In 2005, Bess Giannakakis started a 15-seat restaurant in Minneapolis and named it Colossal Café. In 2010, 24-year-old Elizabeth Tinucci took over the reins and today there are three locations in the Twin Cities, the Grand Avenue location having opened its doors this spring.
For Elizabeth, the acquisition quickly became a family affair, with her dad John providing experience and insight and mother Carrie acting as the “silent partner,” serving food and watching customers respond. The Tinuccis have been in the restaurant business since 1958, when Tinucci’s in Newport was started by John Tinucci’s father. John began working at his father’s restaurant full time in 1975. He and his two brothers bought the restaurant from his parents in 1991, and John was there until 2011, when he and his wife joined their daughter’s venture.
“The three of us bought the little Colossal, and [Elizabeth] ran it for a full year all by herself,” he says.
Elizabeth, though she worked at Tinucci’s in her youth, did not see herself in the restaurant industry growing up. She graduated from the University of Minnesota with degrees in political science and global studies, and spent nine months in a 9-to-5 cubicle job before she quit to try out the restaurant industry.
“I had never really cooked in a restaurant,” she says, noting she had done serving and catering work. “And Dad did say growing up that if we wanted to work in the family business, we better [have some experience] and bring something to the table.” So she went to culinary school at Saint Paul College, worked at the Saint Paul Cheese Shop and Broder’s Pasta Bar for two years, and then bought Colossal.
When she bought the restaurant from Giannakakis, Elizabeth spent two weeks shadowing in order to create a smooth transition. “And [Giannakakis] had no recipes,” she says. “It was like, working and writing everything down and trying to remember as much as you can in those two weeks.”
Colossal Café was also in the process of being filmed for a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode on the Food Network when the change of hands took place. “They had already filmed [the show] with Bess … and then they weren’t going to air it until they had the end of the story,” Elizabeth says. So the camera crew returned after the Tinuccis took over and did a segment on them buying the business. The Tinuccis bought Colossal in August, and when the episode aired in December, “it tripled our business overnight,” Elizabeth says.
The main thing host Guy Fieri raved about? The apple, walnut and brie flappers. “I’m not a pancake person myself, so I’m always surprised when people talk about our flappers,” Elizabeth says. But that’s the difference at Colossal—these flappers are not pancakes. They are yeast-based, making them thicker, a little denser and a bit chewy, more like a bread item.
“After years of practice, our people are explaining [flappers] better,” Carrie says. “Because people love them—well, most people love them. And there are people who have a strong dislike for them,” she says, since some people expect a pancake.
Between the flappers and the breakfast sandwiches, Colossal is known for its morning meals, though the lunch and dinner items are just as noteworthy.
“Our customers are definitely getting more savvy,” Carrie says. “They’re knowing what they like and how to order … they’ll order one [apple, walnut and brie flapper] for the table … then order their sandwiches on savory scones.”
But it’s not just one sandwich or one flapper that sets Colossal apart, the Tinuccis agree. “We live in a town where there’s a lot of really good restaurants,” Elizabeth says. “If you can start at the beginning with good products, thoughtful preparation and outstanding service, it makes a difference.”
The newest location on Grand was inspired by a call from Green Mill, John says. Colossal had been looking to open another location in Saint Paul, but after a few fell through, the family put the thought on the back burner. But Green Mill wanted to change what they were doing at their Hamline and Grand location and offered the spot to Colossal. “It was a compliment, really, that they thought our business would complement theirs and be successful here,” John says.
If you haven’t stopped in yet, Grand Avenue has the same Colossal vibe as other locations, but provides table service, unlike the St. Anthony and Minneapolis cafes. “That’s something a lot of customers are looking forward to,” Elizabeth says. The other big change is the addition of an espresso bar. (The other locations are too small.) “On Grand, we have a dedicated area for some good-quality espresso beverages,” Elizabeth says.
With Elizabeth managing with energy and passion, and John bringing his experience and wisdom to the table, Carrie says putting the food in front of the customer is the easy part, but she gets to see eyes light up as a tower of flappers approaches the table. “And at the end of the day,” Carrie says, “we’ve made a lot of people happy.”
1340 Grand Ave.