Carving Out a Piece of Their Own: The Nicollet Diner…and a Muffin Top?
Sam Turner and his partner Dion Coker burst onto the dining scene last spring with Muffin Top Café, an establishment that identifies as a GLBTQ coffee house. Some have even joked that it’s a “straight friendly” coffee house. But the café wasn’t in their original plans. Rather, it sort of fell into their laps. When the two men decided to open a food or coffee business, they had not committed to a type. The location they originally looked at would have been ideal to redevelop as one-third coffee shop and two-thirds restaurant, but they were unable to agree on terms with the landlord.
“When we found our current location, we felt it was best suited for a diner so began developing it as The Nicollet Diner,” Sam says. The Nicollet Diner, which the two recently opened this fall, operated as their initial goal, with the coffee shop next door running under different ownership until earlier this year when the opportunity for the two men to gain control came about.
Situated just around the corner from the 19 Bar, a Minneapolis GLBT nightlife icon, the duo saw it as a perfect opportunity. “We are both big coffee fanatics and miss the days of Vera’s Café, Café Wyrd, and Café Zev,” Sam explains. “We felt like Minneapolis, and in particular the Loring Park area, would be ideal for an LGBTQ-centric coffee house, so we could not let the opportunity pass us by. We quickly agreed to take it on and rebranded it as Muffin Top Café.”
With bakery items baked in-house and coffee features like a White Lightning (a super-caffeinated white mocha), it’s no wonder that people have been flocking to the café, making Sam’s dreams of owning a restaurant a reality. Both Dion and Sam grew up working in restaurants, and (by a matter of fate) ended up working at the same technology company as adults. Dion, with a career in finance and accounting, and Sam, working in operations, harmoniously combine their talents. While maintaining their positions in their corporate jobs, their skills carry over into their own ventures, helping to separate each other’s roles and responsibilities. And with an employer who is supportive, offering them the flexibility to pursue their restaurant dreams, the two have it made.
“We love our current jobs and employer but wanted something more,” Sam says. “We wanted to build something together that we could call our own and fit in with our experience and background. With the support of our family, friends, the neighborhood, and the LGBTQ community, we were able to make what was once only a dream into a reality.”
With the added surprise of the Muffin Top property, Sam and Dion worked quickly to turnover the property and open it as the coffee shop the neighborhood has come to love. “While we have worked to make it a community coffee house for all,” Sam says, “we make ourselves available for LGBTQ groups that need a meeting space and strive to be a safe, comfortable, accepting space where all—especially those who identify as LGBTQ—can feel welcome and find a sense of community. We also try to find programming and events that appeal to the LGBTQ community.” The programming he speaks of certainly runs the gamut in terms of variety. Just this past month, Muffin Top hosted a screening of the film Fagbug Nation, which takes viewers behind the wheel of what it’s like to drive the once vandalized, now famous “Fagbug” car.
On the other hand, the newest addition to their plate, The Nicollet Diner, won’t necessarily have programming or entertainment events like you will find at Muffin Top Café; although there is space available for private events or large parties and the diner is certainly open to hosting many groups or organizations, GLBTQ or otherwise.
When planning for the concept of the restaurant, Sam and Dion instantly felt breakfast, burgers, fries, and shakes was the ideal concept and fit for the space and area, and felt like it was within their abilities. This is an entirely different concept than the adjacent Muffin Top. While The Nicollet Diner is a neighborhood eatery with the goal of being approachable by all and a neighborhood staple with a full made-to-order menu, Muffin Top Café is really more of a community coffee house that caters to the GLBTQ clientele and their allies, offering a limited snacks and tapas menu, and muffin tops (of course).
Bringing on Chef Anthony “Gonzo” Ledo to head up the diner’s kitchen, the pair couldn’t be any more excited about the new menu. Making everything from scratch when it is realistic to do so, the items offered at The Nicollet Diner won’t be found anywhere else. Sam says, “My favorite so far is the Hot Meatloaf sandwich or the Corned Beef Hash while Dion’s is the Dion Omelete (of course) or the open-faced Hot Turkey. Dion is still undecided on his favorite malt, but I live for the hot fudge Oreo with a shot of vanilla!” The crowd favorite so far seems to be the burgers: fresh, never frozen, hand pattied burgers grilled to perfection on a flat top.
Sam and Dion thank the community for their continued success in their personal venture. As a small “Pop & Pop” shop, they credit the growing support from the neighborhood and community at large as their biggest support system. “Identifying as gay ourselves has had a slightly bigger effect on the diner than we anticipated,” Sam says. “As progressive as Minneapolis is, we figured we would be welcomed to the neighborhood by its residents and absolutely have been. We did not really think that how we identify ourselves personally would play into our business but the outpouring of support from the community has shown they support us and want to see us succeed.
“What we have found even in our first week is that a lot of our clientele is part of the LGBTQ community and come out in support of us as well as in support of it as an LGBTQ-owned business. We have a fantastically tight-knit and supportive LGBTQ community in Minneapolis and their support thus far has been nothing short of absolutely remarkable.”
The Nicollet Diner
1428 Nicollet Ave