When journalists and critics rave about Owamni, the highly praised Indigenous restaurant in Minneapolis, Minn., there is always some mention of the thoughtful drinks menu — boasting not only an entirely BIPOC-owned wine and beer list, but also a non-alcoholic cocktail and tea list meticulously crafted by general manager and bar manager Kareen Teague.
Owamni is the brainchild of business partners Sean Sherman, also known as the Sioux Chef, and Dana Thompson. It opened along the banks of St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi, an area sacred to the Dakota people, in the summer of 2021. The mission of this empowering and thought-provoking restaurant is to serve an entirely decolonized menu. This means using no ingredients that were imported as a result of colonization — including wheat, dairy, citrus, and cane sugar — and an emphasis on highlighting foraged ingredients native to Minnesota. This past year, Owamni has been featured in publications across the country, including landing in seventh place on Esquire’s 40 Best Restaurants of 2021.
When it came to developing a drinks menu under those constraints, Kareen Teague, who is of Anishinabe and Ojibwe descent, met the challenge head-on, creating an immersive and transportive collection of non-alcoholic cocktails.
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Teague has been part of the Owamni team since its inception, functioning as the general manager and bar program coordinator since the restaurant opened. He had previously spent a decade building an impressive résumé, leaving his fingerprint at some of the Twin Cities’ best cocktail bars and restaurants such as Kado no Mise, Red Cow, and Alma.
VinePair spoke to Teague about the importance of showcasing non-alcoholic cocktails at such a historically significant restaurant, and why providing more dimension and nuance to the “sober-curious” movement — and highlighting indigenous ingredients and the holistic nature of Native American cuisine — aligns with his and Owamni’s mission.
1. You have years of experience in the food and beverage industries. Can you talk about how you got your start?
I have been working in the industry for about eight years now and have worn many different hats. I went into the Marine Corp for four years, which was a drastic job change into bartending in a lot of ways. After that, I decided I wanted to go into restaurants and went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu. I did some internships at some great restaurants like Masu and Alma and helped open the uptown Minneapolis location and developed the drinks menu for Red Cow.
After [working in Minneapolis] for a while, I moved to NYC. During that time, I cooked for P.J. Clarke’s and also did some bartending in Queens. That was a great experience doing both at once — the ability to be both behind the scenes and then connecting with people face-to-face. I loved going to the Last Word in Astoria, which is a really unique bar with a great craft cocktail program. I would just spend my time asking them questions and watching them work.
Eventually, I moved back to Minneapolis in 2019. I had the chance to work at Kado no Mise, which really tested me to see different ways to pair flavors, different ways to serve, and the level of professionalism is insane — you can definitely feel the chef’s persona throughout the restaurant.
2. How did you learn about the Sioux Chef and this opportunity at Owamni?
My journey with Owamni started when I read an article with Sean [Sherman] in the Star Tribune announcing that he was going to be opening up a restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. I had purchased the Sioux Chef cookbook a few years back, and had read through it and loved it. For me, seeing that article was like a calling.
I had worked in so many restaurants before, making drinks to pair with the foods of different cultures. None of them were of my own. At so many restaurants, you see these people take so much pride and are passionate about celebrating their own culture through food. I was so excited to see that for us — and for the opportunity for Indigenous culture to be shared — so I reached out to Sean and Dana [Thompson], had some interviews that went really well, proved we shared a lot of the same ideas, and we got to work.
3. What did the process of creating a decolonized drinks menu look like for you?
Frankly, we wanted to offer alcohol, but not in a way that was so egregious. We wanted to still have some things like wine and beer, and we wanted to still offer some form of cocktail. But at Kado no Mise, we had seen incredible success with their popular non-alcoholic cocktails. We were putting as much care and time into developing flavors for those cocktails, and people were appreciative. And since having non-alcoholic drinks was so new and rare, especially in Minneapolis, it felt really in sync with what we were imagining for Owamni as a whole. And it felt so much more inclusive — why wouldn’t we offer cocktails for those who choose to abstain?
Developing the drinks [was] centered around using foraged, indigenous ingredients. We were using primarily wild rice, corn, currants, teas, and a lot of things that were new to us. The hardest challenge with adapting cocktails under a decolonized perspective was the loss of so many signature flavors like citrus and cane sugar. Citrus is so important in drink making, and so we had to find substitutes for the tartness and acid. And for sugar, we found replacements in natural sweeteners like birch syrup, maple syrup, and honey. Using these indigenous ingredients gave us so much creativity.
One of the best moments in developing this menu is that even though all the food items are translated into Lakota [Sherman is a member of the Ogala Lakota tribe], we added Obijwe to the drinks menu to represent my own heritage. It was so rewarding to have that representation.
4. What is it like being the bar manager at a restaurant that has become so highly publicized and has had such critical acclaim?
I try to keep my head down and focus on the work. I started reading what was coming out when we first opened, and it added a whole other level of pressure that wasn’t necessary. It isn’t what I need or what my staff needs. Don’t get me wrong, it is nice that we are getting that press. But in the end, they are only distractions.
5. Why is it so important to have a non-alcoholic drinks menu at an Indigenous restaurant like Owamni?
To have a non-alcoholic menu, especially in the larger context of Indigenous food and culture, just feels right. It is a way for us to showcase our indigenous ingredients and Native American culture holistically, without that added layer that alcohol brings. We are using these ingredients that have been used for thousands of years in a new, progressive context. What I really love most is incorporating our indigenous ingredients in this genre [that] is both modern and rustic at the same time, which is what we are really trying to do at Owamni.