Josh Yingling & Matt Tobin: Beer Guys and Empire Builders
Matt Tobin and Josh Yingling -- beer lovers, not snobs.
The past three years have been kind to Josh Yingling and Matt Tobin. After opening Goodfriend Burger House in East Dallas to rave reviews and a dedicated neighborhood following, the duo struck gold a second time with Greenville Avenue gastropub The Blind Butcher. Whether it's the unlikely ascent of the craft beer scene, a renewed focus on bar food that is actually edible or simple luck, these guys have been able to make a good business out of serving up great food and booze.
But not without an unbelievable amount of hard work, and probably a lot less money than you're thinking. I sat down to talk with Tobin and Yingling about the rise of the local craft beer movement, building the perfect neighborhood restaurant, and improving the palates of Dallas' beer drinkers.
I may be wrong here, but it seems like you guys were among the first in Dallas to really put an emphasis on pairing food with beer. Does that just come from liking beer a whole lot?
Tobin: We're beer guys. That's been our focus as long as we've been doing this. It started at Vickery Park with the beer selection there. When we got this place for Goodfriend, we knew we wanted to do a beer bar, but had no idea what kind of food we wanted to do. It took a trip to Chicago and eating at Kuma's Corner to really figure out that we wanted to do burgers. The beer was always a no-brainer, but I guess we figured that a lot of people do burgers, but how many do them unbelievably well and have an incredible beer list to pair with them.
When Goodfriend opened, what did the beer scene in Dallas look like compared with the crazy explosion of local beer that's going on right now?
Yingling: There's been a ton of change. I won't say it was nonexistent; we're not reinventing any wheels. We do love beer, and it was an obvious choice for us. There have been breweries that have been doing this for 20 years. I lived in Colorado for awhile and ran a liquor store, and we were doing a lot of microbrews back in the early '90s when it wasn't prevalent. In the last five years, the breweries that are popping up here what seems like every day. It's great, but at the end of the day, we want quality. That's the most important thing in our minds. We're the ones selling you that beer, and if it's not very good, I feel like we're doing a disservice by just trying to stay on something that's cool and new. That's not to say that there aren't a lot of great beers here, because there are, but it has been difficult in terms of finding something that is really, really quality.
People will definitely choose buzzwords like "local" over quality any day of the week. It seems like you guys have a healthy skepticism of this growing scene. Have you guys pushed back at all against brewers who are coasting on being new and local?
Yingling: Our pushback on that is that we just don't carry it. If it's not great, it's just not behind the bar. But that doesn't mean that the guy across the street doesn't think it's the greatest beer in the world. That's the great thing about beer. There are so many different kinds, and not all of them will necessarily fit what we're doing here. We traveled to New York with a friend from Austin who was running a bar when that brewing scene really started to explode, and we thought it was awesome. And he told us that he only carried about five of those brews in his bar. I love local, but we really need to support quality beers and make people do the best they can. We like to think that our people here are doing the best they can, and I think that's just what we expect for everyone we work with.
Tobin: I don't think we ever get into discussing someone's quality with them. We would probably try to avoid conversations like that.
How do you approach people who come into your bar and would order a Michelob Ultra to kind of stretch their legs and try craft beer?
Yingling: That's easy, we don't carry Michelob Ultra.
Tobin: We take the stance that we would like to sell our customers something other than a mass-market product. That's a desire of ours because we want to grow the palate of the everyday beer drinker. However, that being said, we also don't want our staff to be pushy. The bottom line is that if someone wants a tall, cold Budweiser, there's nothing wrong with that. We sell Budweiser, and if they want to drink Budweiser, let them drink it. I'll serve them four of them. We make way more money on Budweiser than any other beer that we sell, and at the end of the day, we do have to make money. I'm proud to say that we don't sell a whole lot of Budweiser. Our number one seller is Real Ale's Fireman's #4. I love that. That makes me proud.
We like to suggest to people if they like Miller Lite, try Fireman's #4. It's a Texas beer they don't sell it anywhere else. Most of the time, people think it's really good. A lot of people have this idea that all craft beer is hoppy. No man, it's not. People also think all craft beer is really dark and rich, and no, that's just one kind. That's OK. There's beer for you too, and we try to graduate people. You turn someone on to Fireman's #4 or Ommegang Rare Vos, really easy, entry-level beers, and we've seen people drinking double IPAs and walking through the door asking what sours we have a year later. I enjoy seeing that. We believe that's how the beer scene is supposed to work.
Yingling: If you want to drink 13 Miller High Lifes, OK. We don't care what you're drinking as long as you're drinking. We love beer, and to a lot of us, it's a very situational thing. The other day, it was a little bit cold out and I went out and decided I was going to have a Guinness and a shot of Jameson. I probably hadn't had a Guinness in five or six years, but in that situation, it was perfect. Am I going to drink it all the time? No. If I'm on the lake, I'm not going to drink double IPAs. I probably want a Modelo and party beers.
Tobin: You should have a new favorite beer every day.
Where do you think the perception that all craft beer is hoppy and bitter and weird comes from?
Tobin: I think for a lot of people, if they've tried craft beer, it's been over at their brother-in-law's house. And their brother-in-law is a huge hop head and he's not trying to graduate someone into a better beer. He's just thinking that he has this amazing beer and that you should try it, but we want you to come back. If you've never had hoppy beer and you drink something like Stone Ruination, you're going to think it's the worst thing you've ever tasted. And that makes sense. Your palate isn't designed to get hit in the face with that much hop until you've grown accustomed to that. A lot of people don't even get craft beer. They've always drank Miller Lite, and they're safe with it. They're afraid to try something different, but they also don't want to admit that they don't know anything about it and get called out in a beer bar. We try to get through all that bullshit and tell people that if they don't like something, it's OK. Our big thing is that if you don't like it, we'll buy it. We buy very few beers, because if our staff has done their job in asking them what they like. If they tell you they hate hops, don't bring them a hoppy beer. You would think that's a no-brainer, but it's not.
You guys don't seem like the archetypical "beer snobs" that one would think would run this kind of place. But would the craft beer movement even exist without those guys who are super snobby about their beers?
Tobin: Probably not. Beer snobs have done a lot for craft brewing, even though they're snobs.
Yingling: But it takes a certain kind of enthusiasm and passion in order to really get behind this movement. The beer snob that walks in and asks what the original gravity of a beer is, I just tell them that I don't know. Google it. Who cares? At the end of the day, do you like it or not? Do we need to get into the 9,000 different hops or the malt or the sea level where it was brewed, all these miniscule things that no one really cares about? If you like it, cool. Does it really matter why you like it or that you can explain what's in it?
From zero to insufferable, where do you guys think you fall on the beer snob scale?
Yingling: I'm not a snob at all. Negative zero.
Tobin: I'm at zero. I could honestly give two shits what other people drink. What I drink changes daily, and it's whatever mood I'm in. It depends on your mood, a song that comes on iTunes, it can come from anywhere. If we're going to be here for six hours and be social, we want to be drinking. We own a beer restaurant. If we're hanging out all night, we have to drink something you can drink all night.
Yingling: How many whiskeys we may or may not have had that day also factor into that. We both have an affinity for whiskey. We built Goodfriend around beer, burgers and whiskey because that's what we love. I like every single beer we have, but if I'm out partying with my friends, I'm going to have a High Life and a shot of whiskey. I can't drink those high-alcohol beers with whiskey. I've tried it, and it ends really badly with Matt Tobin giving me a ride home or putting me in a cab. One day I'll learn a 100 percent that I can't do that all the time.
On a completely different side of the bar, the food at Blind Butcher and Goodfriend is food that would not have existed in a place like this 10 years ago. Where did that come from?
Yingling: That's come along with the movement. People used to go to bars and have drinks, then go eat somewhere else. If people are coming into drink, we think that they should also have something good to eat.
Tobin: Yeah, why does it always have to be tater skins and crap? The thought for a really long time was just give people really salty bullshit to make them drink more. And I don't think people will accept that anymore. I know that I won't. And Josh won't. Most of the people we know won't. The public doesn't want crap anymore.
It sounds really fucking difficult to turn out good food in a place that is also a high-volume bar. True or false?
Tobin: It's hard and it's expensive. Very, very expensive. It's simple, we don't make any money. Just ask my wife.
Yingling: It's hard. We're still trying to be successful. Yeah, we've been killing it for three years, but we want people to feel that way in 10 more years. We didn't do this to open for a year and make a grip of money and shut it down and screw over all the people who worked for us. That's not what we wanted to do.
Tobin: We have a 20-year lease on the building for Goodfriend, that's very true. We have a fifteen year lease for Blind Butcher only because they wouldn't give us a twenty-year lease. We're not kidding. We're in this to do it. We're not in it to sell our business or make it successful and go somewhere else. We love beer, we love food, and love watching people get jazzed about having a cool place in their neighborhood. Now they have three cool places in their neighborhood. We're helping people in true East Dallas have a cool place to live.
Yingling: We both live over here, so it makes a ton of sense for us. We looked at a ton of places on Henderson Ave and in Oak Cliff, had leases snatched out from beneath us. It probably took us two years to finally find the spot for Goodfriend, and afterward, we wondered why we never thought about it. It was perfect.
East Dallas is the kind of place that's going to support a place that's as much a labor of love as it is a business, right?
Tobin: Absolutely. Completely goes without saying that we exist because of the people in this neighborhood. It's not people coming over from Uptown. We get those people, and welcome them when they come in on the weekends, but our bread and butter is neighborhood people. Our bread and butter can walk here. They ride their bikes here and bring their kids to have burgers and fries while Dad has a couple of beers. Then they walk back home. It's a truly neighborhood spot, completely and totally. It really is amazing. I'm still blown away by it. I live across the street, and my wife and I bring our kids to have french fries and sit on the patio. We don't win "best family restaurant" or have a kids menu, but we don't hate your kids.
How do you create that kind of atmosphere?
Tobin: We didn't even really expect it. We wanted to open a bar because we're bar guys. When we first opened, we didn't have a host stand. We didn't have a lot of the stuff you needed to even run a restaurant.
Yingling: We didn't have an expediting staff, or food runners, we didn't have hostesses. We had waitresses and bartenders because that's what you need for a bar. We had to very quickly make changes from when we opened. There would be a line of people hovering over people's tables while they were eating, and Matt decided we needed a host stand. We needed kids chairs, and I was just like what the fuck are you talking about?
Tobin: You also need Megan Dennison from Cane Rosso. We called her and begged for her help, and she came in and checked everything out and told us what we needed to do. It was awesome.
Clearly some lessons learned between opening Goodfriend and Blind Butcher. Was that a smoother opening?
Tobin: It took a really long time to build it, but yeah. We're wingnuts and do stuff off the cuff. Butcher was made a bit easier from an operations standpoint with the addition of Chef Oliver. That guy is a gangster. He is so good at what he does, and that isn't even just about the food. He's been around fine dining forever, and that place is a beautiful combination of what he's been doing forever and what we've been doing forever. We just kind of smashed it together and it's been a really nice, upscale kind of place with great drinks and crazy food.
What kind of input do you guys have on the food at either of your restaurants?
Yingling: At Goodfriend, with the new menu, our chef was just working his ass off and everything that we were trying was getting progressively better.
Tobin: We talk to our regular customers, people who are here four or five days a week, a lot. We have a crazy crop of regulars, like this one guy who eats two meals a day here, every day. We talk to him, our other regulars, and we looked at our orders. We used to have a burger called The Coop, which had a fried egg and brie on top. One of the most common modifications for that was that people would ask for no brie, substitute cheddar. So we just did that. That's something that people ask for all the time, why are we carrying brie if that many people don't want it? We're still giving people what they want. We try to do things that people are asking for -- more shared items, better appetizers. More than that, it was just time for a change. This has been our first drastic menu change. We changed the way it looked so that our old-school people knew that they needed a menu because it was different now.
How do you keep your two very disparate restaurants from bleeding into each other? There isn't a ton of crossover between Blind Butcher and Goodfriend.
Tobin: I don't really know that it's been an active thought to make the menus different. They're just very different restaurants. Oliver probably tries to stay away from anything that would be associated with a burger house because that's not what's up his alley. He's such an avant-garde experimentalist that there's not really much about a cheeseburger that would appeal to him.
You guys have a new place in the works that you're opening right across the street from Goodfriend. What's that going to be about?
Tobin: It's called Goodfriend Package, and it is essentially a build-your-own six pack beer store with loads of craft beer. We have a 40-foot cooler with 9,000 square feet of room for beer. It's huge. We'll have a deli counter slash sandwich shop.
Yingling: Some sundries. Dry goods. There are a lot of breweries that make other things besides beer. A couple breweries make hot sauce, Boulevard Brewing makes mustard, Ballast Point makes a bloody mary mix. We're not going to have a head of lettuce or bananas or any kind of perishables, but we'll have some cool things for people to cook with from their favorite breweries.
Tobin: We're also leased a spot behind The Goat for a commissary kitchen. The drive for that is that the Blind Butcher kitchen is not big enough. We'd like to open for lunch, but we just can't. There isn't enough time in the day, and turning over a prep kitchen to a functioning kitchen is really tough. This commissary kitchen will make most of the sausage for Blind Butcher, and will also do all the ham, turkeys, roast beef, and pastrami for our deli. We will also sell some sausages there that you can get at Blind Butcher and take them home to cook for yourself. Brian Bell, who is one of the sous chefs at Blind Butcher now, will go over and run that.
Yingling: We'll also have some growler fills there, maybe some draft beers. But not anything like the growler houses that have popped up. We want to be there for people to pick up a growler and a few sausages because they're having a party.
Although you should probably just let Chef Oliver do it for you.
Tobin: I would think so. Yeah. I've taken a couple home and cooked them on the grill and it worked out really well. I would be talking to Oliver on the phone while I'm grilling, and he basically just told me to heat them up. You can't really screw them up.
Will you be doing sandwiches to order at the deli counter, or is it more of a pickup operation?
Tobin: Definitely to order. The way that this is probably going to work out, and we're still trying to figure out exactly how it works, is that we can make some reasonably priced sandwiches. I'm a sandwich freak, and I hate that I can't get a really good sandwich for a decent price here in Dallas. We talked about maybe offering some meats by the pound, but Oliver thinks that's going to be pretty expensive. We haven't totally worked that out. If you insist on getting a pound of meat, fine, we'll do that. We've kind of figured out what people in this neighborhood want. If they're going out, we've got them. But we also want to have them when they're staying at home and having their buddies over to watch football. We want to offer services to this neighborhood that just aren't here.
We have crappy grocery stores here. That Albertson's in Casa Linda is a mess. It's gross. They don't have the things we want. I look around and wonder why I have to drive 5 or 10 miles to get food that I really want. We want to bring that to our neighborhood. People in our neighborhood love this idea. The more people I tell about it, they're so excited.
You guys are clearly trying to build a little East Dallas food empire. What does the future look like? Any plans to expand outside of Dallas?
Tobin: We take that stuff as it comes. It does come, the offers and emails from real estate developers. Nice to meet you guys, but we're not interested right now.
Yingling: At this moment, no. We're still busy. Blind Butcher is still pretty new, we've got the new menu here at Goodfriend, and Package in the works. For me, and I think I speak for Matt here too, we need to focus on what we're doing right now. We can't look to the future and let things slip through the cracks. We don't want to be the people who open places and let them go after a year. It doesn't seem genuine. It looks like you're trying to make a money grab, and that's not what we're doing. If I was going for money, I probably would have finished college and been a physicist or something.
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