Ramsey County taxpayers' Union Depot restaurant tab doubles, to $2 million

The former Christos space worked well as a location for events and catering, says its then owner. As a restaurant? Not so much.

The former Christos space worked well as a location for events and catering, says its then owner. As a restaurant? Not so much. Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

The Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority thought it was smart getting into the restaurant business.

Last year, the Authority, which owns the $243 million-renovated Union Depot, cut ties with its longtime restaurant tenant, Christos, before soliciting proposals from other restaurateurs. The group of seven county commissioners then selected Kaskaid Hospitality, owner of several metro area restaurants including Crave, to open the Union Bar and Grill and a separate catering kitchen in the new and improved venue.

Lately, the move isn't looking quite so smart.

When it brought on Kaskaid, the Authority agreed to cover costs to ready the space for the incoming eatery. Ramsey County Director of Property Management Jean Krueger last year estimated construction, additional furniture, and new fixtures would cost taxpayers between $850,000 and $1 million.

But last week that budget ticked upward, when the authority approved $2 million -- double the original amount -- to finish the project.

County spokesperson Deborah Carter McCoy says the costlier budget will cover unforeseen infrastructure refurbishments and preparing the mezzanine area to accommodate a restaurant. The build-out will allow the Authority "to have that space and the equipment and things like the tables and the chairs out front should we in the future look to attract a different restaurant provider," she adds. (Kaskaid's lease runs five years, with a five-year renewal option.)

Gus Parpas owned Christos' banquet facility and restaurant at the Depot for 20 years. He still operates two other Christos restaurants in the Twin Cities.

Parpas thinks back to the mid-1990s, before he opened Christos there, when he sat in the Depot's Great Hall, people-watching and ruminating. He marveled at the Neoclassical space, with ceilings 52 feet high and Tennessee pink marble floors. Yet operating an eatery there was a tough sell. Parpas could remember a half-dozen restaurants that had tried to give it a run. He wasn't convinced he wanted to join the list.

"Every time I walked out there I was thinking, 'No way,'" he says. "The place was a morgue."

A broker coaxed Parpas to visit a fourth time. A custodian unlocked the door to an area he hadn't seen. There was a kitchen and catering equipment that belonged to the Leeann Chin company, another of the building's former tenants. The discovery piqued Parpas' curiosity.

He called Leeann Chin's daughter Laura. It's a great spot for catering, she reported, but not so much a restaurant. So Parpas leased 9,300 sq. ft. inside the Great Hall, operating Christos as a banquet facility and "restaurant as needed," he says. The facility in its heyday attracted almost 100 events annually.

"It would've been stupid to only have a restaurant," says Parpas. "It was the banquet facility which allowed us to be in business at the location for many years. But when the county wanted to change things, that's, well, it made things difficult."

The Depot's rebirth as an interconnection for buses, light rail, and commuter trains came via a 23-month, $243 million renovation. Work was completed in 2012, at which time Parpas no longer had exclusive use of the Great Hall for events.

It became public space, which brought its own set of issues. Brides, who had held weddings at Christos, were soon posting on websites like about drunks gawking at bridesmaids. Banquet staff found people asleep inside when prepping the Great Hall for an event. Parpas brought his concerns to county officials. They responded by offering to relocate Christos to a squirreled away room where a failed restaurant had operated in years past.

Without the Great Hall reserved for only his guests, Parpas saw the writing on the wall. He allowed Christos' lease to expire in May 2016.

"The county was always very good to me," Parpas says. "It sounds like they're being very good to this new group. It's the location that has always been difficult. As a banquet facility it was wonderful, but restaurant, no. I wish the new place well. It wasn't easy there for us."