When Peter and Linda Quinn decided to open Café Latte in 1984, they were told it wasn’t going to work. They wanted to serve gourmet quality food in a cafeteria setting, according to Peter Quinn. “Our idea was to put high-quality food in front of people and let them decide what they wanted,” he says.
Thirty years later, it’s clear they proved the naysayers wrong with their successful cafeteria, which has expanded to include a pizza and wine bar, and afternoon tea. But in the beginning, it was a different landscape, Peter says. Independently owned restaurants were unheard of, and the main dining-out option was a supper club. Café Latte changed that.
“For the Twin Cities, it was the first restaurant, as far as we know, that had an espresso machine that would service the whole café,” says Bryce Quinn, son of Linda and Peter, who works for the family business. Fresh-baked breads and desserts, made by Linda, were a new concept as well, he adds.
Those fresh desserts include the famous Turtle Cake, which combined an old recipe and Linda’s favorite treat. “It was my mom’s neighbor’s recipe … an old-fashioned cake,” she says. “I came up with the turtle part of it.” The cake weighs about 7 lbs., and while the recipe has been published several times and is no secret, the number of steps and ingredients might make you want to leave it to a baking pro like Linda. “I grew up loving to bake,” she says. “My mom let me do whatever in the kitchen, as long as I cleaned up after.”
When Café Latte first opened, many of the recipes were from Linda’s family cookbook. And while the menu did have desserts and breads, “When we opened, I wanted healthy foods,” Linda says, “because we always went out to eat, and our kids would eat all the crackers and bread.” Yes, things have changed through the years, she says. “[But] we keep adding new things—very few things really go away.”
Adding the new to the established is something that makes the Quinns proud. Additions to Café Latte include the pizza and wine bar, added in 1996, and more recently, live music a few nights a week to support local artists, something Bryce pushed for. “One of my big things was expanding the business without opening another location,” he says. Though a Minneapolis location is not out of the question, for now the family is working on their businesses at the corner of Grand and Victoria, which also includes Bread and Chocolate.
Café Latte is also visually appealing, with a stylish mezzanine that lets customers overlook the street while they eat. The building used to be a Studebaker showroom, Linda says, so she insisted on the mezzanine, and she has covered the walls in beautiful art from local artists who then are able to sell their work via the café. “Visually, I like things to look beautiful,” Linda says.
That beautiful setting attracts all types of customers, which was the Quinns’ intention. Appealing to all ages and group sizes, Café Latte has something for everyone, Linda says. And in their 30 years of building a reputation, the “everyone” includes celebrities on the local and national level. Former mayor and senator Norm Coleman will come in to get his egg salad sandwich, Peter says, and Bryce notes that Minnesota Twins player Joe Mauer comes in fairly often. Other notable visitors have included Jessica Lange, Sam Shepherd, Lily Tomlin and others.
“It’s interesting in Saint Paul, because a celebrity can come in and have dinner and really not be approached,” Peter says, adding, “I don’t know if they’re not recognized or people are being polite.” But either way, one thing remains constant at Café Latte: “[They] can just come in and enjoy themselves,” he says.