Restaurateur Jami Olson has acknowledged that his fast-casual restaurant, Centro, in Minneapolis’ Arts District would qualify as a destination restaurant. Wanting to maximize her chances of success, she had an epiphany: why not have two restaurants under the same roof to maximize her chances of profitability?
Rather than offering shadow kitchens that focus on delivery and may house multiple dining concepts under one roof but all takeout, she opened Centro and Popol Vuh. Centro debuted in August 2018 and Popol Vuh six weeks later.
The size of the space also contributed to the split into two restaurants. The 5,500 square feet available seemed too big for a restaurant, so why not cut it in half?
Olson said, “Having the opportunity to open a dual-concept restaurant gave us the ability to build a safety net.”
Having two restaurants under one roof can save money, maximize resources, share staff and work in a common kitchen.
And Centro is not alone. In Winnetka, Ill, the George Trois Group operates George Trois, a nine-course tasting menu, under the same roof as Aboyer, a French-American bistro.
Indeed, Olson prefers sit-down restaurants to ghost kitchens. “I like people to feel the vibe. It’s more than food and drink, but creating energy for space,” she noted.
Olson began developing the two restaurants in 2016, but had to raise $2 million from family and friends to fund construction, design including two bars and a communal kitchen with line-in areas for diners. two outposts and two sets of bathrooms.
Each restaurant attracted a different audience. Popol Vuh was a “full-service fine dining experience with elevated food and drink, with most dishes cooked on a large wood-fired grill,” Olson said. Centro was a “fast casual concept with Mexican street food with pitchers of margaritas and a large patio,” she added.
Under the direction of chef Jose Alarcon and his Mexican cuisine, Centro has become a success. But when the pandemic hit, it created problems in Popol Vuh. “The price point just didn’t work out,” she said. Olson turned Centro into a take-out restaurant during the shutdown but closed Popol Vuh.
Seeing half the space remain vacant, Olson brought up a whole new dining concept, Vivir, rather than trying to reboot the more polished place. Vivir operates as an all-day cafe that focuses on breakfast tacos, breakfast burritos, pastries, coffee, and retail giveaways.
Quick, relaxed cuts for these frenetic times, suggested Olson. “People want to have their own experience,” she said, and things go faster without server service.
Olson made sure that the two concepts did not compete with each other but rather complemented each other. “Customers come for the Centro experience, but end up strolling through Vivir Market where they might find a gift for a loved one or a pint of homemade salsa to take home with them,” she noted.
“A dual concept allows us to customize our restaurants to appeal to customers in every house of the day and whatever experience they want to have,” Olson explained.
Centro accommodates 85 patrons indoors, with the number of seats doubling when the patio opens in the summer. Vivir can accommodate 45 people and its agave lounge, Escondido, adds another 12 guests.
Having proven Centro to be a success, she was able to secure bank financing for her next ventures. In late spring 2022, she’s opening a Centro Marketplace, an abbreviated Vivir, and a third concept, which will likely specialize in burgers on Eat Street in Minneapolis. It will be spacious with approximately 7,000 square feet of space in front of the house and will contain plenty of outdoor seating.
Next, she plans to add a third restaurant in St. Paul, which she’s still ironing out, but expects it to function as another dual-concept space. And in the more distant future, the enterprising Olson aims to expand into suburban Minneapolis.
“I’d like to open 10 locations in the Twin Cities Metro, but I’ll be careful not to overcrowd as we grow,” she said.
When Centro first opened, it didn’t do much take-out or delivery. “Honestly, we were too busy and didn’t have enough space to develop these programs,” Olson noted. The pandemic forced him to develop a take-out program.
The central kitchen at the soon-to-open second location will provide space for a delivery program. It partnered with DoorDash and GrubHub and developed its own in-house delivery service.
Asked about the keys to the future success of Centro and its descendants, Olson answered: 1) Maintaining the quality of food quality, 2) Maintaining staffing, including hiring junior staff and training them, 3) Choose the right locations, 4) Eventually, own the building, which will offer greater flexibility.