Business owners across the St. Louis culinary spectrum gather to discuss the scene and where it’s going.
Event Date: Monday, November 4, 2013
Place: The Libertine Time: 3pm
• Scott Carey, Sump Coffee
• Nick Luedde, The Libertine
• Kevin Lemp, 4 Hands Brewing Co.
• Justin Leszcz, YellowTree Farm
• TJ Vytlacil, Blood & Sand
• Kevin Nashan, Sidney Street Cafe
• Adam Tilford, Tilford Restaurant Group
YellowTree Farm’s Justin Leszcz (left) and Sidney Street Cafe’s Kevin Nashan
Kevin Nashan, Sidney Street Cafe (shot on location at Sidney Street Cafe for our January 2014 Tastemakers Issue)
Editor’s Note: In the interest of preserving the authenticity and candor of the Tastemakers conversation, this story contains strong and potentially offensive language.
Catherine Neville: What is it that draws you to this industry, and keeps you in it?
Adam Tilford: I was in the industry all through high school, college. Working a ton of hours, not making much money, and the burn out, I guess, kind of took over the passion a little bit. So I got into real estate. I was selling residential real estate and my brother, who was a chef, said, “Hey, you want to open this little taco [place] in the [Central] West End?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m doing alright in real estate. This is really exciting; I’m bored.” Opened that up and just lost everything, absolutely everything. All of my investments. I was selling real estate to pay the bills at the restaurant because I was pretty much an absentee owner at the time. It took about two years before I switched gears, got rid of my real estate license and got into Tortillaria full time. I learned how to balance the passion I have for the industry with owning a business. Running a restaurant and running a business are really two different things, and it’s a fine line.
CN: TJ and Kevin, you guys both run the business and you’re the creative spirit of the business. How do you balance that?
Kevin Nashan: If you didn’t love it, you’re not going to do it. For the most part, it’s just this passion for wanting to make people happy, because we all try to do that on a daily basis. I love [the] quote: “No money, no love, no passion, no nothing.” At the end of the day, you’ve got to bring it to reality and make food that’s going to pay the bills, but also serves as a creative outlet for you, and hopefully you’re not cutting any corners in the process, and you’re staying true to what you believe in and you’re evolving. That’s most important – you put yourself on a pair of tracks and you keep going forward.
CN: What do you say to young chefs who have talent and want to open their own place, but don’t necessarily understand what they’re diving into?
KN: At what point are you ready for it? At what point are you ready to do something bigger in life? I think that setting them up and saying, ‘Hey, listen, it isn’t always about cooking. It’s about knowing your food costs, your labor costs, knowing that all the money has to be spent on the restaurant, continuous upkeep: The awning – if there’s a tear in it, you have to fix it; if a light’s out you have to fix it – all those little expenses. Every one thinks it’s this passion, fun, that kind of thing, but there are so many details. You can come in, cook and do your thing, but it’s sweating all those details and knowing that people might not show up that day, your deliveries may not come – if they come, they may be shitty – then you have to deal with a grouchy customer at 5:30. Sometimes you just want to hide in a corner, but if you’re excited about it and you love it, it keeps you all pumped up to do it again the next day.
TJ Vytlacil: To the opposite side of that, the reason I love this business is that minutia that [Kevin’s] talking about. I don’t just have passion for cocktails. I have passion for putting a nail in the wall and hanging something. I do all of the maintenance at Blood & Sand, and when something is broken, I love to fix it.
Justin Leszcz: He really does. The other day, I drove by the alley [where Blood & Sand is located] and he was painting the black railings.
TV: I had to teach myself, three years ago, how to use these grinders when I had to sand all this rust down or the door was going to rust through, and that was going to be $15,000. Then you equate that to how much you have to do in sales to make that up, and you will lose sleep at night. I enjoy having somewhat of an ADD personality, shifting gears all day long – from dealing with grumpy customers to fixing something in the bathroom to figuring out plumbing on a Sunday. I really love that, because I’m never bored. That being said, 90 percent of the time it can be mentally exhausting, but that 10 percent is what I live for. When you’ve built something with your own hands and you have a chef that’s putting food out that you know he built with his own hands, and everything comes together and that [customer] is happy, they have no idea of everything that went into that process, including maintaining the property…It’s really, really satisfying.
CN: That’s like the sweet spot?
TV: It’s so good. It really is.
KN: It’s so scary. This gentleman right here [Scott Carey] probably had one of the scariest situations this year, and people have no clue. It’s amazing.
TV: Describe what you did. I’m still impressed.
JL: He dug through shit.
Scott Carey: The lateral [line at Sump] collapsed. We started digging out the basement to move it, and the slab was the only thing holding up the foundation. Once you broke the cement slab, the foundation fell. Basically, a septic field had sort of created itself on the corner of the building, and so there was no structure. We had to dig out the shit – and it was terrible – and then put it back together. It was pretty intense. That’s what you have to do. And what I would say about passion…for me, it’s not really about passion, because I think all marriages start with passion, and a lot of marriages fail. Passion isn’t enough. For me, it’s possession. It is something that I cannot not do. It is like a big art project. It is this sort of metaphysical wrestling match that is ever persistent. And it’s this idea of trying to force my will on a world that doesn’t want to behave, customers that don’t want to receive what I’m making, mechanicals that fail, a 200-year-old city, whatever that may be. It’s that possession; it’s not passion, because passion fades. It’s exhausting…what TJ and Kevin said, it’s physically exhausting.
Nick Luedde: But if passion fades, how are you going to keep going?
SC: You’re possessed. It’s like being demonically possessed. That’s what I’m saying. It’s not passion.
TV: You have passion through that possession, though.
SC: No. It’s like, do I have a choice in like, my hair line? That’s how I feel about it. I don’t really have a choice now in what I’m doing.