Progress: Acqua team strives for the best

Submitted photo The restaurant group of Darron Close (left), Nicole Close, Tim Berkley, J.J. Maleitzke and Chris Whalen is now working together on seven restaurants.
Submitted photo
The restaurant group of Darron Close (left), Nicole Close, Tim Berkley, J.J. Maleitzke and Chris Whalen is now working together on seven restaurants.

They don’t have an official name for their business partnership. When diners in Forest Lake and White Bear Lake talk about them, they often refer to them as “the Acqua guys.”

However, while the association of Tim Berkley, J.J. Maleitzke, Chris Whalen and Darron and Nicole Close might not have a group moniker, they’ve become well-known across Washington County for their popular fine dining and fast-casual experiences – and, in the last couple of years, for their incredible growth.

In October 2015, the longtime group that runs Acqua expanded with its first non-Acqua establishment, the Meet Market in White Bear Lake. In February 2016, the second location 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 accompanying 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 concept 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 community?’” Close said.

Photo by Ryan Howard The association of restaurant owners known colloquially as “the Acqua guys” attribute their success to an excellent, curated staff.
Photo by Ryan Howard
The association of restaurant owners known colloquially as “the Acqua guys” attribute their success to an excellent, curated staff.

Mizu, explained Maleitzke, is a perfect example 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 location could provide. The building also had a second 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 looking 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 expansion is recent, the Acqua team has been in restaurant business as owners, chefs and managers for eight years now, and in other positions in the food industry for long before that. In 2009, Darron and Nicole (who met while working at another restaurant) joined Whalen in setting up the White Bear Lake Acqua after seeing the lakeside building that now houses the restaurant listed on Craigslist.

“It was just sitting with nine tables on the first floor and four burners in back,” Close said.

As the trio ran the fine-dining establishment over the next few years, expanding Acqua’s space to a larger footprint, they eventually added Maleitzke (who worked at Acqua as a server before joining management) and Berkley. Though all five are involved in multiple aspects of the businesses, but Whalen and Berkley are more focused on their chef duties while the other three handle more organizational duties.

Photo by Ryan Howard Each restaurant managed by the group prides itself on high- quality ingredients and recipes that customers love.
Photo by Ryan Howard
Each restaurant managed by the group prides itself on high- quality ingredients and recipes that customers love.

“We ended up moving up to Forest Lake, and that’s when I got started,” Maleitzke said.

As with all of the group’s expansion, the Forest Lake Acqua exists because of a seized opportunity.

“(It was) that building, 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 philosophy, and Maleitzke said the community boosterism they met with when talking to Forest Lake residents was a key driver in the group’s initial expansion into the city, as well as the additional restaurants, both associated with Acqua and not, that have opened in town in the couple of years.

“Forest Lake especially, so many people will drive to the (Twin Cities) 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 something is ‘Will people 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 retaining the high quality Acqua is known for.

“It’s no secret that the Meet Market is a little 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 biweekly buzz with its rolling 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 Valley Recreation Center, while customers at the Forest Lake Acqua kept dropping hints that the Market would be a good addition up north, too. By opening Acquas in Forest Lake and White Bear Lake before bringing more casual food options to town, Close said, the team had set local expectations high and wanted to put out a product that wouldn’t take advantage of diners’ trust.

“(We value) the long-term relationships we are able to get with our guests,” Close said. “So many of our guests we consider family.”

Pi came to be thanks to a combination of opportunity – the former site of Za’s closed with little notice at the end of 2016 – as well as a longtime desire of Berkley to try his hand at a pizza place. Close and Maleitzke joked that Pi is also a sort of karmic offering for the amount of pizza places they’ve moved into; after converting Roadside and the old Forest Lake Pizza Man locations into Meet Markets, they figured they should keep one of the pizza places they opened up as a pizza place. Though the food at the group’s different restaurants is varied, the common thread running through them is a desire to create quality experiences, to create spaces where people can come and enjoy themselves.

“We’ve tried to bring that brand together, especially in Forest Lake,” Maleitzke said.

Photo by Ryan Howard The Forest Lake Acqua location was selected for its scenic location on the first lake of Forest Lake.
Photo by Ryan Howard
The Forest Lake Acqua location was selected for its scenic location on the second lake of Forest Lake.

Running just one restaurant, to say nothing of seven, can be a grueling task, especially in the modern era. Maintaining food quality is just part of the job, along with keeping each restaurant properly stocked, managing staff, interacting on social media and a host of other duties. When asked what keeps the group going after eight years, Maleitzke and Close said their motivators were strong friendships amongst the team, personal relationships with customers, and an excellent staff.

“We kind of mold our businesses around quality, integrity people,” Maleitzke said.

The team never hires management from the outside. With its commitment to finding and rewarding hard workers, it’s always had a pool of talent to pick from when finding staff leaders for each new restaurant. By selecting motivated staff, the men explained, the customer service and food quality can remain at a high level, and the ownership’s recognition of good work helps retain employees who see a future in the business. With the addition of more restaurants, there’s even room for cross training; multiple Forest Lake employees pull shifts at both Pi and the Meet Market, allowing them to exercise two different kinds of food service muscle.

“For me, the most enjoyable thing about owning our businesses … is the amount of lives we have to touch,” Maleitzke said.

What are the plans for the Acqua team’s future? True to their form of recognizing opportunity rather than seeking expansion without form, the men were noncommittal as to whether more restaurants may be in the cards.

“We only grow if at that point we feel totally comfortable and totally stable,” Close said.

Instead, the men’s goals for the future had more to do with improving their craft. While “the Acqua guys” are happy with the miniature Washington County food empire they’ve created, they still want to hone in on the intricacies of each business, learning more about the work, their resources and how to provide diners with the best experience possible.

“I don’t want to lose touch with who we are and what we created,” Maleitzke said.