Two summers ago, when Ryan Burnet and Victor Mills started a program that introduced north Minneapolis kids to the rigors of boxing, they couldn’t find a gym in the area.
Burnet, a restaurateur (Barrio, Bar La Grassa, Burch Steak and Pizza Bar, Eastside), and Mills, a retired police officer, ended up driving kids to a facility on the opposite side of the city.
“We’d pick them up at 9 a.m., and they would come to the car with a bag of Cheetos and a can of Mountain Dew,” said Burnet. “It was immediately obvious that, in this program, nutrition is as relevant as boxing.”
Which is why, when the program developed into the just-opened Fighting Chance Boxing Club, the new North Side facility contains a kitchen. A very busy kitchen.
The building, a handsome Works Progress Adminstration firehouse from 1939, sat vacant for 11 vandalism-bait years before nonprofit Fighting Chance bought it for $40,000.
“If this were in any other part of the state, it would have been picked up in a heartbeat,” said Burnet. “I knew I wanted something permanent, and in their neighborhood. A place that they could walk to. And boy, have they ever.”
After a major fundraising effort, another $840,000 was invested in a renovation. Donors — companies, foundations, individuals — stepped up with cash and equipment, everything from countertops to the boxing ring to a much-needed commercial refrigerator.
“The building was a blight on the neighborhood, a liability,” said Burnet. “Now, we open the doors, and all this energy goes out into the streets.”
The second floor spaces include a tutoring room (“a quiet place for the kids to study,” said Burnet), a yoga studio (a donation-based program overseen by volunteers from Radiant Life Yoga) and offices for both the Police Athletic League and Burnet, who is now running his businesses from sunny, sparsely furnished quarters.
The main event is on the main floor. The boxing ring anchors the space where fire trucks were once parked. Locker rooms were carved out of the square footage where fire hoses were hung to dry.
The building’s heart and soul? It’s the firehouse kitchen, gutted and rebuilt and already bursting at the seams. An adjacent room was initially slated to become an office.
“But then I realized that we need a gathering place, a spot where we can all sit around the table, together,” said Burnet. Goodbye, office; hello, dining room.
Just outside the back door, a grill is getting its own workout, and a nearby empty lot is going to become a vegetable garden; a second parcel, not far from Patrick Henry High School, is also being eyed for cultivation.
“It would be ideal to grow the majority of the vegetables that we eat,” said Burnet. “This neighborhood is a food desert. We want to show these kids where real food comes from.”
Burnet was introduced to the sport 15 years ago. “It relieves stress, and teaches discipline,” he said. “Boxing has made me a better husband, father and business partner.”
Six days a week, 35 to 40 boys and girls, ages 9 through 18, stream into the building to work up a sweat — and an appetite. There are two back-to-back training sessions, and they’re offered free of charge. All are welcome.
“This is about getting kids in here and using boxing as a medium,” said Burnet. “It’s a way to keep them busy, off the streets, and getting them to work out their energy, and their angst.”
The adults in the room are Burnet and eight other trainers. They’re all volunteers (Mills, as executive director, is the only paid Fighting Chance staffer) and most are current or former police officers.
At the end of each 90-minute workout?
“We cook, and then we feed them, and the kids help with cleanup,” said Burnet. “I vastly underestimated how much food these kids were going to eat. And how hungry they were.”
So far, the volunteers have concentrated on such easy-to-prepare items as chicken fajitas, Sloppy Joes, bison burgers, chicken-vegetable satays and meatloaf. Vegetables and fruit are served with every meal, along with milk and water.
“We try to make it as healthy as possible,” said Burnet. “We’re going through a lot of hummus. We now have a rice cooker, and our Vitamix is perpetually making healthy smoothies. If this were a restaurant, we wouldn’t be worried about sales.”
What is causing consternation is money. After the kitchen’s busier-than-projected first weeks, Burnet re-ran the numbers. It was sobering moment.
“It’s tough to pro forma,” he said. “But at this rate, I think that we’re going to be spending north of $100,000 a year on food.”
To date, Burnet’s restaurants have been acting as defacto pantries, and a few other donors have stepped up, including Origin Meals, a Paleo-centric favorite among local fitness enthusiasts.
In addition, spouses Nancy St. Pierre and Isaac Becker — co-owners of 112 Eatery, and Burnet’s partners at Bar La Grassa and Burch — are lending a hand.
“The kids will be eating Isaac’s food three days a week,” said Burnet.
Still, additional long-term, sustainable solutions are required to give the Fighting Chance kitchen a fighting chance.
“We’re looking for other strategic partners,” said Burnet. “Do you have any ideas? Without a doubt, this is the hardest project that I’ve ever done. But we’ll figure it out. We’re not in the business of saying no.”