Herbst Eatery & Farm Stand is a restaurant that wouldn't have happened if we hadn't had time to slow down. The eatery and retail space, opening May 11 on Raymond Avenue in St. Paul, is the result of long-percolating ideas and one very big dream.
But its story starts at a country roadside stand. Twisting and turning down the back roads of southwestern Wisconsin's Driftless Area, hand-painted wooden signs promise honey, farm fresh eggs and other bounty. Untouched by glaciers, the region is home to idyllic slices of farmland, and Jörg and Angie Pierach have one of them.
The two found peace on that patch of land, where they now own a hobby farm, and reveled in the abundance of locally grown food. Angie is a former teacher who stepped into full-time parenthood when their kids were young. Jörg is the founder of Fast Horse, the local advertising and public relations agency. He began working with area farms to help form a cooperative that sells produce to some co-ops in the metro area, including the Hampden Park Co-op near their home in St. Paul's St. Anthony Park neighborhood.
Jörg is also a founding partner in Tilia, Steven Brown's landmark Linden Hills restaurant. Once surrounded by all that fresh, locally grown produce, animals and the incredible people who raised them, the Pieraches began thinking about opening another restaurant.
With all the lush goods, a cooperative to supply it and a charming location in St. Paul, they were on the cusp of doing just that. Then COVID arrived and everything shut down; everything they had planned was called into question. But the quiet turned out to be a good thing for Herbst.
'You've got to meet Jörg'
Across the country, Eric Simpson's nerves were fried to a crisp. His career as a chef in Michelin-starred restaurants was steeped in high-end, regional Italian food, but the fast pace and relentlessness of the city had taken a toll.
"I'd been in New York City for 15 years when COVID hit," he said. Simpson had met his wife while working in restaurants, and the couple lived in north Brooklyn when everything stopped.
"We were just surrounded by the constant noise of ambulance sirens," he said. They could see the rows of trailers serving as mobile morgues stack up as hospitals were overwhelmed.
"That was absolutely one of my last straws," said Simpson. "I didn't want to work in a Michelin-starred restaurant, making elevated fancy food and putting it in plastic boxes. It all felt so hollow and not appropriate."
It was time to get out of the city. When he and his wife visited her parents in Minnesota, they made the decision to move. At the time, their shared industry had vanished overnight, and the only plan they had was to live somewhere without the worst sights and sounds of the pandemic. They landed here with few plans.
His wife, who had worked in the restaurant industry in Minneapolis, knew Steven Brown. And Brown said to Simpson, you've got to meet Jörg.
Patience pays off
When first approached, the brothers whose family owned the Raymond Avenue storefront weren't interested in selling. But time passed, and soon new developments sprouted up around the neighborhood. The bank parking lot nearby became one of many new apartment and condo complexes. Meanwhile, the former Herbst grocery store remained vacant until there were shifts behind the scenes and patience finally paid off for the Pierachs.
"The deal got done," said Jörg. That was September 2019.
With the parcel of land came three properties: the grocery store, an alley and the former storefront of a little vintage shop. The pieces to finally open the farm-fresh restaurant of their dreams were falling into place.
"We had looked at this space years ago," Jörg said, gesturing at the almost unrecognizable grocery store. Thanks to the industrious designs of Abby Jensen, a principal at the Minneapolis firm JDD Studio, the soaring dining room has weathered exposed beams, hand-placed glass flowers in a massive chandelier hanging over the bar, and regal velvet backing the booths. Eclectic local art, from both art students and established painters, dot the walls. Wall sconces sport hand-woven yarn lampshades. It's a thoughtful mix of modern and country rustic.
Taking a cue from the ingredients
The Pierachs had met with other talent, but no one else grabbed onto their vision the same way Simpson did. "I asked him," said Jörg, "how do you feel about a burger?"
Simpson's face was pained. The reality of the pandemic times is that most diners were seeking comfort in smashburgers, gloopy pastas, fried chicken sandwiches and other dishes that pair well with doomscrolling. His menu at Herbst will stand in contrast, brimming with the optimism of spring, without the constraint of a specific cuisine.
"I don't know if it's obvious looking at me," said Simpson, who sports a neck tattoo and two sleeves of skin art, "I don't love rules. When those rules exist, you're inherently limiting yourself and I don't think that's fair to the farmers.
"Like, that's Levi's lamb," he said, pointing to a fist-thick cut of meat on the grill. "[Levi] is such a lovely human being and that lamb is just staggeringly beautiful. There was all that hard work to get the lamb from the farm to here. The first time it came in was like unwrapping Christmas morning. It's an exciting discovery every time something comes in that back door because it's not the norm as far as quality, the experience, and the overall relationship with the farmers.
"We're letting the ingredients be our North Star."
The menu won't change daily, but it will change often. Initial dishes include Levi's lamb, served with radicchio and hickory-nut pesto — the most expensive item on the menu at $35. Snacks like a freshly made ricotta on hearty toast with marinated chiles, roasted garlic, dried apricot and basil is $11; blistered snap peas are $14, and a verdant bowl of lumache dressed in pesto with lamb sausage is $25.
Like many other upper-tier restaurants, Herbst is adding a 21% service charge, but they will not accept tips above it — no ending the evening with muddled math.
"We've got an opportunity for a new generation to hopefully come in hungry for experience, and we get to teach and mold them," said Jörg. The service fee allows for more egalitarian pay. "There is no front of house vs. back of house. We are one Herbst."
The restaurant brought in beverage experts Berit Johnson and sommelier Sarina Garibović of Ženska Glava. Johnson's cocktails take advantage of seasonal herbs and some of the newest spirits and products on the menu. Drinks are categorized by flavors, not strength, and there are just as many exciting low-proof and zero-proof options as there are full-octane cocktails.
The wines are largely pulled from small producers, but Garibović was eager to show off Herbst's Madeira lineup that will be divine sipping post-meal on the restaurant's back patio.
Since the property was three parcels, there's more to Herbst than the restaurant. And every item inside has been carefully selected with exacting purpose for the restaurant that's already generating buzz and racking up reservations.
Guests will enter through what was a little brick alleyway, under a small neon-red heart, and either go into the dining room, out to the patio or to the right, where a small farm stand will sell produce of the moment, art and a few special gift items, like stoneware plates and bowls from local maker Kevin Caufield.
The storefront will also host special dinners and large parties — occasions that may warrant one of the magnums of wine on the wine list.
For all that time spent at home, holding our breath wondering what will happen next in the hospitality industry, Herbst is ready to show what happens when you stop waiting.
Herbst Eatery & Farm Stand
Where: 779 Raymond Av., St. Paul, 651-340-0254, herbstsaintpaul.com
Hours: Open 5-10 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 5 p.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat.
Getting there: Parking is on-street only.
Mobility access: Zero steps; the restaurant is all on one level.