Dinner is the Show
How a Twin Cities visionary changed the way we think about dining out
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The company may never have been so successful had Shea not, in the late 1990s, purchased a marketing/graphic-design firm and merged its employees with his architects and interior designers. At the time, the idea of an integrated, collaborative, brand-focused approach to design was innovative. The idea was that if all the designers—graphic, interior, architectural—began the project with a clearly defined sense of a restaurant’s concept, the final design would be much more cohesive. When diners looked at an eatery’s logo, its menu, or its barstools, they would receive a consistent expression of the restaurant’s essence. “The solution isn’t just a design—we want to create an experience,” Shea says. “I wanted to be the group that had all the touch points so you could create una voce, one voice.”
This holistic approach is evident in the firm’s work on the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis, a lively Lake Street bazaar that serves as a de-facto incubator for small businesses. When the city requested proposals to transform the former Sears store and catalog facility, Shea suggested first pulling back to consider the broader area. Before anyone touched a brick, he said, the neighborhood needed a brand. “At the time, no one called it Midtown,” he recalls. The new name reflected the building’s central location at the nexus of a culturally diverse neighborhood, and, as a brand, it could refer to the entire hub that has since grown up around the market, including a hospital, a hotel, and housing.
When one of the firm’s newer clients, Sushi Avenue, a local supermarket supplier, wanted to open a restaurant, they came to Shea with little more than their expertise with rice and fish. Shea suggested a name (Masu, or “a small wooden box”) and connected the client to a chef (Tim McKee), who advised differentiating the concept from other sushi restaurants by offering sustainable seafood and robata, Japanese bar snacks. With the direction in place, the design team created the restaurant’s exuberant space, decking out the East Hennepin locale with an open kitchen, neon greens, larger-than-life geisha graphics, and sake-barrel décor. The space feels less Minneapolis than Tokyo, as if you’re stepping into an anime film.
The firm’s best-known designs feel fresh but not faddish and draw energy from their originality. Shea himself tends to find his muse in unique, far-flung destinations, whether he’s fly-fishing in Patagonia or scouring Los Angeles tequila bars. “Travel has been a big thing for me in terms of learning experiences,” Shea says. “I’ve always tried to be an absorber of different cultures.”
This understanding was part of why chef Sameh Wadi enlisted Shea to refresh the design of his Warehouse District restaurant, Saffron. “He has clients all over the world, he travels around the world, he does restaurants that are globally inspired,” Wadi says. Ticking off several of the firm’s restaurant designs, he says he was impressed by the scope of Shea’s portfolio. (“I once suggested to him that he should have a punch card,” Wadi jokes. “If you eat at all of the Shea restaurants, you get a free meal at his house.”) Wadi also appreciated Shea’s long history of restaurant trendsetting. Having developed the very first Leeann Chin store and some of the hottest restaurants today, Shea understands how local diners’ tastes have evolved from the meat-and-potato days. “He knows how restaurants become successful,” Wadi says. “When you’ve been around something long enough, you start to be it.”