Restaurateur Kim Bartmann, owner of Tiny Diner, knows food. She’s also the woman behind Twin Cities favorites Barbette, Book Club, Pat’s Tap, Red Stag, Bread & Pickle, Gigi’s Café, The Bird, and Trapeze Champagne Bar, located next to Barbette. Bartmann was also the original owner of Bryant-Lake Bowl, which she sold to a longtime employee in 2018.
Bartmann started Tiny Diner in 2014. When Bartmann first saw the space, she thought, “This place begs to be a giant garden.” The space has an interesting architectural history—it was originally a gas station designed by the son of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Bartmann has brought her vision of a Tiny Diner garden to life. “We use the principles of permaculture, or whole-systems design, which means working with nature rather than against it. We rotate crops to build soil rather than extract the nutrients from it. There’s a method to which crops are planted where. Often things that taste good together like to grow together, like tomato and basil or squash, corn and beans—known as the ‘three sisters’ in Native American cuisine,” says Bartmann.
In season, Tiny Diner’s garden produces apples, serviceberries, pine nuts, beans, tomatoes, lovage, hops, herbs, spinach and more.
Tiny Diner recently got their liquor license. This past summer, they stared growing herbs for cocktails including mint, lavender and others.
Bartmann is particular about their meat and egg suppliers. Their meat is from Peterson Craftsman Meats. Milk is from Organic Valley, and they use organic eggs from Larry Schultz Organic Farm.
Bartmann doesn’t cook at any of her restaurants, but her debut into the culinary world was as a line cook in college at a vegetarian restaurant. “I wasn’t a vegetarian, but my friend told me to say that I was so that I’d get the job. And I did,” says Bartmann. Bartmann got fired when she burned her hand, and also got fired from her second job as a cook. In the end, these firings turned out to be a good thing—Bartmann decided to open a coffee shop. Barbette is now at the location where the coffee shop had been.
“I don’t cook now, but I shape the menu and push new ingredients. The chefs then get it going,” says Bartmann.
Tiny Diner’s menu is seasonally based. “We try to buy from farmers markets in the summer. The menu is flexible to be able to adjust for what’s available at the market. We also buy from DragSmith Farms coop in western Wisconsin,” she says.
“We have a classic diner menu,” says Bartmann. “We change the specials every few months by looking at a different American city and recreating dishes that are well-known in that city. For example for Santa Fe, we have chilaquiles, a chili burger and roasted poblano peppers with queso. For Philadelphia, we have house-made scrapple, which is very popular. We have beer cheese soup from Milwaukee.”
As passionate at Bartmann is about Tiny Diner’s food, she’s equally passionate about doing things that are good for the environment. “One of the coolest times in my life was getting solar array lights outdoors. The space where our garden is was asphalt and cement. Now it’s an incredibly fertile garden. All summer there were bees, and we’ve heard from people that live around here that they saw more bees than ever. We also keep bees on the roof. We keep this as an alive space. It keeps growing and changing and getter better and richer,” she says.