The Bachelor Farmer owner on his new expansion, his design tastes, and his views on the fate of downtown Minneapolis

An interview by Joel Hoekstra

Last year, Eric Dayton and his brother Andrew expanded the footprint of the business they launched in Minneapolis’ North Loop in 2011. To their tiny empire—the Bachelor Farmer, a Nordic-cuisine-inspired restaurant; Marvel Bar, a craft-cocktail emporium modeled on a speakeasy; and Askov Finlayson, a men’s clothing shop—the business partners added a café bejeweled with colorful tile walls and gleaming light fixtures. Next door, in a newly acquired property, they relaunched Askov Finlayson in a bigger and more well-designed format, complete with a stylish Warby Parker eyeglasses outlet in the back of the shop. Like the Bachelor Farmer and Marvel Bar, the café and the retail space were carefully conceived, driven by the Dayton brothers’ aesthetic vision and the thoughtful execution of the Minneapolis firm James Dayton Design. (Yes, if you’re wondering, they all belong to the same clan that founded Dayton’s, the department store that anchored downtown for decades.)

How did you develop an interest in design?
I was an English major in college, but I went to a school—Williams College—with a fantastic art history program. I took Art History 101, but mostly what I recall is having to memorize material for slide quizzes, and I hated that. My informal arts education was visiting the Minneapolis Institute of Art with my grandfather. He was a longtime trustee—very focused on Impressionism and European painting at first but later interested in Chinese art, particularly furniture. So those are the areas where we’d spend time when we went to the museum.

Travel has also been a source of inspiration. I spent a year in college living abroad, in Paris, an important, eye-opening experience in terms of being exposed to new things, especially design and architecture. I liked seeing new ideas and how those ideas reflected their particular place.

Scandinavian design is woven into the design of your businesses. You traveled there as well?
I worked for Target for a couple of years and then decided to go to business school. The summer before classes started, my girlfriend—now my wife—and I went traveling in Europe, visiting Amsterdam, St. Petersburg, Reykjavík, Helsinki, Copenhagen, and Stockholm. The last two were my favorite cities. I’m not of Scandinavian descent myself, but the traditions and aesthetics of Scandinavia feel a little bit like our collective heritage here in Minnesota.

What I knew of Scandinavian culture, though, was kind of like a time-capsule version of the culture—stereotypical stuff about lutefisk and Sven-and-Ole jokes. In contrast, modern Scandinavia was contemporary and forward looking. I liked what they were doing in terms of design, architecture, and food—and this was before Noma was named the best restaurant in the world. It’s exciting to see other people doing their best—it spurs you to think about what you’re capable of, what you’re best at. The restaurant idea wasn’t fully formed in my mind, but I began to think: How do we create a current version of Minneapolis or Minnesota at its best, drawing from Scandinavian and other influences? What does that look like?

I also remember thinking it was strange there was no restaurant in Minneapolis celebrating the Nordic aspect of Minnesota’s culture. This city has the largest concentration of Scandinavian heritage in the country. It seemed like an opportunity.

Your businesses are located in the North Loop, an historic district. How do the aesthetics play off that?
The front part of the building, where the café is, was constructed in 1881. The rest of the building was an extension completed in 1902. So we’re in a 100-plus-year-old building, and especially here in the restaurant and on the second floor we wanted to celebrate the character of the building—the floors, the columns, the beams. We went to great effort to preserve the patina and the history of the building, without faking anything. Wherever we had to patch the floor, you’ll see those boards look new because they are new. What I like about our restaurant, and what I tend to like when it comes to design, is the juxtaposition of modern, contemporary elements. I like that tension; that’s interesting to me.

It’s also important to me that design reflects its time and place. We’re not copying. We’re not trying to pretend we’re somewhere else or in a different era. Let’s be the best version of Minneapolis in 2017 or whatever year it is, with an eye looking forward rather than back to the past.

Sounds like you have strong opinions about design.
I try to avoid feeling too of-the-moment. I had two rules for the Bachelor Farmer: no exposed-filament light bulbs and no taxidermy, which were everywhere when we opened. We made one exception: There’s a deer head on the second floor. But it’s almost like a tongue-in-cheek taxidermy, because it’s by this French artist that covered deer heads in needlepoint.

The café space was essentially a blank canvas. There wasn’t much we could preserve, so it was like, “OK, here’s a chance to be more contemporary, to have fun with pattern and color, and really do something that is forward looking.” It’s a daytime café space, so I wanted it to have good energy. It should feel positive and optimistic. You come in for some caffeine, to refuel, to charge up. I wanted the space to provide a little bit of that charge.

What kind of details did you choose for the café design?
We chose industrial-strength floor tile, because we knew the space would get a ton of traffic, and it couldn’t be slippery under wet shoes in the winter. Abby Jensen, with James Dayton Design, deserves the credit for the wall tile. We worked with Mercury Mosaics in Northeast Minneapolis to produce it to our specs, but Abby came up with the design and helped us zero in on the color palette. It’s fun to take a risk and push the envelope, but after we signed off on everything and went into production, I started to think, “Oh my God, did we overdo it with the pattern? Either this is going to be great or we’ll give people seizures.” I pictured people getting seasick in our café.

We don’t do a lot with signage. This building is not an historic landmark building, but it’s in an historic district, where typically big signs aren’t allowed. Plus, as we were opening up, we realized we didn’t have the six weeks required to apply for and obtain a city permit for a big sign. So we came up with other visual indicators—the blue and white awnings outside the Bachelor Farmer and the light fixtures in the windows of the café—to signal our presence. They draw your attention to what’s inside.

Talk about the design of Askov Finlayson.
We wanted a point of view. What is a men’s clothing store that is specific to Minneapolis? We’re not trying to be a London haberdashery or New York boutique. We used some pine and some humble wood materials, but it wasn’t supposed to feel like someone’s cabin. The millwork is this color that I really love, a kind of green/gray. There’s definitely an outdoorsy element, but we’re not trying to be REI.

There’s a great photograph by Martin Parr, a wonderful British photographer commissioned by the Minneapolis Institute of Art to do a series on Minnesota outdoor winter sports. We have a picture of two people wrapped in a blanket watching the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships—an outsider’s interpretation of a very classic Minnesota sport. But we’ve also got the bubble hockey table, which if you grew up like I did playing hockey, is super familiar; you’d play it at the rink while you were waiting for your mom to pick you up after practice. If you come into our store, your kid can play bubble hockey while you’re browsing. Overall, we wanted to play with both humble materials and some elevated materials.

The Star Tribune recently published an op-ed you wrote slamming the Minneapolis skyway system. Has the Skyway Avoidance Society seen a bump in membership?
I’m not an investor downtown right now because of the skyway. Every urban design expert that we’ve ever engaged as a city has said the skyways have a negative impact on the city. That fact is just staring us in the face. And the question is, do we have the courage to do something about it, or will we say, “Oh no, we just need to improve signage or way-finding.” Cosmetic surgery is not going to do it. We’ve seen the slow, steady decline of retail—the closing of Neiman Marcus, Saks, Williams-Sonoma, and now Macy’s. If that doesn’t serve as a wake-up call to us, nothing will.

We’re trying to get companies from all over the country to come to Minneapolis and locate themselves downtown. We think we’re going to beat out Austin or Denver or Portland or Brooklyn, or wherever else they’re looking, but then we show them our downtown. It’s not a winning hand we’re playing right now, and it pains me to say it. I deeply love Minneapolis. I’m passionate about our city and want to see it succeed.