Appetites: A new generation of 'Mayo spouses' are changing Rochester's food scene

Sumita Sauer prepares one of her vegan dishes
Sumita Sauer prepares one of her vegan dishes that helped Old Abe Coffee & Co. go from a coffee cart outside Mayo Clinic to a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Megan Burks | MPR News

The Rochester food scene is changing fast. Take Rochester Magazine's list of best restaurants:

"Up until, like, five years ago, Texas Roadhouse was still winning the best restaurant. It's a gigantic chain. Green Mill won a few years before that," said Abe Sauer, owner of Old Abe Coffee & Co. "And since then, restaurants like Tonic have won, Porch and Cellar, Bleu Duck — all places that somebody coming into town would expect to be an actual best restaurant in town."

Abe Sauer of Old Abe Coffee & Co. in Rochester
Abe Sauer opened Old Abe Coffee & Co., after moving to Rochester for his wife's job at Mayo Clinic.
Megan Burks | MPR News

Sauer said the shift is in part because of a new generation of "trailing spouses" whose partners have taken a job at Mayo Clinic and they can't find a job in Rochester's broader job market. Fed up, many take a chance on their passions.

In Sauer's case, it was coffee. The marketing professional and writer followed his wife to Rochester, Minn. When he couldn't find a job in his field, he decided to open a mobile coffee cart. Five years later, Old Abe Coffee & Co. is a brick-and-mortar coffee shop and vegan restaurant.

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"It used to be that the Alice Mayo Society existed for spouses — and they were almost all women — to do volunteer work in the community. They did great things, but it wasn't expected that they would really join in the local economy," Sauer said.

"Now, medical schools are graduating half women, and the spouses who come are professionals themselves. They're going to want to contribute and, in their mind, have a fulfilling professional life," he said. "Those jobs right now are few and far between in Rochester."

So, many spouses create them, Sauer said. James Beard Award-winning chef Paul Berglund moved with a significant other to Rochester and brought fine dining to Fiddlehead Coffee Company earlier this year. Adam Frederickson, also a "trailing spouse," is opening a brewery this summer called Thesis Beer Project. They're just a couple of examples.

But it isn't just desperation making these ventures work. Sauer said entrepreneurs in Rochester tend to have the stability needed to take a risk — health insurance and household income from their spouse. And the city's food scene is still nascent enough that you don't have to get it right on opening day, like in the Twin Cities where competition is fierce.

Sauer said the city could stand to be a bit more flexible when it comes to commercial zoning for new businesses, and build more affordable housing to serve lower-wage workers in the restaurant business. But he said, for right now, Rochester is a place where ideas can still take off.

"One of the great opportunities of Rochester is that for so long people didn't pay attention to investing in the city from outside and bringing their ideas here, or people left to take their ideas elsewhere," Sauer said. "Now you have this great unpainted landscape where you can take chances."