Ring of Fire

How a “band of misfits” turned Hell’s Kitchen into one of the nation’s most successful restaurants

Ten years ago, Mitch Omer stood in the filthy, old restaurant in downtown Minneapolis that would become his own place, Hell’s Kitchen, with a snarl on his face and a hammer in his fist. His knee was shattered from a motorcycle accident. His brain was awash with chemicals (“I was recuperating on a diet of Oxycontin and red wine,” he says). At nearly six-and-a-half-feet tall, with long, white hair and the girth of an industrial mixer, he looked like Thor’s unreliable father.

This dump was getting to him. He had slaved over stoves for decades. Now, having sold a house, a car, and two beautiful motorcycles to start his own restaurant, it had turned out to be a rattrap. The oven door had come off in his hand the first time he opened it. The grease in the range hood was so thick that it resembled a slab of tire tread. The ductwork would all have to go. In fact, the city engineer who condemned the ductwork had just fled under a barrage of Omer’s F-bombs. “It was like, sonofabitch!” Omer recalls. “Everything was coming apart at the hinges.”

Omer let the hammer fly. Who knows what he was thinking. Omer is bipolar, the kind of guy—before he discovered the right mix of pharmaceuticals to rein in his highs and lows—who would buy a $3,500 gun on a whim, who would marry a 16-year-old girl when he was 21, who would compulsively eat until he weighed 400 pounds, maybe 450. Who was counting? (Bariatric surgery, in 1999, brought him back to a husky 270.) At his lowest point, as a security guard on Waylon Jennings’s 1981 tour, he discovered a kid trying to steal the band’s equipment and nearly beat him to death.

He wasn’t thinking of his third and current wife, Cynthia Gerdes, the founder of Creative Kidstuff, whom he had met online two years earlier. But as the hammer sailed toward the rear of the restaurant, suddenly he was thinking of her—Gerdes and several friends from the store had painted a large, extravagant mural there. When Omer called Gerdes later that day, he told her the good news first: the hammer hit a pillar instead of the mural. The bad news: the restaurant was falling apart and so was he. In a fit of self-loathing, he called her “the next ex-Mrs. Omer.”

On a weekday afternoon, Omer and Gerdes slide into a booth in the space that Hell’s Kitchen moved into four years ago, a Dante-esque series of basement dining rooms and bars (less than two blocks from the original location) comprising one of the largest restaurants in the Twin Cities, above or below-ground. Their marriage is good and so is business, which has thrived despite Omer’s three visits to treatment centers and Gerdes’s ongoing panic attacks: $6 million in revenues last year from about 304,000 meals. In one recent month, 5,700 reservations were made, more than any other independent restaurant in the country, according to their reservation service.

Omer didn’t see it coming. He had trouble seeing past the five-fold increase in rent. “I walked in here when it was empty and I just about cried,” Omer says, slamming a Red Bull. “I thought, ‘What the fuck have I gotten myself into?’”

“What the cuss,” Gerdes interjects with a smile. “We’re going to have a swear jar here today.” Omer laughs. “No, we’re not,” he says, and orders another Red Bull.

Though Hell’s fled its former home in anticipation of a major development next door, the restaurant was ready to move. It was busy for a place with demonic décor; very busy for a place that only served breakfast (it now offers breakfast, lunch, dinner, weekend brunch, a full bar, and live music). “The tickets,” Omer says in kitchen parlance, “were coming down like snow.”

No one saw that coming. There wasn’t even agreement on the concept. From the beginning, Omer and Gerdes have had a couple of minority partners: Steve Meyer, who has cooked with Omer for decades, and his wife, Kim. The couples, by all accounts, could hardly be more different. When Kim heard what Omer wanted to call the restaurant, she cried. When it was time to hire employees, she and Steve cornered Omer and Gerdes—moments before opening the door to candidates—and described their ideal server: no more than three piercings, no visible tattoos, khakis, belt, black shirt. Gerdes panicked. “We forgot to discuss this!” she says. Omer flipped out. “We’re Hell’s fucking Kitchen!” he remembers thinking. “We want tattoos, we want piercings!”

It’s not hard to figure out who prevailed: if you were to melt down and sculpt all the metal in the faces of the restaurant’s 140 employees and spread all their tattoos out on canvas, you could fill a small gallery. But it’s no gimmick. “I didn’t even see this,” Gerdes says, reaching over to finger her husband’s button-down shirt collar, shredded as though masticated by rodents. “I don’t tell him what to wear, that’s just him. I don’t give a rat’s ass.” She looks at Omer adoringly. “We’re kind of a band of misfits,” she says.

Gerdes is a native of Puerto Rico, unabashedly ADHD, and a whirling manifestation of all that implies: up at 4 a.m. and working until 10 p.m., seven days a week. Short with thick curly hair, the Costello to Omer’s Abbott, she is a savvy, nurturing executive who ran both Hell’s and Creative Kidstuff until 2004, when she sold the latter. She calls her employees her kids, like a den mother of the damned. “Mitch is the first person I took a chance on,” she says, and there have been many more.

No one is guaranteed permanent employment at Hell’s, Gerdes says, not even Omer. (This isn’t heaven, after all.) And there have been mistakes: the first person hired to manage the new space gave the employees a hard time, and they got revenge by photographing him drinking on the job. He was fired. Others who missed work or drank on the job have been let go, too, including a dreadlocked, combat-boot-wearing woman who happened to be the most productive server at the old space before calling Omer from Montana, strung out. But she was brought back eventually. Hell’s has a second-chance policy: if you’re fired, you can reapply in three months, assuming you’ve pulled yourself together. “Sometimes,” says Gerdes, “you just need your ass handed to you.”

Cyla Harrington, a young breakfast host, couldn’t get her ass out of bed. Due in at 6 a.m., she was late so often that she was fired last December after less than 10 months on the job. “It had to be done,” Harrington admits. She was told to take a break, figure some stuff out. What she figured out was that she really missed Hell’s. “Everyone there has his or her own story and quirks,” she says, “and we’re all straight-forward with each other.” She reapplied three months later and was rehired—as an evening host.

Omer is obviously no softie. The B-29 of F-bombers, he’s shown rude customers the door and greeted new hires with a curt “Don’t fuck up,” though in both cases he’s simply being sincere, laying out the deal. There’s a line and, in Omer’s place, Omer gets to draw it, using loyalty and kinship as his guide. For years, Omer had his staff throw meals together for a homeless man who hung out near the old location, and just in case anyone thought this was a suggestion instead of an order, Omer taped a sign in the kitchen: You will feed him. Omer and the guy had gotten to talking, and Omer realized that they had once spent some time together—or rather, did some time together. In jail.

Omer gets up from the table and snags another Red Bull from the bar. Somewhere in the bowels of this basement is Hell’s latest big hire, though he never actually applied for a job; a man who had just gotten his posterior out of prison: Pat Forciea. Gerdes can’t recall why, one day last summer, she found herself thinking of Forciea, a marketing whiz who served six years for fraud, theft, and forgery before returning to the Twin Cities in 2010. It might have been Charlie Sheen’s meltdown, she says. But she sensed from Forciea’s story that he, like Omer, was bipolar and she invited the men to meet. It wasn’t an interview, but a kind of blind date, and just as awkward.

Omer happens to have a considerable collection of fossilized dinosaur feces and when he presented Forciea with a piece of prehistoric poop in a gesture of friendship (“This is good shit,” Omer said), Forciea was taken aback. These people, he thought, are a consultant’s nightmare. But he began offering marketing ideas anyway. Having helped to engineer Paul Wellstone’s 1990 Senate victory, he knew something about misfits. Truth is, he was charmed.

Forciea, who is now Hell’s marketing director, is keeping a low profile these days, trying to focus on his teenage son and daughter and not dwell on the past. He asked not to be quoted. But he can’t believe his luck. He never expected to be around people like Wellstone again, he says, the sort whose bigness of heart belies a razor-sharp acumen and who buck you up just because. Nursing an iced tea one afternoon at Hell’s, he became watery-eyed when describing the supportive camaraderie around the restaurant, as though here below the streets, in the underworld, was where true redemption could be found.
 

 

Pop. fizz. Omer’s fourth Red Bull goes down as easily as the others. He orders a caramel-pecan roll, a lemon-ricotta hotcake, a ham-and-pear sandwich (a favorite of radio foodies Jane and Michael Stern), and a bowl of Mahnomin porridge (a favorite of Senator Al Franken, who serves it to the public every Wednesday at his office). It’s a Stygian tasting menu, heavy on the butter and syrup. Omer, like Satan, is no health nut. The porridge, he notes, is derived from old voyageur recipes, “but it didn’t have enough fat,” he says, “so I added heavy cream.”

The irony of this diabolical place is that it serves comfort food, not carpet tacks—a salve to those afflicted by typical downtown fare: fussy, pricey, and inevitably puny. There’s nothing trendy about the menu. It hasn’t changed in years, save for a gradual shift toward more local ingredients. (Hell’s is the sole client of one local cattle rancher.) The restaurant may be the cheapest purveyor of quality meals downtown, with only one dish over $15: the “BIG Steak & Eggs.” The gate to hell is low.

But that doesn’t fully explain its success. The locations have helped. In both places, it’s been an easy stroll from the Minneapolis Convention Center and drawn the kind of visitors looking for local joints, with room. A visiting passel of Episcopalian ministers once dropped in, as did several out-of-town choirs, whom Omer naturally required to sing for their food.

And then there’s the moniker. Hell’s launched just a couple of years before Gordon Ramsay’s reality TV show of the same name (for which Omer auditioned), though it’s difficult to say if this has helped or hurt business. To this day, the restaurant receives letters intended for Ramsay, some extremely nasty. Omer being Omer, he has excoriated Ramsay for the confusion, and, Ramsay being Ramsay, the celebrity chef recently sent him a profanity-ridden videotaped apology, adding, “Congratulations for surviving in this brutal industry for 10 years!”

Omer has now become something of a celebrity himself, thanks to his cookbook. He still oversees the kitchen, but on weekends he’s often at a table near the entrance, signing books and startling diners with a laugh like a cannon. He’s around, for better or worse. And in these days of creeping and creepy anonymity—far-flung call centers, online everything—the appeal of unassuming transparency can hardly be overestimated. Some restaurants fake it, with chatty servers and cheesy signs, but most don’t even try. In fact, the higher up the food chain, generally speaking, the more impenetrable the façade. But with Gerdes and Omer, transparency is like a habit, a tic. They can’t help being themselves.

Gerdes writes a blog in which she reports on the travails of running a restaurant with a mountain of debt and a crazy guy in the kitchen, “hanging out our dirty underwear as well as the pretty stuff,” she says. Someday she would like to post financial statements so customers could see the exact costs and profits, a restaurant taboo akin to publishing recipes, which Hell’s has also done. “We never read the rule book,” she says.

Customers have responded. The restaurant has more than 11,000 fans on Facebook, by far the most of any Twin Cities restaurant—many more than Buddakan in New York, for that matter, or the French Laundry in California. When the count reached 10,000 in March, Hell’s announced a customer-appreciation brunch. So many reservations were booked within 15 minutes that the reservation service, based in Europe, called Omer in the wee hours, alarmed: they suspected a hacker.

Good karma has not always translated into good luck.

Duluth’s Canal Park, where Gerdes and Omer opened a second Hell’s Kitchen in 2007, proved immune to their charms. They figured that if tourists liked the place in Minneapolis, they would like it near Lake Superior, too. But the recession came and the 12 weeks of heavy tourism they anticipated turned out to be closer to five. Then the city installed parking meters, which may as well have been radioactive. “Duluthians avoided Canal Park in the summer because of tourists and in the winter because they didn’t want to pay to park,” Gerdes says. “We were a fish out of water up there.”

Omer and Gerdes closed the branch a couple of years ago. Now they have expanded again, opening a bakery called Angel Food right above the restaurant (the name came from a customer contest). Gerdes’s daughter Katy runs the place, baking everything from cupcakes to donuts to sandwich bread, and so many wholesale orders flooded in during the first few weeks that Gerdes had another series of panic attacks.

The bakery has wings, it appears. And if it takes off it will do so for the same reason the restaurant did and the Duluth branch did not: it’s original. Over the years, developers around the world have proposed branches of Hell’s in London, Phoenix, and elsewhere. Omer snorts at the idea, making it clear that none of these proposals were from people who had met him in person. There’s only one of him, and even the three hours of driving between Minneapolis and Duluth had stretched him too far. Not that he bothers explaining this to the developers. “We’re just like, ‘Are you out of your fucking mind?’” Omer bellows. “Ding!” Gerdes says, miming a coin being dropped into a jar.

A few years ago, Gerdes found herself obsessing over a food writer’s hapless attempt to explain Hell’s success, until she realized that it could not be done, not even by her. “There is nothing to get,” she says. “This isn’t about money or branding or even the restaurant, really. It’s just the best way we know how to do what we love.”

So this is it, the Minneapolis restaurant and bakery, at least for now. Maybe a food truck called Hell on Wheels. But there’s no plan. There never really has been.
 

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