The lessons that guided Chef Diane Moua to opening Diane’s Place

A woman in a chef apron standing in front of a counter.

By Amanda Theisen 

Foodies across the country have been eagerly waiting for Chef Diane Moua to open her own restaurant. The James Beard-nominated pastry chef has worked at some of the best-known culinary spots in the Twin Cities—including Aquavit, Solera, La Belle Vie, Spoon & Stable, Demi and Bellecour. Now she’s branched out on her own to open Diane’s Place, located in the Food Building in Northeast Minneapolis.  

Moua’s journey to the Minnesota restaurant scene has had its share of learning curves. Raised on a farm in Junction City, Wisconsin, her parents taught her many lessons in Hmong hospitality. For example, if guests stopped by, they were well fed and given a light snack to take home with them. 

Another key lesson they taught her was how to take care of people. “I’ve been doing it my whole life—on the farm, at the farmers’ market, at the restaurants I’ve worked at,” Moua says. 

Moving to Minnesota 

 When Moua moved to Minnesota at age 16, she thought she wanted to make cakes and sugar sculptures. “And then I went to culinary school and realized I don’t like to do that,” she says.  

While in culinary school, Moua did a fine dining internship. She also discovered her talent for creating pastries. This led her to working with two high-profile Twin Cities chefs – Tim McKee and Gavin Kaysen.  

“Working with Tim, I learned to work fast and be more efficient,” Moua says. “It is also where I built my palate. When Tim introduced me to new flavors, I didn’t like some at first, but he showed me how to appreciate them.” 

Moua eventually led the pastry programs at several of Gavin Kaysen’s restaurants. “That’s where I learned the business side of running a restaurant,” she says. 

While working for Kaysen, Moua built her reputation as an executive pastry chef at Spoon and Stable, Demi and Bellecour. The James Beard Foundation recognized Moua with five semifinalist nominations and two finalist nominations for Outstanding Pastry Chef.  

But that acclaim didn’t come without tough times. While opening Bellecour, Moua worked long days between early morning preparations, breakfast/lunch service and training the evening staff.  

Turning a concept into reality 

A glass case holding a variety of pastries.As Moua began putting her own restaurant plans together, she had to decide what was next for her. She knew opening a bakery wasn’t it. So Moua tapped into her Hmong heritage to fine her concept.  

“I wanted to create a place where you can have Hmong and southeast Asian comfort food, great pastries, desserts and cocktails,” she says.  

When it came to funding, Diane visited several banks and talked with potential investors. When she met the team from Sunrise Banks, she knew she found more than just a funding source—she found a team that believed in her and her vision. She was able to secure a Small Business Administration (SBA) loan and lay out a financing plan.  

A man and a woman standing in front of a piece of artwork.“Diane was very upfront about what she had and didn’t have, the equity she was going to bring in and what she was willing to do,” says John Dooley, a Vice President and Business Development Manager at Sunrise Banks. “Between pop-ups, private parties and other events, Diane was building her brand, testing her recipes and building up that equity.” 

“I know I work hard. I know my worth,” Moua says. “There’s always pluses and minuses to working with a bank instead of investors, but it was the route that was best for me.” 

Putting lessons into action 

Moua opened the doors to Diane’s Place in early April to much fanfare. The space is warm and elegant, yet not fussy. With every item on the menu, you can see a connection to Moua’s culinary roots—her Hmong heritage, her time on the farm or her pastry expertise. She has also put a strong emphasis on service.  

Exterior of a restaurant.“It’s about taking care of the guests,” she says. 

Moua says she will eventually open for dinner service, but that timing is still to be determined.  

“There’s a reason we’re open for breakfast and lunch first. We’re doing things slowly, so we don’t exhaust ourselves,” she explains. 

Moua says she’s also grateful for the guidance she’s received from Dooley and Sunrise Banks.  

“Everybody at Sunrise has been so helpful,” she says. “If there are other projects I want to pursue in the future, I know where I’m going.” 

Learn more about Sunrise Banks financing options that give your small business room to grow.

This article originally appeared in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal

Amanda Theisen Off Site Link is the communications manager for Sunrise Banks.