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Food & Drink

Why Twin Cities VFW, Legion Halls Are Outsourcing Their Kitchens to Ambitious Chefs

Station No. 6, El Jefe Cocina & Bar, and 328 Grill all took up residence inside VFW and American Legion halls. Could those win-win arrangements form a partnership blueprint for emerging culinary talents and struggling veterans' orgs?

Facebook: Rosetown Legion|

Station No. 6 pulling up.

Membership in the country’s biggest veterans’ organizations—the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars—has plummeted over the past few decades, prompting The Atlantic to wonder: What will become of America's veterans' halls?

With fewer vets around to swap stories and swig Old Styles, the organizations have had to get creative with their vast networks of real estate. Beginning in the ’80s and ’90s, that meant hosting concerts, karaoke, and comedians, traditions that carry on throughout the Twin Cities. That helped solve the riddle of what to do with banquet areas, and electronic pull-tabs have since emerged as another revenue stream

But what about those industrial kitchens? While punk-rock fans might boost bar sales on select weekends, they’re probably not charitably gambling during regular lunches and dinners. Leaders of local VFW and Legion halls have been slow to adapt.

“About six years ago we ran an ad campaign that was like, ‘We’re not your grandfather’s VFW,’” recalls James McCloden, a 13-year member who serves as commander at Minneapolis’s James Ballentine Uptown VFW Post #246. “And several of our older members lost their shit.”

McCloden is reluctant to identify Twin Cities VFW and Legion halls who take big culinary swings as trendsetters. He says the institutional embrace of change moves too glacially. 

Yet his Uptown VFW, the Rosetown American Legion Post 542 in Roseville, and the American Legion Post 98 in St. Paul Park all serve as intriguing case studies on what happens when struggling veterans’ orgs link up with ambitious chefs—at all three, recent collaborations have proven harmoniously symbiotic. And, for our purposes, three counts as a damn industry trend. (Much more on the accuracy and/or non-accuracy of that claim later.)    

"Most VFWs, the only food they do is frozen pizzas,” says Miguel Urrutia, whose El Jefe Cocina & Bar took over the Uptown VFW last April. “It's been an amazing partnership. They're great people to work with, and they gave me an opportunity to do basically anything I want.”

The Decline of VFW and Legion Halls

Minneapolis used to have 13 VFW halls. Now there’s just the one in Uptown. Around Minnesota, VFW posts once numbered around 800. About 200 remain today, as national membership has declined by about half since 1992. The American Legion, which welcomes all military vets as members (the VFW is exclusive to combat vets), isn’t faring much better. It still boasts 549 Minnesota posts, but that number has fallen by over 100 as national membership has been sliced by 30% in recent decades. Much of that can be attributed to the elimination of the draft in 1973: In 1980 around 18% of U.S. adults were veterans, according to Pew, and that figure dropped to 6% by 2022. 

And now investors are eyeballing those increasingly empty meeting halls, especially in rural Minnesota

"Because we're dumb veterans, or at least that's what they think, you see VFW and American Legions closing,” says McCloden, who calls his VFW hall the youngest and most diverse in the state. “These developers come in, and they offer what seems like a lot of money, but it's not; they'll give you $400,000 and won't charge you rent for 20 years, but then on that 21st year the rent starts. You can't afford it, you gotta move out. They do this shit all the time." 

The Uptown VFW avoided that fate by brokering a savvy deal for $1.2 million in 2015, McCloden reports: A developer could have the air rights above 2916 Lyndale Ave. S., but the vets would retain ownership of their longtime hangout. The deal bankrolled a remodel that, in 2016, added an adjoining 440-capacity concert room and multiple bars. By 2021, members realized they needed serious help in the kitchen. 

"We eventually realized we weren't any good at running our own kitchen," McCloden says. "We spent way too much money and none of us knew anything."

El Jefe founder Miguel "El Jefe" Urrutia.Provided

Things played out similarly in Roseville. Lindsay Hentges, manager of the Rosetown Legion, says a previous manager had driven her post deep into the red. When she assumed control in mid-2022, the fiscal bleeding appeared particularly dire around the food program. 

"Once I started running the numbers, I was like, 'Oh my god, we're losing so much money in the kitchen,” says the lifetime service industry worker. “It wasn't stellar food, and we were losing around $3,000 per month between labor and food costs. It's just a pain in the butt to run a kitchen."

Hentges says her Legion’s board members, many of ‘em “old-timers,” were apprehensive of change, though they ultimately green-lit her plan to lease out the kitchen. As had happened with the Uptown VFW, their trust was rewarded in a major way when Station No. 6 moved in. "As long as the Legions and VFWs allow people like me to do their thing in the kitchen, these partnerships can work,” cook/founder Josh Matthews says. 

“If they’re like, 'Hey, we do broasted chicken: Can you do that for us?' No, that's not my steez, even though the broaster was the Rosetown commander's baby," he continues with a laugh. "The Legion is packed in comparison to what it used to be, with the same five to 10 people sitting around, drinking beers, chatting it up. Now this place is jumping, and the commander loves it."

Opportunities for Chefs, Big Results for Vets

Before arriving at the Uptown VFW, Miguel Urrutia had worked “basically my entire life” in the restaurant industry. Shortly after moving to Minnesota from L.A., he got a job as one of the original Rainforest Cafe cooks when the novelty chain’s Mall of America outpost opened in 1994. His career would take him from Eden Praire's Redstone American Grill to Edina's Pittsburgh Blue to, in 2018, his El Jefe food truck's first brick 'n' mortar location at 5309 Lyndale Ave. S. in Minneapolis. 

A “corporate landlord” has since acquired that building, aka the old Boulevard Theater, and Urrutia opted to not renew his lease there beyond 2023. In early ’23 he received an offer to recreate El Jefe at the Uptown VFW, and, as the partnership approaches a year, he says things couldn’t be going any better.

A quartet of tacos from El Jefe.Provided

El Jefe’s birria tacos are a hit ("It’s so good, everyone orders that"), as are the BBQ ribs (“Regardless of being Mexican food, we do pretty much everything”). Urrutia says a stipulation the VFW installed for rental events, one that makes him the required caterer, was an unexpected boon, and he’s hopeful to renew his lease well into the future. 

"Miguel is a gold mine, the numbers are just stupid,” McCloden says. “He's a godsend. It has been an amazing collaboration and working relationship." 

Mik German, the chef/founder of 328 Grill, began his three-decade history in kitchens while watching his single mom work at restaurants on St. Paul's East Side. "We were too poor for daycare," he notes. German got his start as a 15-year-old dishwasher, and he graduated to line cook when someone didn't show up for their shift. He's been cooking around town ever since. 

328 Grill chef/founder Mik German, right, after winning the 2022 Minnesota Burger Championship tourney staged by the Facebook group MSP Burgers.Provided

He was working a kitchen job he "hated" as he plotted opening his own place, but Covid put the kibosh on those plans; German and his wife ended up living at his parents' house during the worst of the pandemic. Eventually, "It was time to not live with my parents anymore," he says with a chuckle, so he took another undesirable job before deciding: "I really need to open my own place."

A friend mentioned to German that St. Paul Park’s American Legion Post 98 was in search of someone to steer their kitchen and, within three weeks, the two parties were hammering out a lease. 

"I'm a total bar-food kind of guy, food that's approachable for anybody—I don't care if you're making $100,000 or minimum wage, I want to feed you,” says German, who launched 328 Grill from inside Post 98 almost three years ago. “The Legion setting fits what I want to do."

Things are reportedly booming for both sides. The “Burger of the Week” promotion teases cheeseburger freaks with 40+ iterations each year, while the Minnesota Poutine—tots instead of fries, Wisconsin-sourced Ellsworth curds, and chicken wild rice soup instead of gravy—and the regular Fo' Cheezy and Jalapeno Bizness burgers are the menu’s top draws. Similar to Urrutia, he secured exclusive catering rights. (328 actually worked outta the Uptown VFW briefly, but things didn't work out.)    

The Minnesota Poutine from 328 Grill.Provided

And 328 Grill isn’t leaving anytime soon. 

"We're doing nine times more food sales than they were before we were here," German says, adding that 328 just inked a lease extension that'll keep 'em at the legion through 2025. "Which of course means their gambling and their beverage sales are doing a lot better. We're absolutely partners. American Legions and VFWs are dying places, and I think people like myself and [Station No. 6’s] Josh [Matthews] are helping bring new life into these places."

Matthews grew up cooking barbecue alongside his Mississippi-born dad. His parents ran a south Minneapolis daycare biz, and each year the family would host a sendoff cookout for the graduating kids. "Seeing how happy it made people, eating good food, it struck a chord with me that’s still there," he says. 

But employment in the Twin Cities restaurant industry from 2008 to 2015 didn't make Matthews happy. He worked his way up to the role of kitchen manager at a local burger bar, where the constant demands and lack of appreciation took a toll. In 2015, right before he offered an ultimatum to his bosses, Matthews purchased a food truck.

“I saw the money that can be made, and I was tired of busting my ass for someone else," he says. "When I got fired, I went full throttle.”

Station No. 6 chef/founder Josh Matthews, front, and his crew at the Rosetown American Legion.Provided

In the summer of 2021, after working full-time from his Station No. 6 truck for a year, Matthews discovered the MSP Burger page. Amused, he read the rules, saw nothing outlawing self-promotion, and then decided to share a photo of his "big, sloppy double smash burger." The post changed his life forever.

"Twenty minutes later the line started. It hasn’t stopped. It’s been insane, just insane," he says. "Every time that I’m going out, slinging burgers, people are throwing posts on the page. Literally every single day since that day. Still. It’s insane. I didn’t know it was going to open up this Pandora’s Box. I know people like their burgers… but I didn’t think it was this culty. There’s literally a cult.”

Seven months ago, Matthews set up shop inside the Rosetown Legion. Logistically, the arrangement has been a dream; prior to having his Roseville HQ, Matthews would sometimes find himself washing dishes at home, in his "fairly large kitchen sink," alongside his wife. Now there’s a central location to store and prep ingredients and, unlike at his previous commissary kitchen, sell his goosey, cascading smash burgers, chicken sandwiches, smoked-pork tacos, fried fish, loaded fries, and wings.  

Get a look at that Station No. 6 smash burger.Provided

"Business-wise, it's been fantastic. Everyone loves us, we love them," he says. "We've had a few longtime Legion-goers who've been ruffled by us, but things are popping off." 

Matthews hasn't renewed his lease with Rosetown yet, but he has "no plans to leave." In fact, he's exploring expansion to other Legion halls, preferably ones located in municipalities with less restrictive regulations around outdoor cooking gear. Like the 1,000-gallon BBQ smoker he purchased from Boomin' BBQ, which relocated to Hudson, Wisconsin, after a regulatory clash in 2022 with the city of Minneapolis. "I've had my eye on that thing since they got it," he grins.

"We couldn't be luckier. God... Josh has been a godsend,” Hentges says. “Our liquor sales are way up, foot traffic is up tenfold. Josh has brought in so many people with consistency; he works his ass off. It's just a whole different vibe—every age, every ethnicity, a whole new crowd."

A Blueprint for the Future?

"We're going to continue to see it happen a lot over the next five years,” predicts 328 Grill’s German, citing the lower costs compared to renting a full restaurant space. “It’s such a good business model for someone who wants to be their own boss and take a chance on themselves.”

Still, we’ll summon our best venture capital bro voice and ask: How scalable is this concept, really?

In the Twin Cities, where there’s a deep pool of talented and hungry chefs, it forecasts as more realistic. 

But for VFW posts in places like International Falls, Silver Bay, Zumbrota, and Montevideo? A much taller order, plus there’s the entrenched crowd that got mad at Uptown VFW’s “Not your grandpa’s VFW” ad campaign to consider.  

"I go to a lot of VFWs around the state, and it's still a very, very rare thing; I wouldn't even call it a trend—you have a few places,” McCloden says. “[Across VFW posts] nobody models behavior, everything is operated separately, and it's just run by a bunch of old-ass people who don't listen or branch out. That is why this is happening, it’s sad." 

Hentges at the Rosetown Legion paints a rosier picture. 

She feels “100%” more confident about her post’s financial future now that Matthews has the place humming, though she shares McCloden’s skepticism around adventurous food/drink offerings spreading throughout the organization.  

"We don't have those [money] worries anymore,” Hentges says. “Like, let's say our fridge breaks: 'Uh, oh, it's going to be $1,000...' We don't have to wait now, we just call the guy and he comes out that day."

Matthews of Station No. 6 says the formula isn’t suited for just any chef, either. 

He had cultivated legitimate buzz around his smash burger before landing at the legion hall; this very writer spent 1.5 hours waiting for a Station No. 6 Spicy Boi smash burger in the parking lot of a suburban gun shop. (It was, hand to god, worth it.) German paid his dues as a chef at Alary’s Bar in St. Paul, among several other places, enough so that it made news when he joined St. Paul Park’s Legion in 2021. And prior to the Uptown VFW, Urrutia had simultaneously captained his food truck and a full-service restaurant for years.

"It depends on how open-minded the Legion leadership is, but it's also not for someone who hasn't built up a following at smaller locations," Matthews says, adding that he still loves working the parking lots at Hy-Vee and Fleet Farm from his truck. "For somebody who's just like, 'I want to start a food business!' It's probably not going to take off for them."

Burger Bash
What: The third annual parking lot food party featuring 328 Grill, Station No. 6, The Angry Line Cook, Garillers, The Salsa Collaborative, Peppers & Fries, Shoo-Ga, Eggroll Queen, and ParraLily.
When: 11 a.m.-8 p.m., April 6.
Where: American Legion Post 98, 328 Broadway Ave., St. Paul Park.

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