Rescuing restaurant dreams from the rubble:

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March 5, 2002 // UPDATED 1:15 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Before Sapor restaurant opened at 428 N. Washington Ave., the city of Minneapolis warned co-owners Julie Steenerson and Tanya Siebenaler that construction on a new streetscape would tear their main thoroughfare apart. However, the two weren't prepared for the effect that would have on their fledgling business.

"This street was like a ghost town," Steenerson said. "That was more devastating than we ever could have imagined."

Washington Avenue re-opened in December and business is slowly starting to rebound. "It still could be busier," Siebenaler said. "Early in the week, it's hit or miss. Last Monday we had three people for dinner. You just don't know what to expect."

Steernerson and Siebenaler have survived thanks to yin-yang partnership that's a big reason they've weather the storm of opening a restaurant while their front door looked out on rubble.

During a visit to the North Loop restaurant patrons will probably see Steenerson bustling around the dining room, meeting, greeting and grinning. "I just have a passion for people," she says.

Behind the scenes, in the kitchen, Siebenaler is the person with the passion for food. She is executive chef, partner -- and complement to her partner.

"I'm a really patient person, and Julie is not patient," Siebenaler says while Steenerson nods her head in agreement. Looking at her partner, Siebenaler, "You're aggressive where I'm not. Where I'm weak, you're strong."

Each a missing part for the other This unlikely duo came together four years ago. Steenerson was chafing under the yoke of corporate America and dreaming of owning her own restaurant. The only thing she lacked was a plan, a location, staff and the expertise. Meanwhile, Siebenaler was working as a sous chef at Lucia's Restaurant and Wine Bar in Uptown, yearning to stretch her culinary wings.

To jumpstart on her dream, Steenerson went back to school at the University of St. Thomas to earn her

master's degree in business. And she paid a visit to Lucia's owner Lucia Watson.

Steenerson intended to pick Watson's brain on how to start a restaurant, but Watson recommended that Steenerson come work for her and learn the

business firsthand.

Steenerson agreed to come aboard at Lucia's, and there she met Siebenaler.

"I wasn't really planning on being part of her restaurant thing," Siebenaler said. "But we figured we'd be a really good fit."

According to Steenerson, "Tanya was the missing part of my business plan -- someone to cook the food," Steenerson said. So, four years ago the partnership came together and the restaurant has now been open for about 18 months.

"It was kind of a crazy ride just trying to pull everything together," Steenerson said. "We didn't know how to find a space ... We had to learn how to work with the city ... There were all these different interests we had to address ... We had to have tables built ... We had to choose the colors ... Then we had to be approved for a liquor license."

And after all that work, on opening night, Steenerson and Siebenaler didn't know if anyone would even show up. But they did show; the owners worked out the kinks in their machinery; and customers started to come regularly.

Sapor features food from all over the globe, but chef Siebenaler is quick to add that their menu is not a fusion menu. She doesn't mix cultures on her plates. Popular dishes include the miso-baked salmon with wasabi potato cake, gingered vegetables and peanuts. Siebenaler also serves more "American" meals, such as grilled dry-aged ribeye with Sapor steak sauce and au gratin potatoes. Lunch entrees typically range from $8.25 to $11.25 and dinner entrees cost up to $25.

"We had our biggest months last January and February, and boom -- construction," Steenerson said.

No option for failure Business is slowly returning, but ironically, since the restaurant is not yet busy enough, Siebenaler and Steenerson have to work more than they would if the restaurant was more packed. They explained that they could hire another staff member to take over some duties if they had more customers.

"Sometimes I feel like, 'Are we going to make it?' But there's no option for failure," Siebenaler said. "We'll survive this lull and realize our dream to be a very busy restaurant."

So they each work at least 60 hours a week, leaving little time for a life. This is especially hard for Siebenaler's eight-year-old son Jerick. When Sapor first got going, Siebenaler only saw her son on Sundays when the restaurant was closed. Now she sees him more, and the restaurant is like a home to him.

"He calls it his restaurant. He's grown to be almost a part of the staff," Siebenaler said.

Steenerson added, "He's a great marketer. I think most of his teachers have dined here."

Neither woman has much time for a social life, so they do their socializing at work. "Most of my friends who want to see me come here," Steenerson said.

Neighborhood involvement And Steenerson is trying to expand her social horizons and ties to the community by joining the North Loop Neighborhood Association, of which she is a board member. One reason Steenerson is excited to be a member of the neighborhood association is that she'll be able to talk about something other than restaurants. "There are very few restaurant people in the group," she said.

But overall, the majority of the women's time is spent at Sapor, which they say is a great place to be.

"We actually all get along here," Siebenaler said. "Going to work is kind of a social outlet."

But even with a fun work environment, Siebenaler and Steenerson do tire of each other's

company.

"Sometimes we get into it good," Steenerson said. "We do get sick of each other."

"We argue and you'd think we'd never talk to each other again," Siebenaler said. "Then the next minute we're laughing."

Said Steenerson, "We just keep things open and forthright."