Game Changers: 11 visionaries who have altered St. Louis’ culinary scene. Their experience. Their words.For the rest of our interviews with these Game Changers, click here.
Karen Duffy | Co-owner of Duff’s Restaurant
1972 – no one could believe that we would move into this neighborhood with two kids. I lived right upstairs when we opened. We rented: $125 a month for the apartment, $125 for the restaurant.
Thank god we met a cook, Gene Smith. He was a personal chef for the Pulitzers. He knew a lot about cooking. He was particularly fond of French-style cooking. He and his wife helped design the menu.
It wasn’t about the food. It was about a gathering space, being part of the neighborhood, welcoming those who lived here and serving good food. But the serving good food thing turned out to be really good food because of Gene. It’s not like we were chefs or restaurateurs. We were just following a dream of being intimate with the community.
We didn’t know what we were doing. We just knew that the times, they were a changin’. People thought we were hippies. I never thought we were.
We were naïve in the business end of it. It became a huge amount of paperwork. It’s wonderful to have good food and customers, but then there’s all the reality of being a business. I think to this day people are naïve about that aspect of the restaurant world.
People started calling. “Are you the person in charge of social media?” I was like, I think I am. I’m really social and I do the door. I organize the private parties. “Yes, that’s me. Can I help you?” I told [partner] Tim [Kirby], “We have to get somebody in charge of social media because I don’t know what it is and people keep calling.” That’s when I realized I’m out of the loop here.
We used to have the surprise burger, I miss that. It was one of my favorites. I invented it. … I can’t tell you. It’s a surprise.
Seems like yogurt, fruit, nuts and honey has been around for a while. I have a T-shirt because that was our softball team: “Duff’s fruits, nuts and honeys.” We had ’em all. That dish was on for a really long time.
The outdoor café – that was a huge change. We got to expand into the parking spots. That’s one of the best advertisements, because people see it’s a restaurant. There’s one little yellow tulip that comes out every year. When it comes up, we know that it’s time [to open the patio].
I went to an all-girl high school and college. There was a lot of empowerment and real encouragement to be a strong woman. I got that from Nerinx Hall and from what was called Rosary College at the time.
I’m just me. I could be a man or I could be a woman. I’m Karen Duffy. I can hang with the big boys.
Patrick Horine | Co-founder of Tower Grove Farmers’ Market, Downtown Farmers’ Market; Co-owner of Local Harvest Grocery and Local Harvest Cafe
My wife and I moved to Tower Grove South in 2003. We lived in San Francisco before that and L.A. and Denver before that. We always lived where there were thriving farmers’ markets. We wanted to do something that would be good for the neighborhood.
The first season, (2006), I would be there with knots in my stomach wondering how many people would show up, if my vendors would show up. … Now I can go to the market and actually enjoy it. And knowing that the farmers are doing well there and seeing all the people from the neighborhood and that they love it so much, that’s what I would say is the best accomplishment so far.
You have to pick your battles. I wanted to make this neighborhood the best neighborhood I could make it and then we could think about other parts of St. Louis after that.
We, at our grocery store and café and farmers’ markets, are pleasantly surprised at how supportive the community is. People here are just more loyal to their local economy in general. It’s a very refreshing, nice thing to see.
The farms coming up now are these small farms interested in taking care of their land, growing healthy food – and they seem to be sprouting up all over.
In our five years at the market, we’ve seen a year with hardly any apples, hardly any peaches, bad tomato production. Those are fragile crops. As the weather becomes more extreme, that will affect crop production, crops that people enjoy the most.
I come from several generations of grocery store owners, but I thought I had left that all behind. … I’ve come to really enjoy what I’m doing so much that it’s not like working at all.
I’ve learned to be patient. When I first started out … I would have an idea for something and think I could have it implemented in two days or a week. It would take two months. The other thing is how to prioritize my time. I have to make sure I have enough energy for my family – to not just give it all to these endeavors, but keep my priorities straight.
I should probably give this one to my business partner: I would be lost without Maddie [Earnest].
Supatana “Pat” Prapaisilapa | Owner of Thai Cafe, Thai Country Cafe, Thai Gai Yang Cafe, Thai Pizza Cafe, Thai Nivas Cafe
Thai is very popular. It’s in the top five cuisines in the world. I always do something different than what other Thai restaurants are doing.
People know Thai and they know pizza. Put them together: It come out very good. That became Thai Pizza.
Before I bought that building at Thai Café, people say, “Loop, Loop, Loop.” I bought that building. Take a chance. That time, east of Skinker, no one go there. I think some day they would cross Skinker. It take long time. But I stand by myself and do it. Joe Edwards moves down there. Oh, thank you, Joe!
We close each restaurant a different day. That’s the trick. If I open all five, that’s too many.
I think restaurants are fun. I meet people, make them happy.
[I worked] just six months at King and I. I learned how the kitchen need to be prepared. How the customer likes the food. After that I opened Thai Café. We did very well. A lot of people were waiting outside. It was packed. That’s why I had to open another restaurant.
At the time, I think the price was $4.95 for one meal. Now it’s $7.95. That’s $3 more in almost 20 years!
In my mind, I know exactly what Thai fast food can be. I studied Subway, St. Louis Bread, Mexican restaurants and how they are organized. I say, I can do Thai that way too. Fast-food Thai concept – I think it would do well, but I’ve been working so long, I’ll wait for my son to do it.
Everything is not easy. You have to work a lot.
Suchin Prapaisilp | Co-founder of Jay International Market, Owner of The King and I, Global Food Market
The way I get here, not easy. I traveled by myself from Bankok to U.S. My brother, not Pat [Editor’s note: Pat is pictured at left.], another one [Chat Chai], he here before me in St. Louis and he ask me, “Do you want to come to U.S.?”
When you are young man, you dream to go to U.S. because that’s all you see in the movie – San Francisco, New York or Hawaii. And that’s all you know.
We open in 1975. Me and my brother, we don’t have much money. $2,800 dollars we had. Today, $2,800 – you can’t do much with. Somehow, we got the space at 3232 S. Grand. The landlord charged us $65 a month. We don’t have air conditioning. One light bulb. We don’t have money for advertising. People don’t know about us. Sometimes we sit all day long and we get only $5.
I tell young generation, “We worked so hard to make it.” At one time, I worked three jobs. We had ice cream truck. We sell in north St. Louis. I know trick to sell ice cream: You come same time, same street. That way, the kid is waiting for you.
I used to work delivering telephone books. They would give you a nickel a book. One night in December it was very cold. An old man say, “Young man, why are you working today? It’s Christmas Eve. Come inside.” He give me a cup of coffee. I stay inside for five minutes. After that, I remember that house. When spring comes, I cut the grass, wash his car. For free. Because he help me. Later on, we became good friends. One cup of coffee. Five minutes. I pay him back. I always remember because he’s the one who was nice to me.
In the big storm when we had ice, a lot of Thai restaurants call. They ask me, “Are you open?” If I say yes, they open.
Long time ago in an interview on Channel 9, they ask me, “I heard you are the godfather of Thai community.” No, no. Not godfather. Big brother. It’s like a two-way street. You never only take, you have to give also.
I’m a simple guy. When you go that route, people respect you. Today, I still carry rice for the customer.
When you are small company, you have to be unique and different. Then you can fight with the big guy. My customers drive 100 miles from Cape Girardeau, Columbia, you name it. They come here because we sell product that is unique and different.
The King and I: It’s homemade. We start from scratch. It takes a lot of time to do that. It’s real Thai. Thai Thai. Not Thai adapted for Americans.
Tom Schlafly and Dan Kopman | Co-founders, The Saint Louis Brewery
Tom Schlafly: It was Dan who had an idea to start making beer. I just had an interest.
Dan Kopman: Tom was of the belief that these breweries were opening in other cities. Someone was going to do it here, so why not us? I’m not sure who convinced who. It started as an idea and the next thing you know, we bought this building. Once we owned the building, we had to build it.
TS: Dan is the one running the company. I’m smart enough to know what I’m not good at doing. That’s counterintuitive for a lawyer. Lawyers tend to be micro, micro, micromangers.
DK: The vision was relatively simple: Create a new brewery in St. Louis, make some really good beer, and throw some really good parties to get people to try these really good beers. And hope that there were enough people looking for something different that we could survive.
DK: The basic concept, I always felt fairly certain of: no toasted ravioli, no nachos, no Budweiser, no TV and no music. I always felt that we had to stand out and be different.
TS: Our strength as a regional brand is our association with St. Louis. One rule of thumb: Where people are Cardinal fans, they have the potential to be Schlafly fans. That would include areas such as Memphis, Louisville, Evansville. It would not include Chicago.
DK: The most important market to us is clearly St. Louis. One of the biggest challenges for us is to play a role in the long-term success of the city. That has to be part of our job because we’re so heavily dependent on this market.
DK: 95 percent of the market in St. Louis is still one beer style. Lighter-colored lagers are a great beer style; we make some of them. There’s no doubt that tastes are changing, but to think it’s “mission accomplished” – that we know what’s best, that 95 percent of consumers are wrong in the choice they are making about beer – would be a pretty overconfident statement.
TS: The situation that I woke up to a little less than a year ago was that I own 75 percent of the company. I have five nieces, one nephew. None has an interest in running the business. In 30 years, someone else is going to own the brewery. The transition will be either orderly or chaotic. I wanted it to be orderly.
DK: We have a direction. It’s built on a passion for doing the right thing by our employees, vendors and consumers. If we look after all our friends, we’ll do well.
TS: The reason for offering employees a share in the business is fairness and self-interest on my part. The employees who have been here a long time are the ones who have made the business what it is and who understand our mission, whatever that is. If I want to see that continued, I would trust their vision, rather than some outsider who had never heard of the brewery before.
DK: I wouldn’t change what we’ve done. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss out on the ride. While there were moments of frustration and fear, we had some pretty good parties. At the end of the day, we are left as humans with our memories.
Bill Cardwell | Owner of Cardwell’s at the Plaza and BC’s Kitchen
I supervised, coast-to-coast, about 125 different restaurants during the early ’80s. Concept development. My frustration was that your ideas weren’t always executed because you had all these employees and chefs and managers that didn’t always agree with you or weren’t on the same page. That was one of the driving forces to want to have my own restaurant.
[I opened] Cardwell’s in Clayton in ’87 on my own. It did change Clayton as a restaurant destination. The Clayton restaurant was a very traditional-style restaurant: traditional lunch, traditional dinner. … When I opened Frontenac, we went more upscale casual.
I don’t know that you’ve had a change in dining palate. There’s just a lot more available now than in the ’80s. Nantucket Cove was the only seafood restaurant of any size in the Central West End. In those days, Balaban’s was considered the most creative restaurant in town.
There are more people who are more aware of what they are eating and where its sources are. And there are people who really don’t care.
My definition of value is that people understand the ingredients used to produce a meal and, if they are high-quality ingredients, then the price attached to it. St. Louis restaurant pricing is really reasonable for the ingredients that we use. The same dishes that we do here would be twice as much money in other markets.
People go into a restaurant, see it’s really busy and think, “You must be making a ton of money.” We have a good business but we don’t make a lot of money. Everybody gets paid good wages. It’s all about doing it right versus the easy or cheap way.
Nothing is more rewarding than if someone considers you a mentor. It makes you proud.
It’s not about making a dish well one time. It’s making that same dish well over and over and over again and not losing the passion or the discipline to do it. I get tired of making things. There are a lot of things that you have on your menu that you might go, “I don’t really want to do it anymore because I’m bored with it.” That’s not what business is about. Business is about consistency.
People who worked for me would say that I was a real pain in the ass to work for. But that was because my standards are high. I don’t like to make compromises.
I’d be lying if I said that there aren’t days when I don’t want to get up and go to work. But that’s part of the discipline. That day when you don’t feel like being here, you have to reach inside and do it a little better and a little harder.
Zoe Robinson had Zoe’s on Park Avenue in Lafayette Square when I opened Fedora in 1984. They were doing very innovative food. I didn’t reinvent everything.
What else would I do? I only have one outside hobby and that’s skiing. I don’t have an exit strategy.
Gerard Craft | Chef and owner of Niche and Brasserie by Niche
I’m still not ready to own a restaurant. It’s a very stressful experience. Any mistake you make personally affects a lot of people. I have over 100 employees. Every choice I make affects everybody. If the economy is bad, it’s not my employer’s problem. It’s me who’s not going to get a paycheck.
I’m always doing research. I’m on the computer until 3 in the morning almost every night checking out what other people are doing. If I travel, it’s a food vacation. There’s never been just a laid-back vacation. It’s all about learning and progressing. Even when I went to my brother’s wedding in London, I staged at St. John’s.
Those who work with me and those who work really hard for me, I want to see become amazing. I want to see them grow and go about it the right way. I watch a lot of young chefs just hop around. They are not in it for the right reasons, some of them.
It is about learning the process of business, … it’s not just about being a good cook. There are plenty of good cooks out there.
Mentor is such a scary word. I don’t know if it’s a mentorship as much as just caring about people.
There’s a lot of weight on your shoulders. A lot of people aren’t dining at your restaurant just to enjoy a good meal. They are dining at your restaurant to have, in their eyes, “the best meal” in town. What is “the best meal”? I don’t know. That becomes a weird sort of pressure. Those expectations have become pretty high.
It’s easy to make big mistakes. I was very cautious with Brasserie. For almost two years before that, I was trying to buy Chez Leon. When we did it, I knew it was right. I was still nauseous the entire time, but I knew that it was going to succeed. I started to lose that feeling with Porano. I’d rather eat crow than have a failing restaurant.
I don’t know if I’ll ever win a James Beard Award, but getting invited to that party … it’s such a surreal experience. You’re hanging out with so many of your culinary heroes. To me, that’s what it’s all about. Winning or losing? Whatever.
These past couple years of the recession have been some of the hardest years of my life. It’s been a really stressful time. It’s been easy to get depressed. You’re not exercising because you are constantly working, eating bad food late at night. That catches up with you. Part of staying fresh is taking care of yourself and keeping yourself fresh and your brain fresh so you can think.
A couple of years ago, my mom got sick with a really bad type of cancer with a horrible success rate. She recovered and had her 60th birthday party here. … A lot of our family and her friends flew in. It was a really scary meal to cook; it was an important meal for me. … It was just a three-course dinner, it wasn’t anything over the top. But I think it was perfect.
My wife and kids help keep me grounded. I do everything as a result of them. They are my biggest inspiration.
I don’t want to look back and say, “God, what did I do for the past 20 years?” I want to make a difference. I want to be a part of something. I want to enjoy it and I want my family to enjoy it.
Joe Edwards | Owner of Blueberry Hill, Moonrise Hotel, The Pageant, Pin-Up Bowl and Flamingo Bowl
When I opened Blueberry Hill, within a week I realized that if I didn’t start to help work on the area, Blueberry Hill wouldn’t succeed. By the 1980s, things were starting to pick up. They were “Loop-ish” businesses: Owner-operated, they had their own personality. By the 1990s, the county part of The Loop was pretty well set. That’s why it was a prime time to start directing things into the City of St. Louis and cross that artificial city-county border.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I thought I’d like to open a place where I felt comfortable, program the jukebox and unbox a lot of pop culture collections, and hope that they enjoyed them as much as I do.
I changed every record every two weeks so that people had a selection. There were a maximum of 200 selections on a jukebox; at most places, people got bored with them. At Blueberry Hill, you never did because I have 30,000 45 rpm records, and I would rotate those through. It really put us on the map. Music has always been a big part of it. The music-food combination is the big factor. Strong drinks help also.
The Blueberry Hill hamburger: Buy the best meat, have a wonderful bun made – which, for all these years until now was made by Pratzel’s Bakery – and cooks who are really good at cooking it the way people ask for it, and let the customer choose what goes on it. It’s a simple formula.
There are cooks that have been here 25 years, several 20 years, quite a few over 15 years. Consistency equals longevity in the restaurant business.
The whole basic foundation of Blueberry Hill or anything that followed it was my great desire to treat people with respect and consideration. My goal was just to create an enjoyable work environment, a fun place to work, with fun people who are hardworking and dedicated, but they can be very individualistic. At one time people said, “Do you have to have a tattoo to work at Blueberry Hill?” You don’t.
The resurgence of The Loop was because of owner-operated businesses.
There are some projects that I do that I know I’m going to lose money on in the beginning, but it’s the right thing in the long term.
To finish a project, you have to believe in it wholeheartedly. You always have to be a little naïve and unrealistic going into it or nothing would ever get done. If you know ahead of time how many hoops there are to go through, it would be hard to psych up. I find boundless energy when I really believe in something.
My hope is that we are adding to the unique qualities of The Loop so not only is it one of the 10 Great Streets of America, but to see the central corridor of St. Louis stabilized – from Ladue and Clayton to The Loop and Central West End, Grand Center, the Locust area, downtown. When that happens, St. Louis is going to be back.
For the rest of this interview, click here.
J.W. “Trip” Straub III | President and CEO, Straub’s Markets
I had grown up through high school and college working for Straub’s. Each summer I would switch to a different department. One summer I’d do produce … the next summer, deli. One summer I drove our delivery trucks. When we had our bakeries, I’d work overnight at the bakeries. Bagging was my very first job.
We moved in in 1947 … at Kingshighway and Maryland – there are not a lot of corners where you can be on the main thoroughfare but also next to the neighborhoods that we serve. Throughout the years, people have come to really love that little store. We get more foot traffic at that store than any other.
Clayton and Clarkson seemed to be a phenomenal location [for our fifth store]. That’s why we chose the spot. We wanted to have enough space to do everything that we couldn’t do in the small stores. Just expand on a lot of the good things we were doing in small spaces. We thought that would carry over to the larger space.
There were about 137 reasons [we closed Ellisville]. Most were mistakes we made, but certainly the timing as the economy started to tank. I’ve learned multiple MBAs both from an expense standpoint and time … the education was phenomenal; I’m not sure I loved the process of the education.
If you’re going to spend a lot of money to get into business, you need to have a lot more money than you think to weather any temporary storms. You need to be well capitalized if you are going to take a risk of that magnitude.
Is that OK, the high-price image? It’s very OK. The quality is higher, therefore the price is higher. And we want to pay our employees what they deserve to be paid.
We don’t have self-service checkout. We did in Ellisville and no one used it.
We still have a house charge. You can apply for a house charge and we’ll send you a bill once a month. And you won’t find that at any of the big stores. We started taking credit cards in the ’70s. I don’t think it was until the ’90s that Schnucks and those guys started doing it.
My great-grandfather would be pleased. We are bigger than we were then. I think he would be a little discouraged that I’m not standing at the front door shaking hands all day every day, because that’s what he did. He would be pleased with what our customers said about our staff.
Being in business for 110 years, if you are a longtime St. Louisan, you’ve heard of Straub’s. I believe there’s a market for our store in this town for the next 110 years.
Pat Shannon-VanMatre | Co-owner of Mike Shannon’s Steaks and Seafood, Lumen and El Borracho
Growing up in the community where everybody knows your dad, when it’s Mike Shannon, it’s so fun. They’ve all got great Mike Shannon stories.
I was in Hawaii on vacation with my sister and got a call from my dad saying, “I’m letting the general manager go, and I need you to come home and run the restaurant for me.” I agreed to do it for a couple years. Here I am 12 years later. I fell in love with the business and with my staff.
You have to have somewhat of a nurturing part of your personality to be in the hospitality business. Food and beverage is a nurturing business. As a woman, I feel like I have an advantage.
Being a mom and knowing when to give the nice, soft love and when to give the tough love was a great precursor for running restaurants. I have hundreds of people working for me. Any given day, any one of them can come in here with issues that might call for a hug and a “hang in there” or a “take the day off and take care of your family” or a boot in the butt. Those are the things that, as a woman and a mother, I sort of had the training for.
I raised my family here. The thing I love about St. Louis is the connections that you make that are so long-lasting and fulfilling. I don’t have to live in St. Louis, but I enjoy it. I live downtown. All three of my venues are downtown. I’m a St. Louisan who loves St. Louis and I don’t apologize for it.
If you don’t understand the business part, it doesn’t matter how great of a job you do at putting great food out and great hospitality. If more money is going out than in, you are not going to be around for too long.
I hop around. I can be in the mood for a burger and fries or trying somebody else’s steak at some other fine-dining restaurant. I’m big into going to independent restaurants.
That the Martini lunch has gone away was a sin. Who could not use a Martini in the middle of a business day? Up and extra olives.
I am a huge pairing person: a cold beer with a burger or taco or a hot dog at the ballpark, a steak with a glass of red wine, ceviche and an ice-cold Martini. These are things you live for, right?
I enjoy grass-fed [beef]. I also think sustainable beef is a goal that an American who owns a steakhouse wants to work towards.
Toasted raviolis: I always keep them on hand because when visitors come to St. Louis, even if you are a steakhouse, if you don’t have toasted ravioli, they are disappointed.
Sitting in the booth with my dad and Jack, watching my dad and Jack do their job with such passion and enjoyment – even as a young person, that’s what I wanted no matter what I did in my life: to be able to go to work and do it with such passion the way the two of them did.
The advice that my dad gave us has been to do the right thing. No matter how hard it is sometimes, make the choice that’s right.