There are endless motivations which drive individuals to take on the extraordinary task of realizing a restaurant from a concept to an operating brick and mortar business. The concept phase is one that almost anyone who has cooked for a living has toyed with. Creating imaginary transcendental meals in the mind with a devoted staff, talented kitchen and endless capital is a pleasurable activity while prepping cases of button mushrooms. Yet the reality of creating, opening and operating a restaurant from the concept phase to the launch phase is both a cerebral as well as emotional undertaking that a small percentage of dreamers has successfully achieved. The “It’s a Process” series will look at the the realities of opening a restaurant, successfully maintaining a restaurant and what makes it necessary sometimes to call it quits and shutter your restaurant. Watching the first part of this process unfold for Chris Bork and Casey and Jeremy Miller, chef and proprietors of Vista Ramen, offers clarity for such motivations as well as a few fears and insight into the foundations built to support not only a viable business but a thriving, successful one.
The pre-opening stage can be quite a honeymoon phase. Finding the perfect partner to successfully share both the honeymoon and the long years with is key to a businesses success. It is a time for reflection regarding your intentions and long discussion with your potential business partners of what you want to build together; it’s philosophy and your driving motivations.
Casey and Jeremy Miller are owners and proprietors of The Mud House Cafe as well as Dead Wax record store, both on Cherokee in St. Louis. The Mud House, in operation under the Millers since 2008, enjoys not only robust sustained success but has also brought the Millers a deal of both critical and public favor as restaurant owners but also as a unique and enigmatic brand. Shortly after taking over The Mud House, the Millers brought on Chris Bork to act as chef and business partner. Bork’s involvement with the operation brought a good deal of additonal acclaim and established the breakfast and lunch cafe style business as a place to enjoy a well executed, seasonal menu on par with quality full service dinner restaurants. After four years of contributing to the continued growth of The Mud House, Bork left to open the membership-required fine dining restaurant Blood and Sand as executive chef. A few years later Bork announced he was leaving Blood and Sand with intentions of launching his own restaurant.
“We’re not even open and we’re not even there yet but so many serendipitous things have happened,” says Jeremy Miller. Such serendipity it seems, can be a huge contributing factor to successfully opening a restaurant. “The space at 2609 Cherokee had just became available. The tenant was no longer in there and I made some calls and was like, let’s use this place. We were able to think about something else, another restaurant, only because of the amazing people that surround us at Mudhouse. And at the same time Chris became available. He had been working on opening his own restaurant with a sommelier over in the Tower Grove neighborhood, but we talked to him because we wanted to ask him to consult for us and put together a menu and he was like, ‘let me think about it’ and in about a week he said ‘I’ve given it some thought and I’m not feeling the project I’m working on and I’m interested in what you guys are doing and I’d like to be a part of it. Let me shift gears and let’s open a restaurant.’ This didn’t happen over one dinner one night where we said ‘hey lets do this.’ It’s all been a process.”
Finding the visceral center for their new venture was huge for the Millers. “I’m so happy to be working with Chris again. And using Aaron Stovall, (the Mudhouse front of the house manager) and getting people excited about something,” expresses Casey Miller. The Millers had a business philosophy which proved fruitful at The Mudhouse. “We tried to put together a team of people to surround ourselves with, to work with, people who know more than you,” explains Jeremy Miller. For the Millers, a history of employing people who were not only talented at what they did but also genuinely invested and enthusiastic resulted in curating a pool of resources for their new venture. But, most importantly, it provided them with partners and employees who they could inherently trust.
“There are two types of trust” explains Chris Bork. “There’s those people who you can say, ‘I trust you’re not going to steal from the safe,’ and then there’s trust like, ‘what you are bringing to the table – your contribution to this project, I believe in it.’ And that is huge. And that’s what we’ve realized.”
“All four of us are good at different things and you see that,” says Jeremy Miller. “Chris asked me last night if I would lose my shit if he didn’t make the Korean fried chicken for the second pop-up dinner we hosted and I was like ‘I’m ok with whatever is on your menu, we’ll get it on the tables.’ I trust his food. I know it’s going to look great, taste great, make people happy.” The personal and professional growth the Millers garnered from their years operating The Mudhouse became evident to Bork as he re-connected with them on the Vista project. “Seeing how we’ve all grown has been one of the most satisfying things that has happened so far,” says Bork. “I’m happy with where I am now personally and I can see how Casey and Jeremy have grown. It’s cool to see where we all are now. It makes me happy to see how we have and can grow as friends and as a brand. We all have our strong points – and that is something in itself, realizing that and knowing we can trust each other. I can be an impatient person, Jeremy is leaps and bounds more patient than me so that helps us because that’s one of his strong points. He’ll say we need to wait this out or wait to get this right and do it the right way before we jump in. And Casey is amazingly good at what she does. We don’t always agree but I trust her with the look and feel of the place, the vision of the space. It’s the same with Aaron – he is strong in so many ways. I can work in a restaurant and I can exist as an owner and be good with people and staff but Aaron is a lot better with people.”
Bork continues, “There are bartenders and chefs who do it for themselves and there’s no point – you’ll never make it in the long term. So you have to want to make people happy. Obviously you have to care about your craft and what you do but the main reason people come to restaurants is to be happy. And the people that succeed at that, the Kevin Nashans and Gerard Crafts – you can feel that when you go to their restaurants.”
“We are in this business and we want to do it properly,” adds Casey Miller.
The acquisition of a space and Bork as Chef was definitely key in their process of launching their restaurant but next came actualizing the ramen based concept the Millers and Bork had decided on. And at the same time, ramen restaurants were to become wildly popular in St. Louis in thanks to chefs like David Chang and his restaurants including Momofuku and Ssäm Bar. “We’re not trying to re-create Momofufku but David Chang created a certain style of restaurant that is based around ramen. I mean, that’s what we’re doing. I don’t feel at all like we’re ripping off David Chang but there’s a part of me that is careful and aware that we don’t come off that way,” expresses Bork. As for the five newly opened or anticipated local ramen shops including one launched by Qui Tran, owner of the phenomenally popular Mai Lee, Bork suggests transparency was always a part of his process. “I had a conversation with Qui and was like ‘I respect you a lot and I’m not trying to hop on any bandwagon but I’ve been talking to the Millers about opening a Ramen place and doing it in the Cherokee neighborhood.’ You know how Qui is, he was like, ‘dude, there’s no competition. You are gonna do your thing, I’m gonna do mine and success for everyone.’ But Qui – he’s taking an intensely traditional Japanese route. And we’ll be different. Even if Qui was down the street I’d feel good about it. And I’m not worried about the other places opening – Robata, that place in Clayton, Qui’s place or the place that just opened in Ballwin. I’m not worried but I’m definitely conscious of it. The way the restaurant looks, feels, the way the menu works, we want to be different than other places. And I think we absolutely will be.”
Concept pontificated and decided upon, space and key partners in place. Next came the very real, very pragmatic details of creating their business plan, acquiring capital and the endless, detailed minutiae required to open a business. “It’s amazing to see how Jeremy has stepped in and grown so much as a business person. Five years ago he was trying to cook on an electric stove at Mud House,” laughs Bork.
Monumental work still continues with the opening, mostly details of the full building rehab and a complete restaurant build. “It’s amazing the full scope of this project,” says Jeremy Miller. “It’s all a process.”
When asked what they fear going into this project, Jeremy Miller responds. “My biggest fear opening this place is being misunderstood as to why I’m doing it. For people to misunderstand what you’re doing, who you are, what you’re trying to do and why and then they blur lines. I don’t care if my name is attached to any project I work on, I just want to work on projects. I want to maintain focus on the places we have and constantly move forward. We wanna have a place that’s affordable and delicious and house made and fun to hang out at. If we wanna do shawarma next or gyro or fro-yo, I don’t want to be misunderstood as to why I’m doing it.”
Casey Miller compares the new venture to adding a newborn baby to the family already busy with children. “I imagine this is how moms feel when they add a new baby to their families, another kid. It’s like ‘hey, this kid needs me a lot but there’s this other kid that still needs me but this one needs me more.’ I worry about being overwhelmed with multiple businesses which are open from early morning to late at night.”
Bork says candidly, “I worry about people not liking it, of course. Being totally honest, I scare myself sometimes cause I can be a sensitive person and I can freak out but I will lean heavily on my partners and Aaron to help me remain grounded. You worry about becoming an asshole. I don’t want to become too much of an asshole.” Bork smiles and reflects on a simpler, brighter side when he sums it up succinctly. “My goal is to make delicious food that people enjoy. Maybe it’s also a little bit fun, too.”