Minnesota museum cafe sets national standard

FIKA serves semlor, traditional cream-filled cardamom buns, for Madi Gras. (Hanna Raskin)

Museum cafeterias decades ago abandoned their longstanding lineups of hamburgers and hot dogs, but few institutions have better mined the possibilities posed by hungry visitors than the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.

I briefly dabbled in museum work, earning a graduate degree in the subject before settling on food writing as a career, so I’m probably overly attuned to museum menus. But it’s not just museum geeks who’ve been paying attention to the food at FIKA, the café designed to serve as a centerpiece of the museum’s 2012 expansion. Last month, the Food Network and Serous Eats both named chef John Krattenmaker’s meatballs among the nation’s best.

When the Institute first conceptualized FIKA, national recognition wasn’t on the drawing board. The primary goal was to draw more visitors by playing off the recent rage for “New Nordic,” the cuisine associated with Noma and other Scandinavian restaurants staffed by enthusiastic foragers with a knack for minimalist presentations. If the café could attract 35 diners a day, planners were ready to declare it a success.

FIKA now serves 350 people a day. During Christmastime, the wait for a table is three hours.

As director of communications Laura Cederberg says, with characteristic Scandinavian understatement: “The café turned out to be a huge hit.”

The café’s popularity is due partly to the excellence of its meatballs and gravalax, and partly to the surrounding area’s dearth of “lighter lunch” options: During my recent visit to Minneapolis, I was twice stymied by upscale appetizer menus on which every item was either fried or cloaked with cheese (Not that I have anything against cheese: My first meal in town was a Juicy Lucy, the state’s iconic inside-out cheeseburger.)

Mostly, though, FIKA has soared because it doesn’t just echo the Institute’s curatorial mission: It advances it. For example, one of the museum’s current exhibits is a small display of vintage cookware from the Nordic Bakeware company, including an intentionally theatrical quasi-shrine to the Bundt pan. At another museum, the cafeteria might just slice up a traditional coffee cake and call it collaboration.

At American Swedish Institute, though, the most significant current exhibit tie-in concerns a collection of gowns inspired by Nobel prizes. To salute the Peace Prize in drinkable fashion, FIKA’s bar team invented a cocktail made with olive oil. (The museum is one of the few in the U.S. that’s become a happy hour hotspot.)

The Institute has always acknowledged the role of food in culture, hosting lutefisk dinners and Swedish pancake breakfasts. Still, Cederberg says, uniting the kitchen and exhibit teams has made an enormous difference in how visitors understand the area’s Nordic heritage and contemporary Scandinavia.

So what do salt cod fritters and country sausage smorgasar have to do with Charleston? Possibly more than it seems, since the planned International African American Museum will likely serve food in some capacity.

“We’ve caused other museums to reevaluate and restructure their restaurant experiences,” Cederberg says of the phenomenon dubbed “the Fika Factor” by Star Tribune critic Rick Nelson. “We knew we wanted to go big or go home.”