Uzmee Uilsdelger and Konstantin Tsay got more than they bargained for when they randomly selected an agent from a popular real estate app.
Four years later, after a move from California to Minnesota, Uilsdelger counts Lee and Julie Bernick, Savage-based real estate professionals, among her best friends.
They’re also her bartenders.
One night a week, the Bernicks take over the bar at Kazoku, the couple’s welcoming Japanese restaurant, which opened late last year in Minnetonka.
It’s the first bartending gig for the Bernicks, who have far more experience listing houses than mixing drinks. But Uilsdelger doesn’t mind if the pours are a little stronger, the cocktails a little more idiosyncratic when her friends are working. That’s because on Wednesday nights, the bar is packed.
“We are so happy to have them,” she said.
Very special agents
Uzmee, who is originally from Mongolia, and Konstantin, who is from Korea, were planning a move from California’s Silicon Valley to Minnesota to find a more “reasonable” work-life balance as restaurant owners. They had no connections here, only a hunch it would be better for their young son, who hardly recognized his father because of the long hours spent in his two sushi restaurants.
Lee Bernick was the first Minnesotan the couple met, and he and Julie helped them set down roots with a home and a restaurant in Burnsville.
Tsay and Uilsdelger sold that business last year after deciding to relocate to Minnetonka. Once again the Bernicks were at the ready, helping them find a new home for Kazoku, the former Copper Cow space. But their assistance didn’t end with real estate.
“We were saying, ‘Oh, the new restaurant is struggling,’ and they said, ‘We can come and help you guys,’ ” Uilsdelger said. Their idea: They could tend bar once a week, just for tips. They started in January.
The Bernicks’ offer turned out to be a unique way for Uilsdelger to get around the worker shortage plaguing the restaurant industry. And for the Bernicks, it’s an escape from the daily grind, and a chance to start something new with their youngest child off to college.
“It’s like a shift to work from 4 to 9,” Julie said. “You leave everything, you don’t answer your phone.”
“It’s so relaxing,” Lee added. “And nobody’s complaining. Everyone’s happy.”
That’s not to say it’s easy.
Wednesday night antics
“The first day we didn’t know what we were doing, but we’re learning,” Julie said. They practiced at home with water bottles. “The first time we started, we were like, who’s going to order a gin and tonic? Because that’s all we know how to make.”
Rather than dive into a bartenders’ manual to polish the classics, they’ve come up with their own unusual cocktails — with the help of a growing cadre of regulars who come just for the Bernicks’ Wednesday night antics.
A dry erase board gets passed around the bar with a lineup of drinks named after some of those regulars: Barb’s Happy Camper, Tom’s Krakin’ Me Up, Michele’s Tokyo 75. The rules: A customer has to show up three Wednesdays in a row, and when they do, they can pick the spirit and flavor profile for a one-of-a-kind cocktail. Miss one Wednesday and the drink gets erased from the board.
Skilled in the art of follow-up, thanks to his day job, Lee texts the regulars every week, reminding them to stop by for a drink.
Other strengths from real estate that help the Bernicks excel behind the bar? “Talking to people, not being afraid to ask questions about what people like, and flexibility,” Julie said.
Sheer enthusiasm doesn’t hurt, either. The couple even ordered punny T-shirts for their sushi bar gig; on a recent night, Lee’s read “This is how we roll.”
The quirky scene has become one of Kazoku’s busiest nights — and not just for the Bernicks’ attempts at chocolate martinis. The food is as much, if not more, of a draw. Tsay and Uilsdelger brew their own soy sauce and lovingly prepare ample appetizers, such as a deep-fried jalapeño “bomb” stuffed with spicy tuna and cream cheese, French-style crêpes, and enormous specialty sushi rolls.
“The Spiderman was my pregnancy roll,” a collection of ingredients Uzmee craved when she was carrying her youngest — cucumber, avocado and soft shell crab. It’s one of many menu creations inspired by her family.
The Japanese word kazoku means “family,” after all, and a family-driven decision to make the move to Minnesota has given Tsay and Uilsdelger the unexpected bonus of two Realtors-turned-bartenders and friends. Not even Zillow could have advertised that.
Kazoku Minnetonka is at 5445 Eden Prairie Road, Minnetonka, 952-681-7194, kazokuminnetonka.com. Dinner 4-9 p.m. Mon.-Thu. & Sun. and 4-9:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Fri.-Sun. The Bernicks bartend on Wednesdays.