Stephanie Shimp and David Burley met in college waiting tables and had a big idea: to open their own restaurant. Shimp sold her car and Burley saved tip money, and in 1993 they opened Highland Grill.
“We had a dream and really had no idea what we were doing,” Shimp says.
But she credits the neighborhood for being part of its success. “It’s such a great community that sets up a perfect environment for a restaurant like ours to be successful,” she says. In the years since they arrived, the surrounding commercial area has changed and grown. “And we’ve been able to grow with it,” says Shimp.
If you’ve been to the restaurant recently, you will have noticed some big changes. “In our business, we think our restaurants have a typical lifespan of 10 years before they need to be refreshed,” Shimp says, adding the last time Highland had been refreshed was 2001.
She says the wear-and-tear was showing in the dining room, along with needs for new plumbing and electric. So a full remodel was done, and it went beyond aesthetics.
“We were able to go to a zero-waste dining room,” Shimp says, “and that’s important to both our guests and our staff.” Healthier dining options were added, too.
“The new breakfast favorite for sure is the new breakfast bowl,” she says. With brown rice, black beans, avocado, salsa, poached egg and queso fresco, it hits the spot. “It’s healthy, it’s filling, it’s a great value and it tastes great.” ($10.95)
The new salads have been a hit as well. “They’ve kind of been ‘Welcome to the 21st century’ [salads],” Shimp says. The salads feature ingredients like kale and quinoa, and the ability to customize them with chicken, beef tenderloin, salmon or tofu. The ingredients are responsibly sourced, with cage-free chicken, cage-free eggs, and sustainably raised salmon.
And don’t forget the drink with your meal. “We have some wonderful wine cocktails,” like a cabernet with clove and cinnamon syrup, a sake bloody Mary, and the brunch favorite, mimosas. And, Shimp says, there may be the possibility for a full bar in the future, as Saint Paul recently passed an ordinance allowing more liquor licenses.
They also might be bringing a few items back to the menu. “We maybe went a little too far one direction, and we’ll swing back in the middle,” Shimp says. Smoked salmon, tuna melts and grilled cheese are at the top of the list for possible returnees, she says. “One of the great things about being small and locally owned—and David and I are very much a part of the business—we get to react and respond and make changes.”
It may be a small business, but since opening in 1993, Highland Grill has become one of eight restaurants in Shimp and Burley’s Blue Plate Restaurant Co.
And then there’s the Blue Barn at the Minnesota State Fair.
Preparations “truly start in October,” Shimp says. “You get a little bit of rest in September.” The official submission to State Fair officials is due in December, and then the fine-tuning begins. The new food has to be decided on and photos submitted by May so the “new food” list can be released in June; they start hiring workers (more than 100) for the fair in July. “And pretty soon it’s August,” she says.
Shimp understands why most people do the State Fair and only the State Fair, she says, and their experience hasn’t been without hiccups.
Last year they had a French toast dish they were planning on serving for breakfast only. Then Twin Cities restaurant critic Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl called it “one of the best new dishes” at the fair. “How can you [stop serving it at 10 a.m.] when it’s on this list?” Shimp says. She called the supplier and said, “Well, it looked like we were going to sell 2,000 of these, [now it] looks like we will sell 10,000.” After that, they decided it would work better to serve breakfast all day. “Let’s face it,” Shimp says. “People love breakfast for dinner.”
To say they’ve been successful is an understatement. It’s as if the Blue Barn was always there.
“It’s really a badge of honor to have a building as iconic as the Blue Barn, and I feel like we’re already woven into the fabric of the State Fair,” she says. “For some people we’ve already become that place, ‘Hey, let’s meet at the Blue Barn!’ ”
771 Cleveland Ave. S.