The tiny Elliot Park diner has seen gangsters and stars in its 63-year history, and a renovation may make it glitter yet again
From the outside, the Band Box diner shows signs of weathering, with its worn-out red exterior, murky windows and faded Coca Cola sign atop the roof.
Even the inside shows signs of degeneration, with beat-up furniture and a decaying floor. The 400-square-foot diner on the corner of South 10th and East 14th streets allows barely enough room for 14 customers to sit down.
But the condition of the 63-year-old Elliot Park landmark has not hindered customers who frequently stop by to chow down on its greasy, yet satisfying, food.
"People can't believe a place like this exists anymore -- a small place where they just memorize your order and where you are forced to sit down and talk to strangers in one big room," said co-owner and cook Brad Ptacek.
At times, the entire diner becomes the setting for one big conversation about Minnesota politics, current events or even car troubles.
"Everybody's represented here," said Ptacek, who can be found tending the grill, making burgers and breakfasts Monday through Saturday. "You got a multimillionaire who owns a construction company sitting next to a trash man, sitting next to a cross-dresser, sitting next to a Native American artist, sitting next to a white woman who works at the hospital, sitting next to a cab driver. We treat everybody fairly and equally no matter what color you are, no matter how you're dressed. Because of that, we get the respect of the neighborhood."
Now, thanks to an ongoing renovation, the Band Box may become as easy on the eyes as the taste buds.
The renovation will double the restaurant's size, to roughly 30 chairs or stools. Nearly everything from the furniture to the outside paneling will be replaced, while still retaining the building's modular design and red-and-white decor.
Ptacek, 37, hopes a remodeled Band Box will increase its appeal beyond the regulars. "It will be one of the first positive, visible changes in the neighborhood," Ptacek said.
Neighborhood officials agree -- and backed $110,000 of a $190,000 low-interest loan to make the renovation happen. Elliot Park Neighborhood, Inc. Executive Director Tom Reid said the bigger Band Box "fits into the master plan vision for that section of the neighborhood as a commercial node. The renovation will build momentum for that to actually happen."
From gangsters to regulars
The Band Box opened in Elliot Park in 1939, serving customers including gangsters and big band musicians. The restaurant quickly grew to a chain of 14, but through the 1950s its numbers dwindled slowly until 1972, when the original 10th Street building became the only one left standing.
Band Box loyalists are a tight bunch. Robin Kyle, 25, started out as a regular Band Box customer and for the past two years has worked as a server. He considers this the best job he has ever had -- mostly because of the interactive customers.
"It feels nice to be part of a community and feel like your job is not just work, but hanging out with people you care about," Kyle said.
Three to four times a week, Bob Ritter, 49, visits the Band Box as a refuge away from his life at Andrews Residence, 1215 S. 9th St., a home for people recovering from mental illnesses. "Everybody gets along, and the regulars know each other fairly well," Ritter said. "And I can always bum a cigarette."
Tony Hurens, 71, has lived in Elliot Park for a quarter-century and has frequented the Band Box almost the entire time. He likes being able to order a cheap, good-tasting burger.
"I like coming in and meeting with people I've been knowing for 25 years. The people are down to earth," he said.
For a few weeks this winter, the regulars will have to find a new haunt; starting in late December, the Band Box will close for about a month as the existing building receives a complete overhaul.
After that, Ptacek wants to keep the restaurant functioning as the renovation and rebuilding continues. The diner will open in early 2003 before its paint job is finished. When the weather is warm enough, Ptacek will host a grand opening.
Ptacek hopes to add about four employees, especially another cook. After the renovation, the diner will be open seven days a week for breakfast and lunch, and may eventually open for dinner.
With additional cooking equipment, new menu options will appear beside the hamburgers and breakfast foods. Ptacek is planning on a more diner-esque flavor, with mashed potatoes, soups, biscuits and gravy, and food plate specials.
Like any growing entrepreneur, Ptacek has high hopes, encouraged by experience. Business was slow when he first started cooking, but over the years has increased to a steady rate.
Prospects are strong enough that the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, Western Bank joined EPNI in backing the 10-year loan. If the Band Box is sold before the sixth year, the owners must pay off EPNI's $110,000. If there is no ownership change, the amount decreases 20 percent per year and is completely forgiven 10 years after the closing. The MCDA and bank loans are not forgivable. Band Box owners are putting $20,000 into the renovation.
The public role
EPNI set aside its money in 1997 from its Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) grant from the city. When Ptacek joined co-owner Orin Johnson in 1998, they began the process of accessing those funds. However, it has taken several years for Ptacek to receive the money.
Ptacek said he has still not been given a straight answer for the delay.
"I was expecting it to be renovated a long time ago, but it just took time. I don't know why," he said.
EPNI felt it was "necessary to focus resources on projects that were already moving forward, such as the East Village Development," said Executive Director Tom Reid. He added that EPNI experienced staff and board turnover around 1998, but "the organization has now matured to where it can effectively manage multiple projects at one time."
Regardless, Ptacek wants to bury any hard feelings toward EPNI and move forward with the renovation project.
"The people that we have on EPNI now are people who live in the neighborhood and people who moved up the ranks," he said. "This year's group is the one who pushed this thing through. Prior to that, the support really wasn't there as much."
Ptacek said he is committed to running the business for the next 10 years, hoping that the renovated Band Box will attract enough customers to pay the bills.