Never heard of Jim Ringo? Neither had I, but I just spent an hour on the phone with this brand-new restaurateur. He’s bringing two new restaurants to Minneapolis and St. Louis Park—one of them to Minneapolis’ most historically significant space, the old Forum Cafeteria, most recently famous as the space for Goodfellow’s, Minneapolis one-time white-tablecloth standard-bearer. Not wanting to beat around the bush, I asked Ringo the most obvious question: Who are you?
Answer: Ringo, a Korean adoptee, grew up in Washington State and got a job with Cargill 20 years ago. They eventually transferred him to Minnesota, and he and his wife Stefanie, who also works for Cargill, have lived in Wayzata for 14 years. Now the two are opening the restaurants together.
“At Cargill I was involved with all facets of marketing and management, and one of the things you learn is that you strike when the opportunity is there, or, to put it in a more visceral way, you strike when the blood is running because you find the best opportunities in times of chaos and crisis, and that’s how I see the restaurant industry in Minnesota right now,” Ringo told me. “There’s access to leases and talent you could never get during the boom years, and I see it as an industry that will return. I’m very optimistic about the economy going forward. People are not going to quit eating, but I also think there’s a lot of room for improvement, to put it diplomatically, when it comes to the Minnesota dining scene.”
Those improvements will be:
Ringo’s: Coming to the Shops at West End as early as late March, Ringo’s will be something never seen before in Minnesota: an upscale casual restaurant with a globally roving menu. “How many times have you been trying to go to dinner with four or five people and you can’t decide because everyone wants something different?” Ringo asked me. “A lot of little authentic ethnic restaurants in Minnesota are, to be perfectly frank, in places suburbanites aren’t comfortable, or aren’t comfortable parking. But this is going to be right in St. Louis Park with great parking, chef-led. A third of the menu is going to be what we call a destination menu—it will change every month, and take you to a new spot in the world. One month it will be the food of Seoul, South Korea, the next it will be Ambergris Caye, Belize, then Cape Town, South Africa. Another third of the menu will be what we call ‘local comforts’—this is for people who think ketchup is a spice, so that part of the menu is walleye, it’s mac and cheese. The last third of the menu is classic favorites from around the world: Paella from Spain, a great pork taco from Monterrey Mexico, and Osso Bucco from Italy.” To clarify, I asked Ringo if customers would literally be seeing Italian, Mexican, and South African dishes on the same menu. “Yes,” he told me. Ringo’s will seat 280, with the patio, and entrées will be priced from about $12 to $25. Cooking this international grab-bag will be chef Ryan Aberle, known for his ambitious work at North Coast. Aberle “was trapped in a suit called ‘American Grill’ and trying to innovate and attract a wider clientele. I was a big supporter of his at North Coast. I really loved the passion and creativity he put into his food so he was a natural for this,” Ringo told me. A lot to grasp, I know, and we haven’t even considered Ringo’s second restaurant.
The Forum: “When I was looking for the right location for Ringo, I stepped into The Forum. It literally knocked me off my feet,” Ringo told me. “I had no idea such a beautiful, historic space even existed. I had never been to Goodfellow’s, but after seeing it I thought, why not do two, and take advantage of the synergies? So The Forum is all about America. It’s something old, something new, a celebration of the red, white, and blue. I say that with heart. It’s not just a Minnesota treasure but an American treasure.” The Forum will also be upscale-casual, but will have a menu that ranges to higher price points, with entrées starting around $12 and venturing up perhaps as high as $40-something.” A third of The Forum’s menu will be a changing destination menu, but exploring America,” Ringo told me. “New Orleans, Santa Fe, Seattle, Boston, Hawaii. We have a very diverse country and we are very much an immigrant country, each region has its own story to tell. The first month we go to New Orleans. The second third of the menu is comfort-food favorites from around the country, like a Philly Cheesesteak, Cincinnatti-style chili, and Southern fried chicken. The rest of the menu is traditional American chop house, because there’s still a market for breaded walleye and bone in NY strip steaks. I see it as at one table there’s a family enjoying a meal before a Twins game, and the next table is a couple of lawyers having a great steak and a nice bottle of wine, and both tables feel comfortable.” Heading The Forum will be Christian Ticarro, the chef who made his reputation cooking at Canyon Grill up in Coon Rapids. (Ringo learned to love his cooking through Ticarro’s various charity events.) Ringo tells me that some physical changes will be coming to the space, but everything about the original-original Forum will be preserved. The center island of the restaurant will now hold a new bar, there will be banquette seating, and the bar that was downstairs will be moved to the upper balcony to make a nicer private dining space. Forecast opening date: Early April?
Ringo told me that he thinks his extensive management experience at Cargill will allow him to bypass lots of traditional restaurant problems. For instance, both Aberle and Ticarro will act both as chefs and general managers, responsible for hiring and firing servers and floor managers. “That’s something I’m bringing from Cargill. I want to eliminate the conflict between GM’s and chefs. Let’s create alignment. I want an Executive Chef who’s responsible for not just the food but the service. I can’t go to a restaurant and say I loved the food and thought the service sucked—in that conversation, it’s all bad. I want these restaurants to be chef-led, but I think an Executive Chef is going to have a better idea how to run a chef-led restaurant than someone who’s never worked in the back of the house. I don’t know if this is a grand experiment, but I literally can see the Executive Chef at the door greeting customers during peak periods, so at 7 o’clock they’re at the door, at 8 they’re in the kitchen checking on the food, and at 9 p.m. they’re back checking on the tables and asking: How was the food?” Ringo told me that the key to the Executive Chef finding time to be on the floor during dinner service will be smarter delegation. “Nothing against managers, I’ve been one, but I find in a lot of systems people are delegating the wrong things,” Ringo told me.
Another efficiency Ringo hopes to bring to his restaurants is to work more closely with suppliers. To wit, he currently has test kitchens for his restaurants operating on site at the mega-suppliers Sysco and U.S. Foods. “They’ll have a big role to play in our restaurants,” Ringo tells me. “Of course, there are going to be some ingredients we can source from other suppliers. If we need an ingredient that can only come from a farm in Wisconsin, we’re going to create that relationship. But if we need Romaine lettuce, I don’t think it makes sense to contract with a farm in California.” There are farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin that grow lettuce, I objected. “What, three months out of the year?” laughed Ringo. “Sysco and U.S. Foods are the top two in the industry, and we certainly value the resources and experience and insight into the industry they can bring. Both of them understand the business very well, and they’ve been very supportive. We’re using their test kitchens a lot, and frankly it’s shocking to me that a lot of other restaurants don’t take advantage of that.”