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Phil Roberts: a concept-generating machine

Bonjour, and welcome to Salut Bar Americain, where Edina, Minnesota, meets Gay Paree. The tablecloths are checkered, the awnings bright red. And the wine bottles? Oh yes, the wine bottles, stenciled with the user-friendliest designations you’re apt ever to see: 1.(cheap), 2.(decent), 3. (good). A snaggle-toothed stuffed boar’s head gazes down upon a zinc-topped bar, impassive, yet knowing...in that French sort of way. Ne c’est pas? Salut Bar Americain is but the latest in a string of concepts created by Phil Roberts...

Bonjour, and welcome to Salut Bar Americain, where Edina, Minnesota, meets Gay Paree. The tablecloths are checkered, the awnings bright red. And the wine bottles? Oh yes, the wine bottles, stenciled with the user-friendliest designations you’re apt ever to see: 1.(cheap), 2.(decent), 3. (good). A snaggle-toothed stuffed boar’s head gazes down upon a zinc-topped bar, impassive, yet knowing...in that French sort of way. Ne c’est pas?

Salut Bar Americain is but the latest in a string of concepts created by Phil Roberts, the co-founder and front man for Parasole Restaurant Holdings of Minneapolis. And it is classic Phil Roberts. “We certainly don’t mind poking fun at the French, or at ourselves,” he says. “It’s one of the things that makes Salut so much fun.”

It’s a formula that has worked many times before for the entrepreneur: give people a total experience, one that goes beyond simple food and décor and makes them feel smart and witty and a little bit smug for having discovered such a great place. This is the specialty of the house at Parasole, which Roberts founded in 1979 with college buddy Peter Mihajlov, and which now includes the Chino Latino, Manny’s Steakhouse, Figlio and Muffaletta concepts.

Roberts is best known for creating Buca di Beppo, the wildly successful Italo-American family-style concept that is so tongue-in-cheek that it borders on the politically incorrect (the chain, which was spun off from Parasole in 1999, proudly bills itself as offering real  “immigrant Southern Italian dining”). He has a knack for making restaurants that allow customers to feel both comfortable and morally superior—as opposed to intimidated and out of their league. And it’s the reason that Parasole has so often laughed itself all the way to the bank, in the case of seven-month-old Salutto, to the tune of $6 million a year in revenues, on an annualized basis.

Stepping into a Parasole restaurant is a bit like stepping through a door into Phil Roberts’ brain, in particular his right brain. “My left brain doesn’t work too well,” he says. “I’m always rummaging around in the toy box, and over the years I’ve figured out how to hire left-sided people who can actually develop the brand. I just want to get to work on the next concept.”

Like many creative types, Roberts admits to a short attention span. Once he’s had the fun of putting together the package, he’d just as soon leave the financial and operational details to others. Roberts has been present at the birth of two fast-growing chains, first Buca and then The Oceanaire Seafood Room, a swanky ’30s-style supper club that was sold to expansion-minded investors in 2001, but he really has no interest in helping them multiply.

What he is into is seeing how people tick, then figuring out how to put together a restaurant that will appeal to them.

“It’s the whole package,” Roberts explains, “from the menu and the uniforms to the china and the way the food is presented. It’s as much about who’s at the next table as it is about whether there are leather booths and tablecloths or Chianti bottles on the table. You have to create a strong sense of place, so customers walk in and say, ‘I am somewhere.’”

And, more importantly, I belong here. To accomplish that, Roberts insists that you must understand the people in the market you’re out to serve. “How do people dress, where do they shop, what kind of car do they drive?” he prompts. “Do they go out on Tuesday night, or only on the weekends? Will they spend $4 for a cup of coffee? You have to have a sense of all of this before you ever put pencil to paper.”

In downtown Edina, the site that eventually became Salut, Roberts clocked an affluent, citified Minneapolis suburb. He saw a preponderance of ladies who lunch and play tennis, and their Type A husbands who are out on the street running every day at 5 o’clock in the morning. There were kids in the families, nice houses, some office buildings in the immediate neighborhood. “How would these people use a restaurant?” he wondered.

Out of those kinds of assumptions come everything significant about a restaurant concept—the character, the menu, the logo, the décor, how “smart” it is, how casual or sophisticated it is, whether it’s as comfortable as an old shoe or has an edge to it. To Roberts, this leads to the telling little details that constitute what he calls the restaurant’s DNA.

A lifelong Francophile, he wanted a casual neighborhood joint with the same place in customers’ hearts as a beloved Parisian bistro, but none of the snooty attitude. “Most French restaurants, even here, take themselves way too seriously,” he says. The DNA of Salut would have to be irreverent and self-deprecating, and certainly not intimidating.

“People are aspirationally upscale,” Roberts explains. “They want to feel good about themselves, they want to feel that they haven’t screwed up. They certainly don’t want to feel that they can’t pronounce the name of the wine or have to eat something unfamiliar.”

So the logo for Salut is a spotted frog sporting a beret and smoking a Gauloise, and the servers wear black shirts and pants with long white half-aprons and red mitten clips to hold up their sleeves, so they don’t drag in the plates. There are lots of vintage-style posters on the wall, including one with a quote attributed to Hannibal Lecter: “I love the French. They taste just like chicken.”

The menu is heavy on the Frenchified bistro classics: steak frites, seafood towers, onion soup. There’s a daily special, merchandised in the style of a plat du jour, right alongside Le Cheeseburger Royale. Average check is $28, and damned if no one orders the “cheap” wine. “People will come in with their kids and let them color on the placemats, but they’re too self-conscious to be seen with the cheap stuff on the table,” Roberts laughs. “They’re afraid someone will see them and wonder if the Johnsons are having financial trouble.”

Clearly, Roberts has an intuitive feel for what his target customer wants. The story sounds apocryphal but it’s typical of Roberts’ approach: “We were two days from opening the first Oceanaire and we’d spent months trying to create this swanky, supper club atmosphere—Stork Club meets the Queen Mary,” recalls Roberts, who also had fish being flown in from all over the world and a projected check average of $50-plus. “I looked out across this sea of white tablecloths and thought, ‘God, it’s too fancy. We’ll do business on Friday and Saturday night but we’ll starve the rest of the time’.”

The fix was disarmingly simple. “We went out and got a dozen cases of Heinz ketchup and put a bottle on every single table. The ketchup bottle is a cue that it’s okay to come in dressed in jeans. People look in the door, they see the ketchup bottles, and they say, ‘This is my kind of place.’ And it was a lot cheaper than replacing all the tablecloths with white butcher paper.”

ll the company’s restaurants are famously casual, irreverent and fun—and none should be taken too seriously. “I don’t mind offending people,” Roberts says.

Buca di Beppo, for instance, is riotously, deliberately tacky, an extravaganza of year-round Christmas lights, huge family-style portions, an endless loop of Sinatra music, and god-awful plaster statues. (The name, roughly translated, means “Joe’s basement.”)

“We really were going for kitschy and tasteless, to make the guest feel superior,” says Roberts, who knew he’d nailed it when he heard a woman on opening night tell her husband, ‘I’d never have that statue in my house, Eddie.’

“I’d been in too many restaurants where I felt inferior or intimidated because I wasn’t wearing a Brioni suit and couldn’t pronounce the name of the wine. I thought it would be great to do a place where the guest would look down on the restaurant, not the other way around.”

Then there’s Chino Latino, which may well become the next Parasole concept to go into expansion mode. With a menu styled as an urbane, “calculated mishmash” of street food from Thailand, Korea, Mexico, Jamaica and Polynesia, Chino had no precedent in Minneapolis. After opening the place in 1999, Roberts and partner Mikhajlov knew they’d have to get Twin Cities residents talking about it. “We’ve never been what you’d call a culinary capital,” is how Roberts describes the local market.

What followed was an escalating series of billboards calculated to attract attention, from the relatively innocuous “Morning Wood (Brunch with Chopsticks)” to “Mild, Medium, and Excuse Me, I Have to Go to the Bathroom” and “Ah, Phuket. Let’s Get Takeout.” By the time “Happy Hour: Cheap as a Bangkok Brothel” ran, the locals were incensed, school officials were up in arms, and every columnist in town decided to weigh in. Needless to say, the free publicity didn’t hurt business any.   

There’s that idea of DNA again. Roberts knew that uptown twenty- and thirtysomethings would trip over themselves to prove how hip they were by flocking to Chino Latino, and he only fanned the flames by referring to his critics as “the print-skirt, gauze-blouse, Birkenstock crowd” in the paper. Then he turned around and commissioned the same copywriter who did the billboards to craft a series of fortune cookies that were as witty as they were irreverent (“Later, when blame is assigned, tonight’s lapses in conversation will be attributed to you,” and “You will marry the like of your life”).

Roberts and his wife, joanne, comb the world looking for little details, from menu specialties like the cuy (guinea pig) served at Chino Latino (where the item is listed only in Spanish) to the gold tops on the salt shakers at Buca, an over-the-top Italianism that could be right out of “The Sopranos.” Before opening Salut, the whole crew went to Paris and New York, to soak up the atmosphere of French restaurants.

In fact, Roberts’ very first inkling of interest in the restaurant business came while traveling. With a degree in fine arts and industrial design from the University of Illinois, he often found himself in New York, working with retail clients whom he designed stores for. The pace was brutal, but the restaurants in Manhattan made him realize what a whole new world of dining possibilities there were outside of the Twin Cities. A series of conversations with Mihajlov hatched a plan to open the partners’ first restaurant, Muffaletta, in 1977; with its casual café atmosphere and globe-trotting daily menu, the restaurant is still going strong nearly 30 years later, a success that Roberts attributes to the restaurant’s accessibility.

Four years later, in New York again, Roberts stumbled upon Pronto, with its sophisticated Northern Italian menu and line of hopeful patrons waiting to get in. One of the hallmarks of Pronto was its display pasta-making station, complete with nonna rolling out the dough. “It doesn’t take much to realize that with eggs at three cents apiece and pasta at $17.95 a plate, they were on to something.” Within two days, Roberts and Mihajlov negotiated the equivalent of a franchise, and Pronto soon opened in the Hyatt in Minneapolis. (The restaurant had an 18-year-run before becoming the location for the first Oceanaire, in 1999.)

At this point—he’s 68, and has been in this business for almost 30 years—Roberts has even less interest in the mechanics of building a chain. But he’s still full of ideas.

“I’m not particularly good at the rolling-out part,” he says. “The first one’s fun, and second one’s a little less so, but by that time we’re working out the kinks and we’re confident about the metrics and we can bring in people who have the same passion for building and growing that Pete and I have for originating restaurants.”

That passion gets fed by Idein, a consulting company that Roberts and partner Kevin Kuester, who joined both Idein and Parasole in 2003, runs as a kind of incubator for restaurant concepting.

“There are all sorts of ideas out there, more than I’ll ever have time to pursue,” says Roberts. Over the years, he has collected a lifetime’s worth of photos, menus, press clippings and other idea starters that have been assembled in a 30,000-image visual database that he can use to help clients elucidate their goals, interests and tastes.

The process is similar to what interior decorators do to get on the same aesthetic page as their clients, says Roberts, who considers the database library to be one of the most valuable assets Ideain can offer. “You want a tapas bar? Here’s 600 to look at in my collection of eye candy.”

One of his latest points of pride is Stella’s Fish Café & Prestige Oyster Bar, a “redneck seafood shack” opened for a client in downtown Minneapolis. Besides being a creative flex of muscle, says Roberts, one of the other benefits of consulting is that he can draw on the pool of Parasole employees to help get other projects off the ground.

“They love it,” he says. “They get listened to, and they get out of the office. And I have plenty of people here who know how to button up all those behind-the-scenes details that make a restaurant financially successful. That helps me be dead serious about having fun.”              

Roberts’ Rules

  • Know the market Get out there and drive around the neighborhoods, see how people live, figure out what their rituals are. You can tell a lot about people if they have a big showy Cadillac SUV in the driveway but no curtains in the windows—they’re house-poor but they care about their image. Then start thinking about a restaurant that could meet their needs.
  • Validate your customers Do what it takes to make them feel good about themselves. That’s the genius of a place like Crate & Barrel. You can’t make a mistake there—everything’s in good taste.
  • Don’t be afraid to offend people If they “get it,” the restaurant will be mobbed.
  • Do be afraid to take yourself too seriously It scares people away in droves.
  • Count on $300 a square foot Plus or minus, that’s what it will take to get a restaurant up-and-running. Whatever it costs you, make sure the annual sales will be twice as much—people always get that backwards. And if you can’t figure out how to make the food and labor costs work, hire someone who can.
  • Do things you’re interested in And expand to markets you want to travel to, otherwise it gets boring and you might as well just sell the place to someone else.

All My Concepts

Phil Roberts’ ideas have turned into some of Minnesota’s best-known restaurants

MANNY’S STEAKHOUSE  Minneapolis, Opened: 1988
Concept: “Life is good at the top of the food chain”
Menu: Classic New York steakhouse
Annual sales: $9.5 million
Average check: $75

FIGLIO Minneapolis, Opened: 1984
Concept: Casual Cal-Ital bistro and bar
Menu: Daily printed menu of wood oven pizzas, small plates, sandwiches, pasta, grilled and roasted meats
Annual sales: $6.5 million
Average check: $19

CHINO LATINO Minneapolis, Opened: 1999
Concept: “You’d swear you’re not in Minnesota”
Menu: Street food from the hot zones (Mexico, Asia, Caribbean) in both small and large portions for sharing
Annual sales: $7 million
Average check: $16

MUFFALETTA Minneapolis, Opened: 1977
Concept: Neighborhood bistro with a flair for global ingredients and flavors
Menu: Starters and “wine snacks,” salads, sandwiches and burgers, entrees (gnocchi, hanger steak, Moroccan chicken tagine)
Annual sales: $2 million
Average check: $18

SALUT BAR AMERICAIN Edina, Opened: 2005
Concept: Casual French American bistro
Menu: Classic bistro favorites, from steak frites and coq au vin to onion soup and Le Cheeseburger
Annual sales: $6 million
Average check: $28

BUCA DI BEPPO
More than 100 locations in 28 states
Opened: 1993
Spun off: 1999
Concept: “Immigrant Southern Italian”
Menu: Family-style portions
of classic red-sauce Italian-American food
Annual sales: $240+ million
Average check: $22

GOOD EARTH Edina and Roseville, Opened: 1975 (acquired by Roberts in 1987)
Concept: “If only you ate this well every day”
Menu: Eclectic selection of naturally prepared food
Annual sales: $4 million
Average check: $12

THE OCEANAIRE SEAFOOD ROOM
Minneapolis; Seattle; Dallas; Indianapolis; Atlanta; San Diego; Washington, DC; Baltimore
Opened: 1999
Spun Off: 2001
Concept: ’30s-era seafood supper club
Menu: Fresh, simply prepared seafood
Annual sales: $42 million (est.
Average check: $56

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