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Photography by Kevin Kramer

Restaurateur Jami Olson is one of the masterminds behind two of Minneapolis’s most anticipated restaurant openings of the past year: Centro and Popol Vuh. Since their debut in a shared space in Northeast Minneapolis, the eateries have received great acclaim (hello, James Beard nod!). They’re a wonderful yin and yang sure to satisfy Mexican cravings of all kinds, Centro being a fast-casual concept and Popol Vuh being a more refined, high-end offering. And while the experience has been beyond rewarding for Olson, it hasn’t been without its fair share of blood, sweat and tears. She spoke candidly with us about what it’s been like to open two of the hottest restaurants in Minneapolis.

Centro and Popol Vuh have proven to be super successful concepts. What has the first year been like?

The first year has been exciting, hard, scary and really fun! It’s also gone by incredibly fast. We opened two restaurants back-to-back with as much ease and grace as we possibly could have, and I could not be prouder. It’s really quite incredible to be part of the beginning of something and see the bonds the staff has created through the intensity of opening a restaurant. The team really does feel like an extension of family. I couldn’t fully picture how these two concepts were going to come together ahead of time because there are so many unknowns before you actually get the doors open. The process of becoming efficient can be a little clunky and can take some time, but you start to find your groove and eventually, everything clicked into place with a lot of hard work.

The year and a half leading up to opening was really the most challenging for me. Of course, our first year has had its challenges, but once you get the doors open and start serving customers and seeing how they are embracing what you’ve created, the pressure lightens immensely. 

These sister eateries have such distinct personalities yet some shared heritage. How would you describe each of them?

I’m a big believer in the energy of a space and how that can really determine the success of a restaurant. Location is No. 1, always, but there are all the other elements that need to come together as well. A successful restaurant is not just one thing, it’s many things. We focus on culture first and foremost. The guest can feel the positive energy as soon as they walk in the door. Once in the door, the two spaces offer a completely different experience.

Centro is our casual counter-service concept. The energy and feel fit more of the neighborhood vibe, and it really is the engine of the two spaces. It’s vibrant and fun, and has several cool design features. Centro is the spot you would expect to find in the middle of the Arts District. The patio almost doubles the size of the restaurant and features a huge bunny mural by local muralist Charlene Weeks. The menu focuses on Mexican street food using quality ingredients. There is a huge horseshoe bar in the center of the space. I’m very proud of the bar program; efficiency and speed is everything at Centro. The bar needed to be designed to serve high-quality craft cocktails while making sure the drinks hit the table before the three-minute tacos. Tap cocktails and a signature slushy were the answer, and people love them! We sold more than 20,000 margaritas the first six months we were open. It’s been really amazing to watch guests embrace counter service as well. It was something we were a little unsure of before we opened, and now it just proves that fast-casual is what people want and they’re definitely not afraid of it.

Popol Vuh is truly something special and offers a completely different feeling and energy. Guests are transported from Centro through a corridor with a sea of terra-cotta pots hanging above them. As they approach Popol Vuh, the music changes, the lights dim and you can instantly smell the wood fire cooking. Popol Vuh is truly where chef and co-owner Jose Alarcon has made his name. The space is almost as inspiring as the food. A building constructed in 1913, the bare bones remain exposed. This space was what sold us on the building and the concept. It’s intimate and so cozy. Popol Vuh offers a much more refined and full-service dining experience in comparison to its sister, Centro. Jose uses as many locally sourced ingredients as possible for his seasonal Mexican-inspired menu. You will find food and drink much more elevated but still attainable for any evening out, not just a special occasion.

The contrasting experiences work so well together, and both carry so many stories and special touches that the guest would not realize unless they were told. The Popol Vuh private dining room features a beautiful black walnut table built by my cousin (Glørud Design). He also built the stunning wine storage that sits in the corridor. Above the table hang two vintage pendant lights I took from my grandpa’s farmhouse before the house was torn down. On the wall, a painting done by my cousin’s wife, Natalie Salminen, features beautiful Mexican plants and flowers that Jose chose out of love and memories as a child. There’s a fun story behind the mural, and the check presenters carry meaning, too. The small complimentary muffins at the end of dinner are my mom’s recipe, my favorite of all her baked goods growing up. A “money” tree sits in the corner of Centro, a plant I took from my brother’s funeral after he passed last year. The entire design of both restaurants is a collection of stories and memories, and I believe these elements add to the energy of both spaces.

Popol Vuh was a James Beard Best New Restaurant semifinalist. What does this accolade mean to you?

That was completely unexpected. I was absolutely floored when I found out, and I think the entire team was. Of course, I know how talented and deserving our staff is, but I never dreamt of a James Beard nod. I’m just living the day-to-day of running two restaurants, and even though the James Beard accolade means so much to us, it really does mean just as much when we serve a guest who stops me on their way out to say they’ve just experienced the best meal they can remember. It’s the best feeling to be recognized on all levels for the hard work, love, sweat and sacrifice that has been put into these restaurants.

From here, how do you build on this record of culinary excellence?

My only goal really is to stay busy, stay efficient and become a pillar of Northeast Minneapolis. There’s always room for improvement — always. Pushing the team to be creative, to grow and to always strive to be better is a strategy I bring to our weekly meetings. I love collaborating with everybody on new and inventive ideas, and we have a lot of creative minds who sit around that table. The culinary world changes so fast, and we’re still too new for me to take my foot off the pedal. Guests always want to eat at the new hot place, and staff always want to work there. My goal is to maintain, build, and keep people excited about Popol Vuh and Centro. I want these restaurants to be around for a very long time.

You made a leap going from bar manager to the co-owner / general manager of two now acclaimed restaurants. What was that jump like?

It was a very natural transition for me. I’ve worked in restaurants for 23 years in some capacity; it’s what I know. It took a little time and a few life changes to fully accept that a restaurant was a viable long-term career choice for me and to realize that it was a true passion. I knew it was the next step in my career path, and it was something that was always in the back of my mind that I might someday try to do.

I was in the film industry for several years and co-owned a production company. I loved the process of opening a business and the responsibility of being in charge of your own success. I’m not afraid to work hard, and I’m not afraid to take risks. I carried this passion over to the restaurant industry, and it feels amazing to run these restaurants. I have created a strong culture and am extremely proud of how the restaurants are performing. The confidence and reassurance I’ve gained from leading this project are truly invaluable.

What can we expect next from you?

Opening a restaurant takes an incredible amount of determination and sacrifice. It is not easy, nor is it glamorous. It is all-consuming, and after those doors open, it takes some time to find a balance to life again. Right now, I’m trying to slow down a bit and take the time to enjoy the success of Popol Vuh and Centro.

That being said, slowing down is a very hard thing for me to do. I’ve already started to think about the next project. There were so many valuable lessons learned and knowledge gained from opening Popol Vuh and Centro that I absolutely want to take all of that and try another concept, something completely different. I have an incredible team of people on this journey with me who are eager to do more as well. I want to help them grow and get what they want from this industry, too. I feel I have all of the tools at this stage, so let’s build another — and then maybe another.

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