Hell’s Kitchen founders open Angel Food Bakery just above their underground restaurant rather than grow their brand into riskier unknown territories.
On Mother’s Day Weekend, exactly ten years after opening Hell’s Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis, the restaurant’s founders will swing open the pearly gates of Angel Food Bakery + Coffee Bar.
What’s interesting is that rather than expand by opening more Hell’s Kitchen restaurants into oft-requested markets such as Chicago, L.A. or Boston, the owners have purposefully chosen to stay in their own backyard. “Why constantly head out of town when we could do our own thing in the city we know best?” explained founder Mitch Omer.
Ironically juxtaposed directly above the award-winning underground restaurant, the bakery has already been called “the coolest urban bakery in the country” because the owners tore down all walls to put the action front and center for customers to watch. At Angel Food, bakers and pastry chefs ice exquisite cupcakes, put the finishing touches on decadent donuts, roll fondant for cakes, and pull artisan crusted breads out of the glass-door ovens directly in front of customers. Guests with a bit of time can snag one of the few coveted counter stools to devour just-made treats while watching bakers fly about, kneading dough and working their magic in full view only inches away.
“Adding the bakery wasn’t a marketing gimmick to grow sales,” explained co-founder Cynthia Gerdes, “but rather a carefully conceived strategy that organically grew out of a need for more kitchen space.” The founders are constantly in touch with 10,981 Facebook fans and 22,400 email newsletter subscribers from around the country who love their candid and hair-raising “behind the scenes” blog posts. When the owners first mused about moving their tight baking corner up above to an empty space, online chatter showed a demand for a full service downtown bakery. Surprised, “we had an epiphany and decided to expanded our playful concept then and there,” said Gerdes.
“In hindsight, it was a no-brainer,” adds Omer. Hell’s Kitchen, named “Restaurant of the Decade” by StarTribune VitaMN readers, slings out award-winning comfort food with a creative twist, and Angel Food Bakery will follow its footsteps. Donuts, cupcakes, craft breads, croissants, cheesecakes will continue the passionate made-from-scratch mentality; even the bakery’s coffee bar syrups are scratch-made.
“There isn’t just one way to grow a company,” observed Gerdes. “This allows us to be on-site, gives our kitchen staff a chance to spread their wings, creates decent-paying full time jobs with benefits in our very own backyard, and gives our underground restaurant even more excitement as we head into our second decade.”
All of this originated as part of a yearlong series of events to mark Hell’s Kitchen’s 10th Anniversary, no easy feat considering the quirky, award-winning restaurant suffered so many mishaps the first few months in 2002, it’s a miracle the place survived even one year. “Let’s not even go there,” suggested Omer, whose shattered leg was in traction after an accident just 10 days into the opening. To survive, he and Gerdes had to sell off everything they owned (including their house), raid their son’s college fund (with permission, Omer insists, adding that the loan has long been paid back in full), and beg vendors for extended payment plans.
The restaurant is now considered one of the country’s busiest eateries, according to OpenTable, their previous reservation system, as well as Eveve, the European-based reservation system now gobbling up disgruntled OpenTable clients across the country. Hell’s Kitchen is now Eveve’s most-reserved worldwide client, and before leaving, was consistently on OpenTable’s most-booked list as well, topping even many of their popular Manhattan restaurants.
And while Hell’s Kitchen is now wildly successful, the bakery is a separate entity (“Think of it like a little sister without an allowance” laughed Gerdes), so the founders turned to their rabidly loyal customers for startup funds. Utilizing KickStarter, an international crowdfunding site, customers near and far pledged $10 or more dollars in exchange for some goodies in trade. The bakers are now figuring out how to ship boxes of Happy Birthday Donuts to backers across the country. “But what a win/win situation,” marveled Omer, still surprised that they raised more than double their goal in just 10 days. “Our customers literally made this bakery come to life with their support and snagged some great deals in the process.” The KickStarter project proved so successful that downtown delivery and online ordering will now happen sooner rather than later.
Usually fully booked with brunch and dinner reservations on weekends, Hell’s Kitchen always saves space for “walk-ins” if they don’t mind a bit of a wait. “We call our waiting area purgatory,” observes Omer. “And now they can check out heaven as they wait to get into hell,” added Gerdes with a wink, grateful that they chose to grow their business within their own market instead of venturing elsewhere.