The year was 1984. St. Paul had one espresso machine at a restaurant. One.
“No one even knew how to pronounce espresso,” said Peter Quinn, who never imagined his small bakery and cafeteria, Café Latte, would still be there 30 years later.
And yet, tonight his family’s restaurant, now tripled in size, will have a huge party to celebrate 30 years.
“It was the dark ages for food in the early '80s,” he said. “People treat dining out now as entertainment. I often wonder where they were back then!”
Café Latte is an institution now. Quinn and his wife Linda opened on the corner of Grand and Victoria across the street from their other spots, Bread & Chocolate and Häagen-Dazs (the home of that original espresso maker). When they opened, they were smoke-free. Minnesota took 23 years to catch up.
Quinn told me the inspiration for Café Latte was actually a hospital in Seattle that was serving gourmet food.
“Food trends have changed a lot. Gluten-free and a lot more ethnic variations are in. Southwest and Asian dishes are popular,” he said.
One thing hasn’t changed: that amazing caramel, pecan, chocolate layer Turtle Cake. It’s Linda’s mom’s recipe. “She’s German, had this chocolate cake, and thought let’s add carmel and pecans,” Peter said.
But get this: on many days it’s not even the best-selling bakery item at Café Latte.
“It’s been overtaken a bit now by tres leche, we do five versions of that,” he said, including a salted caramel tres leche and a tiramisu version.
Peter is 67 now (he was two years younger than me when he opened Café Latte!), his wife is 64. They both still spend six days a week in the restaurant, even though they moved from St. Paul in the 1990s so they’d get better at delegating the work.
“We’ve seen an expansion from that corner—it’s all positive. Grand Avenue is such a unique location in the Twin Cities, there’s really nothing like it,” he said.
I asked him about passing down the restaurant to family—not that I wanted to kick him out of the place. But he said honestly, “There’s no succession plan.” The plan is to keep on cranking out fresh, homemade, delicious food as long as he can. “Bakeries don’t tend to go out of business unless the owners retire. Bakeries have more longevity than restaurants,” he laughed, “And I always looked at Café Latte as a bakery.“
Café Latté Anniversary Celebration, Sept. 22, 5-9 p.m.