Lake Como pavilion cafe loses contract as St. Paul tries to boost appeal

Share story

Black Bear Crossings
Black Bear Crossings owner David Glass says his cafe works for the Como location and that he's listened and responded to community concerns.
Liala Helal/MPR News

Come for the lake. Stay for the food. It's been a winning strategy for years in Minneapolis, where officials and local vendors have worked together to boost dining options at the city's waterside park cafes.

The path to finer lakeside dining may not be as easy in St. Paul.

Eager to follow the Minneapolis model, St. Paul leaders last week took a first step, telling Black Bear Crossings on the Lake cafe on Lake Como that its expiring contract would not be renewed. City officials cited late rental payments and Black Bear's unwillingness to agree to meet the city's revenue targets as reasons to part ways. Black Bear's owner sued, alleging the city breached the contract.

Local officials say they only want to make Lake Como and its historic pavilion a more appealing destination for the park's 4.4 million annual visitors.

"The community that I represent told me in a loud voice that they wanted something different," said City Council Member Amy Brendmoen. "On a Facebook group made up of Como neighbors, a question went out about the menu at the restaurant, and 90 comments popped up from people like, 'This place is terrible,' 'The food here is awful,' 'I don't take my family there,' 'Every time I go they are out of food,' 'I get terrible service,' just a long list."

In Minneapolis, there are four popular lakeside vendors -- Tin Fish on Lake Calhoun since 2004, Sea Salt in Minnehaha Park since 2005, Bread & Pickle on Lake Harriet since 2010, and Sandcastle on Lake Nokomis, which just opened in June this year. Sea Salt brought in almost $2.5 million this year, and Tin Fish, $1.2 million. Black Bear, by comparison, generates about $200,000 per year.

Places like Sea Salt succeed because they're in an atmosphere where people like to go to meet friends, said Jayne Miller, superintendent of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. "They operate as restaurants where you can come and get dinner, and they also have a liquor license, which makes a big difference -- the ability for people to get something to drink in a casual place, and relax," she said.

Lake Como pavilion
St. Paul officials say they only want to make Lake Como and its historic pavilion a more appealing destination for the park's 4.4 million annual visitors.
Liala Helal/MPR News

St. Paul sees Sea Salt as a model that could work at the Lake Como pavilion.

"When we have others in the marketplace, like at Minneapolis with Tin Fish and Sea Salt doing multiple times (the $200,000 in revenue), in similar locations or locations that aren't as premium as Como lakeside, we felt it was in the community's best interest to try to improve those sales or to look at a different concept," said Brad Meyer, media relations manager for the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Board.

Black Bear owner David Glass says his cafe works for the Como location and that he's listened and responded to community concerns. In April, Black Bear changed the setup from cafeteria trays to a make-to-order gourmet cafe. Glass said he hired consultants and took into consideration the public's feedback of not liking the cafeteria delivery system. In April, he proposed upgrading the interior of the cafe to the city. The city told him to wait, he said.

Glass said St. Paul city leaders demanded he either partner with Sea Salt or replace the restaurant with Sea Salt, offering no other guidance.

"Sea Salt is a whole different animal," Glass said. "They serve seafood. I don't think that would work over here. We have to be open for breakfast, while Sea Salt opens later. It's a different niche."

The city claims Glass was not open to remaking Black Bear and wouldn't agree to add revenue goals to the contract. Officials wanted language calling on Black Bear to double its revenue next year, to $500,000, and triple it to $750,000 in 2015.

"Why would I sign and amend my contract that I'm going to double and triple my sales in the next year or two?" Glass said. "That's like betting on that you're going to win the lottery."

Before Black Bear opened on the lake in 2000, St. Paul ran the site as a popcorn and hot dog stand, and wasn't making money.

Minneapolis' lakeside restaurants also started as small concession stands run by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board with little success. The city shifted to public-private partnerships to create new eateries on public park property and they became destination locations.

"It took a little while for them to get up and running, but they've gotten stronger and stronger each year," Miller said. "The lines are there. People like it. They look forward to it."

Glass, a Native American, says the cafe is more than food and drink. The restaurant, he added, is also a center for multicultural celebration, displaying Native American art and providing a place for women and minorities to organize in community service.

In his suit, he claims the city didn't like the concept of the cafe as a center for Native American culture. City council members, he said, didn't like the Native American art and wanted him to change the display. Brendmoen said that's not true and that the city simply wants to breathe some life into the site.

Besides the cafe, Glass rents banquet and community rooms for weddings on the lake. He also rents paddle boats and canoes.

Black Bear Crossings
In April, Black Bear changed the setup from cafeteria trays to a make-to-order gourmet cafe. Owner David Glass said he hired consultants and took into consideration the public's feedback of not liking the cafeteria delivery system.
Liala Helal/MPR News

The rental side of the business is doing fine, according to the city. It's the cafe that they want to change, though the termination of the contract would oust all services.

The city hadn't asked for revenue numbers or set expectations before this year, Glass said, and the current contract does not include any expectations for revenue.

"It's never been about trying to keep me here, it's always been about getting me out (since April)," Glass said. "Of course, it's very frustrating."

Black Bear has supporters. In a letter to Brendmoen and Mayor Chris Coleman, St. Paul police sergeant and city resident Mark Ficcadenti praised cafe owners for their generosity and support for troubled teens. He called the cafe a welcoming place and said he was shocked St. Paul would end the relationship.

The current contract between the city and Black Bear ends Dec. 31. The city will honor current reservations for banquet rooms and weddings. It plans to work with the District 10 Community Council to get community guidance on what should come next at the pavilion. Once feedback is gathered, Meyer added, the city will start a request for proposals and vendors will submit proposals for the space.

Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Black Bear remodeled in April.