Pan-seared short rib dumplings smothered in Korean BBQ dipping sauce. Blackberry bacon grilled cheese sandwiches brimming with sharp cheddar, spicy jalapenos and tart blackberry preserves. Blackened walleye. Pistachio salmon.

These are just a few of the mouthwatering dishes offered at Nolabelle Kitchen + Bar, Mankato’s newest restaurant. And that’s not even getting into their dessert menu.

Nolabelle officially opened on July 1, after owner Alexa Swindell Prosser spent about two years planning the big debut. And while it was a bit unusual to open on the week of the July 4th holiday, she said business has been encouraging.

“I don’t know if it’s crazy or brilliant that we opened on 4th of July week,” she said, adding that they received plenty of customers who were in town for the holiday. “But at the same time, the pace has been really even-keel, and it’s been a great training opportunity for our staff. Nobody’s overwhelmed, and the food’s coming off great. You only get one chance to make a first impression… so maybe it was a brilliant thing.”

Firsthand Knowledge

Prosser has more than a dozen years of experience in the restaurant industry, starting back when she was a high school student. Growing up in Detroit, she worked at Red Lobster as a teenager before attending Michigan State University to study human resource management. She continued to work as a waitress during college, transferring to Red Lobster’s sister restaurant, Olive Garden. At the time, both were owned by Darden Restaurants Inc., though the corporation eventually sold Red Lobster.

I hope our guests will enjoy a fresh experience. Alexa Prosser

Prosser continued to work for Darden Restaurants, Inc. after graduating, holding down nearly every position from waitress to store manager, including helping open new stores.
“I had a great time,” she said. “I love hospitality.”

However, Prosser eventually got a job with a Fortune 500 company, putting her college degree to work, and stayed in business for another 12 years. Along the way, she met her husband, Al Prosser, when the two of them worked at MTU Onsite Energy together, which is why she ended up relocating to Mankato about 10 years ago.

For some time, Prosser worked as MTU’s senior manager of distribution for all of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. But as much as she enjoyed her career, she felt like something was missing.

“Something always kind of pined away in my heart [for] hospitality,” she said. “It was just a fire inside me that never went out—my love for hospitality.”

Prosser started mulling over a new possibility: starting her own restaurant.

“I decided to combine my business acumen and my hospitality experience,” she said. “I started working on a business plan. If I were to open a restaurant in Mankato, what would it look like? And here we are.”

Submitted Photo - Interior of Nolabelle Kitchen + Bar in Mankato
Submitted Photo – Interior of Nolabelle Kitchen + Bar in Mankato

Delayed Gratification

Prosser spent two years on her business plan. Originally, she planned to open at one side of the retail/apartment building at 520 South Front Street, but she ended up changing locations to the other end of the building. While she explained that this space had better usability, it did require starting over on the design process and applying for a new building permit.

Prosser’s plan was to open in March, but the COVID-19 situation prevented her from doing so. Instead, she decided to open in July, even though she could only be at 50 percent capacity and the future was still uncertain. For Prosser, though, it was a risk worth taking.

“It was a big decision to open at 50 percent capacity,” she said. “It was a difficult one, but at the same time, this could be the way that restaurants operate in the future. To sit and wait for things to change, I didn’t think was a good idea, because what if things don’t change? Is it difficult? Of course it’s difficult. But we do our best.”

Submitted Photo - Burrata Plate at NolaBelle Kitchen + Bar in Mankato
Submitted Photo – Burrata Plate at NolaBelle Kitchen + Bar in Mankato

Prosser said she and her staff are taking several precautions for the safety of themselves and their customers. Employees have their temperatures checked before clocking in, and everyone wears face masks throughout their shifts. They also have been sanitizing even more than usual, wiping down menus, pens, chairs and tables between customers.

“We’re taking all the necessary precautions, and that’s the way we’re going to have to operate moving forward,” Prosser said. “The silver lining is, we started doing all these things [right when we opened], so we can probably easily continue doing them instead of trying to change the way we operate.”

Right now, Prosser has 33 employees at her restaurant, including head chef Mike Silva, who built up his culinary experience at the NaKato Bar & Grill. She plans to hire another 12 or so employees as business picks up. She also hopes to open a patio for outdoor dining as soon as it’s possible.

A Mouth-Watering Menu

Nolabelle’s menu is centered around a farm-to-table concept with made-from-scratch food. Prosser is trying to work with local ingredients whenever possible, though she does branch out to partners across the Midwest and Plains states, such as North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin. Right now, about 80 percent of her ingredients come from local sources.

Since Prosser’s goal is to source as many ingredients locally as possible, she plans to have an ever-changing menu, depending on the season. But no matter what time of year it is, Prosser said she wants to serve traditional American dishes with an “innovative rustic flair.” She found her inspiration throughout her years of traveling across the country while working in corporate America.

I had the wonderful opportunity to travel a lot. … I started a collection of flavors that I enjoyed and dishes that I enjoyed, and I put together a menu catalogue based on that. Alexa Prosser

“Working in my corporate career, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel a lot,” she said. “When you travel for business, you dine out a lot. I came across so many wonderful dishes at different restaurants, which were inspiring but not intimidating. I started a collection of flavors that I enjoyed and dishes that I enjoyed, and I put together a menu catalogue based on that.”

According to Prosser, Nolabelle is too new to have a “signature” item yet, but she can point out what has been ordered frequently in the week they’ve been open: the Schnitzel Cuban (a pretzel-breaded pork, roasted ham and melted brie sandwich on a ciabatta bun), the blackened walleye and goat cheese balls (an appetizer served with roasted garlic marinara).

Submitted Photo - Beignets & Berries at NolaBelle Kitchen + Bar
Submitted Photo – Beignets & Berries at NolaBelle Kitchen + Bar

Nolabelle is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. On the weekends, the restaurant is opened earlier in the morning in order to serve brunch. The brunch menu includes staples like omelets and biscuits and gravy, but there are also dishes such as roasted wild mushroom and burrata toast, waffle nuggets (house-made waffle bites dusted with powdered cinnamon sugar), and lemon ricotta pancakes.

With all the choices available, it might be difficult for anyone to pick a favorite dish—even the restaurant’s owner.

“I can’t tell you what my favorite is,” Prosser admitted with a laugh.

But whatever customers decide to try, Prosser’s biggest goal is simply that they enjoy themselves.

“I hope our guests will enjoy a fresh experience,” she said.

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Grace Brandt
is a wandering reporter whose home base is in Mankato. Throughout her career, she has written for more than two dozen publications.