Features

Blood Sport

The demise of Heidi’s illustrates the difference between image and reality in the restaurant business.

Heidi's

The topic du jour is the surprising demise of Heidi’s, Stewart and Heidi Woodman’s flagship restaurant on Lyndale in south Minneapolis. After all, it was just a couple years ago that Heidi’s was riding high on a wave of critical acclaim and the food press was hyping the opening of Birdhouse, the Woodmans’ attempt to introduce a more sustainable style of eating.

A handful of correspondents have asked what the real story is. The conspiracy theories are myriad. Much of the media focus has been on the recent dissolution of the Woodmans’ marriage. Others wonder about the corrosive impact of Stewart’s caustic and self-righteous blog, Shefzilla, which he quit not long after launching a broadside over failing to be nominated for a Beard award.

I’ve been writing about restaurants in the Twin Cities since 1991, and I’m a full-time business journalist at our sister publication, Twin Cities Business. I can tell you a few things about business conspiracy theories.

First, thriving, cash-flowing businesses almost never close (they may be sold for one reason or another). Restaurants do not fail because their owner/operators project a self-confidence not validated by the P&L statement. Restaurants close because they can’t make money or sometimes even cover their costs.

These are universal truths, not specific to the Woodmans. Heidi’s enjoyed a six-year run, and the Woodmans have been pleasing diners all over town for a decade. That’s a nice run, and there may be more to come. (Remember how many failed concepts Steven Brown was part of before hitting bull’s-eye at Tilia?) But fashionable, chef-driven restaurants, of which the Twin Cities can only support a handful, survive on more than kitchen talent. Hospitality and catering to regulars, once the bread and butter of the entire restaurant business, is key. Vincent and Meritage are two that stand out in my mind.

The rap on Heidi’s is it was not a paragon of hospitality. Nor was its cooking or vibe in league with the edgy, showy restaurants from the Travail generation of chefs—joints not projecting much in the way of hospitality, but a lot in the realm of fun.

And I’m not sure if Woodman’s Internet persona didn’t do him real damage among the foodie crowd that lives in those spaces and read his poison pen missives to food writers (several at this publication), his admonitions on how to live sustainably and thoughtfully, and his celebrations of his own personal wisdoms.

Birdhouse was the ultimate expression of this, a well-meaning but fundamentally hubristic effort, rooted in a belief that people could be trained to eat smaller portions, lower calorie counts, and healthier recipes. It can’t have been an inexpensive failure.

Now, not every busy restaurant makes money (including some very prominent ones), but restaurants that close before their time are not thriving—period. Media hype, critical praise, and Internet buzz are not business metrics. The restaurant game is faster and more unforgiving than ever. To diners steeped in a universe of food blogs and cooking TV, it’s a form of blood sport. Though there are nuances unique to every situation, the Woodmans’ methodical rise and harsh, quick fall is all the evidence you need.

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