June 3, 2016

All in the Family: Refreshing the family-owned business while keeping its heart

When diners walk into a family-owned restaurant, you want them to feel the history, the heritage, the soul behind the eatery that comes only with hard work from multiple generations. That family-built vibe is often accompanied by regular customers, steady business, and a dependable menu of favorites and décor from the heyday. But when establishments have that history to fall back on, it’s easy to slip into complacency—letting things get a little stale by falling back on what’s worked for years.

That’s where Shea comes in, helping family-owned restaurants develop a fresh perspective without losing what’s beloved about them. We don’t just want customers to feel a restaurant’s heritage when they walk into a space; we want them to become a part of its future.


70 years, three generations, and a lot of steak—Murray’s has been a Minneapolis institution since Art and Marie Murray opened up shop in one of Minneapolis’ oldest buildings in 1946. The business was passed through to their grandchildren, who now own and operate the restaurant, in 2012—just as the management team decided it was time to make some changes.

“We just felt that we needed to make it more upbeat,” says co-owner Tim Murray. “We wanted to be able to serve our guests’ needs better, and that meant we needed to change.”

The Shea team never shies away from taking on an icon (see: Milwaukee Road Depot, the Armory, Midtown Exchange), and we dove in with gusto to bring back the roots of what made Murray’s great to begin with, by looking to the past. We developed a strategy to go back to the original floors and size of the bar, moving forwards by looking back at the space’s legitimate history.

We started by creating private dining spaces—the restaurant had none and constantly received requests spaces to host meetings, parties, and events. By walling off one portion of the dining room, we created space to accommodate groups from 10 to 40 people, giving plenty of range for the types of events that can be held there. It also reduced the vastness of the dining room to promote a full, buzzy energy.

Of course, just adding private dining space and doing a basic design refresh wouldn’t be enough. Murray notes that it was Shea’s all-in attitude that turned things around for the restaurant. “From the actual architecture to creating the proper feel and mood, Shea knew what people in today’s dining scene were looking for. . . It was so much more than the architectural aspect; it was understanding our history, our demographic, and how we could market the new setting.”

Known for its formality (white tablecloths even at lunch, waiters in ties), Murray’s represents a bygone era of dining—but with today’s diners looking to have a fine-dining experience while wearing jeans, the dining room was intimidating. Expanding the bar and lounge space was a no-brainer in the renovation, says Murray. “People needed to feel comfortable not only drinking there, but eating there as well,” he explains.

The original Murray’s bar was shortened in the 1980s, and we expanded it to its full, horseshoe-shaped glory, adding tables to a new lounge area to promote a more casual Murray’s experience. The new space doesn’t totally eschew the past, though—lighting fixtures from the dining room were repurposed in the bar, and classic architectural features of the restaurant were emulated as well.

As always when changing an institution, we needed to be wary of backlash. Many Murray’s regulars have fond memories of dining at the restaurant with their parents or grandparents and may not have taken kindly to the changes—at least initially. But Murray has been thrilled with the response of the last few years: “The majority of our longtime guests loved the renovations. I was pleasantly surprised with how many took to it—I’d say 98 percent really love what we did.”

The Hilltop

Brett Johnson, co-owner of The Hilltop in Edina, describes himself as “wet behind the ears,” but he’s been working at the restaurant with his dad Ken since his high-school days.

Ken opened the restaurant as The Pantry in 1978, making it the city’s malt-shop destination for 20 years. In 1998, the team rebranded the eatery as Eden Avenue Grill, obtaining a liquor license and adding a small bar. And in 2015, Ken and Brett decided it was time for another revamp.

“Most people say you should refresh a restaurant every five to seven years,” says Brett. “We were flirting with 20 without doing anything at all.”

The Johnsons saw an opportunity to maintain their current customer base while also tapping into the younger customers and families in the area—and that meant making some big changes. The restaurant wanted to keep its family-friendly vibe while bringing in a new crowd, giving it a complete redo to create a more modern brand and atmosphere without alienating its core audience. “We expressed that a lot to Shea in the early meetings—we have a loyal customer base and wanted to keep a really inviting atmosphere,” says Brett.

With that notion in mind, the Shea team used every tool in our arsenal to transform Eden Avenue Grill into The Hilltop. It all started with creating a branding direction that would serve as a touchpoint for everything from revamping the dated décor to creating a new logo and menus. Brett’s desire to create an approachable neighborhood spot with exceptional hospitality lent its way to a classic American design, featuring comfortable tufted booths, reclaimed wood, and historically inspired light fixtures. We built an expansive horseshoe-shaped bar and high-top tables to help drive bar business and bring in the happy hour crowd, and fresh finishes overall make The Hilltop feel like a completely new place.

While the new Hilltop is modern and certainly looks toward the future, it doesn’t disregard the past. A private dining nook features groupings of the Johnsons’ family photos and pictures of historic Edina, and the restaurant’s name itself nods to a business owned by Ken’s father. When giving a fresh look to a space with a storied past, it’s important to incorporate rather than ignore that history.

Brett and his father were nervous about the reaction to such an all-encompassing revamp of the Edina institution. “We utilized every facet that Shea has to offer, from interior design and architecture to a branding and business strategy, which really speaks to what David [Shea] has tried to create,” he says. “The reaction has been so positive. I think people are really impressed, and they get excited when entrepreneurs, especially in family businesses, take the initiative to invest back into their company.”

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