Tucked away somewhere – presumably under lock and key – David Bailey has a list of restaurant concepts he hopes to one day open. He hedges when asked about numbers or specifics, only prepared to share that it’s constantly growing. So far he’s crossed six ideas off the list, opening a new restaurant in St. Louis almost every two years since 2004.
“It lets me play with different concepts, different ideas and offer different styles of restaurants – different types of food and drink – to the same core audience,” Bailey says. “The list is not by any means complete. Every once and awhile you add something to it. It’s not excessive, I should say.”
Maybe it’s not excessive, but that it exists at all says a lot about Bailey’s ambition. When he opened dessert and martini bar Baileys’ Chocolate Bar in Lafayette Square almost a decade ago, he was a 26-year-old chef with a few years of kitchen experience and a vision for the long game. The idea of building a large restaurant group might have been the plan, but it’s also a common one among chefs – one that often never materializes. That Bailey has been able to leverage the success of one restaurant into six distinct, successful concepts in just under a decade is extraordinary.
Aside from Chocolate Bar, Bailey owns three restaurants in Downtown St. Louis: Rooster, a crêpe and brunch spot; Bridge, a tap house and wine bar; and Baileys’ Range, a burger and shake restaurant and soda shop. In addition to his Downtown spots, Bailey operates The Fifth Wheel, a catering company that also manages food service for 4 Hands Brewing Co.’s tasting room in LaSalle Park, and Small Batch, a vegetarian restaurant and whiskey bar that opened in Midtown in December. This summer, Bailey plans to open his seventh eatery, a second, much larger location of Rooster in Tower Grove, the neighborhood where he and his family have lived for more than eight years.
If the scale of Bailey’s operation is notable, the methodology behind how his restaurants were executed – both conceptually, and in the pacing of how each was opened – is sort of brilliant. None of Bailey’s restaurants compete with one another in menu or model, yet each feels connected to the next in style and standards. The way he paced the opening of each restaurant was largely practical, but also speaks to inherently smart business sense. When he decided to follow up Chocolate Bar with a second restaurant, he landed on the brunch concept for Rooster primarily because the two restaurants could keep separate hours – even if Bailey closed Chocolate Bar at 2am, he could still be at Rooster a few hours later for morning prep.
“That seemed rational at the time, until it was a reality,” Bailey says. “There was a lot of sheer exhaustion. It worked and it paid off. I was able to get Rooster to a point where I brought in people to take care of the kitchen and I had people I could count on running the front of the house at Chocolate Bar. I started to develop the ability to not be present in the restaurant all the time – and that was a huge learning curve for me.”
As Chocolate Bar and Rooster began to grow – in Rooster’s first year it saw so much success that Bailey added weekend hours – plans began to fall into place for his next venture, Bridge.
“I liked being Downtown with Rooster and the space that Bridge is in [opened up],” Bailey says. “It seemed like a good spot and a good fit. Plus, being able to physically be [nearby Rooster and Bridge] made a lot of sense. We started the planning process and went from there.”
A natural businessman, Bailey also has a knack for staying ahead of food trends, with sharp instincts about what concepts will gain traction with diners. For a lesser restaurateur this could result in fly-by-night success, but Bailey isn’t interested in capitalizing on gimmicks. Instead, he aims to build lasting restaurants that apply fresh perspectives to classic concepts – dessert, breakfast, burgers, booze and vegetarian food are hardly passing trends – inevitably creating a timeless feel. Bailey credits this gift less as industry savvy (though it certainly plays a part) and more to a willingness to listen to customer demand.
“It’s been commented about me that I hit trends right when they’re about to peak,” Bailey says. “On the one hand, that’s great. On the other, well, I’ve been planning that restaurant for three years. I’m not trying to say I’m way ahead of the curve or anything, but I feel like if you look around and you really listen to people, they’re going to tell you what their interests are and you’re going to be able to see kind of how things are changing already.”
In November 2006, when Bailey opened Rooster, he tapped into a national interest in elevated breakfast and brunch foods. When Bridge opened in February 2010, it was one of the first spots in St. Louis to focus not only on wine, but also an enormous selection of craft beer, with more than 30 brews on tap and hundreds by the bottle. Almost four years later, craft beer has become big business in St. Louis – one that Bailey has grown with through his restaurants and his collaboration with 4 Hands Brewing Co.
“When we opened Bridge I knew beer was up-and-coming at the time, because when I opened Chocolate Bar we had a very extensive beer list with craft beers,” Bailey says. “That wasn’t huge back then, but it was a big part of my interest and my life and I wanted to help bring that to St. Louis. It didn’t really take off until we got to Bridge, but I knew that spark was there and that people were ready; they wanted it.”
With the opening of Small Batch last month, Bailey offers his take on vegetarian cuisine and American whiskey and rye. When he first announced plans to build and open Small Batch, he described the restaurant as the fulfillment of a decades-old dream to own a vegetarian restaurant that plates hearty, vibrant and playful dishes for diners of all walks of life. Menu items at Small Batch extract inspiration from all across the globe, including Vietnamese, Japanese and Italian influences. The restaurant also marks Bailey’s first foray into housemade pastas, which comprise a portion of the menu.
“The goal is for it to go unnoticed that meat is not there,” Bailey says. “I want each restaurant to have an identity. I like to think about the restaurants sort of like people, because ultimately that’s what the restaurants are for. You want to have things from different ends of the spectrum and tie them together. Having those counterpoints completes the picture of the restaurant. That makes things interesting, balanced, approachable and exciting. To me, you can pair food with whiskey just like you can pair food with wine or beer. ”
Though the restaurant just opened last month, the central mission of Small Batch – its approach to vegetarian food and its consciousness about where food comes from – is one that’s been central to Bailey’s work from the very beginning. Since opening Chocolate Bar, all of his restaurants have used locally raised, grass-fed and antibiotic- and hormone-free meat and have offered vegetarian dishes. Bailey says he was raised eating organic, grass-fed meat, but didn’t fully develop an appreciation for it until after college.
“Once I started to work in the industry I became really interested in it,” Bailey says. “I was home-schooled. I’m used to the process of getting interested in something, immersing myself in that and figuring it out from all angles, trying to understand it completely. That led me to read a lot about the impact food has on the world as a whole. There was a brief moment where I thought I should be a vegetarian, but I realized if you’re going to work within the system there are more positive things you can do [than to] simply shut meat out entirely. That’s great for some people, but it’s not a reality for the majority of people. Part of that narrative was that meat doesn’t have to be a part of every single meal. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the focus of the plate.”
Over the years, Bailey’s restaurants have expanded to offer vegan and gluten-free menu items, as well as hormone- and antibiotic-free milk and eggs. And across the board, Bailey focuses his menus around dishes made with high-quality ingredients served at reasonable price points, something he takes great pride in.
“That’s been a part of what I was hoping to do even before I owned any restaurants,” Bailey says. “My thinking and philosophy that I’ve kind of stuck to is that really good ingredients and really high-quality food should not be reserved only for people who can afford it – for only an elite group of people to have those experiences. It should be more democratic than that.”
Bailey applies this same level of thought and intention to the full dining experience at his restaurants, an approach that combines great food and friendly service in familiar, comfortable environments. Nothing is overlooked, from the interior décor to the menu design, right down to the types of plates, utensils and napkins on tables. This is where Bailey believes the magic lies – in details diners might not even recognize.
“One of my former bosses taught me a really simple concept: 95 percent of our job is making sure everything we do goes unnoticed,” Bailey says. “What he was speaking to is how you set the plate, how you set up the room, how everything down to the experience, door-to-door, for the customer…they should leave feeling great about what happened, and they might have an idea of one or two things that they really liked, but it’s that entire thing, that whole package – most of which will be noticed subconsciously – that really makes a good experience, rather than a bad one. If you forget all of that, if you forget the complete narrative for the customer, a lot of times it’s a mediocre experience. That concept has always stuck with me: That we have to offer a really positive experience from the second you walk in until the moment you leave.”
Bailey’s approach to creating an elevated customer experience is common sense, but it’s in how he achieves it – the minutia that’s so easy to miss – that makes his restaurants succeed. He works closely with wife Kara Bailey and sister-in-law Brynne Rinderknecht (an interior designer based in New York and Chicago) to craft the look and feel of his restaurants, a collaboration that evolves over the course of the development process.
“Half the fun is putting the whole thing together,” Bailey says. “I start with a general idea – it can be as basic as vegetarian food and whiskey – and then I just start to spin off of that…what do we really want to offer? What’s the full narrative of what we’re trying to provide? Many times, coming at it from different angles is the best way to find solutions. None of the restaurants look exactly like I thought they would when I first pictured them in my mind, but they all look exactly how I want them to when they’re done.”
Atmosphere and excellent service play integral roles in any restaurant’s success, but to Bailey, they are just as crucial as well-crafted food and drink menus. At Bailey’s restaurants, this translates into approachable and recognizable menu items, as well as dishes designed to push customers outside of their comfort zones. In some cases, this even translates to dishes that push Bailey outside of his own comfort zone.
“That’s always something we do when building a menu, drink menu or even the environment,” Bailey says. “You want to have enough familiarity to it, but also easy avenues to branch out a little bit. Then a little bit more the next time you come back, and then a little bit more, and all of a sudden you’re eating this dark brown cheese that tastes like peanut butter instead of Cheddar, or whatever it is that pushes the envelope for you. There’s no reason to ever take your own set of favorites or your own set of tastes as the only thing you offer to people. That can’t be the only thing you offer, because then, what are you offering them, really? You have to bridge that gap between what it is that you want and what it is they want, and hope it evolves over time.”
To guarantee that his restaurants use the highest-quality ingredients, Bailey operates a central kitchen and bakery that butchers and smokes meat, bakes fresh bread and pastries, prepares sauces and dressings and, with the opening of Small Batch, prepares fresh pastas. His central bakery is currently located next door to Rooster, but as the family of restaurants grows, more space will be required for production.
When the second location of Rooster opens in Tower Grove, it will be located inside the 50-year-old former Hamiltonian Bank and Trust building at 3150 South Grand Boulevard, which Bailey is rehabilitating with local architecture company SPACE. The building will also house Bailey’s new central bakery. According to Bailey, the building is the first glass-box financial institution to be restored in St. Louis.
The planned footprint allots the building’s entire 3,000-square-foot first floor for the dining room and bar as well as a 2,400-square-foot patio that Bailey is building for outdoor seating. Other new construction on the first floor includes an additional 3,000-square-foot dining room and an L-shaped kitchen added onto the back of the building. The new bakery will be located in the building’s lower level, just below the restaurant. With a larger central bakery, Bailey says he will be transitioning to using all organic flours, crossing off another long-term goal on his list.
Expanding to South Grand is also a progression in Bailey’s continuing investment in the City of St. Louis. He hesitates to claim a role in the city’s revitalization, but the impact Bailey’s restaurants have had as amenities in their respective neighborhoods is undeniable. Seven years ago, when he opened Rooster on Locust Street, the majority of restaurants opening in Downtown St. Louis were concentrated on Washington Avenue, with far fewer entrepreneurs investing in spaces on quieter blocks like Locust. Today, Bailey’s three wildly popular Downtown restaurants have added immeasurable value to the community for residents, workers and tourists.
“We’ve got people who are committed to the city, either Downtown specifically or the city as a region, and there’s more of an understanding of the value we already have here,” Bailey says. “We have such opportunity here for growth. I’m thankful for all of those people who are working toward that. I guess my role is to provide a really good service for all of those people – the residents, the people who work Downtown and work in Tower Grove – those people are committing themselves to those parts of the city and I feel like I owe them something back via the service we provide. We want good restaurants; we want to be an integral part of the neighborhood and of that stabilization and growth for as long as we can be.”
As for the natural progression of Bailey’s group of restaurants, he isn’t sure – or maybe isn’t ready to divulge – what comes next, though he’s made public his purchase of another plot of land in Tower Grove, this one on the corner of Grand Boulevard and Juniata Street, where he plans to eventually build another venture. This brings us back to Bailey’s restaurant bucket list, which apparently forecasts at least 10 years out.
“Having the property [on Juniata] as a whole and having the ability to put other properties on it is something we were really interested in,” Bailey says. “But it’s part of a 10-year sort of outlook. And that’s kind of where I like to be all the time, sort of looking out that far rather than just looking out one year or even two. I generally already know what we’re doing two years from now. The 10 year is what we’d like to do.”
Whatever secrets the list holds, St. Louis can be sure it will bring great things to the local dining scene. After all, just look at what Bailey’s ambitions have contributed to the city thus far.
“When I opened Chocolate Bar, my focus was on Chocolate Bar. I was going to do this as long as it took to get it right…and I was not going to let it fall apart,” Bailey says. “That’s where my head was at for sure. But as we’ve added more and grown, it makes me more excited about growing – not at an excessive pace, just enough, slow and steady, and always staying relevant to the city. I want to be in a good spot for my staff and my family; that’s the bottom line.”