Photo courtesy of Tiny Diner Farm.

Tiny Restaurant, Big Impact

The Tiny Diner's "whole system" exemplifies the change restaurateur Kim Bartmann wants to see in the world

By Brian Martucci
Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Veteran Minneapolis restaurateur Kim Bartmann has been serving up inventive fare for nearly 25 years. She has seven restaurants in her little empire, with an eighth — Trapeze, a champagne-centric offshoot of Uptown’s chic Barbette — in the works. She’s about as successful as an independent restaurateur can get in the Upper Midwest without compromising quality or creativity, or embracing the power of the franchise.

But the growth of Bryant Lake Bowl Restaurant Group, her holding company, isn’t driven solely by the pursuit of profit. Bartmann, a confident if subdued interlocutor, is clearly passionate about doing right by her employees, customers and the environment. She’s positively indignant, for instance, about the fact that New Jersey — “that little state to our east,” she explains, derisively — was at one point adding more solar capacity each month than Minnesota had installed to date.

The nice thing about owning seven restaurant properties: Even if you can’t change the world by yourself, you can at least give your customers a taste of the change you want to see.

That’s what Bartmann is doing at Tiny Diner, her popular all-day spot in south Minneapolis’s largely residential Longfellow neighborhood. Tiny Diner practices “whole system design,” which Community Outreach Coordinator Koby Jeschket-Hagen describes as “caring for all the elements we need to live — air, soil, water, other living things.”

Tiny Diner’s “whole system” is pretty comprehensive. Its food-producing engine is the adjacent half-acre farm, Tiny Diner Farm, which Jeschket-Hagen manages. (Bartmann also has a 1.5-acre organic farm, Garden Farme, in Ramsey.) Its (partial) power plant is a solar panel array that doubles as a sunshade for Tiny Diner’s patio and “puts a dent in our power bill,” says Bartmann. (Depending on the season, the array produces enough power for four to six average-sized houses, although it doesn’t come close to offsetting Tiny Diner’s consumption. Still, Bartmann used five different tax rebates to slash the array’s cost by about 90%, and “its ROI is fast approaching.”) Its lifeblood is a water catchment system that cycles 100% of the rain that falls on the property’s hardscape through its pollinator-friendly annual garden and fills a 500-gallon cistern that provides additional watering capacity for the orchard and raingarden. (The catchment system is so efficient that the city of Minneapolis waives Tiny Diner’s sewer charge — a small break, in the grand scheme, but a break nonetheless.)

Tiny Diner’s “whole system” extends beyond its lively south Minneapolis plot, at least indirectly. Jeschket-Hagen runs a Thursday night farmer’s market on the property’s parking lot. “We do the [Thursday night market] because we can,” says Bartmann. “We’re not directly competing with the larger Saturday markets, and we figure we attract people who want to pick up something fresh before heading out of town for the weekend.”

“We want to connect our customers to other types of food that might not be available in the restaurant,” says Jeschket-Hagen. The Tiny Diner market’s stall fees are “flexible,” she adds, and generally lower than larger markets’, so the scene attracts smaller farmers that can’t pony up for prime spots at (for instance) Mill City or Minneapolis Farmers Market.

What else? Jeschket-Hagen organizes periodic, free-to-the-public classes on food- and food systems-related topics. Mademoiselle Miel, a St. Paul-based honey outfit, runs a beekeeping unit on Tiny Diner’s roof. And the property is home to a “pollinator hotel,” supported by Bee Squad, that provides a protected habitat for wild pollinators.

Not bad for a “tiny” restaurant in a quiet Minneapolis neighborhood.