St. Louis mourns Iron Barley owner Tom Coghill
Family, friends, customers and colleagues past and present from across the St. Louis restaurant community have been mourning the loss of Iron Barley co-owner Tom Coghill. Coghill passed away on March 11 at the age of 58.
Coghill was best known as the figurehead (alongside his wife, Gen) of Iron Barley, the High Ridge restaurant whose blend of barbecue and cast-iron cooking and live music programming earned it a fulsome fan base. Tom and Gen Coghill opened the first iteration of Iron Barley in South City in 2003, before relocating the restaurant to High Ridge in 2017.
Tom’s career prior to Iron Barley included almost a decade as a chef at Frazer’s. Owner Frazer Cameron paid tribute to Coghill in an Instagram post. “I attribute my early success to him,” Cameron wrote. He went on to describe Coghill as “the shoulder I could lean on when times were tough” and “dependable, hardworking, imaginative and creative despite his tough demeanor.”
Heather Lauby, a friend of the Coghill family and long-term employee at Iron Barley, described Tom as “a teddy bear” whose often gruff demeanor barely disguised an uncommon warmth of spirit. “He had the biggest heart,” Lauby said. “He had empathy for everyone.”
Lauby said Tom and Gen “became family” not just to her, but to many others who worked at Iron Barley over the years. “With his employees, he shot straight,” she said. “He pulled you aside and had a heart-to-heart with you and approached things with you that other bosses wouldn't. ... If you needed a talk, he'd give it to you.” Lauby joined Iron Barley as a bartender and server 15 years ago and, even when she moved to Florida for a few years, she continued doing social media management and graphic design for the restaurant. “Gen and I kept in touch, and she still was like a mom and a best friend to me,” Lauby said. When she returned to St. Louis in October 2020, she didn’t need to think twice about where she would look for a job. “It was just like joining my family again,” she said. Like many others, Lauby had her own wedding on the patio at Iron Barley.
Iron Barley was the fulfillment of Coghill’s vision, a place where he could offer customers great food and drink with a side of live music, Tom’s other passion. “You have lawyers sitting next to house painters sitting next to off-duty waitresses sitting next to people down on their luck,” Lauby said. “Everyone was welcome. It didn't matter if you had $2 in your pocket or $200 in your pocket. You could get a good meal there and have a good conversation. And Tom made you feel like you belonged there.”
That ethos was grounded in Tom’s firm rejection of pretense. Sometimes, customers would call asking if Iron Barley required diners to wear ties. “No,” Tom would respond, before informing the caller that, as a matter of fact, anyone arriving at the restaurant wearing a tie would be asked to remove it.
Tom Coghill wanted his guests to be comfortable while enjoying genuinely excellent food and drink – no matter their budget. “You could go in there and you could spend $9 on a sandwich, or you could spend $90 on a steak and a bottle of wine,” Lauby said. “And, if you did want to spend $9 on a Reuben, it was going to be the best damn Reuben you've ever had.”
These high standards were informed by Coghill’s appreciation for food and by the culinary skills he had honed across his career. Team members at Iron Barley like Heather Lauby had to get up to speed quickly. “A good friend of mine who is a chef and actually went to cooking school in France gave me a book when I started working at Iron Barley and said, ‘You're going to need this, working for Tom,’” Lauby explained. “Tom would talk about bouillabaisse and different terminology, and I would go home and look it up.”
Gen and Tom were married for 35 years. “They were the strongest marriage I have ever seen,” Lauby said. “They didn't do anything without each other. It was them against the world.” Tom and Gen leveraged a talent for bringing people together to benefit the broader community, hosting fundraisers for a variety of causes and people in need. “Tom and Gen donated every every time someone asked for something – they were the first ones to make a donation,” Lauby said. “They worked with a lot of organizations in the community for fundraising. Every time they did an event, the money went to charity, they never asked anybody for help for anything. It was always for someone else.”
Fittingly, Tom Coghill’s community is now rallying around his family. A celebration of life was held for Tom at Iron Barley on March 20. Heather Lauby has set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds in support of Gen and their three sons, Thomas, Charlie and Patrick, and all contributions are welcome. “So many people have reached out to me and asked me what they could do for Gen and the boys,” Lauby said. “Because Tom and Gen have done so much for other people. I thought if people could feel like they were helping in some way, it would give them some peace of mind.”
In an industry where trends come and go, Tom Coghill was proudly and fiercely himself, and that spirit resonated at Iron Barley and far beyond. “I think he's the only person I know who truly lived his life the way he wanted to live it and was himself all the time,” Lauby said. “Tom never wore an outfit. He didn’t put on a chef's coat. He was always in his own clothes, and his black bandana in the kitchen.”