Small business and neighborhood bistro remodels, expands and adds staff
The Finnish Bistro, a popular neighborhood gathering spot in St. Anthony Park, is entering the new year showing off a fresh look, expanded seating and new services.
After four months of construction, the restaurant has added 24 seats to the 50 that had been available to diners and installed a large new cooler, which will allow for the addition of catering. The Dunn Brothers shop, which had shared the space, is gone, replaced by the Bistro’s new full service coffee/espresso bar. More live music and jazz/blues karaoke nights are in the works.
“The space had been awkwardly configured so it’s all different. We have new floors, tables and chairs, bakery cases, windows, even new front doors,” said Finnish Bistro owner Sandra Weise, 43, who bought the restaurant four years ago; she had previously been its manager.
The menu, full of standards (pizza, gyros) and Nordic specialties (pickled herring, lefse, almond kringlers) will remain the same, but Weise is bringing on ten additional employees to fully staff the larger space.
“We still have the counter where people walk up to order and pay but we will go to tableside service in the spring,” she says.
It’s a fresh incarnation for the 101-year-old building, strategically positioned on a Como Avenue corner between the St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses of the University of Minnesota. The landmark began serving St. Anthony Park as a drug store, then was transformed into a Bridgeman’s Ice Cream Parlor, and later a Taste of Scandinavia bakery and restaurant.
Its most recent updating came with more pathos and drama than usually attends a business reconfiguration.
Two weeks into the remodeling project, Weise’s general contractor, Marv Kuiper, died in a car accident.
“Marv and I talked every day for six months while we planned the project. He was this larger-than-life pro; he’s remodeled other restaurants and he handled everything; he was the glue,” Weise said. “It was an awful time and on top of it, I had to step into a leadership role that I knew nothing about with the subcontractors.”
Weise kept the doors open, the soup hot and the cardamom bread toasted while the renovation was underway, but running a restaurant during the hustle and hassle of construction posed a threat to business.
Although construction only closed the bistro for a solitary business day, he time frame for completing the project dragged. Weise sent out an e-mail update to her regular customers.
“This is the kind of neighborhood where people are really invested in their small businesses,” she said.
A few of her regulars launched a hyperlocal campaign to keep a steady flow of customers heading into their neighborhood hangout. They gathered commitments from neighbors to make a point of dining at the Finnish Bistro, from after school snacks with kids to family dinners in the evenings.
“They gave me tons of business. It was hard of the staff with the disruption of their tips, but the neighbors kept it flowing,” she said. “This happened in the three busiest months of the year and it dramatically impacted my revenue. They saved me.”
With the refreshed version of the restaurant comes Weise’s own newly discovered connection to the Finnish part of her business.
She got an ancestry.com test for Christmas, which revealed that her long-dead grandfather, who’d been assumed to be Norwegian, was actually from Finland.
“People have always asked me if I’m Finnish and now I can say yes, 25%!” she says.
She plans an official grand opening in March.