Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
"We have had a great first year and have been humbled by the positive response and reviews we have received," chef/owner Ryan Rogers posted on Feast BBQ's Facebook page on July 4, the date of the Southern Indiana restaurant's first birthday. "Some of the highlights include a 91 in the LEO Weekly, being named Best BBQ in Town by Louisville Magazine, the Derby Night Dining Destination in the Courier-Journal, a nod in the Chicago Tribune, and most recently included among the 16 hottest BBQ restaurants in the country by Eater National." In the following interview, Rogers discusses why New Albany, the death and resurrection of Feast's lunch service and scouting out O'Charleys.
Louisvillians are notorious for being reluctant to go across the river.
So why'd you open up over here?
The first few years I lived in Louisville, I never, I went across the river like maybe twice. I refused to go. I had friends that lived in Indiana, I was like there's no way, there's nothing to do there, why would I go across the river? When I had the idea that I wanted to open a restaurant, I started looking for spaces. I had zero dollars to my name basically. So it was trying to find a space that I could afford with having no money. I wanted to open something on the East End, but it's really expensive out there, Everybody that owns property thinks they're sitting on a goldmine, which I understand, I guess.
But I happened to drive over to New Albany one day, I had an ex-girlfriend that was from Southern Indiana, and I was just driving around downtown, I had been to downtown New Albany a couple of times, and there were some shining stars. I really thought Bank Street Brewhouse was really good when [chef Josh Lehman, now at the Holy Grale] was there, I went multiple times to go there.
So I just happened to be driving around looking for property, and I saw this building and it had a for sale/for lease sign, just like randomly called the phone number, because it's a beautiful building, it's got hand-carved stone on the outside. And luckily, Mike Kopp, who was the real estate agent on the property, and Steve Resch, the guy who owned the building and was the contractor, were willing to kind of make a really sweet deal to get some people in to downtown New Albany and revitalize some of these buildings. So Steve basically, we worked out for him to finance the construction and the sale of the property to me on a very small amount of money that I put down there.
How long did the whole process take from when you decided on this property to when you opened up?
It was July of 2011 when I decided that I was going to leave Zanzabar and work on a barbecue restaurant opening it up. I had Mary Rosen [the Louisville Courier-Journal's restaurant reviewer]come in and he'd done a review on Zanzabar, and it was, you know, a really good review for a bar. We had gotten three stars and he said the specials that the chef is putting out are fantastic. So Marty Rosen had done a really good review on Zanzabar and said, you know, the bar food is good, but just come in and eat the chef's specials—the chef's doing some barbecue stuff right now as a special and its some of the best barbecue he's had since some barbecue place he really liked went out of business, in Illinois I think.
So, the next week, after the review comes out, the Courier-Journal decides they're going to shut down Metromix, and basically got rid of all of those employees that were working at whatever that was, Velocity, and he brought in all of those employees to Zanzabar, and paid for all of their food there, and got a whole bunch of stuff off of our specials menu. I was doing eight or ten specials every day. I would print it out and hand it to customers, and I had a chance to speak with him. He said, your barbecue is fantastic, you guys should really consider moving in that direction. I went to the owners, hey had their own ideas about where they wanted to go. So, we kind of parted ways, and I said I need to be doing a barbecue restaurant, I think that will go really well. So that was July 2011.
I kind of found this space within three or four months of that. I had taken what was supposed to be a part-time job at The Anchorage Café, which turned into a full-time chef de cuisine job there. Started construction here, started demolition really about November of 2011, and then I would come here after work at night at The Anchorage Café. Luckily we didn't really have a lot of dinner stuff, we were only open for dinner a couple of nights a week. So, after I got out of work there, I would come here, and scrape all the plaster off of these walls, scrub all of the bricks down, seal them all, paint the walls. I did a lot of labor in this building to save money, because I couldn't afford to have Steve and his crew do a lot of things. I mean, they did the major stuff with the plumbing and the electrical, but the manual labor itself, I got to do.
Did you have a lot of experience in that before this?
No. I did not come from a manual-labor background at all. But, you know, it's just applying yourself to do it, figuring out the best way you can do it, and the cheapest way to do it and just getting after it. So it was weeks on weeks on months, of me being here, and scrubbing the plaster off. You have to chip the plaster off first, then it leaves this dusty film, then you have to scrub all of the film off, brick by brick, then you have to seal it all.
Did you do it all by yourself? Or was there somebody else?
My dad came over and helped me a couple of times, but it was mostly me.
What was something you didn't anticipate would happen when you were opening the place? Any big surprises?
Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. Everybody kept asking me when are you going to open? What's the timeframe for opening? And I would say, I don't know, because one day I would turn around and the guy who was supposed to be installing our hood vent, and said he would have it done in two weeks, it was two months later and he was still working on it. We ended up having to get someone else to come in and finish the job, and he kind of finished the job at the last minute and we got approved from the health department on July 3rd, and opened up on July 4th. I was like, we have to open up, because we were supposed to open up in May, and now the project had been pushed back for two months, and I had already hired some employees, I was already kind of paying some people, and I was like, we have to be open, because I am not making any money.
Now, let me get this straight: you were open for lunch, stopped lunch, and then brought back lunch?
Yeah. The idea was to be open from 11:30 a.m. until we closed, and we were going to be open throughout the day, and then we'd be open until midnight, or one or two a.m. and we'd do some late-night food. And then the first couple weeks, we hadn't figured out the entire system yet, the flow was still a little off, and we were just getting murdered. The minute, we said we were opening the doors—I think we might have posted something on Facebook the day of, like "hey, we're opening today, it's July 4th—and I think we did like 200 people that first day. I mean, there was just a line, and we were selling out of food for the first couple of weeks every day, by five or six o'clock. And we just had to make a decision, because people were starting to get this idea, oh you can't go there after five o'clock, because they're not going to have any food. We were putting sold-out signs in our window every single night.
So the decision was, do we stop lunch and figure the dinner part out, or do we stop dinner and just keep going with where we're at. So, it seemed the best decision for the restaurant was to stop lunch for the time, and see if we could get everything else settled down and figured out. We stopped lunch for maybe two months. We figured out how we could produce a lot more barbecue, figured out more places we could put stuff. One of the challenges in the building is always been that it's small. It's only 1500 sq. ft. and we do hundreds, if not, usually we do about a thousand plus people. So, we've had a big challenge with where to put everything that we need, to do that much volume.
Yeah, just thinking, my first condo was almost that big.
Yeah, it's a tiny space, really tiny kitchen, and fortunately, we've had some really good employees who've figured out how we can do things better and utilize our space better. We bought a lot more storage units and shelves or whatever. But at this point in time, you know, we can't really do any more business than we do without expanding, and we don't have anywhere we can expand. The building is only this big.
The Exchange [Pub + Kitchen] has moved in next door since we opened, so we can't take over that building. So we're just kind of treading water until we figure something else out.
Any thoughts about opening a second place?
Yeah, there are definitely a lot of thoughts, we've looked at a bunch of spaces in Louisville and in Southern Indiana, a lot of places in Jeffersonville and J-town, and Butchertown, a lot of them just haven't felt right. I don't want to jump into a space just because we need to expand or because people are telling us, "Hey, we'd come more often if you were closer to us." It's got to feel right and the dollars have to make sense. I can't leverage this business in New Albany against opening another business, have that one fail, because then both of them are gone.
Would it be another Feast? Or would it be a different concept altogether?
I want to do some other concepts, but right now Feast is where we're at. So we need to do this as well as possible. Make it make as much sense as possible, before I jump ship to do other concepts and stretch myself too thin.
What other concepts do you have in mind?
I want to do a?these are all going to get stolen, this is great?
You can answer "no comment."
I don't care, if someone beats me to the punch, they can go for it.
You can say "no comment" or "off the record," those are both options for you.
Okay, let's do this off the record then.
So, I've got this?...
So we're back on then...
So, I have a bunch of concepts
The reviews were overwhelmingly positive. How did you feel about that whole process?
That was really great, really almost mind-blowing. Within the first couple of months Robin Garr [LEO Weekly's reviewer] had come in and given us a 91, back when they used to do numerical reviews in the LEO. Which put us on par with, the other restaurants that are in the 90 category are so much less of a quick-service restaurant. You know, they're more of a fine dining, you know La Coop and 610 and the Oakroom, and here we are this quick-service barbecue place, super casual, and we get a 91. We'd get the funniest phone calls about it. People would say, "What's the dress-code there?"And I'm like, "You got clothes on? Perfect, you're in." What do you mean, what's the dress code, it's a barbecue place. Louisville Magazine gave us the "best barbecue in town," they put us on the dining guide cover for the LEO, I mean it was just really like fantastic reviews. It's funny because Marty Rosen has never been in to review us.
Do you think those reviews have helped you be successful with getting people across the river? If those reviews hadn't happened, do you think people would still be...
We get a lot of people that come in from areas that I would never expect them to drive that far. A lot of people come from the East End to eat here. And to me that's a pretty sizeable drive, you know twenty-plus minutes to get here to eat here, which is great. That being said, you know, we're really happy about our Louisville clientele, but the majority of our clientele is from here in Southern Indiana .
And they're the people who've really supported us the most. It's great that we get people from Louisville that will drive across and see us, but you know we get the same people here from Southern Indiana that come in every other week. We've got, you know, a couple of ladies that come in at lunch, and they come in three or four lunches a week, every single week since we opened.
And it's been crazy.
A few months ago, rather than being in a kitchen on a Friday night, you were at O'Charleys, I believe the quote was "observing the competition." What did you notice? What did you learn from O'Charleys?
They've just got it, it's smart. They've got a system down, they know how to do it. As soon as they drop their food to you, within a couple of minutes, they come back and check on you. In their hands, they've got their boxes, and they drop off boxes when they come back and check and make sure everything's okay. Everything's okay? Great, here's your box. You know, five or ten minutes later, they come back to refill your drink again, and they're dropping off the check. They're so smart at how they have their sections split up, and every single interaction they have with a customer is predetermined, basically, so they know, unless this customer decides they're going to sit here and drink all night, I can hypothetically move them out of my section in 35 minutes.
The food is going to come out in five or ten minutes, and it's going to be very consistent. I wouldn't necessarily say that I enjoy the food at O'Charleys, but it's super consistent, you know what you're going to get every single time you go there and you know it's going to be the same as the O'Charleys that you ate at three states away two years ago. This is going to be the exact same food that I had there at this O'Charleys. So they're just really smart in the way they've been able to be so consistent, with not only their food, but their service. You know their service is going to be the same, even though your server is going to be a totally different person, unless of course they're going off the deep end that night, but you can only leave so much to molded human interaction .
So, what's next? Any changes to the plan of the restaurant at all?
We try to constantly evolve. When we opened up, I never expected us to be as busy as we have been, which is great. But we've kind of had to go in and put in place this soda machine that we put in the middle of the dining room, which I think is the most hideous thing in the world, and I hate it , but we got to the point where we were so busy, and there's people standing in line, and they just want a refill on their drink, and we've got a line that's 15 or 20 people long. It's really not fair to them to make them wait in line just so they can refill their soda. So we had to have Coca-Cola come in and run that line.
And I never really prepared to have a line of people. I just thought, you know, I just thought, people would come in, we'd take their order or whatever. And it's come to the point where we have a security barrier that we put out and literally make people stand in a line so that we can get through the restaurant and drop food off to everybody else that's here.
What's the longest line you think you've seen?
We've had a line to the door, from the register, to the door, and then people waiting outside. Which is crazy. We don't ever open the doors until the time is, if it's five o'clock at night or 11:30 in the morning, and Fridays and Saturdays sometimes, I mean, there will be an entirely full restaurant waiting outside for us to open the doors, which is just fantastic.
·All Feast BBQ Coverage [~ELOU~]
[Photo: Whitney Harrod Morris]