Kim Bartmann stands, hands on her hips, looking at the defiant subordinate. Her authority, her will, is being tested. All of her experiences, all of the instincts that helped her build a Twin Cities restaurant empire, including classics Bryant-Lake Bowl and Barbette, tell her to pull a power play. But this protest is awfully cute. Little Emmett’s lip protrudes; his white baseball cap is pulled down so low over his eyes that he has to tilt his head way back to see his mom’s face.
“Why can’t we go in the woods?” the 4-year-old pleads. Inside their south Minneapolis home, Bartmann’s wife, Sarah Jane Wroblewski, is calmly starting dinner. Out here, Emmett and his sister are vibrating with pent-up energy. Elaina zips by on her bike, legs extended, shrieking: “Look at me!” So Bartmann relents, allowing them to go crashing into the woods surrounding Cedar Lake.
“Elaina, use your brakes, not your shoes!” she calls after her 5-year-old. Then she shrugs. “They’re teaching me every minute of every day,” she says. “You want to tell them what to do more, but you have to do it less.”
The balance between showing her love and letting go is a theme central to Bartmann’s life right now.
Over the past 27 years, she has established herself as one of the metro’s top players in food — leading the way locally in areas from craft coffee to sustainability to burgers as gourmet fare. A natural visionary, Bartmann, 55, has become one of the loudest — and most unapologetic — voices on issues that threaten restaurants, big and small. For nearly three decades, she’s remained relevant in a changing industry, because she has stayed true to her instincts and interests.
Along the way, she’s remained hands-on with nearly every level of her businesses, down to the minutiae — a rarity for big-time restaurateurs. But as her company continues to swell, her fast pace and tendency to control are getting harder and harder to sustain.
Bartmann now owns 10 restaurants that collectively boast 350 employees and $15 million a year in revenue. She is the president of the Women’s Chef and Restaurateurs organization and was instrumental in bringing its national conference to the Twin Cities for the first time last spring. She consults for other restaurants. And she has new projects on the way.
Many of those around her consider her hyper involvement to be her greatest asset — a manifestation of her obvious passion. Others indicate that it’s her greatest detriment — frustrating employees and overwhelming everyone’s time.
One assertion is difficult to argue: Bartmann cares, a lot. “I’ve worked in the restaurant business for 23 years and I’ve never worked with anyone who cares as much as she does, who does as much research as she does,” says Mo Moore, one of Bartmann’s two operations directors. “She cares.
“She truly cares about everything.”
A fast pace, a growing love
A couple dozen chefs and front-of-the-house managers sit with open notebooks around the small Bryant-Lake Bowl theater stage. Class is in session.
Bre Waters, whom Bartmann hired to be her second operations director in March, is navigating a slide show, calling on individuals to read lines and explain their meaning to the rest of the room. At one point, Waters goads the group to repeat a word in unison — a schoolroom technique used to get her point across. Bartmann sits nearby, interjecting on subjects she feels strongly about, such as menu changes.
“I can’t let menus change without me knowing what’s going on,” she tells the group. “If you have a ginger-tahini dressing, I know you have a recipe for it, and that recipe better not change unless we talk about it and you can explain to me how you could make it better.”
Bartmann, surveying her empire, appears to have a firm grip on what she wants. But even she couldn’t have predicted her particular success.
An Appleton, Wis., native, Bartmann grew up in the woods, loving anything that moved fast. By age 5, she was riding a mini bike on forest trails. In the winters, she took to snowmobiles.
“She was free and wild,” her mom, Pat Rueckl, says. “She grew up fast, furious and wide open.”
Her family — mom and dad (Richard Bartmann), younger sisters Kelli and Kari — spent lots of time on her uncle’s campground Up North, and Bartmann would build forts with her cousins. The constructions changed, but the roles did not.
“She was the boss,” Rueckl says, “with everything and everybody.”
As a teenager, Bartmann moved to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota, intent on becoming an academic or possibly a lawyer — someone who stood up for injustices, the environment and vulnerable people. In the meantime, she filtered through a slew of odd jobs, including one as a line cook at an Uptown restaurant.
She wasn’t exactly prepared.
“I didn’t know anything,” she says. “They would be like ‘Go get some garbanzo beans,’ and I was like, ‘I hope there is a label on those because I don’t know what the [heck] that is.’ ”
But she loved it, mostly because of the fast pace. After a few more cooking jobs — and gaining sophistication in her ability and taste — Bartmann decided to open her own coffee shop, Cafe Wyrd. It was rocky, early, but the spot was ultimately deemed a trendsetting addition to the Twin Cities.
“As a customer, a citizen of Minnesota, I thought ‘How groundbreaking is Cafe Wyrd,’ ” says Steph Shimp, who co-owns Blue Plate Restaurant Group, another major player in town. “We didn’t have coffee shops then, and not only had she pioneered that segment of delicious espresso-based beverages, she also did it in Uptown with her uniquely creative slant.”
The ideas kept coming. After converting Cafe Wyrd to Barbette, Bartmann wanted to open a bar that featured “wine for the people” — that is, wine without the snobbery or formality — so she debuted Bryant-Lake Bowl. Using largely recycled materials and furniture, she introduced Red Stag, an attempt at a modern supper club. Then came along Pat’s Tap (named for her mother), Lake Harriet’s Bread & Pickle and Gigi’s.
As Bartmann’s empire grew, she prided herself on knowing each employee’s name and learning as much as she could about them.
In 2013, wanting to showcase biointensive urban farming methods, Bartmann created Tiny Diner, featuring edible gardens and rain water catching systems. Third Bird came along in 2014 (it was re-concepted twice and is now The Bird), then Book Club in 2017. Trapeze, a champagne bar next to Barbette, just opened in June.
Still, Bartmann wants to remain as involved with her growing body of work as she was at the start. When chef Jessica Cak, who began at Barbette in January, wants to tweak her menu, she realizes it will take several days.
“It’s definitely a long conversation,” she says. “We go back and forth. She has a vision, I have a vision. I have to pull sales reports to show something isn’t a popular dish. But she likes to be challenged, I think.”
And, Cak says, she benefits from the flip side of the hyper involvement, too. Once when Barbette was short-staffed, Bartmann offered her own services. “She said ‘Put me in. What do you need?’ ” Cak says. “She made herself available. Usually owners are completely removed from the restaurants — it’s just some rich guy that comes in and eats once in a while. But Kim is just around.”
Putting her values on the table
Bread & Pickle, Bartmann’s lakeside eatery, sells upward of 21,000 burgers a season, so when Moore was looking for cost-cutting measures shortly after being hired as operations director four years ago, he saw an immediate target: the ground chuck.
There was a challenge: his new boss’ buying standards were quite high. But soon, he had discovered what seemed to be the perfect replacement vendor, offering free-range, GMO-free, sustainably raised beef.
“On the surface, everything was legit,” Moore says. “It checked all the boxes.” He figured if they switched, they would have reduced costs by $35,000 and increased profit by about $25,000.
Then Bartmann researched. The purveyor. The producer. The processor. The history of the land (for possible contamination).
“She didn’t like what she found, so she tossed [the proposal],” Moore says. “I was like ‘What?’ But she said ‘I don’t care, it’s not about the money, it’s about doing the right thing.’ ”
Moore experienced her good-willed stubbornness again a few years ago when Third Bird was floundering shortly after opening. Moore, realizing the restaurant was rapidly losing money, recommended shuttering it and breaking the lease. He informed his boss.
“Mmmmmm, no,” he recalled her responding. “We’re going to re-concept it. We’ll survive.”
Moore marveled: “It made no sense to keep that restaurant open. But she was thinking about all the staff that have families and children, insurance and mortgages. She really thinks about all that.”
In fact, Bartmann has provided health care for all of her employees since 1993 — she was among the first restaurateurs in the Twin Cities to do so.
Bartmann has used her role to affect community issues, too. Long a spokesperson for women’s rights and equality in the workplace, Bartmann also fought to ban cigarette smoke in restaurants, among other issues.
“My immediate response was, ‘Who is anyone to tell anyone else not to smoke?’ ” Bartmann says. “But then my staff said to me — well, if you work in an office, you’re protected from people blowing smoke in your face. And I realized it was a workers’ rights issue, really. If you read into the science [of secondhand smoke], it’s the same as getting punched in the face, it does such violence to your body.”
She decided to fight for the ban wholeheartedly. “She’s not afraid to stand up and talk about what she believes in,” Shimp says. “And that can be dicey in this business because when you take a stand on an issue, you risk alienating your guests.”
Soon after she started her campaign, Bartmann began receiving angry phone calls and even threats. But at the same time, she gained a loyal, grateful following.
“Business went up 15 percent from Day One,” she says. But not every crusade hits the mark.
Bartmann was named president of Women’s Chefs and Restaurateurs last year and worked with Kristen Lee-Charlson, the WCR’s executive director, to organize various conference events, many of which were a big hit. She also proposed some last-minute, obscure ideas, including a 6 a.m. 5K the morning after late evening events. Only a few people showed.
“Does it make sense to hold a 6 a.m. run when everyone has been up half the night before? Maybe not,” Lee-Charlson says. “But she’s a dreamer, and you’re not going to talk her down from those things.”
Since Bartmann has come on board, she’s taken a similar approach to the organization as she has her restaurants — wanting to involve herself in every level. But Lee-Charlson noted that there are other positions and people in the organization, too.
“There’s an inclination to fix everything, and that’s challenging,” she says. “Doing that rather than stepping back and listening and sitting down and thinking, that’s hard. But when you get to an organization of this size, with so many moving pieces, you can’t be it all, you can’t do it all. You can’t be the creative and the menu maker and the HR. You have to entrust other people, the people you put in those positions. And that’s what makes a good leader.”
Holding on and letting go
Bartmann and Wroblewski are making dinner, later than expected. On the menu: rib-eyes with ramp pesto, salad and broccoli. Three years ago, they might have been at one of Bartmann’s restaurants, where she used to eat several times a week. But now the couple come home most nights to be with the kids, whom they adopted in 2016.
“I don’t miss the nightlife, I just miss being in the restaurants all the time because I don’t see everything that’s happening and that hurts me some,” Bartmann says.
Running the day-to-day operations was never the dream — Bartmann’s true love is the creation. But without the daily decisions, executed according to Bartmann’s values and vision, she believes, what she has created is at risk. She is known for her pioneering ideas — wine for the people, edible gardens, sustainable practices, recycled art. But lasting success, in Bartmann’s mind, comes from the ground chuck. The leadership exercises. The lemon-tahini dressing.
She stimulates her creativity by opening more and more restaurants. But as she does, she loses tight control over them. She doesn’t know each employee’s name anymore. And she sees the restaurant climate rapidly changing — the economy, the labor pool, the expectations, the pace. She’s always loved all things fast and furious, but even for her, this clip is dizzying.
“I used to be doing things way ahead of their time,” she says. “Now I feel like time is shrinking. I’m not leading in any particular way at the moment, in innovation or sustainability. I worry that I can’t do it.”
There’s more at stake now. She’s responsible for a growing number of people — her employees and, particularly, her two children.
So partly by choice and partly out of necessity, she’s learning to let go. In addition to a second operations director, she brought on a partner and CEO, Christopher O’Donnell. Asked where she’d like to be in the next five years, Bartmann replied “retired — or at least focusing on my core strengths and nothing else.”
It’s a process. But the kids help, teaching her daily that she can’t control it all. Nor should she.
Back in the kitchen, plans for the pesto have evaporated and Bartmann has settled for a burnt ramp butter. As the steaks crackle in the cast-iron pan, she sprinkles thyme into the simmering liquid and a smooth, fragrant scent swirls through the kitchen.
“It’ll be good,” she says. “I promise.”