Can we really have it all?

Just the other day, I heard the news that executive chef Reed Johnson had parted ways with Against the Grain. Actually, I read the news at the Eater Louisville web site, and this merits a brief digression about changing times.

It strikes me as noteworthy that a full week later, the transition at AtG still hasn’t been mentioned at the Louisville Restaurants Forum, for some years the city’s go-to place for such a story.

NABC’s well-documented tussle with the Floyd County Health Department, which began in mid-June and was given ample coverage at Eater Louisville and elsewhere on-line, hasn’t hit the forum yet, either. Granted, I never thought to flog it, although you’d think someone would have. In a larger sense, a generational shift probably is under way, and discussion boards like the forum have become somewhat outmoded in the age of knee-jerk social media, yielding to any number of purely dismal Yelp-like ratings aggregators.

But this isn’t my topic today. Rather, it is my personal reaction to comments appended to the Eater notice of Reed’s leaving.

First, the departure. We all like to believe “it’s only business” and “there’s nothing personal,” and yet emotions naturally run high when change comes around. There are no right and wrong answers, only the inevitability of flux. Ironically, it turns out that I stopped by Against the Grain on what quite likely was Reed’s last day of work, scoring a growler of delicious Spezial-like smoked beer, and regretting not having enough time on the day in question to have a leisurely pint with one of his excellent barbecue sandwiches.

What’s funny is this: At the time, grasping my sweating growler and trying not to think like the businessman I’m ostensibly supposed to be – albeit it with supreme reluctance – it occurred to me that with baseball season over, cooler weather on the way, and AtG (the brewery) working so hard on its designer export beer model … well, how was the restaurant coming along, anyway?

It’s what owners do, after all. We think way too much, compare and contrast, and seldom are able to just go out and enjoy a beer and a bite. Even worse, as much as the leftist in me would like to avoid them, numbers generally end up dominating the conversation – and they have dollar signs attached to them. It is profoundly bothersome.

Now, I’ve no way of knowing the answers to questions like these. Furthermore, it’s none of my business. I consider myself to be friends with the quartet of AtG owners. What’s more, Reed worked for Bank Street Brewhouse for a bit, pre-AtG, when Josh Lehman was in our kitchen. I know and like everyone involved, so case closed. Better if we could all drink happily ever after, because beer cauterizes all wounds.

At the risk of pondering aloud, what I do know from personal experience – after almost five years of trying to achieve it at BSB – is that while a first-rate, chef-driven kitchen with a marvelous brewpub in back is a wonderful idea in theory, and even has been known to succeed (Swiss bank account style) in practice, it isn’t very easy to make money with higher level food when you’re trying to grow an export-driven, quality brewery at the same time.

It’s an echo of the time-honored refrain: You say you want to make a million dollars in brewing? Just start with $10 million … and that’s just the brewery, not the food.

There is much validity to that. If you don’t have a considerable pot of money from which to draw, it’s quite possible to learn that capitalizing both an evolving brewery and a top-flight kitchen is fiendishly difficult, here on the ground, out in the real world.

RateBeer never told you anything about this, did it?

This might explain my irritation at two of the (typically) anonymous comments beneath the Eater article announcing AtG’s kitchen change. One of the comments decried the absence of freedom for chefs, who always are at the mercy of brutal, bottom-line-driven owners, and lamented the overall lack of chef-driven kitchens in Louisville, encouraging culinary stars to own their own restaurants. The other predicted the imminent arrival of the Sysco truck at AtG, now that the brewery’s first chef was gone.

Pfui.

Does the world really need more such surreptitious advisors, these expert sidewalk superintendents who evidently have no clue about the food and labor costs involved with providing them with the best of ever-changing menu items at a price point they’re willing to pay, given microscopic consumer attention spans and vicious competition from the chains that typically receive the big-time government subsidies … and must I mention the monolithic agribusiness entities putting gasoline in those accursed Sysco trucks?

Dudes, you simply have no idea, do you?

Consider other infuriating stressors: Garden-variety wine snobs refusing to believe mere beer can accompany such elevated cuisine, demanding the highest-rated Chilean, Californian or (gasp) French vino, and refusing to even sample regional examples of the vintner’s art … customers who can’t pay $65 for a meal without multiple refills of Diet Coke … and don’t forget those who expect chicken fingers and periodic floor vacuuming for their free-range children.

If it was so damned easy, don’t you think all of us would be in clover? What was that? We’re already in clover? It isn’t clover at all. Think of a later stage of the digestive process, and you’d be closer to the mark.

This rant may or may not have anything to do with Against the Grain, or for that matter, to Bank Street Brewhouse. It’s just my story, and I’m sticking to it. However, this much is axiomatic, at least to me: Unless AtG, BSB or any other brewery in their relative positions comes independently stuffed with cash, there comes a point when traditional sources of investment glare first at the restaurant side, and then at the brewery, curl their lips like bankers so enjoy doing, and say something along the lines of this:

“Can you please decide which one you’d like to be, restaurant or production brewery, and once you’ve done so, we’ll consider possibly maybe helping you – unless, of course, we do not care a solitary jot. And we don’t. See that door over there … ”

Yes, those of us in the food and drink business have been known to creatively embellish the truth, and for good reason. To blink publicly or otherwise show any sign of weakness is to invite self-perpetuating calamity of the rumor-mongering variety – on the Internet, spread by word of mouth, or scratched onto the restroom wall (and guess who pays to fix that?)

Besides, no one on the planet wants to hear about our problems. We chose the lives we lead, and understandably, customers merely want to be reassured that their favorite joint is still going to be there, slinging hash and filling pints, the next time they go out. It’s only something to think about, and probe a bit more deeply than the time it takes to make ludicrous comments at a restaurant news web site.

I wish Reed Johnson the best in whatever career path he pursues. He’s a great and entirely authentic guy, with oodles of talent.

And, I also remain an unrepentant fan of AtG, even if it’s sometimes far too enjoyable for this curmudgeonly elder to refrain from giving them a hard time. I hope they can have it all, and the smoked beer — wonderful.

So, folks, give everyone some space. Try to remember that marketplaces can be unforgiving. Support independent local business whenever you can.

And: Death to chains!

It’s my traditional ending, eh?

  1. I hope ATG keeps it’s eatery section. They have fabulous food for a brewery. I only recently found out how good it is thanks to the Beer Craft Week. The people there are so friendly and the food/drink is awesome. I agree with you on supporting our local people. I hope many listen and take advantage of all the unique places we have locally whether it is plays, food, drink, music and shops.

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