FEAST invited some of the St. Louis region's most innovative entrepreneurs to discuss the current state of the culinary industry and its future.
The first of our two-part Tastemakers series features a roundtable discussion over a four-course dinner at Blood & Sand by executive chef Chris Bork. Get the full conversation below.
After the roundtable wrapped, we sat down individually with each Tastemaker to dive into how they approach building and broadening their businesses and find out what advice they have for others entering the food-business fray. Get the individual interviews here.
Part 1: Dinner at Blood & Sand
Seated at the table were:
- Stanley Browne, owner of Robust Wine Bar and certified sommelier
- Maddie Earnest, co-owner of Local Harvest Grocery, Café and Catering
- Gerard Craft, owner of Craft Restaurants Ltd.
- Tom Niemeier, owner of SPACE Architecture + Design
- David Wolfe, co-founder of Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.
- Josh Ferguson, co-owner of Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Co.
- Brian Pelletier, owner and chief chocolatier of Kakao Chocolate
- John Perkins, chef and owner of entre
FEAST: All of you have years of experience under your belts. What's your one piece of advice for people who want to follow in your footsteps?
BROWNE: From my perspective, you've got to make sure that what you're doing stays on the right track. It's always going to need adjustments. But you've got to be committed to what the dream was, the visualization, because people always try to change things. You've got to listen to your gut. Trust your instincts and what you know and believe in.
EARNEST: The time you spend away from food, doing spreadsheets, things on the business side I didn't anticipate so much. Find that balance that still keeps your focus on what you want to do, on what's important to you. Make sure to make time for that so you stay invested.
CRAFT: I would say, too, to realize that there's no such thing as an overnight success. Even if you are successful doing another project, it takes a lot of time for each identity to really come into its own. ... Every time I open a restaurant, I think things will be easier and easier. But it's a whole new restaurant, you know. It's like if you have another kid, you think it's going to be easier. But it's not; it's the same thing. ... You have to be patient and, again, work extremely hard. Keep attacking the problems and be relentless because it takes that for each single thing that you do.
FEAST: How do you stay true to your vision?
GC: Well, Niche, for a year and a half there, with the recession, we didn't know what to do. And we blurred that vision a lot ... and it really, really hurt us. I'm glad to say that we're back on [track] and [moving] beyond our initial vision. ... Failing is not an option. You have to strive for [success] and keep pursuing it.
FEAST: How can effective marketing or great design help you compete in a tight economy?
NIEMEIER: I like to think it's important that the design is right. That the design coexists with the concept of the food. That's one of the most important things we try to do: align with the vision of the chef. I've always said that I think a restaurant that puts out really good food can survive and be successful without, maybe, a great environment. But it certainly can't exist the other way [around].
SB: I opened [in] September 2007, right before the recession. And I knew that a recession was coming, though not quite the extent. But I kind of played into it with our concept, which is to experiment with food - small plates, small portions, wine flights. So [customers] could come in and spend $20 or $200.
WOLFE: In beer, what we're finding - and this is hand in hand with the recession - is that beer drinkers are not exactly more discerning. But they're willing to spend more for premium beers. Dollar-wise, you find that craft beer, in particular, is a category of growth.
SB: It's an affordable luxury. ... Beer is now going through a similar kind of thing that wine went through.
FERGUSON: I think coffee's behind wine and beer. Coffee is one of the most complex beverages that exists. Just like there are different varieties of grapes that produce different wines, there are varieties of coffee plants as well. The problem is we can source the best coffee in the world and do our best to roast it and bring out those amazing natural flavors. But if you buy and brew it incorrectly, it's going to taste like junk. ... But the specialty side of our industry is years behind the wine industry in the amount of effort going into educating people.
FEAST: I see people being much more knowledgeable about food, so their expectation level is higher. And once those expectations of quality are raised, it's hard to go back. In the past 10 to 15 years, we've seen such an increase in expectation of quality overall.
GC: There's also a value factor. So it may not have to do with the cost of the item. ... But whether they're at Niche or whether they're at Brasserie, people want to feel like the experience was worth the price. So whatever you're doing, whether it's beer, whether it's coffee ... you really have to execute it, to make sure that there's value in what you charge.
PELLETIER: When people come [into] our shop, they want to know how we make [chocolate], what's in it. They like to hear it's made with lavender from a farm in Eureka or with honey from the farmers' market. They love hearing those stories.
FEAST: And do they like it when you throw them a curve ball, with the Japanese flavors or some of those other savory flavors?
BP: We have people who come in seeking that out. We have other people who are scared of it. But after they try it, they say, "Wow, this is amazing."
FEAST: John, you create dinners where people don't have any idea what they'll be eating. How do you approach that?
PERKINS: People are very driven by stories. So if you can connect your product to some kind of experience, you can provide [customers] something that is more than a single item on a plate. ... People are willing to part with their money because of the trust relationship.
FEAST: Because when you market yourself, you're really marketing your creative vision. And it's constantly changing. How do you train your staff to make sure that they're representing you well?
ME: I think that's one of the challenges for a small business. ... And it is a challenge to keep everyone apprised of every new item that comes in. And yes, we're a specialty foods store. But we still want to be an accessible place for everyone in the neighborhood. So we try to find a way to meet both those needs and educate people. ... The milk you're buying doesn't have hormones in it, but it's also a comparable price to what you're going to get in a large chain store. So that's the economy part: trying to match the prices and still keep our specialty, higher-end things like Baetje [Farms] cheese and pasteurized eggs.
FEAST: How did you decide it was time to move, and how did you manage that move?
ME: We're still managing it. The small store was a great learning environment for us. ... And we decided we could grow. [The new location] has been well-received, and it has been a much easier space for everyone - from our purveyors [to] our customers [to] ourselves.
FEAST: Brian, how did you decide when it was the right time to open a second store?
BP: We were thinking about [expanding], and we knew we needed to be in a place that had food traffic. We looked at various spots. Once you decide you're going to do it, you put everything into making it happen. So we decided Thanksgiving we were going to open a second store, and we got the lease [in Maplewood] and opened Feb. 1. So January was busy. It was hard work.
FEAST: Gerard, how do you decide to expand?
GC: I don't know how many people understand fine dining. But just because [the food] costs a lot more doesn't mean you make a lot more. So right off the bat, we knew we wanted something a little more casual, especially heading into a recession. ... We wanted some place everybody could relate to. And Brasserie, for me, is the kind of place I can relate to. I will say that I think my first expansion was probably the most depressing time, as [customers] shifted from Niche over to Brasserie. [Brasserie] was more affordable in the middle of recession. I don't think I knew how to deal with that because Niche is so personal to me. And since then, it's drifted back. [If] people want a nicer, more fine dining experience, they come to Niche. [If] they want a slightly more casual experience, they go to Brasserie. But it's interesting because a lot of things I was not prepared for. [But] now I've learned how to deal with [them].
FEAST: What are some of the things that stand in the way of growth and expansion?
GC: You can't do it all yourself. So you better have really, really strong people backing you up.
JF: I can tell you as far as Kaldi's goes, if it weren't for our team, we wouldn't have seen the growth we have over the years. ... We all have strengths; we all have weaknesses. Finding strong people who help support us in our weaknesses is key.
SB: The world is constantly evolving. So as business owners, you have to evolve as well. You've got to give your customers what they're looking for but still stay true to what you're about.
FEAST: How do you see things evolving in the industry as a whole?
JF: Our consumers are more sophisticated. They're looking for unique stuff. They're looking for things that serve a purpose, something that has value. So we have to build our businesses around that.
FEAST: We've gone from the convenience of large stores bringing everything to our back door to seeking a more personal connection with local food.
JF: It has come full circle back to what it was many years ago. Everything on the table is more like it was when our parents were growing up.
FEAST: Why do you think that is?
GC: Awareness. We're aware that things are beyond messed up. ... I think consumers are just now seeing that. ... These are huge stains that are making people realize they need to be careful about what they eat and know where it comes from. I would love for people to be eating less protein. And I think that gets misconstrued. I don't want everyone to become necessarily vegetarians. But, at the end of the day, there is a balance. The need for the 3-pound steak is ridiculous. ... The issue that's causing all of this is that our ecosystems are going flat right now. And a lot of it is because of large-scale farming. I grew up in upstate New York, and we used to fish all the time. And now all the water has tested positive for E. coli It's all because of large-scale farming. That's a sad statement. It's because everyone has to eat X amount of meat that we're ruining our waters. ... I think Niche's huge push right now is going to be on Missouri waterways and all of the fish that used to be in there and all of the animals that used to be associated with that. That's the trend right now: hyperlocalism. But I think most people don't understand that we can't be hyperlocal at the moment because not enough people are doing anything about what's around us. So instead of being hyperlocal, we need to attack the problem, to better the problem.
FEAST: It shows how much we understand our food. Right now we're seeing all this food television, and a lot of people are consuming it, but they still don't know how to cook. They become passive consumers of food without understanding the decisions that they're making.
BP: I think that's part of our role. They're watching all this food TV ... but don't know how to experience [food]. They come to our establishment, and we can make that connection for them. We do tasting parties. We put out samples on the counter. When people come in, we have traditional things that they're used to, but we also have something like hot pepper or salt in the chocolate. Few people will just buy those. But once they try them, they say, "Oh, that's good."
JF: People get coffee every day, but most people have no idea where coffee comes from. It's a tough situation. ... We're so passionate about coffee that we can come off pretentious. I want people to drink better coffee. Where people buy that coffee, I really, honestly don't care. I just want them to understand what good coffee is. ... But it's a delicate situation because I can't tell people they're buying bad coffee or not brewing it right. It's a negative thing. ... So how can we interest them to want to learn more about what good coffee is and how to brew it correctly?... People who are new to drinking coffee probably put tons of cream and sugar in it or drink flavored coffee. ... That's frowned upon, for sure, in the coffee industry, but many of the people now who are into the more exclusive stuff we brew used to do that. So there's a stage where our palates develop and grow, and it's about how to follow consumers through that process.
SB: You can't take people from a Riesling and throw them into something that's 180 degrees [different]. You've got to take those small steps, and before long they'll be to a place where their palate develops.
DW: The level of sophistication is growing, but there's still a consumer out there who's scared to order some unique beer. That's at the heart of what we do, currently. Look at our flagship beers, particularly Zwickel, which is an unfiltered lager. Someone who may have been drinking lagers his whole life, now he tastes this and says, "Wow, there's a little more [complexity] to it." But it's not so far out there that it will scare him away. And, Josh, that interest that you're talking about has to be learned through experience. It's an experiential thing for [customers]. The education factor is key.
SB: If you're trying to educate, you've gotta have patience. And it's frustrating sometimes because some people just don't quite get it, or they don't want to get it.
GC: It's so hard to get your staff to not be pretentious. A lot of employees will see your enthusiasm, and they take that the wrong way. You'll get an employee who feels very, very confident. ... And they stick their nose up at somebody who likes something different. And I'm like, that's the opposite. They're going the wrong direction. You've gotta work with them. Whatever you like, it's fine. You've gotta teach them that that's OK, and this is OK too. Why don't you give this a try, and let's open your mind.
JP: I think we need to see ourselves, to some degree, as educators in our fields. We're teaching people. It seems to me something that's incumbent upon us to take seriously is there needs to be more of a [conversation] about why we do what we do. I feel like I hear the, "Well, it's local." "OK, well, why is that?" "Well, because it's local." Like people should get that. Well, not really. ... We need to understand it. And get it. And be able to tell that story better. And connect with people. And we'll build longevity in the kind of businesses we're trying to develop. Because otherwise, if it's not really rooted in the thing, we're just waiting for five years for the next thing to come along. And I'm not building a business so I can disappear in five years. Nor am I trying to build something I'll completely reinvent in five years. I'm trying to tell this story that's real. So the degree to which we understand it is really important. But it seems there's something missing in the way we think about it and talk about it.
JF: I think that happens with a lot of stuff when it becomes a trend. People hop on board and some people are good for it and some people have a negative impact.
GC: That's why [it's important to address] the issues. There wasn't everything we wanted six years ago, so we were talking to different farmers and saying: "I like these vegetables, and I like them grown this way. And I don't like fertilizer. And I like organic. And I like heritage breeds. And I do not like animals that have been confined." And now, more and more, I see chefs who care. And that is now standard. So what you're talking about, "just because it's local doesn't mean it's good," is absolutely true. We're right now working with somebody to raise all our beef because I haven't found good beef in St. Louis. And I'm not going to sit here and argue why, but I haven't found it yet. ... and that's creating a backbone. We build up all the artisans who are beer makers or chocolate makers or cattle farmers or pig farmers, and that's where we create a lasting localism, which I think is really important if we want to eat here in Missouri.
Look at fast food around the country right now. Look at Chipotle. I don't know the internals of their organization, but they've been preaching using sustainable pork and nonhormone pork. And you're seeing all these artisan hamburger joints open. And they're thriving. But it's a trickle-down effect. And it is happening, but it takes all of us starting this, maybe in the fine dining world or the grocery world. And then it spreads out. We talk about it as a trend, but it's not a trend. It's a way of life.
JP: I think we don't give the St. Louis public enough credit. It seems to me that there's actually a growing and expanding community that supports us. ... There's a growing desire for a lot of this stuff. And it's slow, maybe not as quick as we want things to happen. But my fear about how we approach the public is, in not giving them enough credit, we actually don't get our point across.
FEAST: It's really the small businesses with a true vision that end up creating new markets and creating desire in the consumer, and then the large companies end up adopting it because they realize there's a market for it. So the place of the small, local culinary business is setting the stage. So what would you guys like to see happening in St. Louis? What would remove impediments or create more excitement?
SB: I never realized how much a license was, and, obviously, there's all this paperwork. Everyone's got a hand out for a piece of your business. The public doesn't realize the bureaucracy.
ME: There are a lot of things you don't know are expenses. It's just shocking, all the fees for every kind of license.
JF: We see it all the time ... people [who want to start a business] just don't understand what they're biting off. It goes from "I'm an amazing cook" and "I have a passion for wine or beer or chocolate" to, all of a sudden, [having] all these other expenses that are growing. But [they've] already spent their money. They have to keep the doors open, and, at that point, they've already drained resources they probably shouldn't have.
TN: That's something we see, too, where somebody comes to us and wants to open a restaurant. They'll have a budget, and it's all for kitchen equipment. You really need to do your homework as far as that goes. ... Furniture, kitchen equipment, design.
JF: And training. The first six months, there's no way to control your controllables, like your food costs and such. You're still getting a grasp on it, and your people aren't at the level they should be in the kitchen. ... There's some time that has to happen before you get to the point where you're able to crunch numbers and start making money, which is tough to do in a restaurant.
DW: It goes back to your first question about advice. It's great to have a vision and a passion about what you want to do. But you [also] need a business plan. There's still the unexpected. It's going to happen, and that's just the reality. But if you can take out as many unexpecteds as possible, it's going to help you realize the vision. Otherwise, you're going to struggle all the way. And you want to see others exceed. That's the idea of it.
FEAST: Back to what you guys want to see in the industry...
DW: Two things in St. Louis. I want to see the county and the city come together, and then I want to see St. Louis have an identity on a national level.
FEAST: Why do you want to see the city and the county come together?
DW: It's pretty basic. Right now there are two different pools of resources, and if the city and county could put it all together, there's a lot they could achieve.
FEAST: Are you speaking from a tax standpoint?
DW: From a tax base standpoint, but also, right now there are two different worlds that are trying to exist together ...
TN: ...and it's a huge difference what the city wants and what the county wants.
C: I might get killed for saying this, but let's put money maybe not into another stadium but into the airport. Let's give them some relief so they can actually have flights come out of there. Do you want to know why our tourism and convention business is low? Why would they have a convention - where people have to come from all over the country or the world - why would they have that convention here when some people have to take three or four planes just to get here? I mean, it's just getting worse and worse. We want these people to be able to traffic through here easily, and they really can't. It's a huge impediment for us on a larger level.
SB: I would like to see St. Louis create itself more, have an identity.
GC: There has been a push toward Missouri wine country as well. And yes, I want to build up Missouri wine country because I want to see it preserved. But I want to see Missouri wines taken seriously and the Missouri winemakers taken seriously. And there are a few that are starting to step up. ... I'm not going to bring people here for my restaurant, except maybe a handful. But wine country - why not? Why wouldn't you take a vacation from Chicago to [Missouri] wine country? It's gorgeous.
SB: I just think the potential for Missouri wine and tourism is huge. ... It could be one of our biggest tourist attractions. But what I also see is a lack of transportation to get around St. Louis as a tourist. The jewels of St. Louis are all spread out.
JF: I think that's an issue with St. Louis trying to revitalize itself. There are so many pockets that there's not a central core, an area to be really focused on. All these different cool areas have potential, but whether or not they'll ever reach their potential is yet to be seen.
SB: Well, all the European cities have sight-seeing bus tours and things like that. We've got to create destinations and tourist spots around St. Louis and the county.
TN: St. Louis City is probably not promoting [things in] the county. It goes back to that county line.
JF: And the county doesn't want public transportation coming out. It's been voted down. ... I like the wine thing. It's interesting. I talked to somebody that has a winery in Missouri, and they went on and on for 30 minutes about how there's all these restaurants promoting local Missouri stuff, but then you look at their wine list and no Missouri wines. ... Why don't these local [restaurants] embrace it so that we could produce better wines?
SB: There's a stigma around Missouri wines, which I think is a bad rap. As a restaurateur, I see people coming in, and they just poo-pah Missouri wines because they think they're all sweet. Then I educate them. I pour a Chardonnel in their glass, which is just kick-ass, and I open people's minds.
GC: So again, it's the backbone. Where are all the young winemakers, like the young chefs? All it takes is one or two to tip the scale.
FEAST: How do you get past that kind of emotional, intellectual barrier that some people have and open their minds up?
GC: Well, first it takes somebody out of town - and that's sad to say. But it's the same with the food world. It really took someone else saying great things about St. Louis food for people to, all of a sudden, realize, well, yeah, we do have a lot of great chefs here. We do have a lot of good food and good resources. The tipping point really is just someone else saying it's cool. ... It's the same thing with wine. If there's great wine out there that's been introduced in a Chicago market or something like that, it only takes one, two people to really tip that scale. The right people.
JP: I agree, but I think if we're going to fix it, we can't keep waiting for outside approval. As educators, in our restaurants, we have to be promoting these products and doing it from within.
GC: That's what's going to spark those guys outside. If there's this energy, if there's a buzz, there are going to be people who notice something. Whether it was your place or my place, that outside press came from local buzz. And the outside media, the New York media and the California media, they're dying for something outside California and New York. They're dying for the Midwest, and they're dying for small businesses. They're dying for people who are struggling and passionate about what they're doing.
ME: Here's what I feel like about St. Louis: I can do anything here. Why not? Because so many things have not happened, have not been done. And there's things that have not happened on either coast. And I'm just like, make something up and do it.
FEAST: St. Louis is a market that is open and receptive to so many things.
GC: I was talking to my staff about Missouri waterways and about what we could do to get involved with fish and seafood and our ecosystem and how we can bring them back into our world. The first thing people said was, "Wow, that's a really big project." Who cares? So is running a restaurant. ... It takes time. It takes a lot of people, but it takes somebody to say, "Well, I don't care if it's a big project; let's take a first step."
FEAST: What do you think we would see from someone taking on that type of project?
GC: Our river and the areas around it - it's gorgeous here. ... If people took a little bit more care of it - and actually, there are people working on this - but people would come here and go back on the river, right? Why not? If you talk about the Missouri River, we touch so many people. The Missouri River is in Montana. This affects so many people across the country, and all we need to do is spark some interest here, which will spark some interest there, which will create something huge. If we can preserve that, I say why not. Why wouldn't people come down here from Chicago or up here from the South to come and visit? Why isn't the tourism board asking this?
FEAST: How can organizations that already exist support the local food industry more or better?
TN: They could really find out what's new and what's growing in St. Louis so that we can get rid of this reputation that we're dying slowly as a city.
JF: If you look at what are considered the really progressive cities right now - Portland, Boston, Denver - I look at our city and see more potential in St. Louis, actually. I mean, there's just so much history here. And the culture here could be so amazing. It's the people at this table, and many other people as well, who are spearheading and taking responsibility for making that happen.
JP: From a selfish standpoint, I want our city to be recognized as a great pride-in-beer community, like Denver or Portland or Austin even. St. Louis has so much beer history; it's unbelievable.
JF: When I've been traveling, people always associate beer with St. Louis. And you look at the mountain range, basically from Denver north, and there are so many breweries that are nationally known. You can see how they're working together and helping each other. And I think it's so important for beer, for wine, for restaurants to be cooperative. Everyone helping each other out. It's about team and community and the success of all of our businesses.
FEAST: How do you create a closer-knit community?
GC: I just did an event for Missouri wine, and [I learned that] none of those winemakers had met each other. It blew me away. ... I mean, these are big people with big, big bank in regards to taking us somewhere.
DW: It's the exact opposite with craft beer on the local level. Schlafly, for example, when we opened up, was like, "If there's a cup of sugar you need, we'll help you out."
FEAST: How does that happen? When you get down to brass tacks, you're competing.
DW: Well, there are interesting dynamics in our industry. ... On a brewer level ... well, you are brewers, you're brewing beer, you're both doing the same thing and you both enjoy it, but you're not physically selling it, so you're not experiencing that sales and marketing competition. It's natural to talk about the communal, collegial feeling of craft beer. It's better for all of us in the end because, if we're collectively less than 5 percent of the market in St. Louis, it's a whole lot of opportunity out there for all of us together.
JF: The more the merrier. I mean, I think we have pretty good coffee, but - and I'm being honest here - if I go to a potential new customer and they ask me why [we're] different, I would tell them. But I would be happy to tell them five other roasters that I would also recommend. Ultimately, if they don't go with us, then I at least want them to drink good coffee. I just want people to understand what good coffee is, what good beer is or good food. Make your own decision, but understand what it is.
GC: Well, why do you think there's such a rise in the food world right now? It's all because of word of mouth. And my best friend in this entire city is Kevin Nashan from Sidney Street Café, probably my biggest competitor. He's a block away from my restaurant. But collectively, whether it's Kevin Willmann [owner of Farmhaus] or Josh Galliano [executive chef at Monarch], we all support each other. And we're all throwing each other's names into the hat, and we're all using our individual press to bring rise to St. Louis and to bring up other chefs.
JF: And it creates loyalty [to the area].
GC: And then hopefully they bring it somewhere else. We have staff at the French Laundry. I hope he takes some of that Missouri attitude, that Missouri hospitality with him. He talks about restaurants in Missouri all the time to people in the French Laundry, in Napa Valley, in San Francisco. We hope [that if people leave us] they're [going] somewhere better.
ME: Wait, there's somewhere better?