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  • VOL 07, ISSUE 01 • WINTER 2019
Lachelle Cunningham

Their Mission in Minneapolis

Local Culinary Stars Thrive in ‘Foodie Destination’

Photo (above): Lachelle Cunningham

Allow us to introduce you to three of Minneapolis’ culinary rock stars: the entrepreneur who sells 2,000 pounds of lobster a week, the humanitarian committed to social and food justice, and the pioneer who helped launch the idea of upscale neighborhood dining. They all have one thing in common (besides being talented and humble): They are passionate about the diverse landscape of their city’s thriving restaurant scene.

Lachelle Cunningham, CEO, Chelles’ Kitchen

The woman behind Chelles’ Kitchen, a prominent catering company, has her hands in many different pots. Although cooking is a passion, Cunningham’s focus is now on education, training, mentorship, food and social justice. She teaches a class called “Healthy Roots,” a curriculum she created at colleges, corporate offices and communities throughout the city. “There is a backdrop of healing in everything I do. ‘Healthy Roots’ focuses on soul food’s history, nutritional healing, and food justice and social justice. That is my passion: the intersection of health through the love of food, art of food and the business of food.” Though Cunningham is in awe of “all of the different cultural influences” that make Minneapolis unique, she is modest when it comes to her own footprint on the city. While recently serving on a panel celebrating the power of women, she was blown away when “a food and social justice advocate serving on the panel with me said ‘you paved the way for—women and people of color—on the food scene.’ I was taken aback.”

Josh Thoma, chef/owner, Smack Shack

Thoma grew his food truck business into one of the most financially successful restaurants in Minneapolis. Smack Shack sells about 2,000 pounds of lobster per week. “Originally the food truck was a vehicle to see if we could translate this luxury New England item (lobster roll) into a casual meal Minnesotans would eat while sitting on the curb. We needed proof of concept. Our cost was $7 and we sold them for $8.95. We were losing money.” Thoma is an entrepreneur who relishes in helping young chefs who want to open their own restaurant. “I don’t charge, but I’m happy to give them the tools that I was given throughout my career,” he says. When asked about the secret to his success, he continued, “It’s all about your team and mentorship.”

Stephanie Shimp, founder/partner, Blue Plate Restaurant Company

“My business partner and I have been together for 25 years. We’re bootstrapped entrepreneurs. We didn’t set out to do it this way, but it worked out pretty well,” says Shimp. She and partner, David Burley, grew their one-off restaurant into a booming group with 10 unique concepts and locations. She continues, “We helped create the category of upscale neighborhood dining in Minneapolis.” In the early 1990s, she and Burley recognized the need for distinct, affordable, approachable places where people could celebrate a birthday without the magnitude of a huge steak dinner. “We thought we could provide that; we did and we do. We are early adopters. We had sweet potato fries with chipotle aioli in 1997,” she recalls. After all these years, they still cater to neighbors that are regulars at their establishments. “Our guests want something unique to their neighborhood. We have a core menu of 30 percent of items and the rest are unique per location.” Since they launched their first restaurant, Minneapolis now boasts a huge collective of restaurants in the neighborhood dining category, of which Shimp is quite proud. “Minneapolis is now a food destination…we are no longer flyover country.”


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