Is a restaurant with a palatable work culture even possible? Chef Jorge Guzmán and company are attempting to make it so at Petite León, a new restaurant where Mexican comfort food meets fine dining.
The past year was rocky for many, particularly the 230,000-plus restaurant and foodservice workers in Minnesota. More than half lost their jobs by April due to shutdowns and lack of business. Though some jobs returned, questions remain about health care, a safety net, and opportunities for advancement, particularly for people of color and women. After confronting his own pitfalls in the industry, Guzmán is attempting a renaissance.
Named one of America’s best new restaurants under Guzmán’s guidance, Brewer’s Table at Surly haphazardly shut its doors in 2017. Suddenly displaced, he received an offer to move to Lacrosse, Wisconsin, and become a partner in a new endeavor. Guzmán says, “I should have trusted my gut.” That experience was a toxic morass that nearly defeated him. After he left, his family was living paycheck to paycheck. “I don’t know how families do this every day, year after year,” he says.
Guzmán credits Lyn 65 founder Ben Rients for giving him new life with a single text message inviting him back to Minneapolis. That was 2018. In June of 2019, Guzmán spotted a “For Lease” sign in front of a vacant building on Nicollet Avenue and 38th Street in the Kingfield neighborhood. It had been home to Blackbird Cafe for 13 years. Guzmán then assembled a team, adding Lyn 65 vets Dan Manosack and Travis Serbus. Serbus is Petite León’s co-owner and in charge of the “colorful and fun” drink service. Be on the lookout for tepache, an effervescent Mexican fermented pineapple drink that can be made alcoholic or dry. There’s also the Booze Berry, a spooky cocktail inspired by the monster breakfast cereal.
Assembling their willpower as a reaction to past adverse experiences, the Petite León team wants to build a workplace where everyone, from the bartender to the dishwasher, earns a living wage and has a voice in all decisions. “COVID showed us how many people we take for granted as a society, and that same way of thinking persists in the restaurant industry,” Serbus says. “It’s part of our ethos that we will never take part in [labor exploitation].”
When asked about health insurance, a benefit that’s out of reach financially for many restaurant employees, Guzmán says, “What about people earning enough to survive … and not having to work two or three jobs?” In Minnesota, only about 2/3 of workers received health insurance through their employer in 2015. The team is still weighing out how to provide health benefits to staff (and how to get to a point of hiring more staff), each check includes an 18% service charge, which will go to bolster employee salaries.
“We want this to be a place where people come to eat weekly, rather than yearly,” Serbus says. Petite León opened with takeout-only service, and then expanded to limited reservations and monthly dine-in dinner parties. (A ghost kitchen under the name of another Guzmán project, Pollo Pollo al Carbon, operates takeout here. See more here.) And what about the food, you ask?
Guzmán’s style of cooking is distinctly his. His finesse with food is a product of boyhood observations of his grandmother’s kitchen in Merida, Yucatan. He doesn’t like to be pigeonholed as a chef that does Mexican food. He draws from French, Spanish, African, and Middle Eastern traditions, among others. On the Petite León menu, you’ll find Mexican family staples like Pozole Rojo made with heirloom hominy corn—its rich flavor emanating from a base of schmaltz and chili oil—choices that would make any Mexican or Jewish grandmother smile. Also look out for Portuguese Linguiça and a roasted beet salad spiked with a dry chili-garlic and caraway seasoning from Libya called Pilpelchuma.
The flavor palette at Petite León is peppery, bright, and cross-continental, featuring offerings from land and sea. And, of course, the León signature smash burger with Duke’s mayo gracing the bun. Guzmán wants regular neighborhood diners to find something that fits every budget on the menu. “We don’t need another exclusive restaurant,” Serbus adds. “We want a diverse culture and labor force that mirrors the community.”