MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — Restaurants have really struggled during the pandemic. While some Twin Cities restaurants have closed during COVID-19, a popular chef is moving forward with his plans to open one.
"I'm excited to be in this neighborhood," said Yia Vang, chef and owner of Vinai.
Vang recently signed the lease for his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, located at 1717 2nd Street NE in the Bottineau neighborhood.
Vinai—set to open in spring 2021—will be home to Vang's Hmong cooking.
"Hmong food isn't about a particular kind of produce or product. Hmong food, I believe, is an idea. It's not a particular way of thinking about food but it's more of a philosophy of food," Vang said.
Earlier this year, Vang raised nearly $97,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to help launch Vinai—named after the refugee camp in Thailand where Vang was born.
"This restaurant itself, Vinai, is a love letter to my mom and dad," Vang said.
While this will be Vang's first brick-and-mortar restaurant, he's already racked up quite a few accolades. Mpls.St.Paul Magazine named him "Chef of the Year 2019" and in City Pages' Best of the Twin Cities 2020, Vang received the "Best Chef" award. He's also received national attention for Union Hmong Kitchen. It started in 2016 as pop-ups at other restaurants. Then, Union Hmong Kitchen landed a residency in a food trailer outside Sociable Cider Werks in northeast.
Vinai will be in a building that originally housed Fleischmann's Malting. It was also used as office space and a ceramics place. Twin Cities chef Marshall Paulsen, formerly of Birchwood Cafe, has also joined the team in an operations role.
"We are kind of literally smack dab in the middle between Young Joni and Hai Hai who are really good friends of ours," Vang said. "I feel like that little brother who kind of squeezed into their area and said, 'Hey! Can I play too, guys?'"
Originally, Vinai was supposed to open in the late fall. But because of the pandemic, it got pushed to the spring. Construction will start in the fall.
"Having a space and announcing to the world... it's a little scary, especially in the midst of a pandemic. A lot of people, the first question is, 'How are you going to do this during a pandemic?' And the way I answer is, 'We're doing it one day at a time,'" Vang said. "Starting a restaurant during the pandemic ... I have this mentality where it's like: What would a restaurant look like pre-COVID? What does a restaurant look like during the pandemic? And then, what does a restaurant look like post-COVID?"
With COVID in mind, there will be a dedicated takeout area.
"I don't call it contactless takeout but I call it contactless as possible takeout area where we had to rebuild this area. There's going to be less seating seats, there's going to be more emphasis on patio seating, outdoor seating. So we've put that into consideration," Yang said.
While COVID is keeping us apart, Vinai's focus is still on food centered on community. A friend of Vang's is building the restaurant a huge communal table.
"The question was, 'Should we take that communal table away?' And I said, 'No, we shouldn't because that table is a representation of hope to come. That we will come back to the table,'" Vang recalled. "Regardless of what happens, we will come back. We will eat again."