With walls of windows opening onto Lake Minnetonka, this restaurant features an open kitchen with a wood-fired grill and smoker, a marble oyster bar and a 28-foot liquor bar.
CōV restaurant.Dining at a restaurant with giant windows opening to views of Lake Minnetonka in upscale Wayzata, Minn., is a welcome experience. The incredible view of this 14,528-acre inland lake in the western part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is the reason why Dean Vlahos selected this site for
As Vlahos knows very well, “location, location, location” is a primary element for a restaurant’s success. Vlahos’ former ventures include creating and founding national restaurant chains Champps Americana and the Minnesota-based Redstone American Grill, and local restaurant BLVD Kitchen and Bar.
“We wanted to bring the outside into a beautiful space where customers can enjoy the view and also see the food preparation and cooking while they dine,” Vlahos says. Equipment such as a wood-fired grill and a smoker as well as a full-service bar and an oyster bar with surrounding seats contribute to the eatertainment this facility generates. In summer months, guests can dine on a 2,000-square-foot deck overlooking the water.
Fresh and clean represent two key attributes of the interior design’s motif. “The restaurant and bar combine Midwest comfort and hospitality with the unmistakable allure and energy of Nantucket or the Hamptons,” Vlahos says.
“With the Minnesota climate, the challenge was to create a great connection with the outdoors and the lake, and to develop an indoor space that would be equally special in the winter months,” says David Shea, owner and creative principal of Shea Inc., the architects and co-interior designers for the project. “The solution was to provide large, operable windows that bring in tremendous outside light and open to the patio and the lake setting seasonally. In addition, our design platform was light and airy, with warm woods and accents, including a fireplace, to bring a great balance to a space that would be a great spot for lunch, dinner and drinks any time of year.”
“Dean and I traveled to the East Coast, visiting Boston, Nantucket and the New York Long Island Hamptons and brought back inspiration for the restaurant here,” says Jennifer Cashman of Jennifer Cashman Interior Design, who worked with Shea on the project.
The East Coast water–inspired lifestyle design features the warmth of a lighter wire-brushed oak wood floor contrasted with darker wood tabletops and chairs. White tiles and woods bring brightness and warmth to the bar and the dining room. “In the seating areas, a combination of fabrics with blue colors and stripes complement accents of warm, buttery leathers and vinyls in shades of brown and tan. Buckles on straps attach the pillows to booths,” Cashman says.
“All materials either have a recyclable content or can be recycled,” Shea says. “In addition, all lighting in the space is energy efficient.”
Renovating the restaurant space required ingenuity in many areas. “The prior owners had been in this space for 15 years,” Vlahos says. “When we started the demo process we found rock where the bar is, and we had to rebuild about 30 percent of the flooring and had to update all the mechanicals. We also had to jackhammer the patio and replace it with hard teak wood.”
Another change dear to Vlahos’ heart is a new acoustical system. “We had to figure out how to properly put in the right acoustics in a room that has office suites above,” Vlahos says. “We didn’t want to hear them and didn’t want our noise to penetrate upstairs. I’ve built 100 restaurants, and this is the best for acoustics. If you don’t have the right acoustics, the sound is too loud, and you can’t hear the music.”
To produce the right acoustics, designers installed 12 inches of insulation above the ceiling. “The panels look like ripples across the ceiling, and they are filled with insulation,” Vlahos says. In addition, speakers sit every five feet so guests can hear the music everywhere in the dining space. Vlahos selects the music and keeps about 700 songs in his music library.
When conceiving the restaurant, Vlahos wanted the space to have an entirely different look than it had while previously operating as Sunsets restaurant. “Keeping existing ventilation and walls was challenging,” says Jim Hara, president of Premier Restaurant Equipment and Design Co., which provided the kitchen design and served as equipment dealer. “The enclosed kitchen built in the 1980s had to be opened up and reconfigured so it could be visible to guests. The bar is now in the front of the restaurant.”
The restaurant’s size and its position in a building with tenants atop presented another challenge. “We put in as much high-powered equipment as we could without adding ventilation, so we went inch by inch along the line to get maximum capability in a small amount of space,” Hara says.
Designers also added a larger cooler, placed remote compressors in a basement crawl space and added a larger ice machine for regular service and the oyster bar.
“We spent a lot of time configuring the flow of the food through the restaurant, so the waitstaff never leaves the dining room and is able to get everything they need while also seeing the guests and what service is needed within the restaurant,” Hara says.
Before the kitchen was designed and equipment was specified, Vlahos and the chefs selected the menu, though about 30 percent of the menu has changed or been altered since the restaurant’s opening, which is common in a new restaurant. The changes didn’t affect the equipment package.
Staff meet delivery trucks at the dock and transport food from the back door into one of three walk-in coolers — one for dairy and produce, one for meats, fish and seafood, and one for prepped items. A two-door reach-in freezer holds ice cream and gelato. Dry storage holds other products.
“The cooler for meats, fish and seafood includes a prep table and hand sink, so we can cut the fish right here,” says Clay Gibbins, executive chef. Culinary staff stay in the cooler for a few minutes to prep the fish and then walk out into ambient rooms to warm up before re-entering. “Actually, the cooler seems warm in the winter when the temperatures outside are 20 degrees below zero,” he adds.
In the prep kitchen, staff make marinara and other sauces, soups such as clam chowder, and balsamic reduction in the 10-gallon tilting steam kettle. On the back line, they use a French fry cutter to prepare potatoes for the deep-fat fryer, which also cooks potato chips and tortilla chips. The back line also includes a six-burner range for making sauces. A two-deck convection oven bakes cakes and crostinis, roasts beets and toasts nuts. A 40-quart mixer that staff use to make whipped potatoes sits in front as a showpiece between the Oyster Bar and expo line.
Also in the back, a large smoker is one of the chefs’ favorite pieces of equipment, which they use for flavoring prime rib, salmon, ribs and chicken wings. “We’re using hickory wood because it has the most distinct flavor,” Clay says. “We use soaked chips so they don’t burn up quickly.”
Configuring the exhaust hoods — one on the back line and another on the front line — presented challenges for Hara and his team. “We had low clearances, so we had to route the ventilation and ducting into low ceilings and weave it horizontally through the building,” he says.
One of the unique features Hara designed into the kitchen is a walkway from the back line to the front line. “We placed a doorway from the back to the front so the staff has more access to prep cooking areas and ingredients,” he says. “They can walk to other prep areas rather than passing by other staff members to get to another station. This also gave them the ability to use some of the prep cooking for à la carte cooking during peak business times.”
On the front cookline, staff cook vegetables and wild rice in a pressureless, 10-pan steamer. They use another deep-fat fryer to cook walleye and fries to order, calamari, shrimp for the shrimp roll, Brussels sprouts, tempura broccoli and fish for the fish taco and a griddle to cook burgers and crab cake sliders as well as pancakes and French toast for brunch. Two salamander broilers keep food warm, broil menu items, toast sandwiches and melt cheese.
On the pair of ranges, a 4-burner range with a 12-inch griddle and a 6-burner range with a convection oven base, staff heat sauces and prepare everything for the sauté station, including pastas and pan-seared fish. Staff prepare flatbread pizzas in the convection oven here.
Further along the line, another piece of equipment favored by the staff is the wood-fired grill, which measures three feet by three and a half feet. A supplier delivers wood for the grill once a week. The restaurant stores the wood in a lean-to canvas-enclosed space outside the restaurant. Staff bring in wood as needed and place it in a stainless steel encasement that sits inside the restaurant next to the wood-fired grill as a display so guests can see it front and center. “This adds even more interest to the kitchen,” says Vlahos.
“The trick is to keep the coals hot and feed the grill every 20 minutes,” says Zach Schugel, chef de cuisine. “Unlike a gas grill, for this we have to watch the hot spots. It’s almost an art form to keep the wood and coals the right way and know when to add more.”
Closer to the dining room, a service line that spans 30 feet supports staff as they assemble ingredients and menu items before waitstaff pick them up for delivery to guests. Chefs stand at the pass at the expo line to garnish dishes. The expo line holds 12 pans of various garnishes, including greens and sauces. “The food is about 80 percent done when it comes to the pass where the chef and an assistant chef finish the flavor profile right there on the line, including squeezing lemon on the walleye,” Vlahos says. “They also make sure the presentation is beautiful yet casual. The dishes are next inspected by managers and staff, so they go through three sets of eyes before the dishes go to the customer. We’re 99 percent accurate.”
Also in the restaurant, a striking oyster bar allows customers to sit and watch staff shuck oysters and order shrimp, steak tartare and other items from the restaurant’s menu. Seafood sits on crushed ice produced from a machine in the back of the house. The ice machine also produces cubed ice for beverages. The oyster bar includes stainless steel cabinets, drop-in cold pans, undercounter refrigerators and counters with sinks.
For dishwashing, Hara says the positioning of the room is as close to the dining room as possible while remaining behind the scenes. The restaurant uses a conveyor dishmachine to wash serviceware and other wares.
The combination of location and high-quality food and service has attracted a much higher volume of customer traffic than Vlahos and his team expected. “We’re fine in the winter, but in the summer, we didn’t expect to be serving 1,600 people a day in less than 2,000 feet,” Vlahos says. “We’re very happy about this, but we’ve had to rethink our organization and production. We’re receiving daily deliveries for food and beer. This summer we may have to pare down the menu or produce certain items outside, but we don’t want to stifle the indoor grill production either. So we’re still working this out.”
“In the beginning, within a half day we were out of everything, and we’ve had to adjust the amount we produce to accommodate the customer volume,” Clay says. “During the first months of opening, everyone was working long hours. We’d be working so hard that we couldn’t even do the orders for the next day and had to rely on our supplier to place orders. We had two-hour waits. It was difficult to train and get the product at the same time in the beginning. But now, we’re caught up, and everyone knows the routine.” Prior to coming to CōV, Clay worked in large hotel kitchens and admits he is much more accustomed to working in large spaces. “This is one of the smallest and busiest kitchens I’ve ever worked in,” he adds.
Training remains a top priority. “We spent $250,000 in training before we opened,” Vlahos says. “We did four days of mock service for lunch and four for dinner. If you open unprepared, you are in big trouble.”
As Vlahos and the staff continue to gear up production to meet the demand, they are well aware of the need to provide high-quality food and service to customers who want to enjoy the beautiful lake view. “This is perhaps the most expensive zip code in the state of Minnesota, and the guests have high expectations,” Vlahos says. “We have a philosophy to buy the best possible products and not scrimp on anything to do with preparation and service,” he says. This philosophy is proving to be a success, which is why Vlahos is confident he will be able to introduce this restaurant as a national branded concept within the next five years. This ambitious venture is off to a good start.