Holding Court: For 30 years, the family-run Keefer Court has defined Chinese baking in Minnesota

Sunny, Michelle, & Paulina Kwan // Photo by Isabel Subtil

Michelle Kwan can’t leave the kitchen. She’s nearly perfected a green tea cake. With a couple of tweaks, she can claim victory and move on to new challenges: a black sesame cake, a taro cake, a vegan BBQ “pork” bun. Even when she leaves her culinary laboratory, her mind stays with her experiments. “I come up with this idea,” she explains, “and I get really gung-ho about it. I do all this research. I’m testing it. I’m getting people to try it. I’m going crazy about it.” The craziness follows her to other cities—travel is an opportunity to explore restaurants and bakeries and generate new ideas for her business: Keefer Court. 

Just a couple of years ago, Michelle felt conflicted about committing to the restaurant/bakery. She says that her five-year stint teaching English in China gave her a taste for traveling and that an on-the-go lifestyle seemed more attractive than working long hours six days a week in the restaurant that had served as her childhood “backyard.” 

Something her father, Sunny Kwan, once said loomed over her decision. “Man, you just blink an eye and it’s 35 years,” he’d told her. “I don’t want to hear that,” she recalled thinking. “That really just scared me a little bit about taking over here.” And then there was the pressure of not screwing up the family business—but the thought of her parents selling Keefer Court frightened her even more. 

Keefer Court in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood // Photo by Isabel Subtil

Keefer Court in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood // Photo by Isabel Subtil. Timeline Source: Sherri Gebert Fuller. 2004. Chinese in Minnesota. St. Paul, MN: MN Historical Society Press

A Cedar-Riverside institution 

Keefer Court began as a bakery and fortune cookie business. Sunny had co-owned a bakery in Chicago’s Chinatown where the competition was fierce and recalls his father telling him, “Go north. There aren’t any Chinese bakeries in Minnesota, or fortune cookie businesses.” Sunny moved his family to the Twin Cities and worked in an Asian market before securing Keefer Court’s location, in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis. The two-story building doubled as business and home. A stairway connected the Kwans’ apartment to the bustling bakery below. 

Sunny had good timing. “The 1980s proved to be an energetic and tumultuous decade for Chinese in Minnesota,” Sherri Gerbert Fuller explains in her book “Chinese Minnesota” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004). 

After the liberalization of the United States immigration law in 1965, Minnesota’s Chinese population more than doubled, reaching approximately 4,000 by 1980. Additionally, a sizable portion of the state’s Vietnamese population of 4,500 was actually ethnic Chinese. At the time there were about 150 Chinese restaurants in the Twin Cities, professionals were employed at 3M, Honeywell, and Control Data, and physicians and professors were established at various hospitals and universities. 

Sunny Kwan at Keefer Court in Cedar-Riverside // Photo by Isabel Subtil

President Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 had reduced tensions between the U.S. and People’s Republic of China, and, according to Fuller, “prompted immediate interest about all-things Chinese, including cooking.” It was in this context that Leeann Chin, a Cantonese woman who moved to the U.S. in 1956, began catering events and offering cooking classes. In 1980, Ms. Chin launched her restaurant empire.  

When Keefer Court opened its bakery in 1983, it was the only Chinese bakery in the Twin Cities. The shop served (and still serves) Cantonese food—Hong Kong–style fare, to put a finer point on it. Customers craving egg tarts, sesame balls, moon cakes, savory buns, and other familiar treats eagerly trekked to Sunny’s shop. The bakery also attracted Vietnamese residents of Cedar-Riverside, who had a particular fondness for the BBQ pork buns. Later, as refugees from Southeast Asia moved out of the neighborhood, refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia moved in. They, too, fell for Sunny’s baked goods—especially cakes and “fried sticks” that resemble round donuts back home. 

The bakery’s enduring, evolving fanbase owes, in part, to its array of offerings (from buttercream cones and sesame balls to red bean-filled cookies and pineapple buns), high-quality
ingredients, and focus on balanced flavors. Here, sweetness accentuates the main ingredients (like melon, almond paste, sesame, and coconut in an addictive winter melon cake) rather than stealing the spotlight. 

The fortune cookie business was a bit harder to crack. There were plenty of Chinese restaurants in and around the Twin Cities, but Sunny had to hustle to compete against far-flung companies that used cheaper ingredients and offered cheaper prices. He had to convince restaurateurs, Michelle explains, that “they should buy a local fortune cookie even though the price was a little bit more expensive. You know, trying to convince people that they should choose a higher-quality product” even though it’s being handed out as a “freebie.” Sunny proved persuasive. Over time, he landed accounts with a wide range of Chinese restaurants, including Leeann Chin, David Fong’s, Peking Garden, Village Wok, Mandarin Kitchen, Rainbow Chinese, and Nankin Cafe. Many of the business connections became friendships, anchoring the Kwans in the Chinese restaurant community. 

On firm footing by 1986, the Kwans opened an on-site restaurant specializing in what Sunny proudly calls “very authentic, Cantonese-style” cuisine. Although largely unheralded, the diminutive restaurant has developed a reputation for excellent roast duck and BBQ pork, along with some of the best soups in the state. Longtime chef Jack Ma’s rich pork and shrimp broth is mouthwatering. When studded with chunks of roast duck, BBQ pork, shrimp wontons, bok choy, and noodles, it’s otherworldly. Dishes like the “House Special Noodle in Soup” have won this Cedar-Riverside institution a loyal, diverse following.

Keeping it in the family 

Michelle Kwan at Keefer Court// Photo by Isabel Subtil

Sunny had a plan. At 62, he would begin transferring the family business to one of his four children. But only one, Michelle, had expressed any interest in taking over. As Sunny’s milestone approached, Michelle was teaching English in China. She loved her unsettled life. “Every year my dad would call,” Michelle remembers. “You almost ready to come home?” he’d ask. His persistence hadn’t dimmed since those early days hustling for customers.

But it wasn’t just pressure from her dad that pulled Michelle back to Minneapolis. It was “memories of this place”: gliding around the restaurant wearing roller skates to bring tea to customers, selling pens and pencils at a folding table out front in the summer to “just be part of the business,” filling in for her mom, Paulina, in the bakery, testing recipes and dreaming of culinary school (though her parents pushed her toward her eventual alma mater, the University of Minnesota, instead). 

“I couldn’t let it go. And finally about a year or so ago, I decided, if I don’t try, I’ll never know.” Michelle adds, with a laugh, “I’ll be 34 this year, and I figured I’m young enough now where if it all blows up in my face, I can still start another career!”

Sunny was relieved. “If you’re willing to take a risk,” he remembers telling his daughter, “I will hand over the business to you. You make the decision of how to bring it to the next level.” 

Michelle’s first decision was to bail on the fortune cookie business. Fortune cookies didn’t speak to her the way the restaurant/bakery did. Plus, profit margins were thin and competition stiff: bigger, better-financed companies on the East Coast sold cookies at a fraction of Keefer Court’s already low price. So, Sunny happily sold the fortune cookie business, and Michelle, in 2018, began taking the reins.

The next level

Pastries from Keefer Court // Photos by Isabel Subtil

Pastries and baked goods from Keefer Court in Minneapolis // Photos by Isabel Subtil

Michelle’s pastry innovations are part of her vision for taking Keefer Court to the “next level,” broadening its client base and multicultural appeal. “I don’t want to do fusion,” she says, “but I want to be able to create items that attract more than just the clients that we have.” Her vision also includes marketing on social media, expanding catering, partnering with local businesses (e.g., creating vegan dishes with “meat” from The Herbivorous Butcher), organizing special events, and even growing produce for the restaurant. 

Keeping the business humming while steering it in new directions is time-consuming and exhausting. Michelle can’t do it alone. Sunny and Paulina help out when they’re not traveling, but they’re set on retiring for good after New Year’s. Planning for the future, Michelle recently hired her life partner, Jen Mankus, to help run the front of the house and focus on marketing. Jen’s cousin Anh Nguyen will work in the bakery and restaurant. When I remark that Michelle’s new hires indicate Keefer Court is going to remain a family business, she nods. After a pause, she says, “It’s still in-house. I think it’s because of the way that this business is run. It’s still a mom and pop shop.”

A BLIND TASTING BEER FESTIVAL

Taste & Rate
48 Hazy IPAs

July 18, 2019 | 5:30–9:00pm
Upper Landing Park, St. Paul