What was the most stressful thing when you opened Blackbelly Market a year ago? The most stressful thing for me was signing the lease. I didn't have the money together, a full team, or a finished business plan. All I knew was that I had to make it happen.
What were the most memorable road blocks and causes for delay? The road blocks were pretty much all construction related. The building is old and we discovered a lot of issues once we started the build - things like the hoods (yes, two) not being up to code and needing to be replaced, major electrical issues, and some surprising old iron plumbing that had to be re-laid (via trenching the entire space therefore ruining the floor I thought I was keeping). Not only did these things cause major delays (we were more than 4 months past the anticipated opening), but they also cost us a lot of money we weren't expecting to spend.
How did this restaurant become everything that you are about as a chef? The plan was always to incorporate all of the things I was doing and wanted to be doing - farming, butchering, catering, and having a fun, open place to work. I have travelled a lot over the past few years and took a number of ideas from places I fell in love with along the way. I tried to put everything I liked about food into one place without it looking or feeling contrived.
What helped you focus your concept into this particular finished product? My architect and interior designer - Marc Shen (MaliaKai Architecture) and Amanda Byrne (AB Design) - helped me put the idea into something tangible. We honed everything down until it was almost elemental. My friends and co-workers had amazing input as well. It was definitely a collaboration. Two of the most influential people on the management team - Josh and Jackie - helped me stay focused and honed in on what really mattered when it came to the finishes as well as the menus.
What did you cut from the menu before opening Blackbelly? Since day one the menu has been evolving. I knew I couldn't do everything on the menu or it would be massive. So we made logical choices based on the limitations of the line as well as what we thought the customers would like the most, without sacrificing what I thought the identity of the place could be. The first menu item to be 86'd after the opening was a salmon entree.
What have you kept on the menu from day one? A few items have been on since day 1: the smoked pork green chile posole - it's from my homeland of New Mexico and I have no intention of bumping it; also the rotisserie chicken and obviously always having butcher cuts of beef available.
Many changes occurred in the last 12 months. Talk about the three most significant ones. The most drastic change was losing my opening GM, Michael Cerretani. He was instrumental in getting the place up and running, training the front of the house, and writing the bar menu. He worked extremely hard and was a tremendous help. Second, I was able to coax back my old friend and chef, Nate Singer, back from the East Coast. He helped me open and run Blackbelly Catering, and has since graduated to be one of the most talented butchers in the state. He is definitely the anchor in my operation when it comes to the butchery. Lastly, when we opened, we were raising much of our own livestock. I never anticipated being so busy, and quickly realized our small operation would not be able to support the monster the restaurant was turning into. So we now work with a handful of local farmers who are raising all of our meats.
What were two key pieces that led to the success of this restaurant? I think one of the keys to our success has been keeping it simple. We strive to be a great restaurant, but also an approachable one. There is no attitude coming from the kitchen. We are humble cooks and just want to make people happy. I think that resonates with the customers. It's great food without a lot of theater. The second piece is the team. We have had very little turnover - almost everyone we hired when we opened is still on staff. There's a feeling of family and mutual respect. Everyone loves working there, is happy to be there, and stands behind the product. When you have happy people working, it's easier to make the customers happy.
What was your proudest moment in the one year life of Blackbelly Market? My proudest moment will be next week when we hit the one year mark! I can't wait to celebrate with the staff.
Are there specific changes you are planning for the restaurant's future? The most substantial and significant change will be expanding the butcher program. We are taking over the space next door (formerly Dizzy's Donuts) to build out a proper butcher shop where we can display more, sell more, and do more. It's going to be amazing.