Running a restaurant is not a piece of cake

By Christine Huang

When Brian Huston opened the doors to Evanston restaurant Boltwood in June 2014, he envisioned it as a neighborhood bistro with an emphasis on market-driven, locally sourced ingredients. A native Evanstonian, Huston credited Found Kitchen and Social House, a seasonally driven restaurant and lounge that opened in 2012, as his inspiration for the restaurant, and hoped Boltwood would fit into the city’s burgeoning farm-to-table scene.

“We’re not serving all the food off the back of one truck. We’re going to the farmers markets, we’re using good ingredients,” Huston said, noting that even before opening Boltwood, at 804 Davis St., he often sourced ingredients from the Evanston farmers market and brought them to the downtown Chicago restaurants where he worked.

Jackie Moss, a customer, noted that Boltwood’s focus on quality ingredients is one of the main draws of the restaurant. “It’s one of the best places in the area,” she said.

Prior to opening his own eatery, Huston spent ten years alongside Paul Kahan, one of Chicago’s most celebrated chefs, at Blackbird and The Publican. In 2015 Huston was a James Beard Award semifinalist in the “Best Chef: Great Lakes” category.

Brian Huston and Chrissy Prieto both attended Evanston Township High School. (Christine Huang/MEDILL)

But the business aspects of running a restaurant have posed a learning curve for Huston.

Huston and his wife, Chrissy Prieto, said high initial design costs, discretionary operational expenses and Evanston’s tough business environment, particularly in the winter, have made it difficult for them to turn a profit.

“I’ve been describing it recently like a stone skipping across the lake,” Huston said. “It’s like we get up, and then we get down. The thing for us is just trying to trim any fat we can…and stay above water.”

What’s more, many customers misperceive Boltwood as a “high-end special occasion place,” Huston said, and some are disappointed when they discover it’s not a fine-dining establishment.

“I think [the misconceptions] can be changed by people coming in here and seeing what it’s about and giving them good service and feeding them good food,” he said.

Revenues in 2016 were $1.47 million, down 5.4 percent from $1.55 million in 2015, Huston said.

“We lost the luster of the new fun place,” he said, adding that the Cubs, the election and four new restaurant openings in Evanston at the end of last year also contributed to the revenue dip. But the addition of a brunch menu in 2016 helped mitigate the decline, he said.

Huston and Prieto, who manages front-of-house operations, said they are implementing changes to help streamline their business and cut unnecessary costs.

For instance, since opening, Huston said he has used a “fluid” menu that changes daily, enabling him to stay true to the farm-to-table conception of his restaurant and serve the freshest ingredients each day. However, that meant printing dozens of new menus every single day.

“We spent way too much money on paper last year,” he said.

Instead, he said the restaurant is transitioning to a “seasonal” menu, allowing him to feature the same menus and dishes for longer periods of time.

In addition to cutting excessive printing and paper costs, Prieto said she and Huston are looking into reducing their usage of linens. For the past few years, they have provided cooks and dishwashers with disposable shirts, which are replaced each day. But Prieto said they intend to replace the shirts with reusable aprons made of high-quality heavy cotton.

Although Prieto and Huston are committed to reducing costs whenever possible, they also recognize that some investments are necessary.

For one thing, they will never compromise the integrity of their ingredients, Prieto said.

For another, Prieto said, they have learned the importance of using established marketing platforms. For a short time she switched from OpenTable to Reserve, an online reservation system that costs $99 a month, compared to $1,500 a month for OpenTable.

“We tried it and it didn’t work.” she said. “OpenTable has been around for 20 years…. They know what they’re doing, and they’ve built up a network of people. You kind of are getting what you pay for. We made the switch back to OpenTable, and we noticed a boom instantly in sales.”

The restaurant is also committed to continue paying its 35 to 40 employees competitive wages and providing a positive work experience. Huston said they have strong retention rates. Ryan Wesneski, a server and busser, said the restaurant’s policy of pooling tips has helped him feel more like a “stakeholder” in the business.

Customers enjoying lunch at Boltwood. (Christine Huang/MEDILL)

Despite the business challenges Huston has faced, Boltwood continues to draw dedicated customers with its fresh, inventive food and warm service.

Andrew Brown and Charlie Clarke said they eat at Boltwood at least twice a month.

“I think the food is first good, and it is different than what we can obtain elsewhere in Evanston. It’s a little more creatively prepared. And it’s reasonably close by to where we work,” said Brown.

“And there are some good healthy choices,” Clarke said. “I’m gluten free and mostly dairy free, and they have some options that can fit both of those categories pretty well. . . . Ambiance is good. If we come at the prime time, it’s a little too crowded. We usually come a little late to avoid that,” he added.

Bill Collins, who said he has eaten at Boltwood a handful of times over the course of the past year, said he plans to return for the fried potatoes and good service.

The crispy potatoes side dish is a customer favorite. (Christine Huang/MEDILL)

“Some of the restaurants in Evanston, the servers tend to be unfriendly, because I guess that’s the cool way to be. But they’re always very friendly in there,” he added. “It’s always a very welcoming place.”

Moving forward, Prieto said, she feels confident that their efforts to “cut out the fat” in their business will allow them to save money in strategic ways while staying true to their vision.

“The food is amazing, the staff is great,” she said. “I feel really good about the team that we have right now. I think if we just continue to keep…consistently doing what we’re doing and consistently doing it well, we’re going to be in a good spot.”

Photo at top: Kitchen staff preparing before dinner service. (Christine Huang/MEDILL)