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Mar 20, 2018
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The Scoop: Fitz’s founder quietly returning a Delmar original to its roots

March 15th 11:03am, 2011

031511_FitzA fresh coat of paint to the dining area. An outdoor lighted sign that needed to be fixed. A kitchen that needed a chef. A menu that yearned for house-made ingredients. If you’ve frequented Fitz’s over the past few months, maybe you’ve noticed some of the changes that Michael Alter has been quietly making to the Delmar anchor since he repurchased the business this past fall.

Alter founded Fitz’s in 1993 with partners Alan Richman and Tom Cohen. While Cohen left the business early on, Alter and Richman (the latter owns Sasha’s Wine Bar, Sasha’s on Shaw and Demun Oyster Bar) worked throughout the 1990s to develop Fitz’s as an anchor in The Loop. The entrepreneurs sold the St. Louis root beer-maker and restaurant to equity firm The Westgate Group in late 1999. In 2003, Fitz’s was sold to another local investment firm, Clayton Capital Partners.

In an exclusive interview with the Scoop, Alter explained that he repurchased the restaurant and soda microbrewery because he felt that Fitz’s had lost some of it’s connectedness to The Loop, having gone in what he called “too corporate of a direction” and having veered away from the diner-esque, indie elements that characterized Fitz’s when it opened. He cited, for example, a logo stamped with the print “American Grill and Bottling Works,” and an uninspired menu cover page that looked like it could be that of Steak ‘n Shake. While branding might have bothered him, he was also disheartened that the art-deco building that he worked hard to restore was looking a bit neglected – thus the paint job and sign repair.

Alter couldn’t complain about numbers – business was, and remains, bustling at Fitz’s. But could a restaurant serve great food without a real chef? For Alter, the answer was a resounding “no.” Thus, he has been working with culinary professionals and is currently in the search process to hire an executive chef. The new menu, which debuted last week, is a bit smaller than it was during the years in which Westgate Group and Clayton Capital Partners owned the restaurant, but back are the little touches that make for truly tasty fare – namely, the return of house-made ingredients.

A smoker now sits outside the restaurant so that the apple-wood smoked beef brisket and the pulled pork sandwich can be given the attention they deserve. A simple side like baked beans uses the same earthy root beer baked beans recipe – sans the bacon – that was reprinted in Bon Appétit last July. (Alter’s wife is a vegetarian, so he’s keenly aware of the need for fresh, veg-happy fare.) One section of the menu that has increased in size are the famous floats, with additions like the Loop Da Loop (root beer topped with coffee ice cream and Hershey’s chocolate sauce), Purple Splash (grape soda plus vanilla ice cream) and others made with a variety of Fitz’s hand-batched draft sodas.

On the adult beverages side, Alter’s first move was to re-install all the beer taps at the first floor bar that had been removed. All 10 taps now carry a selection of Missouri (and mainly St. Louis-produced) craft beers. Alter’s next move is to give the upstairs bar a face-lift so that the space, where two decades ago college kids hung out in the evenings over a beer and a game of pool, will have the same, easygoing feel of a Delmar bar.

What’s not going to change? The soda microbrewing operation in the restaurant. That, said Alter, was genius from the start. He smiled as he talked about the kids who stand mesmerized at the window watching workers on the bottling line. “I remind the staff that when they are in there, they are ‘on,’” he noted.

Alter is “on” too, and he’s not likely to turn to the “off” switch any time soon.

By Ligaya Figueras

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