It used to be, that if you worked up an appetite while walking around Lake Harriet or Lake Calhoun, your snack options were pretty much limited to popcorn and ice cream.
But now, concessionaires at several city parks offer various goods from lattes and lemon-ginger scones, to tap beer and fresh oysters. Rachel Hutton, senior editor of Minnesota Monthly magazine, discusses how some of our favorite green spaces have become bona fide dining destinations.
Tom Crann: You must be very excited about all the changes?
Rachel Hutton: I wasn't always an advocate of privatizing the park concessions. In 2002, when the Minneapolis Park Board proposed leasing the Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun concessions to Dairy Queen, I left the board president a strongly worded voicemail expressing my objections.
Tom Crann: Did you make picket signs, "Down with the Dilly Bar"?
Rachel Hutton: No, I like a Dairy Queen marshmallow sundae as well as anyone, but Dairy Queen being a huge, international company, their products don't feel very special.
As much as I'd like the parks to remain commerce-free, I realize they're much easier to sustain if they can generate some of their own revenue. Back then, the concessions and souvenir shop at Minnehaha Falls was losing, on average, $8,000 a year.
Tom Crann: What changed your mind?
Rachel Hutton: Well, after Dairy Queen was rejected, the park board went back and solicited more potential concessions operators and incorporated more public input into the process. They conducted surveys among park users to understand their preferences and concerns and set up public hearings. This process helped bring in smaller, more unique operators that better reflect our distinctive food culture.
Tom Crann: Lake Calhoun went first?
Rachel Hutton: In 2004, the seafood-focused Tin Fish opened at Lake Calhoun. It's owned by a local couple as part of a small franchise operation. The next year, two former Coastal Seafoods employees opened Sea Salt Eatery at Minnehaha Falls Park. Two years ago, the local restaurateur Kim Bartmann opened Bread & Pickle at Lake Harriet.
Tom Crann:And they're all very popular -- when the weather's nice, the lines are endless.
Rachel Hutton: Yes, the one upside of our cold spring is you can eat at Sea Salt without an hour-long wait. Their popularity has also been generating a lot of revenue for the park board; Sea Salt, for example, pays the park a commission based on their gross sales; since 2005, they've paid the city roughly $1,000,000.
Tom Crann: There is a new concession opening this year?
Rachel Hutton: Yes, chef Doug Flicker and his wife, Amy Greeley, who own the Piccolo restaurant in south Minneapolis will launch Sandcastle at Lake Nokomis. I'm very curious to see what a fine dining chef does with casual food. Flicker is planning to serve everything from gourmet hot dogs, to bison fry bread, to shrimp ceviche. Sandcastle will open later this summer.
Tom Crann: What should we order at the other park eateries?
Rachel Hutton: Sea Salt is already open, so you can go get a crab cake sandwich and a local tap beer. The cold weather is preventing a firm opening date for Tin Fish and Bread & Pickle. Operators of those restaurants are hopeful they will be open before May 1.
At Tin Fish, I like their basic fried cod sandwich, the Mini Tin. At Bread & Pickle I like their breakfast sandwiches, the hummus wrap, and they do excellent fried cheese curds that can tide us over until the Minnesota State Fair.