, was near disaster.

“In 1979 or ’80,” he recalls, People magazine wrote a feature article on then uber-trendy Los Angeles restaurateur Wolfgang Puck. “Duck sausage pizza was his claim to fame,” Roberts says.

After traveling to California and meeting the Great Man Puck for dinner at his flagship restaurant, Spago, Roberts and his partner were dazzled. “We got back on the plane and we decided to make Muffuletta into the Spago of the Midwest,” he says.

The first line of business was to deck out the wait staff in pink-and-white striped uniforms with chrome bowties and suspenders “just like Wolfgang Puck.” Exotic pizza and other innovations of California Cuisine soon followed. The only trouble was, Minnesota diners weren’t buying it.

Within a year, Muffuletta’s revenue had fallen by nearly half, and Roberts decided to heed the plaintive, eloquent plea of one longtime customer, “I want my Thousand Island dressing back.”

That was more than 20 years ago, and things at Muffuletta have long since returned to a sensible standard of deliciousness. The cardinal rule these days?

“[Make it] more interesting, but not weird,” he says.

Judy Woodward is a reference librarian at the Roseville Library and a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.

 

 

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