|BLUE CREW: Megan and Colby Garrelts have shot to the top of the Kansas City food scene.|
|FOAM FACTOR: Colby Garrelts' inventive cuisine has been a big hit in KC.|
COMFY: You can get Megan Garrelts' dreamy desserts at either Bluestem's new wine lounge (above) or the restaurant. The food menus are separate.
Dreaming about becoming a chef/owner so you can have complete control of every aspect of your restaurant's operation? Take a tip from Colby and Megan Garrelts, proprietors of Bluestem in Kansas City, MO. Dream big, because if your restaurant venture works as planned, you're going to need a way to make it bigger, fast.
Give this couple their due: They got just about every aspect of a "let's run our own place" business adventure right. They opened Bluestem in 2004, and the combination of chef Colby's Progressive American cuisine and pastry chef Megan's inventive desserts immediately created serious local buzz. That buzz built when the Kansas City edition of the 2005 Zagat Guide ranked Bluestem's food as the best in the city. Then it went national when Colby was named a 2005 Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef. A restaurant can't make a much bigger impact in its first year than the one Bluestem did in Kansas City.
Seemingly, everything had fallen into place: The restaurant was a hit, the location was ideal—Bluestem sits in Kansas City's bustling Westport entertainment district—and the couple's future seemed unlimited.
Or at least as unlimited as it could be in a 43-seat venue. Initially, the space was seen as an intimate setting, ideal to showcase Colby's food and Megan's desserts. As Bluestem's business grew, the room began to feel a little undersized. And then more guests began to opt for chef Colby's seven-($75) and $12-course ($100) tasting menus. That development was great for check averages and culinary prestige building, but not so good for table turns.
What to do? Branch out. Last March, the couple debuted a companion venture, Bluestem Wine Lounge. It's located adjacent to their existing restaurant, and arriving guests now enter Bluestem proper by walking through the wine lounge.
The new space solves several business challenges for Bluestem's owners.
For one, with 45 seats, it doubles capacity. For another, it enables Bluestem, already a recipient of a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, to expand its wine offerings further. The new place showcases a wide selections of boutique wines. Three dozen wines are available by the glass ($6-$14). Wine flights go for $20.
The wine lounge also helps Bluestem cash in on the cocktail craze. The original room had a bar, all right. But with just five seats, it wasn't going to qualify as a hangout. The new wine lounge does. It has a lengthy list of specialty cocktails priced from $8-$12. The big seller is the Signature: ice wine, champagne, citrus vodka and frozen blueberries.
Perhaps more importantly, there's a bar menu packed with interesting food items priced at $10 or less. Offerings include artisanal cheeses, salads, soups, even panini sandwiches. Wine lounge patrons can also sample any dessert from Bluestem's list.
The end result: More seats, more revenue and a second, more casual operation where Bluestem's many fans can grab a drink and a bite when they don't have the time or budget for a trip into the main room. It's a state-of-the-art diversification plan you'd be well-advised to have in the back of your mind if and when you open that cool spot of your own.
But you'll have to learn as much about the restaurant business as Colby and Megan Garrelts did, and develop your culinary skills to a level equivalent to theirs, before you open the doors. Their career paths have taken them through some of America's finest kitchens.
You'd never tab Kansas City native Colby Garrelts as a culinary school dropout, but that's what happened when he tried to gain a formal culinary education at a community college. He went the school-of-hard-knocks route instead, working at Kansas City's American Restaurant during the Michael Smith/Debbie Gold era, then at Stolen Grill.
In 1999, he headed north to Tru in Chicago, where he served as senior sous chef for Rick Tramonto. That's also where met his wife-and partner-to-be, Megan Schultz. An Illinois native and Culinary Institute of America grad, she was working for pastry chef extraordinaire Gale Gand at Tru.
The couple then headed to Las Vegas. Colby worked with Jean Joho at the Eiffel Tower in the Paris Las Vegas, then joined Megan at Charlie Palmer's Aureole at Mandalay Bay, where she was pastry sous chef. Next came a stint in Southern California. Colby was chef de cuisine at Rockenwagner Restaurant in Santa Monica. Megan served as executive pastry chef for the Getty Center Restaurant. After two years there, the pair headed back to Kansas City.
It's not the traditional path to culinary stardom and business success. But with Bluestem and now Bluestem Wine Lounge, this talented couple has achieved both, doing so in record time.
And Colby's still dreaming. "I want to have a place where everything is perfect—the service, the kitchen, the menu," he told Food & Wine. "I'd like to do the kind of fine dining you see in big cities." Judging from how well the couple has pulled off their first dream, don't bet against them on their next one.