Building Empires

St. Louis’ Kings & Queens of Cuisine

 

Rather than using economic tough times as a reason to play defense, these 10 entrepreneurial restaurant owners share the belief that hard times are a golden opportunity. They’re opening restaurants, hiring the area’s top chefs and managers and scouting out new ventures, confident that when the economy rebounds, they’ll be ahead of the game. With new venues launched in the past year and plans for new ones in the works, these reigning restaurant superstars are not only shaping the St. Louis culinary scene, but are defining it—as strong, growing and better than ever.

Munsok So
-The Drunken Fish
-Ice Kitchen
-XES Nightclub

When Munsok So opened his first Drunken Fish restaurant in May 2003, few sushi restaurants were melding high-quality food with music and nightlife. Six years later, he’s having one of his best years ever despite the tough times. Perhaps that has something to do with his ability to stay ahead of the curve; his new vodka bar/tapas restaurant Ice Kitchen in Westport Plaza is already being featured on best-tapas lists. “I thoroughly believe in competitive advantage and seeking that out in this volatile [business] world we’re in,” says So, who also owns a real estate company and XES nightclub in addition to the three Drunken Fish locations. “You have to be up on your game—that’s the fun part!” He’s living out that philosophy right now in Kansas City, where So’s new Drunken Fish will open soon in the Power and Light District, taking advantage of an up-and-coming neighborhood with foot traffic and out-of-town visitors—his formula for success in Westport, the CWE and Laclede’s Landing. Despite all his success, he remains humble—”I attribute
all my success to our valuable team.”

Joe Edwards
-Blueberry Hill
-Pin-Up Bowl
-Flamingo Bowl +
-Eclipse Restaurant
-Tivoli Theatre
-The Pageant
-Moonrise Hotel

Joe Edwards opened the one-of-a-kind luxury boutique Moonrise Hotel in The Loop earlier this year, fully confident that its uniqueness—the outer-space themed décor including four display cases of moon memorabilia—would carry it through the recession. In its restaurant, Eclipse, and a rooftop bar, Edwards bucked a nationwide trend towards casual dining by going slightly more upscale than his previous venue —Blueberry Hill, Pin-Up Bowl, The Pageant, The Tivoli and Flamingo Bowl. Edwards is indefatigable in improving his neighborhood and is currently advocating a trolley line linking The Loop to Forest Park. “I’m a strong believer that, if you pay attention to every detail and spend the money to do it right,” he says, “it will pay off in the long run.” With $24.5 million invested in the Moonrise Hotel and new Eclipse Restaurant, he’s looking at a big payoff.

Frank Schmitz & Claus Schmitz
-Mosaic
-Mosaic Lounge
-BARcelona

After working in his parents’ guesthouse in Germany and attending culinary school, Frank Schmitz migrated to the front of the house, winding up in Bermuda. His brother, Claus, traveled to Australia but remained in the kitchen. Cupid’s arrow brought Frank to St. Louis, where he opened BARcelona in 2002. While helping him, Claus saw the opportunity for Mosaic. But when it comes to expansion, their goals diverge. BARcelona already has a satellite in Indianapolis, and another is coming to Nashville. Claus relocated Mosaic Downtown last year and added an adjacent lounge over the summer. In addition,
in the next year he’s planning a bistro market version of Mosaic in Clayton, as well as another Mosaic tapas restaurant in Kirkwood. But fi rst, he’ll be making good on a contract he signed a couple of years ago to bring Mosaic’s cuisine to hungry travelers at Lambert International Airport. It’s looking like you could plan a vacation around the Schmitz’ restaurants. Here’s a vote for a BARcelona in Bermuda.

Jeff Orbin & Aaron Teitelbaum
-Monarch
-Herbie’s Vintage 72

Back in 2001, graphic designer Jeff Orbin offered to help an old friend, up-and-coming chef Aaron Teitelbaum, create the identity and design should he ever decide to open his own restaurant. Teitelbaum decided just that, and the pair entered the new venture
together. Before Orbin knew it, the lofty goals of the Monarch concept—a fusion of food, wine and art—had ensnared him. “We really poured our hearts and souls into Monarch,” Orbin says. Six years wiser, the two were considering options for a new venue when the opportunity came up for them to buy one of their favorite restaurants, Balaban’s. They jumped at the chance. They see their tribute to the iconic restaurant, which they renamed Herbie’s Vintage 72, as an approachable neighborhood counterpart to their foodie destination, Monarch. When asked about the economy, Orbin replies, “We opened Monarch at a horrible time. When times are tough, people are still looking to entertain themselves.” In anticipation of a recovery, the partners have a more casual concept than Herbie’s in the works, and they’re planning “some exciting new changes” at Monarch. Stay tuned.

 Pat Shannon
-Mike Shannon’s
-Steaks and Seafood
-Lumen Private Event
-Space
-El Borracho

Pat Shannon entered the restaurant world 11 years ago at her father’s restaurant and hasn’t looked back. She’s co-owner of the private event space, Lumen, and the new Mexican eatery, El Borracho. She also consulted on Skybox on Laclede’s Landing. And she’s working on yet another Downtown project. “I love downtown St. Louis,” she
explains. “I live here, I work here, I play here.” But her most rewarding role is mentoring her son, Gary VanMatre Jr., Mike Shannon’s General Manager. “It’s exciting for me to do that with him the way I was able to do that with my father.” In fact, she says, it was VanMatre who wanted to do a Mexican cantina, to “have some good, authentic Mexican food Downtown in a fun atmosphere.” The location they and their business partners chose is on the very edge of Downtown, in the Locust Business District, which Shannon predicts is a burgeoning dining destination. Given her stats, it would be hard to bet against her.

Jesse Jones
-The Rotten Apple
-The Stable
-Jake’s Steaks

Jesse Jones’ passion for beer is evident as he talks about brewers being romantics who love the product they make. “Half of me is that guy,” he says, “but the other half of me is trying to pay the bills.” He fuses the two parts of himself at The Stable, his second venture with business partner Paul Pointer. The Stable, which is a few months past its one-year mark, successfully blends a casual pizzeria atmosphere, along with creative American dishes and a neighborhood pub vibe. Production capacity limits the South City artisanal brewery, but, Jones says, “On the distillery side, we’re moving full force ahead.” A dark rum, 85 Lashes, is available now; an original whiskey using peaches and corn from Calhoun County, IL., will be out in mid-October. As for producing hard cider at The Rotten Apple in Grafton, the duo’s original venture, Jones says having a couple of tanks remains a dream. In the meantime, they bought Jake’s Steaks on Laclede’s Landing “because we felt that it was an opportunity,” Jones says. “You can’t be afraid of drama. In this economy, I don’t think entrenching or saving your money is the answer.”

Gurpreet Padda & Ami Grimes
-Café Ventana
-Chuy Arzola’s
-DiSilvios

Even at 8am, Ami Grimes and Gurpreet Padda radiate energy. “Our creative juices get flowing whenever we’re right on that edge of chaos,” Grimes says. With their new Italian restaurant, DiSilvios, opening soon next door to year-old Café Ventana in Midtown, plus a coffee roaster and chocolate producer coming online in Collinsville next spring, chaos may be an understatement. Oh, and did we mention they are responsible for the resurrected Chuy Arzola’s, which opened in early summer on Lindell? The pair’s flair for edutainment has attracted top local names like chef Chris Lee to help realize their culinary vision. Busy as they are, the business partners love sitting down to eat with family and friends, and they extend that hospitality to their customers. “People sharing food is one of the easiest ways to create community,” Padda says. Their approach to hospitality is one of the secrets to Café Ventana’s success—and the duo hopes it will work its magic again in the new Collinsville venture, which Grimes describes as a replica of the café, only five times larger, with a more in-depth focus on chocolate and coffee. Who wouldn’t love a community built around those?

 

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Photo credit: Jay Fram

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