“Setting Splendid Tables for 30 Years in Milton Square”
by Dave Healy
How do you start a restaurant that’s going to last for 30 years? If you’re Pete Mihajlov and Phil Roberts, you do it by accident.
The two men, who met in college and worked together in a shoe store, founded Muffuletta in 1977 after making a light-hearted bid on the property at 2260 Como Avenue.
“Our worst fears were realized,” said Mihajlov. “The guy took our offer.”
Thirty years later, he and Roberts are still pinching themselves while putting the finishing touches on a new lease that will keep them at the corner of Como and Carter for at least another 20 years.
Much has changed since Mihajlov and Roberts bought the Lamplighter Inn in May 1977. They started by installing a new kitchen and updating the rest of the building. Two rooms have been added over the years, as well as a front deck that has becoming more popular than indoor seating during the summer.
What began as a hobby for two guys with full-time jobs outside the restaurant business eventually became what Mihajlov calls “a lifestyle.” And what started with a single establishment became a company called Parasole Restaurant Holdings, which operates seven other restaurants in the Twin cities and will open a new one in Maple Grove this month.
As with any business, there have been a few bumps along the way. Mihajlov and Roberts decided early on that they wanted to serve wine at Muffuletta. That meant getting a liquor license, which meant a complicated application process culminating in a public hearing.
“Phil and I showed up at City Hall for what we thought would be a routine meeting,” said Mihajlov. “It was standing room only and people were not happy. Apparently, a rumor had been circulating that we also owned the Payne Reliever and were planning to turn Muffuletta into a nightclub.”
After mending fences and working with City Council Member Ann Wynia, the two men got their license. They had learned an important lesson: Go to the neighbors first. It was a lesson they would have to relearn a few years later, Mihajlov said.
“We went to California and met Wolfgang Puck,” he said. “We got all excited about what he was doing with food, and we came back and changed our menu. Our business fell off by about 30 percent. We were a little ahead of the curve and a little ahead of our own customers.”
The key to success in the restaurant business, said Mihajlov, is an artful blend of continuity and flexibility.
At Muffuletta, continuity is evident in the longevity of some key employees and in the sacrosanct status of the restaurant’s beer cheese soup and signature sandwich, a combination of ham, sausage, salami, provolone and olive relish.
Flexibility shows up in current executive chef J.D. Fratzke’s commitment to using local ingredients, which means buying and preparing what’s in season. Fratzke, who’s been at Muffuletta since 2003, said he wants people who eat there to think “Home.”
“We try to use ingredients from this region whenever possible,” he said, “and to reflect the fact that people who call this area home represent increasing ethnic diversity. So it might mean buying pork that was locally raised and rubbing it with Chinese spices, then serving it with bok choy.”
Muffuletta began as a local restaurant and has retained that character, said Mihajlov, even as it has become a destination from all over the metro area.
“I think the people who live in this neighborhood feel like this is their restaurant,” he said. “And we in turn feel a responsibility to this community, to keep making Muffuletta a place they want to come to.”
Cooking for the locals is a challenge Fratzke finds invigorating.
“People in this neighborhood have had so many interesting culinary experiences,” he said. “They’re always stopping me to talk about a great dish they had on a recent trip.”
Fratzke said these are exciting times to be working in an eclectic neighborhood café where the owners give the kitchen staff freedom to be creative.
“People’s tastes keep expanding,” he said. “My three-year-old daughter will grow up with coconut curry as comfort food.”
And despite the fact that the lifespan of most eating establishments is not measured in decades, Mihajlov is upbeat about the restaurant business.
“This business is unique,” he said. “We take in raw materials and crate a product. Then we sell that product to customers and they consume it right here. So we have production, retail and consumption under one roof. That gives us a tremendous opportunity to influence the experience our guests have and to get their feedback on what kind of job we’re doing.”
A successful neighborhood restaurant depends on regular customers. Some of the best prospects are people who work in the area. Dr. Paul Kirkegaard, of St. Anthony Park Dental Care, just a half-block west of Muffuletta, has lunch there regularly.
“When I describe Muffuletta to someone who hasn’t been there, I always find myself talking about the people,” he said. “They have great food, of course, but it’s more than that. They create such a friendly and inviting environment. Over the years, throughout changes in personnel, that quality has stayed the same.”