As Dallas transforms into a bona fide dining destination, more and more chefs are packing their knives and attempting to strike out on their own. The world of chef-ownership is tough to navigate, evidenced by the fact that only about 43 percent of independently owned restaurants make it past their third birthday.
In Bishop Arts, chef Jon Stevens is doing his best to avoid becoming a statistic. Stock and Barrel, Stevens' barely 2-month-old Americana restaurant, looks as if it might be beating the odds with its combination of excellent food, prime location in an up-and-coming neighborhood and overwhelming support from the locals. I sat down to talk with Stevens about the process of making his lifelong dream come true, what it takes to create a long-lasting restaurant in Dallas and how he thinks restaurants can improve Bishop Arts without turning into a commercial wasteland.
You've described Stock and Barrel on a number of occasions as the fulfillment of your "lifelong dream." Can you elaborate on what that means for you?
I've been a chef for 20 years, starting in San Francisco, and my lifelong dream has evolved as its come along. Stock and Barrel for me is just bringing together a little part from each of the experiences in my career today.
What are those pieces from your culinary history that people can see or taste when they come into Stock & Barrel? Are there specific "shout-outs" to any period in your career?
Speaking to the atmosphere, I wanted to create a very organic and contemporary feel. I love contemporary design, but I also love feeling comfortable. I wanted to make a collaboration of those two different designs, and I think we hit the mark. I had a pretty clear vision -- comfortable, but clean, and very approachable. I just wanted to focus on building a place that people would feel comfortable in. That they would frequent. I want Stock & Barrel to be a neighborhood spot, not a destination.
How do you cultivate that difference between a "destination" and comfy neighborhood haunt at Stock & Barrel?
Obviously the location. I searched for well over a year for the right spot for this restaurant. I looked at a lot of places, and knew that this was the perfect place. Bishop Arts is clearly a place that is supported by the locals. We've only been open for a short time, but people have continually kept coming back. A lot of restaurants don't get that, and maybe that has something to do with being inconvenient for people in the neighborhood. There are some restaurants that do well being "off the beaten path," but I wasn't willing to chance that.
We knew that we needed to do a complete overhaul on this old building. It used to be an old glass shop, but it had great guts. It needed a lot of work to become a restaurant, and I think from the feedback that we're getting, we made a good choice. It's right on the main thoroughfare through Bishop Arts, and we're just one more of the really great restaurants in this area. We're kind of ponying off that already great success of other restaurateurs here, and we can showcase our goods while people are driving by on their way to Bolsa or Lucia.
You aren't the first chef I've talked to to rave about the neighborhood support in north Oak Cliff. Why do you think the people of Bishop Arts were so welcoming to all these new restaurant and bar concepts?
I personally think that there is a very artistic presence in Bishop Arts, hence the name. Already those people are going to be more open-minded, and when you bring in foodie-type restaurants, people are going to support that. I come from San Francisco, and there are a lot of neighborhoods like this. I think that's part of why Bishop Arts resonates with me. It has that same kind of feel. Everybody knows each other, and everyone's got each other's backs.
What's good for one restaurant is good for the rest. I don't see anyone down here as competition or threat, and vice versa. It's an enhancement. All of these places make Bishop Arts a draw for diners and shoppers who want to come here. It already felt pretty much like home to me.
But what about people who criticize the restaurants and bars and the patrons who come along with them have altered the neighborhood? The demographics of Bishop Arts have changed so much in the last few years, do you think they have a point?
I don't think that it's wrong for Oak Cliff residents to want to protect what they have. What they have here is the reason that everyone wants to come in the first place. I think there is a way to cultivate the neighborhood that reforms it in a positive way. Do I want to see it become like every other neighborhood here? No. I want to see what it is to become even better. I want the things that make Bishop Arts to be magnified, to be even better than what they are now.
Could we use a great grocery store here? Sure. Would that draw more people to live here? Yes. For those that say they don't want that, they're lying to you. Nobody wants to just shop at Albertson's when you're a foodie and want to cook good meals. Nobody wants to have to drive to Lemmon or Lovers to find a decent grocery store. Cox Farms Market is great, but it doesn't have everything that people who live here want.
So how do you build an area that is both hospitable to restaurants and new development without destroying what Bishop Arts already has going on?
For one, you don't allow commercialized restaurants to come in. Not only just restaurants, though. Just chain-type businesses. Bishop Arts is charming because it doesn't have a lot of that. Yeah, there's Home Depot and Lowe's, but people don't want to bring the chains to their neighborhood. That brings a different type of clientele here, and dilutes the brand that they've built just by being themselves.
What does Stock & Barrel bring to the area that is distinctly positive? Other than really good food, of course?
I think it's a comfortable environment where people want to come hang out. Any time you have that kind of atmosphere, it's positive. But that's really the goal I was shooting for with Stock & Barrel. The food is approachable -- it's priced right, you can frequent us without breaking the bank. The design is comfortable. People want to be here, and they tell me that every single day. At this point, it's undeniable. I don't say that from an arrogant point of view, but people like to be here. It's a fact. I like to be here, so I get it.
How do you develop a culture in your restaurant that makes it a place that everyone wants to be? I'm sure that starts in the kitchen.
That's an easy question to answer. We started with a hospitality-based restaurant. Everybody says that their restaurant is hospitality-focused, but we make a strong effort to keep that hospitality consistent. We want to make our guests feel that they are not only seen and appreciated, but that they're part of our family. It's cheesy, but we very much are a family here. We want to keep a consistent family unit, and that's why people want to come work here. It's not because they can make two or three hundred bucks a night, but because they're happy.
That's great and all, but money isn't everything. Money doesn't make you happy. What makes you happy is working with people that you want to be around. As much time as we spend together, that's extremely important. It took me a while to really figure that out in my career, and from the beginning I wanted to make it a strong presence. We talk about it every day - how can we be a stronger unit and work on our hospitality to make our guests feel that. It's nothing if the guests don't feel it.
So, let's talk about the food. It's interesting that you chose "Americana" as the cuisine style here. What does that mean, exactly?
To me, Americana means those dishes that you grew up on, but maybe got left behind in terms of actually getting better. The meatloaf, for example, has been one of our amazing sellers. We took this dish that everybody knows and really refined it when most people just trash their way through it. We used the best ingredients possible, and pretty much hit a homerun. It's speaking to dishes that are from our past.
On our brunch menu, we have a spicy spaghetti and eggs dish. That's something that I grew up on as a child in my home. We would make spaghetti, then the next morning, re-fry it, and add eggs on top. So I took that idea and made it more of a restaurant-approachable dish.
How do you do that? Spicy spaghetti and eggs doesn't exactly sound like something that would be haute cuisine, but you've obviously figured out some way to make it work.
I would hope that after 20 years in the business, I would have picked up the ability to cook at a refined level. When I say refined, we're not rewriting the culinary book. We're taking dishes that people are familiar with, classic things, and just kind of bringing them up a few notches.
When you were sitting down to craft the menu at Stock & Barrel, what were you most focused on?
Honestly, the vegetarian approach. And not only because of the neighborhood that we live in, but because the way that people's diets are changing. People are eating lighter and cleaner, and we had to adapt to that. There's always that issue for chefs when a vegetarian walks through the door. They have to scramble to put something together that meets their standards. I don't feel like I'm breaking new ground here, but I wanted to have a strong vegetarian approach that non-vegetarians would also care about.
Why do you think that omnivores only want meat-focused plates?
I think it has everything to do with the way that people are raised. I was raised in a household where my mother didn't screw up all the vegetables. She actually knew how to cook vegetables, and I was raised on fresh vegetables and fresh seafood. That was always important. We didn't eat out of cans for the most part. We had Kraft mac and cheese, and what kid doesn't? But I think your tastes always come from the way that you were raised.
So how do we make sure that kids that are growing up now can end that cycle? How can we make kids look at food in more holistic ways, ones that don't always involve meat?
You have to get out of the traditional starch-protein-vegetable mentality. A lot of our dishes are starch-protein only, or vegetable-protein. Not every component has to have a presence in your dish, and I've always felt that way in my cooking.
So how do you create balance on both the plate and menu, then?
In the offerings of vegetable sides. We have an entire section of our menu that is dedicated to vegetable dishes, and they're actually composed. They're not just grilled asparagus or mashed potatoes. I wanted more interesting options in that category. Like our roasted eggplant hot pot. Roasted eggplant, tomato sauce, and fresh mozzarella that's bruleed in the oven. That's just to pique someone's interest, but who wouldn't enjoy that? Vegetarian or not.
So are those dishes considered a meal?
No, they're more of an appetizer, small plate, whatever you want to call it. I don't feel like I have to designate that on the menu. It's under vegetables. They're all pretty much the size of a side, but you can get a couple and make a meal of it. I wanted to build that category of food in that way. This isn't a large menu, and it changes more than seasonally. We print our menus in-house, so we're constantly moving them.
Let's talk about moving around menus. Most chefs I've talk to love making changes, but hate the fact that they have to keep some old, maybe outdated signature items on the menu. How would you feel about that, say, in a year, when Stock & Barrel will have a clear best-seller? Would you keep it or take it off to keep things fresh?
It's not even going to take a year for us to figure that out. We already have several of those dishes, and that was just from day one. Everybody loves our meatloaf and bread pudding, so I most likely would never take them off the menu. They just kind of became a signature dish. I've never been hugely fond of being asked what my signature dish is, though. Everybody is always asking chefs that, and my only response is "err, good food?" I don't like to limit myself in that way. At Stock and Barrel, though, it's shown a different face for me. That being said, I'm also a chef-owner now. And those are the things that are driving my business.
So you think that chefs who don't own their restaurants can sort of afford to look at that issue a little differently?
Sure. Maybe not all of them do, but they're not looking at it from the same financial vantage point as an owner. Those are dishes that people come here for. Repeatedly. We see the same people coming in over and over for the same thing, and I love that they do. I love that I've created a dish that people want to keep coming back for.
As a chef in general, you tend to have a little more laid-back presence than the guys who are getting the big headlines right now. You're kind of standing in the background and watching, while quietly having a similar level of success. What do you think about all the chefs in the spotlight?
I consulted with a lot of really wise people moving this project along, and some things have really stuck in my head along the way. Humble and hungry has always been my motto, my motivation. It's a formula that works for me. It's important for me to remember that moving forward in terms of longevity. I don't think that I need to be flashy or stir up headlines or do anything outside of making food for our guests.
Longevity is something that Dallas really has a problem with, in terms of the restaurant business. New spots will be fire-hot for three months, then disappear shortly thereafter. What do you think contributes to that?
I'm not sure why, but I think taking your eye off the ball has to do with that. Taking constant pressure off of those areas that need constant attention is how businesses end up falling flat. You lose interest, start to get bored, and things become complacent. If you keep focused, keep things lean, longevity falls into place as long as you have talent.
Dallas has a pretty small crop of restaurateurs who have been able to stay relevant for a long time -- the Kent Rathbuns and Stephan Pyles types. Are there any lessons that you learned from people who had been in the business here for a really long time?
I've worked with some of them. I worked with Kent Rathbun, Chris Ward, Avner Samuel, and I think they all taught me a lot. Some of them were things to do, many things not to do. Maybe more things not to do. The ones that have had success, those are the ones that have been consistent and keeping constant pressure on their business. Some have reinvented themselves to stay on top, and some keep doing what they do. There's different approaches to that.
So what is your approach?
Consistency. I don't think that you have to reinvent your identity every three years and close your doors and reopen in the same spot. I don't think that makes you a hot new restaurant. It just means that you're changing lanes a little bit. For me, that wouldn't work. But obviously it does for other chefs and restaurateurs that I have extreme respect for. I'm not to that point yet, and hopefully I won't be. If I stick with my conceptual ideals, I'll weather through low points. I hope I'll be able to make it 20 years. I have an opportunity for that.
What do you think you can improve at Stock and Barrel, just based on the first few months of business?
Well everything can always be getting better. You can't be a perfectionist, though, because then everyone will hate you. You just have to stay consistent to keep yourself in business and keep doing your thing. I'm quickly learning that. This is my first opening as an owner, and there's so much more that goes into that. I've opened tons of restaurants as an executive chef, but this is just different.
How do you keep your vision as a chef pure and on track while still maintaining the business aspect of the restaurant?
When you have a clear vision from day one of what you want to conceptually deliver, that's something that's just innate. If it's clear from day one, it shouldn't change. You should just be cooking in your wheelhouse.
What about people who do lose track of their vision? That happens in the best restaurants in the world.
I think those people just get distracted sometimes. They lose sight of what they were doing in the beginning, and I think it's easy to do that. You get tired. You get burned out. And that leads into why I wanted to create Stock and Barrel and do a restaurant for myself. I wanted to create a lifestyle that I could live with for 20 or 30 years. I'm not in this for two, three or five years. This isn't a chef job for me. I had to set it up with longevity in sight and not just focus on what's trendy. I have to cook from the heart.
Have you made any changes since opening your doors?
Just a few tweaks here and there. There were some dishes that had a really long cook time that we've just kind of axed for now. We shrunk the menu. I wanted to take a more responsible approach to opening instead of getting wrapped up in what I wanted. It's a less ego-driven approach for a chef, more responsible business decisions. They really made life easier. I was more focused on getting the operations side of the restaurant down as opposed to having everything I wanted. As all the cogs start running the way they should, then we can start throwing in dishes that are more experimental. That's the beauty of printing in house.
So, after the new wears off in six months or so, what does Stock and Barrel look like? Do you foresee any major changes?
Our hard work in the first year is paying dividends. Big time. The focus on cultivating this restaurant has to translate into becoming a clear, actualized brand. And I think we have a vision that makes that a reality in six months, a year, whenever.
Did it worry you to open Stock and Barrel heading into the summer? You guys opened your doors on May 16, and the summer months are some of the toughest for restaurants.
Honestly, no. Even if you're opening up in an off-season, everybody wants to come try the new place. We've been busy from day one, which I am so thankful for. I've worked places where it was crickets for a solid month before you even got a glimpse of people coming through the door. In that respect, I'm very thankful.
What do you credit that to?
We were delayed several months. There was a lot of pre-opening press that built the hype a little bit, and we were thankful for that. People are consistently coming to Bishop Arts, and we wanted to be part of that. This really couldn't be a better situation for me.
A lot of restaurateurs in Dallas have to deal with permitting woes and pushback from the city. Can you talk about how it was to get the restaurant open?
I could go on about that for hours. We had several months of delays. We're in a historical building area, and there are challenges that come along with that. No matter how nice we wanted to make the building, they still had their share of comments and delays. We all know that nothing is done quickly in the city.
Was there anything fundamental about your vision that had to change because of the city and its rules?
I wanted a more organic patio setting, and I was made to pour concrete. I wanted crushed gravel, kind of what they've got over at Bolsa in their driveway. That was the vision I had for that design, but they just wouldn't allow it for whatever reason. I'm not sure how it's OK down the street, but whatever. I feel like it would have created a more appropriate atmosphere, but we're making the best of it. We're making some organic touches to the contemporary concrete as we speak.
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Was there ever a point when you thought it wasn't going to happen?
No. From the day I designed the logo, and that was the very first thing I did outside of the concept, it was solid green light after green light until we got to the permitting phase. I was fortunate in raising money. Really blessed with that.
Sounds like you got lucky?
I don't know if it was luck or not, but I'm blessed definitely. Oh wait, I haven't used the "f-word" yet. I should probably do that now. But I won't.