A staple of the Duluth restaurant scene is relocating to Hermantown.
Family-owned Valentini’s held a soft opening for its new space at 4960 Miller Trunk Highway last week. The Italian bistro will eventually offer everything its other locations do: a lunch line, sit-down dining and homemade sauces, meatballs and pasta. The move comes as owner Carol Valentini prepares to close her London Road location at the end of this year.
When talking with Valentini, one thing is evident: She’s passionate about her food.
“I would put my food up against anybody's food,” she said.
Care put into the new restaurant space reflects just that. Wood paneling wraps the interior of the 45-seat establishment, which is dotted with artificial trees and Italian-influenced art.
Although the space came with a commercial kitchen, Valentini said they did a complete overhaul of the space to achieve its look.
The restaurant's current footprint is smaller than its London Road location, allowing her to achieve a better work-life balance.
“It's a well-thought decision in my head about this time in my life. … I work 17 hours a day. I work too much,” she said.
A shift in how people buy food pushed her to change her hours and service. She sees more people picking up food and taking it home, instead of eating in the restaurant. Valentini’s now offers pick-up ordering at the new bistro.
“The trends are changing,” Valentini said. “I am not a person that sits around and waits for my life to change. I change things.”
She’s also noticing the business facing increasing financial challenges.
“Duluth is a great city that has a lot of advantages going, but it can be a challenging city in which to do business,” said Tony Bronson, president of the Duluth Local Restaurant Association and director of business development for Grandma’s Restaurant Co. “Sometimes that manifests itself in tax and fee increases.”
The restaurant association formed in response to the city’s earned sick and safe time ordinance. The ordinance went into effect at the start of this year.
“In the restaurant business, we work on very slim margins. When something out of our control comes into play, that can have a bigger effect on us (more so than) larger businesses,” Bronson said.
Valentini said she plans to expand into the office space next door. With the expansion, she's aiming to add a wine bar and more dinner seating and expand the catering kitchen.
For now, the restaurant is offering counter service for breakfast and lunch. Dinner service will be added in a few weeks, with full-service on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
During an interview Wednesday, Valentini said she has “spent the last two days talking to the customers, and not one person has said they will not be back.”
The Hermantown location puts the restaurant much closer to many of its catering customers. Catering operations will eventually shift from the London Road location to the new one, and Valentini is establishing catering partnerships with nearby businesses. "This will be better for us," she said.
The family-owned-and-operated business has been around for 87 years — a feat that Valentini contributes to their ability to change.
“The only reason we've survived is because we're in-tune to … economic changes … (and) everything political,” she said. “(It) does impact what you're doing.”
The lakefront location, Valentini’s Vicino Lago, will close later this year after it honors all of its reservations.
“It’s Duluth’s loss to lose Carol Valentini from our sit-down scene,” Bronson said.
The Chisholm Supper Club, St. Luke’s deli, food truck and its to-go location in the Holiday Center will all remain open. Valentini said the deli is expanding its catering options.