Out with the old Big Jones, in with the new

As we approached four years into our adventure that is Big Jones, Mark and I found ourselves soul searching over our direction and ultimately the whole picture of what we’ve built. On the one hand, it’s been humbling to have met all of you, hear the compliments and the praise daily, and read the critical acclaim that has seemed to pile up with each passing month. Dear friends, family, and strangers on the street have offered congratulations on our success time and again, which usually catches me by surprise and leaves me bashful. While it’s become clear over the last couple of years that we are succeeding in building a business that should have staying power, I’ve never been able to sit back and admit to myself that I’ve been successful.

Maybe I’m striving too much. On the other hand, it’s been easy for a guest or passerby on Saturday night at 8 p.m. or Sunday at noon to think we have hit a grand slam, but it’s another thing entirely to have come by on a random Wednesday night and find only a handful of people in the dining room. Those nights have always hurt me and I’ve taken them very personally in spite of the fact that we’ve been profitable since early 2009 as we emerged from the Wall Street crash. Doesn’t financial success (not that we’ve been wildly profitable, just getting along as any shopkeep hopes to do) define success? Well, really it doesn’t for Mark or me. We have never escaped the panicky conviction that we weren’t doing what we set out to do. At least not all of it. Sure, we wanted to make money. We also wanted to convey an idea, and the beautiful, rich regional diversity of Southern cooking wasn’t all of it, nor was our desire to serve local and sustainably sourced foods the whole story. There was a whole story that wasn’t finished, and where we really veered from the course was our goal of keeping this kind of food accessible to as many people as possible, and making it the sort of place you’d want to come every day, including holidays. No mannerisms, no fuss, no muss, just good food and drink and good times.

A  funny thing happened shortly after we first opened just over four years ago. We’d only been open a week and the dining room staff started asking me what we were doing for Mother’s Day. Initially my answer was well, we’re going to be open but it won’t be busy we should run light staff that day. It was a special occasion and we weren’t that kind of place, or so I thought. I soon learned that we were being sought out as a Mother’s Day destination. Plans were made, extra staff was brought in, and we were off to the races. I’ll never forget that feeling that I had no idea what I’d gotten into.

Over time it became clear we have phenomenal business on the weekends and holidays and it’s very spotty during the week. We have to take responsibility for our business developing the way that it has but this isn’t a scenario we’re happy with to the extent that we even briefly considered closing Big Jones even though by industry standards our profit margins have been good, if not great. Some would say we hit a home run on our first at bat. I’d disagree because we weren’t doing what we set out to do.

Our response from the get-go when we realized that the dining public was looking at us as a special occasion restaurant (surely because of some message we were sending even though we weren’t conscious of it) was to adapt to that expectation, rather than trying to change the message we were sending to be more in line with what we were trying to create. We upped the ante on our service standards to be more formal, our platings to be more composed with more components, and otherwise be a restaurant that met the public’s expectations when they dined with us, which was most often on special occasions. Overall we got good results, garnered an excellent reputation, our fair share of accolades, and a profitable business. Somehow every time we’d serve 400 people on a Saturday and then 30 people on a Tuesday we felt like we were off track. It’s hard to be at your best when you are always either mad-slammed or dead quiet. We’ve always felt off balance. Not a good feeling.

Experienced upper middle class diners and industry people tell us how moderate our prices are. Well true, to many folks maybe they are, but to others they are out of reach altogether or reserved for special occasions. We understand that there is no better compliment than to choose us to celebrate your birthday, family holiday, engagement, or whatever special occasion you have at hand. We hope our hospitality lives up to those kinds of expectations, we always wanted it to be. But on the other hand, we wanted Big Jones the place you could go all the time. Home, family. The kind of family you hang out with all the time, not the kind of family you only see on two to three required family holidays each year. It’s also a little bit personal to me, coming from a working class background. I’ve never been comfortable myself in places that feel “exclusive” either by price, reservations required, or the attitude of the staff. To make the restaurant more like me, it would need to be more friendly to the common working folk I call my friends and family. And let’s face it – we’re price conscious.

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to meet one of the smartest restaurant industry folks I’ve ever met, Ellen Malloy , when I signed Big Jones up for her restaurant PR service Restaurant Intelligence Agency. Besides all the wonderful public relations opportunities that have come our way via her site, I started to look at her as a mentor even though she wouldn’t consider herself one, mostly by regularly reading her blog, following her on Twitter and Facebook, and taking in little bits of her wisdom as they became available. I reached out to Ellen when I was feeling particularly discontent late last summer, and frankly, Big Jones might have been sold by now were it not for her help and advice. Essentially it came down to doing what made me happy, making the restaurant in my image, and damn the consequences, stop pulling punches and fuck everyone who doesn’t dig what you’re doing. The restaurant had to become more personal for me to be happy with it, and that meant I had to stop adjusting to what I thought people wanted the restaurant to be (because how could I really know what the hell that is anyway) and just make it what I want. If that means changing it, change it. Damnit. So here we are. Down the road, if I’m ever uncomfortable with the direction the restaurant is heading, I’ll know what to do. Change course to make it go where I want it to go.

Over the last few months and continuing over the next several months, we have been and will continue making incremental changes to get to our goal of being a regular eating and drinking spot for more people. Sure, we want you to visit us on the holidays just like you’d visit friends and family. But we’d like to see you more regularly. The changes we’ve made plus the ones we have on tap include

  • Refocusing our brand away from destination fine dining to being your friendly neighborhood tavern and inn – that is a place where you can go any day or night and have something delicious to eat and drink and at prices that make it approachable for everyday dining.
  • Honing in on historic and heirloom Southern cooking. This was inevitable because I’ve always been a bit of a history geek and I love researching the roots of modern American cooking and figuring out how to get back to our roots, to the days before Food Inc. ruined the way America eats. It’s about returning to the old arts in order to move cooking forward.
  • Completely reformatting the menus away from a formal, French table service format to something more traditionally American and inspired by the old roadside taverns and inns – we always have snacks on hand, home baked goods, some main courses, and in a most uniquely Southern way, an array of side dishes including lots of vegetables.
  • We are moving away from formal table service to a more casual spirit – that is to say, you decide how you’d like us to serve you. One thing we often heard was some folks don’t like to come on weeknights because they would feel committed to a multi-course dinner and who has time for that on a Wednesday? All of our menus are now formatted so you can set your table the way you want – a quick and easy supper, a table of plates to share with friends, or a longer, more involved dining experience. We call this American table service – it’s not up to you to conform to our service style, it’s up for us to provide you with what you want. We know you work hard day to day and you are usually looking for an easygoing, casual dining experience and we’re here to provide that, service to our usual high standards with you calling the shots.
  • Re-engineering our whole hog butchering program to change how we utilize each animal, allowing us to bring prices down overall. This means using the whole animal more efficiently, and wasting nothing. This is manifest in items like baked beans, and the runaway hit biscuits on brunch, made with our house-rendered lard. It’s old Southern farmstead cooking in the most authentic and sincere way. It also means something crucial – our prices are more approachable than ever, and we hope you’ll take advantage of them on a regular basis.
  • Remodeling the bar to provide a more open, comfortable space. This was a big one for us because we felt like our bar design was perhaps our biggest design failure. Mark and I love to drink, and when we’re eating out somewhere with an interesting cocktail or beer program, we might just as likely sit at the bar to eat because it’s easier to banter and interact with staff. We feel like we hit the mark this time, so please come have a drink at our bar and let us know what you think. If you like it, let us know. If there’s something we could improve, even more important to let us know!
  • Installing draft beer. This should have been a no-brainer from day one but it really wasn’t in the budget as such systems are expensive and we started on a small budget, on our own without big money behind us. We thought then that we would eventually get draft beer should we become successful and here we are. Mark is far more likely than I to have a beer if we’re out but for both of us, if we’re going to have beer, it’s going to be on draft. We also like to think we’d be the kind of spot you’d stop by for a drink and a snack, and for many of us that means a frosty draft beer. We’re starting with four taps and will bring you local craft brews in season.
  • We’ll always have an artisinal cider on draft because true cider is an indispensable link to our drinking traditions – in old Virginia and Appalachia particularly, beer wasn’t all that common, and if a fizzy fermented beverage was served up, chances are it was cider. We’re working with Prima and Virtue cider to always have on draft a local cider made in the traditional way with heirloom apples and American oak barrels. If you’ve never tried Prima Most or Virue Red Streak, please come in and give them a try. It’s an eye opener.
  • Turning our cocktail program up a few notches to pair with our historic heirloom cooking, bringing you our personal takes on classic cocktails, and with a fun new offering: a selection of punches based on historic antebellum recipes, using housemade bitters, cordials, and fun long-forgotten preparations such as oleo-saccharum, a tried and true way to get citrus oils to dissolve in alcohol or water for delicious infusions and sodas.
  • We founded the Big Jones Bourbon Society and have expanded our whiskey collection to more than 80 labels with more to come. Nothing is more Southern than bourbon whiskey and we love to sip a good one. We founded the Big Jones Bourbon Society to bring whiskey lovers together and provide tasting opportunities, social events, and dinners. Now that we’ve passed 500 members, look for activity to perk up. Haven’t joined yet? Come in and ask the bartender or your server. It’s free and there are great benefits!
  • Displaying new art on the walls – following Ellen’s admonition to make the restaurant more personal, we’ve blown up and displayed favorite photos of ours from our travels in the South – most from South Louisiana and South Carolina, but some from Mississippi and Florida.

Just as important is what is not going to change:

  • We still buy our food from local, organic, and sustainable sources. We don’t do so “whenever possible” or with any qualifiers. The fact is when a restaurant says they do that, they are probably b.s.ing you. We’ve actually added to our family of farms this year and plan to continue doing so. More of our food is local, sustainable, or organic than ever (we go over 80% at peak of the season) and all of our meat and dairy products are always local, from small family farms exclusively raised in pasture. That is a commitment we made when we opened and it will not ever change. We will close Big Jones before we serve the product of tortured animals.
  • Our service standards will be higher than ever, we are just changing how we focus our service. It’s going to be focused on giving you the kind of dining experience you want, and not the formal dining experience that many of you were dismayed to find yourselves in when you just stopped by for a quick bite. We’re dropping the one-size-fits-all service standard and focusing on engaging you, finding out what you want, and giving it to you on your terms, not the outmoded stodgy French table service style that was our standard.
  • We will always make everything we serve in house, including the preserves, pickles, charcuterie, and home-baked breads you’ve come to know and love. By applying the lessons of the old farmsteads like the one my grandparents had and learning to cook with the same spirit of love and frugality they lived with, we can provide these simple joys for a price common folk can afford.

We’re still on the fence about changing our tabletops to wood. If you have an opinion about that, we’d love to hear from you.

During my reading and research over the last few years, I’ve repeatedly been enthralled and fascinated by the roadside and city taverns and inns of the South from Virginia to New Orleans, and how magnificent that hospitality must have been, always with home cooking, but to imagine the sense of comfort and escape you could feel by stopping in on a journey from A to B, in those days when travel was quite an undertaking. Life now is different but in many ways similar – daily life is full of stress and hardships and everyone appreciates the great escape of warm hospitality with great food and friendly accommodating service. One aspect of service in the old days was that plated meals didn’t really exist; service was family-style. We’ve sought to recreate that in our Boarding House Lunch, but with dinner and brunch we’ve taken a different route – offering plated main dishes with snacks, appetizers, sides, and vegetable dishes meant for sharing so you can set your table to your liking and enjoy the same spirit of dining and sharing plates with your companions.

Taverns weren’t always what we think of as taverns today – in fact, in Chicago a Tavern License is for serving alcohol without food. Traditionally American Taverns were inns where alcoholic beverages, particularly spirits, were consumed in addition to meals. They were also decorated as beautifully as possible, though many were simple rooms. This hit home with me. Years ago if you asked me what kind of restaurant I really wanted to open I would have said a little neighborhood bar with great food and great drinks. End of story, and here we are.

I do have an interest in fine dining and also in quick service and ideas for projects in both those areas, but those are future projects and Big Jones is not one of those. It’s a comfortable little tavern serving simple, expertly prepared heirloom southern cooking much like you would have enjoyed in the old days stopping off on a trip and looking for repast.

I’d like to thank you for reading my blog over the years, and supporting our restaurant with your patronage. If you’ve enjoyed Big Jones in the past, we’re confident you’ll love it even more now, and hopefully we’ve given you a few reasons to enjoy it more often. Our servers will tell you I’m famously shy and hard to pin down, and that’s true, but I’d love to say hi and thank you in person any time you’re at Big Jones or see me at an event. I’d also love to hear what you think of our changes and any ideas or feedback you have. I’m also so happy myself with our new bar that a likely place to catch me will be after service at Big Jones, relaxing with a draft beer or cider, or perhaps a sip of whiskey. It’s a great time to chat.

Finally, a few pictures of recent menu items and specials that reflect our simpler, yet still refined cooking style.

Home baked cheese straws, a cocktail snack
A mint julep served in a traditional julep cup
Colonial bennecake waffle with charred house andouille and sea island pea gravy
A cream puff made according to an 1885 Louisiana recipe
King salmon cooked on the wood grill and served with asparagus and green garlic carolina gold rice risotto & local wild watercress.