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Hot Plate

How does a restaurant become the most talked-about spot in town? A day behind the scenes at The Bachelor Farmer reveals the recipe for instant success.

Hot Plate
Photo by Maki Strunc

(page 1 of 3)

7:00 a.m.

It’s going to be another big night at The Bachelor Farmer and Marvel Bar.

The cooler is stocked. The reservation book is full. And the overnight cleaning crew just eradicated the last trace of yesterday’s service. On this chilly morning, 50 North Second Avenue looks much as it must have a century ago, when the brick-and-timber warehouse was new to Minneapolis’s North Loop. The streets are deserted and the sky is dark except for the florescent lights streaming from the building’s kitchen—a beacon for the hottest thing going in the neighborhood.

The former Northwestern Hide and Fur Building wasn’t attracting much attention until Eric Dayton, son of Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, purchased it in 2008. Its most recent occupant was an industrial wire-cutting business called Marvel Rack, so architect James Dayton (yes, he’s a relative) faced no small task in converting the space into a modern restaurant, bar, and retail shop, while preserving its historic character.

When Eric and his brother, Andrew, conceived of their contemporary Scandinavian restaurant and subterranean speakeasy, they imagined an intimate neighborhood hangout. But as soon as the kitchen served its first plate of Swedish meatballs, patrons flocked from near and far, packing the place night after night. How were a couple of hospitality greenhorns able to pull off such a feat?

The Bachelor Farmer’s baker and pastry chef are the first to arrive, as always. Their first stop: the storage room. The restaurant makes almost everything from scratch using premium ingredients—even growing some produce on the building’s roof, which is buried in snow. The pastry chef bypasses a tub labeled “Top Secret Pickle Project” and half a hog carcass to collect dozens of Larry Schultz eggs, pounds of Hope butter, and gallons of Organic Valley cream. She has less than six hours to create a dessert that will earn a spot on tonight’s menu.

Back up in the kitchen, the two feed bread starter, melt chocolate, heat milk for fresh cheese, and roll dough into long sheets of flatbread. It’s too early for conversation, so they work in near silence, save for the hum of the ovens, vents, and refrigeration units.

8:58 a.m.

Chef Paul Berglund enters looking rather like a lanky graduate student with his narrow glasses and day’s worth of beard growth. Rather than rely on Eric’s experience with line cooking at Goodfellows restaurant back in high school, the Dayton brothers called upon Paul, an alumnus of Oliveto, a highly  respected restaurant in Oakland, California,  to lead The Bachelor Farmer’s kitchen. Paul starts his day with a clipboard in hand, reading through the to-do list: ducks, lentil base, paté; render pork fat. His first task is to fillet last night’s shipment of rockfish—beautiful specimens, with red-and-white skins, clear eyes, and resilient flesh.

9:35 a.m.

Eric and Andrew arrive. Although they’re both already clutching Dunn Brothers cups, Andrew starts the coffee maker. Their preppy outfits look as if they might have come from the same closet. The brothers’ similar taste in clothes has become something of a running joke. If they accidentally dress alike, Andrew says, “We do rock-paper-scissors to see who has to go home and change.”

As if the brothers didn’t have enough to do between overseeing the bar and restaurant, they followed in their forefathers’ retail footsteps and opened a men’s shop in the building’s storefront. It’s called Askov Finlayson, a name that should sound familiar to anyone who’s driven I-35 between the Twin Cities and Duluth and paid attention to the exit signs.

The restaurant and the store often share clients: fans of farm-to-table cuisine seem to appreciate the classic clothing and accessories. One night, the Daytons sold two handcrafted leather iPad cases when a Bachelor Farmer guest showed the one she’d just purchased to her dining companion, who promptly went down and did the same.

While they wait for customers, Eric and Andrew meet with the retail manager to plan their itinerary for the menswear shows in New York and time an order of British umbrellas. The shop is minimally furnished with leather chairs and an area rug pulled from Andrew’s emptying apartment. Eric, too, has sacrificed home décor for the business, having lent the restaurant several of his photographs by local-boy-made-good Alec Soth. “My apartment looks like it’s been robbed,” Eric explains. “There are bare hooks where art used to be.” The brothers spend far more time at work than home these days, so at least here they can enjoy their possessions.

Askov Finlayson’s merchandise tends toward timeless pieces: dress shirts, slacks, Danish wool sweaters, sailcloth duffel bags. The common denominator, Andrew explains, is quality, partial justification for the $125 price tag on the store’s most casual item: sweatpants with their brand name, “Warriors of Radness,” spelled out down the leg in rainbow-colored cursive script.

11:14  a.m.

In the office upstairs, the general manager sits at his computer and scans the evening’s reservation list, which already shows 150 diners on the books. He’s going to need every last table in the dining room, including the corner booth that went out of commission last night due to an icy draft, so he heads downstairs armed with a caulk gun.

At Andrew’s computer, the brothers update the Marvel Bar’s Facebook page. Today’s post describes a new drink called the Strong-water, which the Marvel Bar’s head bartender, Pip Hanson, recently invented. Bourbon, cognac, thyme liqueur, and lemon zest are mixed together and then highly diluted. It’s a surprisingly pleasurable technique: the water smooths out any harshness and highlights the spirits’ subtleties. Pip developed a reputation for precise, innovative bartending at his previous position at Café Maude, where the brothers recruited him after he poured the best Manhattans they’d ever sipped.

Naïveté more than confidence may have spurred the Daytons to tackle their ambitious project, but what the brothers lack in entrepreneurial experience, they seem to make up for in diligent management. (Presumably they have picked up a few tips from their father’s overseeing of the entire state of Minnesota.)

The brothers plan to add brunch service to the restaurant as well as private events, but they have prioritized fine-tuning their current operation versus expanding—don’t expect to see The Bachelor Farmer franchises out in Bloomington and Maple Grove. Building wealth would seem less of a motivator to the Daytons than creating a restaurant experience that proud locals show off to out-of-towners. Considering the Dayton family’s legacy in retail and political leadership, thinking small would be uncharacteristic. And who better to understand the collective consciousness of Minnesotans than the Daytons? They practically invented our aspirations of what it means to be one.

1:02 p.m.

The kitchen staff gathers in the dining room for their daily meeting. Paul instructs one of his cooks on how to prepare an appetizer made with small fish called sand dabs. “You’re going to need capers, white wine, olive oil, and mullet roe,” he says in confident rapid-fire, like Brad Pitt trading baseball players in Moneyball.

“You need a shaver for that,” he adds, talking the cook through the steps. “Microplane. Same one you’re using for the Bibb.”

“Large flake?” the cook asks, furiously scribbling in a notebook.

“I don’t want a microplane-microplane,” Paul clarifies, in language only cooks can understand. “But a microplane is preferable to really large flakes.”

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