In the food-service industry, it’s well known that you can have either a job you enjoy or a job that pays well—almost never both. But a new geeky restaurant seeks to change that dilemma and make restaurant work a practical and realistic career choice for folks in the Twin Cities.
Byte, open March 1 in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District, is the brainchild of longtime chefs Travis Shaw and Mark Lowman and combines three core themes: geek culture, social justice, and (of course) great food. The idea for the restaurant came about, as so many great ideas do, after a few drinks—and some venting about the pair’s frustrations with low pay and poor environments in their line of work.
“The restaurant industry is cannibalizing itself in many ways,” says Travis. Because so many people are rebelling against the idea of sacrificing a good work environment for a living wage, he explains, the restaurant business is experiencing difficulty in finding and keeping good staff. His and Mark’s real motivation for creating Byte was building the workplace they’d been dreaming of working in themselves: a restaurant where they could enjoy their work, take pride in what they do, and earn a living wage. It is something they are eager to share with others in the restaurant industry.
The melding of geekery with social justice often gets flak from the geek community at large; some folks say geekdom should be about fun and devoid of politics. Others maintain that you simply cannot have geekdom without politics. Morality and ethics lessons are woven throughout geek culture—we see it in Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel Comics, and even kids’ cartoons. The struggle between good and greed and the fight for justice aren’t something that geek media shies away from; in fact, the two go together like bread and butter. Seeing them come together is only natural, and Byte does this in the most culturally relevant of ways. Entering the restaurant, you are immediately drawn in by the bright, large windows of the front café area, where folks can enjoy a morning cup of coffee and a pastry or two. As the day draws to a close and evening approaches, you’ll follow a hallway that leads you to the bar and restaurant area in the back of the space. Here in this hallway is where some of Byte’s commitment to social justice shines through visually, as you’ll see plenty of street- and graffiti-style art lining the walls: a spray-painted raised fist and social justice phrases sprawled out among geeky references like the TARDIS and Smurfette. There is also a big geeky mural at the front of the building that gives a nod to the social-justice themes.
Travis and Mark also hope that melding these themes will create an atmosphere that gets away from some of the “bro culture” that can be present in geekdom and will attract “a crowd that we would want to associate with.” They say that a large part of this means making sure the space is inclusive for women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color, and one way they seek to shape this inclusive space is by hiring a diverse and knowledgeable staff.
As for the geekier elements of this space, one is that there will be an assortment of board games on hand for guests to enjoy. Travis explained that they are looking to stock the space with shorter and more straightforward games that are easy to play while still holding a conversation over drinks. They aren’t likely to stock Magic or a classic all-nighter, such as Twilight Imperium or even Monopoly, as those games tend to take a lot of focus and time—that said, patrons are welcome to bring games of their own to enjoy as well.
While there are a number of geeky bars and pubs popping up around the metro, Byte is a unique find with its global food (which is not itself geek themed). The menu focuses on international street food, the kind you would find in a night market street cart or food truck—things like Paneer Bites, an updated twist on a classic Indian dish, or nachos made with freshly made corn tortilla chips and real, honest-to-god pico de gallo. There are classic dishes from Asian, American, and Latino culture, like a Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich, Minnesota-favorite tater tots, and even a mole burrito! (For those who aren’t familiar, mole is a traditional Mexican dish in which the main star is the intricate sauce served over meat, usually chicken, and rice—my little Mexican heart skipped a beat when I saw it on the menu.)
Further continuing the themes of ethical food and social justice, the restaurant also gives a nod to other small businesses and to local artists. The bar will be serving wine and beer, with a beer list drawing from the booming Twin Cities’ local beer brewery community. Local artist Adam Turman is behind the entryway mural, a large painting covering the length of the hall that leads into the restaurant, featuring local points of interest like the Gold Medal Flour building, and the Mississippi, with geeky touches like a spaceship hovering over the skyline. The art hanging throughout the restaurant is by local artists as well, and Mark and Travis are planning an art show for their early opening days.