Forest Lake Times 2017 Progress

2017 Thursday, April 6, 2017 Vol. 114 No. 45 FORESTLAKETIMES.COM Acqua team strives for the best Group never loses sight of quality amid expansion Ryan Howard News Editor They don’t have an of- ficial name for their busi- ness partnership. When diners in Forest Lake and White Bear Lake talk about them, they often refer to them as “the Ac- qua guys.” However, while the association of Tim Berk- ley, J.J. Maleitzke, Chris Whalen and Darron and Nicole Close might not have a group moniker, they’ve become well- known across Wash- ington County for their popular fine dining and fast-casual experiences – and, in the last couple of years, for their incred- ible growth. In October 2015, the longtime group that runs Acqua expanded with its first non-Ac- qua establishment, the Meet Market in White Bear Lake. In February 2016, the second loca- tion of the fast-casual, meat-focused restaurant opened in Stillwater, and the third location opened in Forest Lake seven months later. In February of this year, the group expanded its brand to pizza with the opening of Pi Pizzeria in Forest Lake, and the partnership is currently in the process of getting sushi restaurant Mizu (along with an accom- panying yoga studio) up and running on the shore of White Bear Lake. The rapid expansion is due in part to the group’s unique approach to new restaurants: Rather than brainstorming a con- cept and then finding a location to force it into, explained Maleitzke and Darron Close, the partnership prioritizes flexibility, crafting its restaurant ideas around opportunities as they become available. “We look at a spot and think, ‘What can we do to enhance the commu- nity?’” Close said. Mizu, explained Ma- leitzke, is a perfect ex- ample of that ethos. When a space adjacent to the White Bear Lake Acqua became available, the group scouted the location and determined that a sushi restaurant would be a good fit for the resources the loca- tion could provide. The building also had a sec- ond floor, and the group looked at its connections and thought that a sushi place would pair well with an upper floor yoga studio run by Studio One. The result might be the state’s first lakefront yoga studio with a floor to ceiling window look- ing out on the water, all because, as Maleitzke said, he and the rest of the team looked at the building and thought, “What brand can we put in it?” Though the expan- sion is recent, the Acqua team has been in restau- rant business as owners, chefs and managers for eight years now, and in other positions in the Submitted photo The restaurant group of Darron Close (left), Nicole Close, Tim Berkley, J.J. Maleitzke and Chris Whalen is now working on seven restaurants. food industry for long before that. In 2009, Darron and Nicole (who met while working at an- other restaurant) joined Whalen in setting up the White Bear Lake Acqua after seeing the lakeside building that now hous- es the restaurant listed on Craigslist. “It was just sitting with nine tables on the first floor and four burn- ers in back,” Close said. As the trio ran the fine-dining establish- ment over the next few years, expanding Ac- qua’s space to a larger footprint, they eventu- ally added Maleitzke (who worked at Acqua as a server before join- ing management) and Berkley. Though all five are involved in multiple aspects of the business- es, but Whalen and Berk- ley are more focused on their chef duties while the other three handle more organizational du- ties. “We ended up moving up to Forest Lake, and that’s when I got start- ed,” Maleitzke said. As with all of the group’s expansion, the Forest Lake Acqua exists because of a seized op- portunity. “(It was) that build- ing, the beauty of that venue,” Close said. The Lake House Restaurant opened in Forest Lake in 2008 but closed after a short time in the sun. In 2013, the price of old Lake House property on North Shore Trail was right for the Acqua group, and the group established its first satellite location. Building relationships with their customers is a key part of the Acqua folks’ business philoso- phy, and Maleitzke said the community booster- ism they met with when talking to Forest Lake residents was a key driv- er in the group’s initial expansion into the city, as well as the additional restaurants, both asso- ciated with Acqua and not, that have opened in town in the couple of years. “Forest Lake especial- ly, so many people will drive to the (Twin Cit- ies) for fine dining,” he said. “I think people are driving to the city less and less and keeping their dollars in the city. … The biggest question we’ve had when we open Photos by Ryan Howard The association of restaurant owners known col- loquially as “the Acqua guys” attribute their suc- cess to an excellent, curated staff. something is ‘Will peo- ple support us?’ and it’s been amazing.” The first Meet Market came when Roadside Pizza in White Bear Lake closed. Close said he and the rest of the team wanted to replace a local eatery that closed down, and their ambitions were drawing them to expand their focus beyond fine dining while still retain- ing the high quality Ac- qua is known for. “It’s no secret that the Meet Market is a lit- tle more expensive than regular fast foot, but we pride ourselves on the fact that use real food,” he remarked. Diners took notice. Meet Market draws bi- weekly buzz with its roll- ing specials and social media food raffles, and the brand had legs: The first expansion opened in Stillwater after local fans of the restaurant alerted the owners to a spot that opened up near the St. Croix Val- ley Recreation Center, while customers at the Forest Lake Acqua kept dropping hints that the Market would be a good addition up north, too. 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