Local Knowledge

Phil Roberts, Co-founder, Parasole Restaurant Holdings

The Bullish Restaurateur


Photo by Todd Buchanan

Phil Roberts gets a mischievous twinkle in his eye when he talks about ideas for new restaurants. He’s fond of poking fun at the bland cuisine of Minnesota’s “Lutheran DNA,” including his own Swedish heritage. Since he co-founded Edina-based Parasole Restaurant Holdings in 1977, he continually opens restaurants that spice up the Twin Cities—literally and figuratively—and 2008 was no exception. Watch out, or he just might sneak some Sriracha into your lutefisk. >>

For Parasole Restaurant Holdings co-founder Phil Roberts, a restaurant isn’t a place you go, it’s an experience you take in. Step into Salut Bar Américain, Parasole’s French-American bistro. You’re greeted by boar heads mounted on the wall wearing neckties, and at every table you’ll find a ketchup bottle labeled “sauce Américain.” At Chino Latino, the Uptown nightclub and restaurant, you can order Hot Funky Love right off the menu (don’t worry, it’s just a dessert) and if you thought ahead, you and 10 friends could partake in Fidel’s Capitalist Pig Roast, a feast of whole suckling pig requiring 72 hours notice. Seriously, it’s on the menu. The point is Roberts, who also co-founded Idein, a restaurant concepts consultancy, has never been afraid to be over the top and a bit tongue in cheek when it comes to his restaurants, whether it’s the menu, décor, Web site or advertising.

In 2008, Parasole opened a second Salut in St. Paul and moved Manny’s—the venerable downtown Minneapolis steakhouse—to the new W hotel in the Foshay Tower, where it now occupies not only a swank new space but also the new role of a hotel restaurant. While they were at it, the company opened a new Manny’s in Miami too. In his signature straightforward fashion, Roberts talks about expanding business during an economic downturn and his place in the Twin Cities dining scene.

Parasole got a lot done in 2008. How has it all been going? We feel good about what we’ve done. We’ve been very aggressive in an economic downturn. The infrastructure of the country, I believe, is in good shape, so we’ve chosen to be bullish during this time and not slow down. We’ll be wise, be prudent, be careful, but also take a little risk. And so far it’s paid off. You know, in rough times you either want to be in the funeral home business or the restaurant business, because people are going to die and they have to eat.

How will Parasole’s restaurants fare during these rough economic times? I think we’ve positioned our restaurants uniquely in that we aren’t fancy, fine, fussy dining. Those are restaurants I like to go to, and those are restaurants I don’t want to ever own. Also during these kinds of times, I view two hours spent at any one of our restaurants as a mini-vacation. You think, “I’ve dealt with all this crap outside these four walls all day, all week. Now I’m in here. It’s warm, it’s cozy, it’s tasty, the music’s good, the wine is good.” It’s an affordable pleasure.

As your higher-priced restaurant, do you worry about Manny’s in this economic climate? I don’t, because there are a whole bunch of people that are not touched by the crisis we’re in. OK so their stock portfolio went from 15 million to 14.5 million. You know, that doesn’t change their life. But that’s not even the key. The key is that at Manny’s a lot of people split. And that’s what my wife and I do. We go down there and we split a 20-ounce New York strip so that’s 10 ounces. The salads are monstrous; we’ll split a Caesar or a spinach. Add maybe a side of asparagus, so what have you spent? You spend about 20 bucks each on steak because the steak is $40, the salads are $8 so now you’re up to 24, the asparagus is probably $10 so now you’re at $29—well now you’re at a Salut price, before liquor. And we don’t discourage it. A lot of restaurants charge a plate charge if you want to split that dish and we don’t do that. We want butts in seats. That’s more important to us than transaction size. We want the restaurants to have a vibe and a buzz.

Tell me about the deal with the W and the move to the Foshay. Manny’s, you know, had been in the Hyatt for 20 years. And we were in the Hyatt when the Hyatt was new. Orchestra Hall was thriving. It was just the end of town where you wanted to be. And we grew our business dramatically. Our first year’s sales down there were $1.8 million and the last year down there it was $10 million. So it’s been good to us. But the Hyatt was just—it had hints of becoming dowdy. We were a little concerned about Manny’s becoming your father’s restaurant. Now, the W already had a deal with Jean-Georges [Vongerichten]. The restaurant was built. It had a big pizza oven right in the center of it and we came in and scrapped the whole thing and rebuilt it.

Why do you think the W chose you and not Jean-Gorges? Frankly my guess would be, and I don’t know this for sure, but Jean-Georges doesn’t have an infrastructure in town. Wolfgang Puck doesn’t have an infrastructure. So you know, if they wanted a rock-star chef, there’s no infrastructure. We employ 700 to 800 people in the Twin Cities. We had an infrastructure. Because it’s not just Manny’s, we had to also handle lunch, dinner, room service, banquets, employee meals, Prohibition, the Living Room. And also it’s my belief that at least in the Twin Cities, dining is moving rapidly away from that rock-star kind of restaurant.

How did you feel about taking on the added responsibilities of a hotel? It wasn’t forced down our throat; it was just self-evident. You can’t have two food service companies within the hotel. You know, things like, “Those are my eggs. No, they’re my eggs.” You can’t have that. And a hotel has to serve breakfast because 90 percent of the guests eat breakfast. A hotel has to have room service. A hotel has to have banquets. So if we wanted Manny’s in the Foshay we knew we had to do it all. We had to hire staff to do lunch and breakfast; this means cooks, servers, dishwashers, busers. We had to hire a banquet manager, somebody to do room service, somebody to oversee the Living Room bar and Prohibition, and then we had to feed 200 employees a day. We had about two months to develop menus, uniforms, china, recipes, all the stuff. I don’t even know how many people we hired and trained in that period of time, but it was a massive undertaking.

I see you still have the giant bull painting hanging prominently in the restaurant. Oh yes we still have Buster. He’s such an icon and we have such brand equity in him. Rest assured, he’s back.

You mentioned you think Twin Cities diners are moving away from “rock-star chefs.” What else do you see in the future for the Twin Cities dining scene? I think the chain casual segment is a place that I definitely would not want to be. Places like Macaroni Grill and Olive Garden—I think they’re suffering nationwide, because they’re just ubiquitous. What is compelling about going there? Do you ever see yourself saying, “You know, I’m an Olive Garden kind of person?” And so I think that the independent restaurateurs are going to do very well in the upcoming years. I’m talking places like 112 [Eatery]. And I think even though they’re on the casual side and they aren’t the $90 check average, they’re personal. And if they have that personal uniqueness and can stay in that affordable luxury range, that bodes well for the Twin Cities.

* For the rest of this interview, please see another Greenspring Media Group site, where you can find a digital edition of “The Bullish Restauranteur.”.