"This is a good example of what Indigenous resiliency looks like," Owamni co-owner Dana Thompson said after listing off all the challenges of preparing to reopen the restaurant after an electrical fire.
On the afternoon of April 5, the restaurant in Minneapolis' Water Works Park experienced a power surge; Thompson said she then could smell electrical wires burning. "As the evacuation began, the building filled with smoke." Something had happened to the park's main circuit breaker, located below the restaurant. It was completely destroyed.
The fire was quickly contained, and the majority of the restaurant wasn't damaged. But the main breaker needed to be replaced, and Thompson said the lead time on a new one is anywhere from 12 to 24 months. Engineers have had to devise a way to build one while they wait.
"Once that breaker is functioning, and all of the utilities are tested, we'll have 72 hours to get up and running," said Thompson, which should happen by early summer.
In the meantime, there have been countless details, small and large, to attend to as Thompson and the Owamni team prepare to get one of the most prominent restaurants in the country back on its feet. That involves working with insurance companies, engineers, the Park Board, Xcel Energy and Owamni's leadership and staff.
Once they're able to get back into the building, the first order of business will be to scrub down every surface and sanitize and wash every single plate and pan. Next, all of the dry and perishable goods will have to be ordered, stocked and prepped; months without power meant all of the food had to be removed. Anything salvageable was donated. The restaurant was poised to launch its spring menu, under executive chef Lee Garman; staff will need to train on the new menu, too. It is work that doesn't happen quickly.
"All of our the zero-proof drinks have to be made, those have to steep and that takes time," Thompson said. "Then, there's all of the bagging of the teas, which are done by hand."
Working through the mental gymnastics necessary to reopen Owamni, it's the staff concerns that weighs heaviest on Thompson.
"People travel from all over — they fly in — just to dine here or hold their events in our event space," said Thompson. What makes the Owamni experience so distinctive is the people in it, many of whom are Native American. To have the restaurant go dark, it's not just the closure of a small business, but a loss of a community touchstone for many.
"Most people who had reservations have been understanding, but their hearts are broken," said Thompson. To lose even one staff member is to lose a piece of what the restaurant is: a place that provides grounding for Native community.
Thompson and chef Sean Sherman's Owamni is the full-service extension of the Sioux Chef, their catering business that gained prominence for its use of and advocacy for pre-colonial ingredients. That means no flour, no dairy, no refined sugar, and plenty of seasonally harvested and preserved goods that work with the land.
The restaurant opened in the summer of 2021 as the centerpiece of the $24 million Water Works Park along the Mississippi River. That year it was selected as the Star Tribune's Restaurant of the Year, and the accolades haven't stopped.
In 2022, Owamni won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in the country, the first time a Minnesota restaurant received that honor. This year, Sherman was recognized as one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People for 2023.
Now, at the restaurant, there are a lot of people working to ensure that the lights do, safely, come back on soon.
"I'm really excited to move on from here," Thompson said. "We will come back even better than ever."