The Backstory In April of 2004, The Second Street Bistro first opened its doors in the historic Murray Hotel, in downtown Livingston. This wonderful little bistro was founded on the simple premise that good food and wine make life more enjoyable. I somehow convinced a bunch of very sane and level headed people to leave Jackson Hole and move up to this wonderful little town in southern Montana to create something special. I knew that if we all just did our best, just gave it our all, we could do something really amazing. I was fixated on the pursuit of excellence. I had cut my teeth in the Boulder restaurant circuit, done my time in Napa and Las Vegas, found my way out to the wilds of Jackson Hole and into the clique of high end restaurants there. I was super cocky (still am) and after spending over fifteen years earning my stripes in some really fantastic kitchens and dining rooms I was ready to blow the roof off this town. Funny to look back and to realize now how much I did not understand about this whole game. I have always given my best, but now my best is so much better than it used to be. Eight years later, we have weathered the storms of the recession, the economic downturn and the housing bubble. We have managed to cobble together one of the best restaurant teams anywhere and we continue to get better every day.
We decided to open The Second Street Bistro in Livingston, not only because this is the greatest little town I could ever imagine living in, but also due to it proximity to local agricultural producers. It is the old adage; good food comes from good products married with proper technique. What we wanted to do was marry technically precise cooking to food with a wide customer appeal (i.e. comfort food). We created a provincial French restaurant without any French terminology. We knew that people in Livingston were willing to support good restaurants, which was proved by Russell Chatham for close to a decade before we even showed up on the scene. We wanted to get rid of everything that was not about the food. Get rid of the tablecloths and the flowers. Get rid of all the myths that we were taught when we were younger about fine dining. We were riding the subconscious wave in the American psyche that took place after 9/11. After that event there was a move away from exclusivity, away from private dining rooms and away from the impossibility of getting reservations.
We followed the path laid out by operators like Marin Picard at Pied de Cochon in Montreal http://www.restaurantaupieddecochon.ca/index.html and Avec in Chicago http://avecrestaurant.com/, among other like-minded cells. Both of these places had thrown anything that resembled pomp and circumstance out the door. It was just about the food. Avec (which is “with” in French) had even gotten rid of private tables, there was just one huge table running through the dining room. Before long even the brick and mortar buildings were getting in the way of the food. The hottest restaurants in the country became food trucks with lines a block long and people eating hybrid tacos and drinking wine in paper bags right out of the bottle on the sidewalk. We had opened our doors right as this massive revolution in dining was taking place and we found ourselves in a place to play a pivotal role in this little town.
It is amazing how much the farm to table movement has taken root in our dining culture. Eight years ago when I started approaching local ranchers trying to buy chickens or a pig they looked at me like I was crazy. Now every single piece of protein, sans seafood, is from within 80 miles of Livingston. We have hydroponic grow rooms in previously unused creepy basements of the Murray Hotel, 1,500 linear feet of drip lines at my house growing our own spring mix, cucumbers, peas, beets, kale, broccoli, squash and herbs. We are building our own green house heated by our new oven in the fall of 2012. There are mad thoughts about keeping bees, as if we don’t aggravate the hotel enough as it is. This is not to mention the wonderful relationships we have built with area farmers over the years, especially Mark Rheder of Geyser Farms. For a chef going local is so easy, because you get the best and the freshest, but it is also difficult. There are countless vendors and invoices. Delivery times are scattered, chickens vary in size and there is no rhyme or reason to availability. Life in a Sysco house is much easier. As we grew over the years it became exceedingly difficult to keep enough products on hand to satisfy the demand for what we were doing.
Then Anthony Bourdain came to visit. We spent long nights trying to understand what to serve to a chef who has eaten everywhere in the world. We thought about going super old school and pulling out some forgotten classics, but it just rang hollow. It was not who we were. We were just really passionate chefs trying to use local products to feed our community. Then it hit. We were just going to do exactly what we do every night. We fried some rillettes, seared a duck breast, and braised some short ribs. We gave Tony exactly what we give our community every night. And it rang true. Tony saw the honesty and understood it. Then he said on national TV that what we were doing was “as good as anything, anywhere in the world”. This one statement literally changed our whole world; we were now on the culinary map. Tony saw that our mindset was not just about great food, but about being good people doing good work.
Right at this time there was this moral shift in the restaurant as a whole. I knew that we had to be perfect with every plate, every night. The foodies were only going to give us one shot. We had to create a culture of excellence, but it had to be deep. We had to create amazing employees out of a lot of local kids who had never once experienced a real kitchen. We tied into character and made it all into one. We would say over and over again little mantras to get them to understand what we were doing. I came to understand that I could tell something about someone’s character just by watching how they sliced an onion. It all became one thing. Then the most amazing thing happened, we got buy in from the employees. They loved to be pushed and to be great. This moral change took us to the next level. I went from simply wanting to be the best to wanting to make a difference. I spent long hours trying to understand benevolent business and value-driven capitalism. I wanted to create this business model where absolutely everyone who comes into contact with us is better off: our farmers, the animals, our customers, our employees and our community as a whole. As this new model took hold, our community got behind us and discovered by supporting us, they were supporting an entire network of local producers. Finally going out to eat got the moral component. We created a matrix where the person who raised that pig or cow was your friend as well as your business associate. Then all of the sudden our money went directly to Rhonda or Zack or Lyle or The Hutterites instead of paying some region vice president of marketing and consumer relations at Sysco who has never once been in my Bistro. Our community’s money gets directly reinvested back into our community. This way I know that by buying Yellowstone Grassfed Beef, it is going directly to Zack and Shannon Jones with no middlemen at all. So while buying the greatest beef I have ever tasted, I get to support someone whom I really believe in, who is making a difference and showing a way out of the madness. All the sudden I found myself charting a course on this wonderful sea of value driven capitalism. I could have a business where everyone wins and there are no losers. The pigs get to have wonderful piggy lives, ranchers get paid real money for real products (remember that transportation and fossil fuels account for almost 70% of the cost of industrial food), my chefs get to work with the most amazing products and get to create awesome dishes, the servers get to be proud of what they are serving and customers are happy because they are eating amazing food surrounded by people who actually care about what they do. Since we are so busy everybody gets paid including the bank and we all get to have a nice life, living in this little Norman Rockwell town. Piece of cake.
There was something missing in the scene. I figured out that really, at the end of the day, business is supposed to make its community a better place to be. Towns with vibrant business communities are better places to live. Towns filled with value driven businesses are even better. If you are strong financially then you can get down to the real work of making your community an amazing place to live. Part of this is doing passive philanthropy like underwriting the local theatre, making sure the doggies at the shelter have food or giving out gift cards to every cause anytime someone beats down the door. But that was all passive. There was something this downtown needed and I could not quite put my finger on it. The Second Street Bistro is great, but it is dinner only and it is a commitment to come in. We know this and it is who we have become. The Bistro is much fancier than I had ever planned on. I originally only wanted to do classic dishes like steak frites, beouf bourgeon and blanquette de veau, but everyone kept asking for prime cuts and tenderloin. Slowly over the years we became more of a restaurant than a true bistro and at the end of the day that is great. But the Bistro cannot operate all day, it is simply too expensive to keep open for long periods of time, but that is exactly what the town was lacking.
I wanted to create primarily a social space with a level of simplicity, that certain j ne se quois that is found in the cafes of Europe. I wanted a social place that opens early and stays open late, has a very simple menu, and is not a huge commitment in time or money to come and visit. Americans fall in love with cafes while in Europe, but the closest we come to them in general is a coffee house and a coffee shop is a fundamentally different animal than a café, due to their lack of food. In general to get more substantial food such as sandwiches and the like in America, we turn to quick-service and quick service is once again a fundamentally different animal than a café. A coffee shop has the social element that quick service lacks and quick service has the food that the coffee shop lacks but neither one of them is a café. For years one of my touchstones has been the wonderful short story by Hemmingway “A Clean Well-Lighted Space”. Each time I would re-read it, I knew that is what I wanted to create. Then in late 2010 the wonderful Gil’s Got It space, right next door to The Murray Bar came up for sale again. Over the years we had tried unsuccessfully to purchase this old retail space from the 1890’s. It was a blessing in disguise that we failed in our previous attempts, because five years ago I did not really understand what it was I wanted to create. Now we were ready and moved on the space. I obtained a Community Development Block Grant from the Prospera Business Network and with one silent partner put together a bank loan and purchased the building December of 2010. As a reminder of how bad the real estate market was in 2010, when we closed on December 20, it was only the second commercial real estate transaction that year in the city of Livingston. The game was on.