Ralena Young and Brian Riess have worked together for 25 years. She has been his boss; he has been his. Despite everything, they forged a friendship and a dream.
That dream will come true next month when they open their first restaurant and cocktail bar, Bar Cart Lounge and Restaurant in the former Khyber Pass Cafe on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue.
The story of how the new space came to be is long and winding, but former employees of restaurant giant Suburban Eyes Wide Hospitality Group (Mezcalito Butcher, Tequila Butcher, Farmer and the Fishmonger and others) say their mutual vision of customer service and how it works should treat the employees drove the project.
“Being a bartender, having people from all walks of life, all occupations, when they’re sitting across from me, they can just be themselves and forget about their problems of the day,” Riess said. “But after a while, you don’t want to work for anyone else anymore. You just want to do your thing and do it for yourself. That’s when we started talking seriously about opening something together.”
Young said the couple have been trying to get their own space for a long time, but this opportunity came after the pandemic, when the parents of his life partner, Mashal Sherzad, who owned Khyber Pass for 37 years, said they were ready to sell.
“At first, I didn’t really think of the space as an opportunity,” Young said. “I went into protective mode trying to help them figure out how to navigate the process.”
Slowly, however, the idea of taking over the space occurred to him. But the banks weren’t ready to lend money to the two industry veterans, and they weren’t crazy about handing control over to an investor.
So they worked out a payment plan with owners Masooda and Emel Sherzad and budgeted for every penny it would take to make the space their own. They themselves have redesigned, decorated and renamed the space.
“We are all working together to make this come together,” Young said.
Although Young helmed the Eyes Wide cocktail shows, he began his long hospitality career in the kitchen and will return there for the restaurant’s launch. Her opening menu includes snacks like hummus, whipped feta, and tuna tartare, but also some sandwiches, nachos, wings, and full entrees including skirt steak, pan-seared chicken, and short ribs.
Riess was bar manager at Volstead House at the end of the couple’s tenure with the company. They will collaborate on the craft cocktail menu.
They are aiming for a December 1 opening and hope to sell gift cards on Black Friday. The first 100 people to purchase a gift card will get a 10% discount for life. Follow them on Facebook () for more details.
They’ll be open until 11 on weekdays and midnight on the weekends, and in great news for hospitality folks and others looking for a late-night meal in the area, they’ll be serving food until closing.
The business model at Bar Cart will be progressive: they will institute a service charge and pay everyone in the restaurant the same fair wage. That way, employees can, and will, learn different positions. That will help not only with scheduling flexibility, but also give those workers the confidence they need to start their own businesses one day.
“If you take money out of the equation, they have an opportunity to learn every part of the industry,” Young said. “We love training, we love watching people learn.”
Both Young and Riess are excited to have such a small space (that’s 55 seats) so they can provide the kind of personal attention they think customers are craving post-pandemic.
“We want you to feel like you came into our house, really,” Young said. “It’s such a small space that I can see you walk in from the kitchen, and if I do, I’m going to yell your name.”
Bar Cart Lounge and Restaurant: 1571 Grand Avenue, St. Paul; 651-690-0505