Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down with chefs and owners of bars and restaurants celebrating their first anniversary.
Brack May and Krista Pendergraft-May of Cowbell. [Amy Jett]
Since opening around last New Year's in a location that's just about as far uptown as someone can go and still be in Orleans Parish, Cowbell has made itself one of the leading contenders for the best burger in town. Led by husband-and-wife team Brack May and Krista Pendergraft-May, the restaurant is, of course, much more than just a burger shop, offering a menu that reads like a-buncha-things-that-sound-good-right-now. It's the sort of American standard comfort food that is, as Brack is quick to point out, "a pretty good gauge of what's going on right now in food in general." We sat down with Brack and Krista to talk about how this first year has gone and what big plans they have for the next one.
So why did you all start thinking about this project?
BM: Well, after the storm, it was harder and harder to get work at the same compensation level [as I was used to]. I was finding better work out of town, I was traveling a lot back and forth. I was about ready to leave, but I found this space on a Craigslist ad and I was like, "Well, I still want to stay married. How many times can I keep leaving?" That's when I decided to go ahead and do this. And it was easy to slide into, it wasn't too difficult.
When did you start working on opening up?
BM: The whole process? I started the leasing probably in March or April of 2010, and then we went ahead and signed the lease in June, got all our liquor licenses and stuff all together by September, and then the city said no more liquor licenses. And that was a huge issue?we had already done all the work ourselves on the inside. I mean, this had been sitting unused since 2008, the person who had had it had passed away and there was sort of a legal battle between the people that owned the space and the person's family. So yeah, we decided in June we were going to really go for it, started going at it pretty hard. And we did all the rebuilding, the tables, we did a lot of the art inside, a lot of the lighting. We had friends who came by and helped with a lot of the harder stuff, the electrical. We just did as much as we could while we were still working our other jobs. A lot of it happened at night.
Can you talk a bit more about the troubles you had with the city?
BM: So we started about September, that's when we started having trouble with the city, we got our liquor license from the state, the city said no more liquor licensing. And so while we were building the restaurant we had to go and get a lawyer and deal with that. By September 15th we were just about finished with everything except the liquor license. And I think at that point we kind of looked at each other and said, "Should we sell it now? It's ready to go, let's sell it!" Because, you know, building all the furniture, that was kind of the fun project part and then the scarier part was getting it open.
How did opening go when you finally got to that point?
BM: Well, we had family in town, so we opened like Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and shut down for the weekend. This was right during the holidays [in December 2010]. It started drawing a little bit, I think that the first day we did like 20 people, and we were like, "Wow!"
KPM: Well, it was a lot of people that we knew. People who were like, "We should go there to help them out."
BM: Yeah, a lot of people helped out. But then after New Year's we went ahead and just opened for lunch and dinner. And we thought, "Oh, we'll find out quickly if we're gonna be out of here." But it snowballed, and it went well. And I think that initially, we were just going to be all burgers, but I knew probably since November, you know with MVB [a burger pop-up inside Slim Goody's] opening over the summer, I knew there were going to be burger places and I was like, we can't just do burgers, we've got to open it up.
So given that, what was the vision for Cowbell, menu-wise?
BM: It was originally all burgers. But it was basically like all, if I was going to go out to eat somewhere where I wanted something comforting every day, what would it be? Burgers, I like clam chowder, Caribbean flavors. So we basically did all that stuff, put it on the menu.
KPM: It was more along the lines of, instead of having to choose between 15 different places and different kinds of food, wouldn't it be better and wouldn't it cover more ground if you had 15 different kinds of food on one menu? And that's turned out to be pretty good for us. We have vegetarians, we have vegans, we have people that are gluten intolerant, and they can all sit at table and eat in one restaurant.
BM: All in the guise of doing comfort food, too. Keep it simple and comfortable, do it fresh. We don't have a lot of refrigeration space, so that's why we close from 3-5 because we have to kind of re-up everything. And that's been good, I think, for the customers. Maybe not so great for us all the time, but it's been good because the food is fresh all the time. Each shift, I mean, we're making stuff for that shift. So that's been a good formula for us.
What's your clientele like?
BM: We get a pretty diverse crowd. We have a lot of ladies at lunch, we get a lot of students. We get a lot of doctors from Oschner, cardiologists who like to get their burgers, I guess, make sure they get their fat in. Athletes... We get a pretty diverse crowd. The only thing is, is that we're small. A lot of times, we are, you know, a local joint. We don't get a lot of travelers, unless somebody brings them in. And that's a good thing, in our opinion. It's a good thing that we've been embraced by the local community and it's just kind of a funky joint.
And the other thing that everybody warned us is like, "Man, you don't want to be out there, you don't want to be on that street." It's kind of a hot zone in general, in Pigeontown, this street in general, I mean there was a lot of weaponry out here at some point. But it's been good. We've had things stolen, but no cars have been broken into, and it's been really safe. People feel fine parking around the corner. And actually, a lot of younger people are starting to buy the houses around here, too.
So why did you choose this location in particular?
BM: Well, like I said, it was easy to slide into. The initial outlay was basically to rebuild what was here, put some furniture and some equipment in, and then pay the lease.
KPM: We also weren't dealing here with the kind of expenditures that you would if you were trying to deal with Magazine Street. That overhead is expensive [there], and we had very little to work with to begin with and were already thinking we weren't going to survive. And also, the owners of this building were very amenable to the changes we wanted to make. They weren't holding on to what they had or what the previous people had done. So all of that kind of rolled in together to make it a very Kismet situation in that it just sort of fell into our lap. Of course this certainly wasn't the first location we looked at. We had been looking for close to five years, but the fact that this one opened up, and it all kind of fell into place. It was so very, I don't want to say "meant to be," but it felt easier than any other building we had looked at.
BM: This is all self-capitalized, you know? We didn't have a bank loan or anything like that, it was all money from friends and family, and our money, and just our sweat. So we had to do it and slide in as easily as possible. And it's like, when I was in culinary school in the mid-90s, back then with $200,000 you could build a great restaurant. it's not that easy to do that with that kind of money anymore. And we certainly didn't even have that much, it was much less than that. So this location was all about being able to slide on in and also the fact that the traffic here's ridiculous. I mean, everybody can see this. Is it too far away for people to get here? We thought maybe, but we get people that drive here from downtown. The mayor's eaten here, you know, people have eaten here from all over. It's a small city. So it's not that hard to maneuver.
What are y'all most proud of from the last year?
KPM: Well, that we have a staff that's been with us since the beginning. These kids have dedicated themselves. I mean, really, they're a group of curious little individuals and they're all very different and they all get along. How many people can say that the group that you've started with is the group that you still have.
BM: Yeah, everyone went to the Angola Prison Rodeo together, we had a little field trip. We only had to carry one person out. [Laughs] It was a really fun time.
KPM: Another thing I'd say I'm proud of is that we've really only managed to make about 5 people really mad. Out of a year, that's not too bad.
That's extraordinary, actually.
KPM: Well I'd rather not the five, but I guess looking at the larger picture we've really only pissed off about 5 people and that's pretty good, especially given my record. And that the building's still standing, that's good. I think that the neighborhood in general, the immediate neighborhood, has really embraced it. And that is no simple feat, to serve liquor in a residential area and not have to deal with a lot of push-back. I think that's an incredible accomplishment and it speaks as much to the clientele that we have as it does to how we're running it. [...] And you know, there are little victories that we have, every single day, that a lot of people don't necessarily pay attention to.
BM: Yeah, I mean, we're just happy that we're still open and we're still going and we still have so much to learn. I mean I do, as a chef. I've worked all sorts of fine dining and I can stretch it out a little bit and a lot of it's price issues. I want to buy better stuff, but I can't sell it. It's money.
Going forward through the next year, what's the vision? Any big plans?
KPM: Just different improvements. Trying to figure out how to do things more efficiently, how to negotiate a building that wasn't necessarily meant to be a restaurant, that in itself is kind of a daily struggle. One of my girls that works in the front is a very very talented artist, she's going to the sign on the side of the building for us, with a mural. You know, it's all up in the air. Because we didn't think about it?we didn't think we'd be open, didn't think this was gonna work. Nowadays, I think it's a lot easier to think about the other shoe falling, because the other shoes continue to fall constantly. That mindset, where you're thinking this is never gonna work, it's almost like a self-manifesting prophecy. And despite, not so much his belief, but my belief that something's gonna happen, something's gonna be bad, I just didn't think beyond our first year, I didn't think beyond our first six months. And so now I wake up and go, "Holy shit, this has got to be done," and you didn't think about those kinds of things.
BM: Finish some of our furnishings, you know, we made all of the tables but they're starting to sort of fall apart [because] we never got to put on the clear coat and the epoxy, so we're going to do that at some point. I don't know when. We usually have Sundays and Mondays off, but it takes 72 hours. If we were able to get 50 covers at lunch, and maybe 75 at dinner, that would be adequate. We can do 200 at lunch and the same at dinner on a Saturday. It's only 49 seats, but of course the seating out here adds a lot. And it puts a lot of pressure on the kitchen, it's tiny. It's a 14 foot kitchen ? it's smaller than my kitchen at home. But that's the thing. Let's figure out how to make it work. There's no glory in having too much pride, it's like, you know what, that's not going to work, let's do it some other way. I think the things that we focus on, cooking things right, getting the flavors right, getting stuff fresh.
So the short answer? The short answer is make it better. Really. Just continually get better. And especially, specific to the restaurant, get better at making the restaurant whatever it is.
· Cowbell [Official Site]
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