The tiny, historic Band Box, that quirky-looking red-and-white diner near Elliot Park in downtown Minneapolis, has been dark since March 17, 2020. That's the day that Gov. Tim Walz ordered restaurant dining rooms to close.
Hopefully, that pandemic-induced hiatus is about to come to an end. Cue a collective sigh of relief from its legions of fans.
"People may not know this little neighborhood, but they know the Band Box," said Cassie Lynne Garner, owner of the nearby Gamut Gallery and a devoted 20-year Band Box regular. "It has to continue on. With everything that's been going on during these last 18 months — especially in Minneapolis, where we've had it harder than other cities — we need that hometown feeling that you get when you walk into the Band Box."
Owners Brad Ptacek and Heather Dalzen have spent that time at their south Minneapolis house, dealing with Dalzen's cancer diagnosis and treatment and overseeing their 9-year-old son Laughlin's education when his school went into remote-learning mode.
"We thought it was best to sit still and see what happens," said Ptacek. "You just do it. You just try to make the best out of things."
The couple are now looking to reopen their source of income. They'll eventually start with a streamlined takeout menu while figuring out a way to make it safe for diners to gather inside their postage stamp-sized restaurant.
Going back in time
The Band Box (729 S. 10th St.) dates to 1939 and was founded by Harry and Bert Weisman. The couple, who later changed their name to Wyman, a reaction to the region's then-widespread anti-Semitism, took their business cues from the growing and highly standardized White Castle chain.
For their local chain-in-the-making, the couple asked a manufacturer of grain silos to create prefabricated diners out of floor-to-ceiling-scaled steel panels.
On the exterior, the portable, flat-roofed structures had vaguely Moderne-style design touches. The durable interiors, also models of economy, featured an open kitchen, a stool-lined counter and a few tables.
By the time the company changed hands in 1953, there were 14 Band Boxes scattered across the city. But the era of a Minneapolis peppered with steel-plated diners was relatively brief. By the early 1970s, the original Band Box, still perched on its triangular lot at S. 10th and E. 14th streets, was the only one still standing.
Enter Ptacek. During the 1990s, he was chef at Caffe Solo and relishing the rush of running a Warehouse District hot spot. That is, until stress started exacting its toll.
"I was working 12 to 14 hours a day, and that was all driven by me, and my own madness," he said. "All that work was for the company, and not for me. I felt that I had to go somewhere on my own."
A friend suggested looking into the decidedly lower-profile Band Box. In 1998, Ptacek settled into his spot behind the counter, focusing on perfecting made-from-scratch omelets, burgers, pancakes and other short-order fare.
Fast-forward a few years. Ptacek met Dalzen, and the two become romantic and business partners; he in the kitchen, she in the front of the house.
"It's pretty much been me and her," said Ptacek. "We're 17 years as a team."
In those early days, the setup was so small and antiquated that Ptacek stored French fries in the freezer at a neighboring Dairy Queen, and used the nearby House of Charity to prepare potatoes for what became a signature dish, his home fries.
A 2003 expansion and renovation — funded by a $250,000 loan from the Minneapolis Community Development Agency — honored the building's idiosyncratic appearance but gave Ptacek some breathing room while adding much-needed modern cooking amenities. It also boosted seating capacity and included a wheelchair-accessible restroom and a patio, an asset that Ptacek plans to maximize while the weather still cooperates.
Garner and Vanessa Haight, executive director of the Elliot Park neighborhood association, teamed up to help revive the Band Box.
"We were kind of like the nagging neighbors, asking them for permission to help," said Garner. "But that's not who Brad and Heather are, they're more like, 'We'll figure it out.' Two weeks ago they said, 'Yes,' and we were, like, 'Finally!' ''
Their crowdsourced fundraising drive hit its $15,000 goal in just six days, a testament to the Band Box's cherished place in the heart of its community. The tally keeps growing, and Garner and Haight plan to continue the online campaign (find it athttps://bit.ly/3uL6tmm) to help cover other unforeseen but inevitable reopening costs.
The plan is to get the battered-by-vandalism building back in working order, soon, and that means hiring plumbers, electricians and carpenters. The challenge is further complicated by the structure's unique design, which often means that replacement parts require expensive custom solutions.
"Just fixing the back door is three thousand dollars," said Ptacek. "That's just for one little door."
There's also the sizable investment required to restock the kitchen. Other major goals include creating a takeout window, building an online ordering platform and developing curbside pickup and delivery systems. These efforts require cash, and Ptacek is grateful for the financial — and emotional — support.
"It's a hard thing to ask for help, but we're blessed to have people who want us back," he said. "That's great. It's wonderful, it's amazing, it's overwhelming, it's humbling. It's so many words, and, for once, I don't know what else to say."