Painting the town red
You’d think after being named the state’s top restaurateur several years ago Luke Shimp would have taken it easy, but the Red Cow owner is already on to his next brand of restaurants.
Shimp, who owns and operates three of the burger restaurants across the Twin Cities, has been named the Minnesota Restaurant Association’s 2016 Restaurateur of the Year. He’s the first person to win the award twice following his first time being honored in 2009 as CFO and co-owner of Blue Plate Restaurant Company.
The award comes as Shimp is opening what he envisions could be another fast-growing restaurant brand in Minneapolis. He’s enlisted former Parella chef Todd Macdonald to lead Red Rabbit, an Italian concept that will open this month on Washington Avenue in in a former North Loop auto shop building.
As Shimp explained in a conversation with The Journal in December, it’s a focus on building leaders and an inward-facing guest experience that propels his concepts to success. The interview has been edited and condensed.
The Journal: First off, congratulations on your win. How does it feel?
Shimp: Outstanding. Obviously to have your peers in the restaurant community to recognize you twice is really cool. And with two different companies and having been a part of two leadership teams, it’s really neat to accomplish that.
What do you think is working for Red Cow?
I think it’s really our culture. I tell our team members that our deal is that we’re a leadership company that just happens to serve food and beverage. What we’re actually putting a huge emphasis on, along with hospitality and great food, is leadership and making sure our general managers and kitchen managers and sous chefs are all getting the leadership development to really make great employees and people who want to work for us.
Red Rabbit is a great example. During this hiring process, I was very nervous about hiring during the holiday period. We’ve actually had no problem hiring staff. For me, that was really a testament to our culture and reputation.
External guests are people who walk through the front door. Internal guests are our employees. We focus on the internal guests first because we have to make sure that our team members are happy, that they’re satisfied, that we’re providing them with the opportunity they need to be successful. If you do that, I feel that it automatically flows over to the external guest experience.
What does leadership development look like?
Training is certainly a piece of it. We have a leadership development coach who works with all the different leaders in the company. We have study groups. We have quarterly training sessions on how to be a leader. During our one-on-one weekly meetings there’s a lot of focus on what it means to be a leader. A lot of people think being a leader is task-oriented, but we focus on people more. Are you learning how to have conversations with people and boosting your emotional intelligence? Or are you just worried about someone filling out a checklist and hitting all the metrics? And, to me, that’s management. Leadership is people. I really drive that home, and that starts at the top of the company.
It’s something that started at [Blue Plate Restaurant Company]. It’s something I learned in auto racing when I worked with coach Joe Gibbs [at Joe Gibbs Racing]. I was 27 when I left racing and I certainly didn’t know what I had been exposed to. And so I’ve taken a lot of those lessons and utilized them in how I develop my team.
Switching to your new restaurant. When did you decide to pursue Red Rabbit?
I always wanted to do a neighborhood pizza joint of some sort. It really stems from chef Todd having availability. To me it was about all if I found the right guy or gal I would do another concept, and having Todd be available in the market was one of those moments like “OK, let’s do it.” We were actually looking at a Red Cow out of state in Colorado. After introspecting, I didn’t think we were ready.
We knew it was going to be “red” and it was going to be an animal. It was really important that the two brands had some continuity. I assume we’ll do more than one Red Rabbit. As to how many, I’m not sure.
How did you develop the menu?
Everything in our company like that — the architecture of the menu and the cuisine, the vision — comes from me, and then it’s collaborative from there on out. Then it’s Todd, our sous chef Drew Yancey and executive chef Travis Langely. Todd, my wife and I flew out to Los Angeles and Portland and did a little West Coast tour for one week and toured a bunch of places. I’d say locally my favorite pizza place is Pizzeria Lola. I think [owner] Ann Kim is a phenomenal pizza specialist. When people are talking pizza in town and we’re in the same conversation, I’ll consider it a success. Black Sheep Pizza too. [Chef] Jordan Smith’s pizza is awesome. I’d say they are my two benchmarks.
What can we expect at Red Rabbit when it opens Dec. 20?
If you think Red Cow: Fine burgers, beer and wine. This is Red Rabbit: Pizza, pasta and oysters. Price points are similar. Here we’re doing lunch and dinner. At some point, probably six to eight months down the road, we’ll offer brunch. During lunchtime there’ll be some more sandwiches and salads on the menu. There’s a smattering of to-share items. There are about 10 pizzas fired in a wood-fire oven and then about 10 pastas.
The cocktail program is amped up a bit over Red Cow’s, which I think is understated. I think this will start a new conversation about [beverage director Ian Lowther] and his cocktail program even if he’s done it at Red Cow. There will be about five tap beverages here. I think there’s going to be a pineapplecello, a limoncello, cold brew coffee and two tap cocktails.
Why the North Loop?
I said it would take 18–24 months for the right spot to come and, lo and behold, it took about six. I had looked at the Cheeky Monkey space that Revival obtained over in St. Paul. That’s where we were going to go, but this became available and worked out perfectly. I think with all the activity up and down Washington Avenue, all the way down to the East End where the stadium is and all the way down to The Freehouse, it’s amazing. With The Washington renovation, the Hewing Hotel coming in, with Shinola having come in a few years ago, it’s definitely in a bit of a turnover phase. With all the residential development this was ripe for it. I think we got in at the right time.
Photo: Red Cow and Red Rabbit owner Luke Shimp. Submitted photo