When the state shut down all restaurants in Minnesota, Cherokee Tavern’s chef and owner Brian Rubenzer faced a choice. Of course he had to lay off his team. But, as he owns his West St. Paul building and is his own landlord, did it make more sense to completely shut down or should he try to do something?
“Joe [Ehlenz], from LoLo, pushed me to do something,” Rubenzer tells me. Good thing: Rubenzen’s background is in catering, and he drew on that to do very limited, very inexpensive catered curbside dinners that keep selling out.
It started with walleye, as many Minnesota dinner stories do. He had support and interest from his church, and they sent an email to members publicizing a $10 walleye fish fry. “I bought enough walleye for two fish fries; we sold out in just one. This time I ordered 300, sold out. It’s crazy,” he says.
From walleye to prime rib: Rubenzer put the word out again and got a ton of response. “One case will get me 80 orders, so I ordered two cases and at the end we had it down to scraps. We sold 170 orders to go prime rib. I’ve never sold 10 whole prime ribs ever!” he says.
Aggressive “bereavement” pricing
Rubenzer says one of the keys to success has been “bereavement” pricing. A $10 price was probably too low for the fish fry, but he’s stuck with it now. And it works: With $10 walleye, his food cost was 40-50%. Selling 300 fish fries, he brings in $3,000, and food cost was $1,200.
So he paid each staff member around $150 for working. The whole enterprise is designed to get his staff some money, and to keep his restaurant relevant for whenever reopening happens.
“It’s the support from your friends, your family, your neighborhood, your church. I’m seeing that support more than I’ve ever seen it. It’s bereavement pricing—when a family member dies and you try to be compassionate towards that. I feel the same method going on here,” he says.
No wings, no burgers
Rubenzer didn’t want to sell something that people can easily make at home. Prime rib is special, walleye is hard to fry up nicely at home. Sunday is ribs. Tuesday he’s doing fried chicken with mashed potato and sweet corn for $12.50. It’s a community event.
Limited hours, assigned pick-up times
“With catering, I know how to plan it out,” he says. He’s only open for 2.5-3 hours. This is a low-tech operation: Rubenzer has people email their order and pick-up time, and he plots it in a Google Doc. It’s all posted on the Cherokee Tavern Facebook page.