Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer played across the street at Cretin-Derham High School and Korte’s local supermarket is just down the block. Schmidty’s, a neighborhood barbershop, sits on the nearby corner. Located just off the intersection of Hamline and Randolph Ave. The Nook is cozy and unassuming, seamlessly incorporated into the grounded feel of the neighborhood. The exterior facade is simple brickwork with a green awning overhang. Inside, the space is compact and warm. Casually mounted family photos and vintage memorabilia are humble expressions of the ‘hole-in-the-wall’ feel. The operational 1950s bowling lanes in the downstairs area of the restaurant also contribute nostalgic feelings of an Americana era half a century old.
In October of 2000, Teddy Casper and Mike Runyon bought The Nook. Their shared exposure to the food industry and a foundation built on humility, work ethic and sense of community provided the platform for a successful business operation. For generations Casper’s family had owned a restaurant in St. Paul and Eagan before transitioning to a place in Woodbury. Both men also had extensive experience in the restaurant business, eventually working their way up the industry ladder.
“Ted and I both worked in restaurants since we were thirteen years old,” Runyon said. “Starting as probably just a host or a bus boy and working our way up through management. It’s just been part of our blood. We love it, still to this day.”
Ultimately undecided futures, strong family connections, and serendipitous timing coalesced for Caspar and Runyon to look at the Nook as a serious career opportunity. Under steady ownership between the 1960s and mid-1990s, the Nook experienced some degree of turnover in the latter half of the 1990s. A few owners came and went, exchanging some success while creating a somewhat fluid interregnum in the process. Caspar and Runyon, with family support, approached and offered to buy the Nook. They were 20 at the time.
Before The Nook opened as a restaurant in 1938, it was a gas station. Before that, it was a carriage house that held horses. From the 1960s through the 1990s The Nook was owned by a woman named Mickey, a local neighborhood icon and aid for whom Runyon credits much of the initial, if not enduring, success of the business.
“When we took the place over, we invited Mickey to come back and teach us how to do it. She was a real animated lady, and cared about how we wanted to do it,” Runyon said. “And she used to hit us with the spatula and tell us we were burning the shit out of the burgers.”
“To tell you the truth, when we took it over we were only netting about $56 bucks a day. And she kinda turned the place around with us a little bit,” said Runyon. “It was nice kinda working with the age of the past, and sitting down with an eighty year old and having a burger with her, kind of reminiscing over the stories. It’s a fun part of the story. We are able to kind of keep that motion going.”
The Nook and the surrounding community are connected. Casper and Runyon grew up going to The Nook with their fathers, who were also best friends from their days at Cretin-Derham Hall High School, across the street. Caspar and Runyon also went to Cretin-Derham, and after opening The Nook fifteen years ago the pair has witnessed a whole generation of families grow and children mature.
“I remember kids that were five years old are now sitting at my bar and having a beer,” Runyon said. “And I can remember them and the families coming in and celebrating the birth of their kids. We get to watch their kids grow up.”
Caspar and Runyon also make a point of reaching out to neighborhood schools and church groups and donate when possible. Macalester and Hamline student patronage is strong, especially for dollar beers on Thursday nights, while St. Kate’s and St. Thomas lag behind. And yet a sense of community is fostered not only through generations of familiar faces and local neighbors. The Nook’s approach to their staff is equally philanthropic. Following a fire in 2010 Caspar and Runyon took the money they received from business interruption insurance and paid all of their employees to stick around. Shamrocks, a beer and burger joint on West Seventh St. that is also owned by Caspar and Runyon opened its doors to Nook employees looking for work hours.
Community is huge. It’s in Caspar and Runyon’s blood as much as in the brick of The Nook itself. They are made up of a refreshing sensibility and humility stirred with bacon, grease, burgers, and fries. One patron even remarked that she “died and went to heaven” after eating a burger. The food is welcoming, just like the door.
Runyon sees The Nook as a huge success, and nowhere is this more evident than the numerous media spots that have visited The Nook over the past decade and a half. In the early 2000s The Nook was voted as one of the 10 best restaurants in the Twin Cities and Andrew Zimmern, a Minnesota native and celebrity chef, was one of the first to give the Nook a plug. In 2007 the Nook was featured on Food Networks Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives with celebrity personality Guy Fieri. Fieri would return to tape another show in 2011 as a gesture of sympathy and support following the restaurant’s fire. In 2012 the Travel Channel spotlighted The Nook on its program Food Paradise.
“It kind of puts you on the map a little bit, so the response has been overwhelming,” Runyon said. “We get a lot of people in here from out of state, even [people] overseas have seen it.” Thankfully ticket times have remained manageable and relationships with food distributors evolving but healthy. The Nook used to contract with PJ’s Bakery — a local business just a few blocks away—for hamburger buns. “It’s a wonderful bakery,” Runyon said, “but we just outgrew them. We hit another market where all of a sudden in 2007 we opened up Shamrocks again and because of the show we got bombarded with people.”
Upper-Midwest ranches supply The Nook’s certified ground chuck beef. In the grand scheme of food sourcing it’s relatively local, with producers in Iowa, the Dakotas, and Minnesota. Chuck is a higher quality cut, coming from the cows shoulder area, and is a relatively atypical choice for ground beef due to its higher price. The Nook has its own grind, or blend of ground beef and spices, as Runyon explains. “No one else in the world has it. And we get it fresh, all the time,” Runyon coninues.
“As for everything else, freshness is our practice. We kind of consider ourselves the holy trinity of the burger — fresh buns that come in daily, fresh meat, and then you have our fresh cut fries.”
Juicy Nookies (The Nook’s signature Juicy Lucy), the Nookie Supreme (two pound double-decker cheeseburger), and the Paul Molitor (Juicy Nookie stuffed with pepper jack cheese) seem to appear most in the Nook’s media spotlights. The Minnesota infatuation with stuffed burgers is highlighted, but not all-inclusive. There are brother and sister items, such as the Lodge Burger, a cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, and a chipotle mayo sauce, that constructs a savory-sweet dynamic with the Triple B, the same burger but with no lettuce or tomato and a sweet bourbon sauce.
“Teddy and I have always made our menus big,” Runyon said. Brother and sister combinations make up a part of their menu philosophy, along with standards such as chicken sandwiches and salad entrees. “You keep things wide open, you offer a lot. And you try to plan the best way you can.”
What appears and what does not appear on the menu is a calculated choice. But in the restaurant industry there are only two things you can directly control: labor and energy. “Everything else is a variable stance,” Runyon explains. “You can’t make people come in. You can’t control the weather and what’s going on outside. The only thing you can do is turn down the heat.” Risk is rife.
492 Hamline Ave S. (at the intersection with Randolph Ave.)
(651) 698 – 4347
Everyday: 11 a.m. – 2 a.m.
The Nook Happy Hour:
M – TR 3:00 – 6:00 | Friday 3:00 – 5:00 |
M – F 11:00 p.m. – 1:00 a.m. | Sat. 11:00a.m. – 4:00p.m.
The Nook Happy Hour Deals:
M – TR, Friday: ½ Price Apps & Domestic Pints
Late: $3 bottles, ½ Price Bowling
Sat. $2.50 Mimosas, $4.00 Sake Bloody Marys
Bowling Specials (Identified Best Deals):
Tuesday, 7:00 – 10:00 p.m.: All you can bowl ($10)
Friday, 11:00 p.m. to close: $1 High Life while bowling