September 27, 2023

The Making of Gai Noi: A Room-by-Room Transformation

“Can we get together for happy hour or an early dinner? There’s something we want to chat about.”

We always love getting that call/email from long-term clients. Especially Ann and Tarique of Lat 14 and Khâluna.

“Of course,” was our response, we set a date for dinner, and our internal speculation began. We never expected the chat would be about the former (Shea-designed) 4 Bells that sat vacant since COVID. 

We talked about our experience with the building and location, and we set a time to walk through the space. Ann and Tarique wanted to weigh the pros and cons with us prior to purchase.

The first walkthrough assessment is always the most fun.  And often, our original instincts walking through become the final solution.

The Goal: 

Complete a total transformation of the dark, industrial, three-story existing space into a new brand and concept with a limited budget and a very fast timeline.

First things first: we set a budget. Knowing the purchase price, and working through an operating budget and proforma, we collectively had a goal. We needed to be modest with the money and smart with the strategy.

Next, we listened to Ann and Tarique’s vision for the menu and the vibe, influenced heavily from a research trip to Luang Prabang. As the chef, Ann wanted to celebrate her Laotian roots but bring in influences from her Midwest upbringing.

We also had to consider service, which is always a challenge in a multi-story restaurant. This space is particularly interesting with a first floor, mezzanine level and indoor/outdoor rooftop level.  Should the same experience be offered in every space?  Most definitely. Is it a fast-casual or full-service concept?  Post-COVID, fast-casual is tempting, but it will be more successful in the long run as full-service.

Finally, came the real challenge: every room had a unique style, and they were nowhere near the new vision.  How do we transform it?

The Main Bar

Entering Gai Noi, the Main Bar immediately grabs attention. In its previous form, it was dark and industrial, so it was one of the bigger changes needed, which included completely redoing the back bar.

The transformation:

  • Installed new, custom backbar shelving with cane and patterned wood panels
  • Added tile to the edge of the bar top
  • Removed “steampunk” metal adornments and rivets from the die wall
  • Repainted the die wall to be lighter
  • Added new barstools
  • Relamped the existing light fixtures with hand blown bulbs

Before & After:

First Floor Dining

This area presented an opportunity to open up a space that was deliberately closed down. To create Ann’s vision for groups of all sizes eating and sharing food, the existing dining area needed a new layout that was functional for large, community tables.

The transformation:

  • Removed the partial wall dividing the main dining room, and the booths that ran along it on either side, to open the space up
  • Removed the eat-in counter looking into the kitchen to improve functionality for the new concept
  • Added new tables and furniture for a community and large group focus
  • Freshened up the paint to be light and bright but maintained the previous textures
  • Added wood shutters in one dining room offshoot and reclaimed wood in the other to maintain the warm and natural aesthetic but give the different areas unique styles
  • Repurposed old tables and furniture by restaining them with a lighter finish
  • Freshened up The Hatchery (the new name for the private dining room on the first floor) with a new coat of paint on the ceiling, new furniture and lighting and artwork from Ann

Before & After:

Stairwell Feature & Midlevel Private Dining Room

The restaurant already had a gorgeous set-up, leading guests up the stairs to a private dining room overlooking Loring Park. Gai Noi’s concept leans into that connection to the park, so we enhanced the space with natural elements of added greenery and renamed the PDR the “Parkview” room.

The Transformation:  

  • The team of Scarlett & Flora installed ferns and cascading moss into the existing stairwell light fixtures to create a stunning new focal point
  • Hung Birdcages and additional pendent lights around the new stairwell greenery
  • Painted the ceiling and walls with fresh colors
  • Added reclaimed wood beams across the ceiling
  • Installed new furniture, décor and drapery to fit the Gai Noi aesthetic

Before & After:

Rooftop Level

With sunlight shining through skylights in the enclosed portion and beautiful views of The Basilica and Loring Park from the open patio portion, the rooftop level had the strongest bones to work with. We only needed a new layout, a few bar modifications, and additions of warmth, light and greenery.

The Transformation:

  • Reconfigured the layout, again incorporating large, family-style tables
  • Installed a new bar top and updated the bar wall
  • Added greenery and created new focal points
  • Removed a couple embellishments from the fireplace
  • Created a new layout for the outdoor patio
  • Repurposed and reupholstered furniture for the patio

Before & After:

The Exterior

Walking up to Gai Noi, the transformation is already noticeable from the outside. Bright, teal shutters over the windows catch the eye, and two rainbow benches out front signify all are welcome in Chef Ann’s restaurant. Guests are invited into Gai Noi with lush planters framing the entrance.

The Shea Makes team produced and installed all of the signage, as well as hand-painted the mural, bell, rainbow benches and ground “pavers.”

  • Installed new Gai Noi signage out front and a hanging banner on the side
  • Painted a Little Chick on the corner bell and in an entryway mural
  • Repurposed former rooftop benches and repainted with colors of the Pride flag
  • Hand painted the pavement to resemble the red paved tiles, a signature feature seen throughout the city of Luang Prabang
  • Installed custom, teal shutters to frame the windows
  • Repainted the entry walls white to brighten up Gai Noi from the outside

Before & After:

The Final Result:

The bones are still there, allowing Ann and Tarique to maximize their real estate investment, but the experience doesn’t hold a trace of the former concept. It is now 100% Gai Noi: casual, inviting and focused on sharing the amazing menu among friends.

From a business standpoint, the transformation was made in a few short months, allowing for the prefect opening time, and the budget was met – two key factors helping a restaurant get off on the right foot. And based upon the smiling, buzzy crowds all during the day and the positive reviews pouring in (New York Times, Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Star Tribune, etc.), Gai Noi hit the spot.

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