Tiny Diner is anything but tiny. Sure, the inside of the restaurant has limited seating, but the execution of the vision is large. Kim Bartmann, a Minneapolis-based restauranteur has developed and implemented a “whole-system design” for her restaurant. Focusing on urban farming, renewable energy and efficient water use methods, Bartmann created a permaculture space – using the restaurant as a lesson for visitors on how to grow their own food and capture renewable energy while building long-term ecological success. Eco-design elements include:
- A solar paneled roof that generate 80% of the restaurant’s energy
- 3/4 acre off-site garden in South Minneapolis that produces 2,000 pounds of veggies annually
- Rooftop garden with honeybees and annual crops
- Cisterns to catch and store water onsite
- Polycultures in large plant containers to foster pollinator habitat and soil fertility
The “whole-system design” is the next generation of farm-to-table and restaurant sustainability. We had the chance to visit the Tiny Diner and learn about Bartmann’s process and discover the beauty of a self-sustained system that connects farming, food, and service.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your background and how did you decide to start into the restaurant business?
I moved to Minneapolis for my junior year of college after really enjoying a Chicago concert at Northrop Auditorium and a party I went to with some U of M rugby players! I quickly realized I’d need to work, and landed a job at a vegetarian restaurant as a cook— a short-lived job for me because even though I was the first cook they ever had that got tipped by the wait staff, I burned my hand and got fired for it. Kitchens are brutal places, but in the 80’s they were REALLY. BRUTAL. Anthony Bourdain was not kidding. After having vowed to never work in a kitchen again, and doing several other jobs, I ended up opening a coffee shop in 1991. Then, because of my love of beer and wanting to make wine more accessible to the average diner, I opened the Bryant Lake Bowl and Theater in 1993.
Each of your places has a unique personality. Why did you choose to open up multiple locations with non-linear identities?
I am a place-based designer, and personally I’m involved in different community activities. If a neighborhood is going to have a restaurant where everybody feels welcome, it has to feel as if it belongs there. So far I’ve made places because there was an empty building or a place that was begging to transform.
Describe how you go about executing a concept. Do you come ready with a restaurant concept and find a place for that restaurant to fit, or do you find a great space and then come up with a concept that would thrive within that.
Old buildings speak to me; I love the challenge of figuring out how to work within the existing space. I do have ‘concepts’ floating in my head at times, and would love the freedom to find places for them, but for the most part, it’s place first and then concept. That said, my places may all have very different personalities and menus, but they share core values— local, sustainable, options for different kinds of eaters and everybody is welcome. I want to have restaurants that FEED people in multiple ways, but food first.
What inspires you? What processes do you abide by and what do you learn as you go?
I am inspired by the many people I meet all the time who are doing great work, whether they be comedians, farmers, or architects. I’m inspired by beauty, by good food, and by what’s right. I like a collaborative process for the most part— but as a restaurateur, I’ve had to stubbornly stick to my ideas until they become obvious to others, too.
How does living in Minneapolis influence your work?
Minneapolis is an intelligent city; we’re the most highly educated and we’ve got the most theater seats per capita than any city in America. Minneapolis is growing, becoming more cosmopolitan, attracting people from all over the country. For the restaurant business, that’s good news because the bar continues to be raised on what’s good.
Tiny Diner has a solar paneled roof that generates 80% of the restaurant’s energy along with a rooftop garden providing a direct farm-to- table experience. Why are sustainable practices important to you and do you think they are applicable to city landscapes?
Sustainable practices are very important to me, and I’m always trying to do more. Just as I believe that everyone should feel welcome when they come through my doors, I believe humans all deserve clean air, water, and soil. The ways people eat and the way restaurants choose to purchase products affects those three things greatly. So, hopefully paying attention to where we get our food and how we build things helps improve our future and our children’s future.
What’s something new – or challenging – that you are currently working on?
We recently adopted a three and a half-year-old and her two-year-old brother. It couldn’t really get any more new or challenging for me! I’ve recently learned that even though we’ve always had kids menus, people haven’t thought I did enough to make the restaurants kid-friendly. Now, I see that – wow, it would be nice to have a step stool in here – and a bunch of other things like that. So I’m working on that, and working on teaching kids to go out to eat— it’s my job!
Any fun facts about the restaurant making process?
For me, there are too many to even wrap my head around that question… the LEED thing was fun because it had such a big impact; reducing lighting energy use by 90%, water use by 70%, etc… salvaging so many materials, which is a process I love. Each project I’ve done I’ve gotten to have fun with different materials either by doings things myself or with other artisans. Maybe it’s a fun fact that the restaurant process can actually be fun, even though mostly in this business you hear about all the difficulties.