Welcome to podcast episode 17 the Mobile Alabama Business Podcast with Chris Rainosek. My name is Marcus Neto. I own BlueFish a digital marketing and web design company based in Mobile, Alabama. I'm the host of Mobile Alabama Business Podcast where we talk to local entrepreneurs and business owners about their businesses and how they got started. I'd like to thank you for spending time with us today.
In today’s show I will sit down with Chris of Noble South. Noble South is a farm to table concept restaurant that just celebrated their one year anniversary in May. I have to say, I ate there last week and they have a ridiculously good bacon, egg, and pimento cheese sandwich. Chris talks about how he sources local ingredients at his restaurant and how he got started in the food services industry. So let's dive right in with Chris Rainosek.
Marcus: Today, I’m sitting down with Chris Rainosek. Chris is the co-owner of the Noble South Restaurant, which is downtown (Mobile, AL) on Dauphin Street. Welcome to the podcast, Chris.
Chris: Thank you very much for having me.
Marcus: Yeah I've been looking forward to this interview because I love food and I love cooking. Casi from the Mobile Bay Keeper and I had lunch at your restaurant last week, and I have to say, I'm impressed. I had your bacon, egg, and pimento cheese sandwich and it was delicious.
Chris: Thank you very much. Saying goes and it's the old chef’s trick, put bacon on it and it will sell.
Marcus: Making everything better with bacon. I think I'm actually known amongst my friends as you know the bacon guy. But it was interesting because even the kale salad was something that I raved about to others in conversations since, but before we dive too deep into all of your kitchen secrets, tell us a little bit about yourself. Did you grew up here in Mobile?
Chris: Well I grew up here, sixth grade through high school. My family moved here and that I'm 37 so I guess I would have been, eleven or twelve or something like that. And we got here and I went to St Dominic's and to McGill here in Mobile, so a good Catholic…
Marcus: A good Catholic upbringing?
Chris: A good Catholic upbringing, and then I graduated. I have a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Alabama.
Marcus: Very good.
Chris: And then from there, I moved to Colorado, to the Boulder and Denver area and kind of started working in restaurants as something to do while I played in the mountains and enjoyed my post-college life.
Marcus: Are you a beach bum, well not a beach bum, a ski bum or a mountain bike fanatic or what?
Chris: Well, I actually I really like the mountains during the summer we like the camping and the hiking and that type of thing. I mean I've skied and done all that…
Marcus: But it's more the summertime activity..
Chris: Yeah we like the summer time up there.
Marcus: I find that most people that move to Colorado they’re are usually one of a couple, you know, interests as far as outdoor activities...
Chris: Absolutely. I mean it's all there, and what I found with the skiing is that since I've been in restaurants my whole life as I usually work weekends, so it was always hard to find it end up being me kind of going by myself during the week and it’s gets a little old trekking through the snow, while my nine to five buddies were free on the weekends that I couldn’t join them.
Marcus: I hear you loud and clear. So you mentioned that you started when you moved to Colorado, but how did you get started in the food services industry?
Chris: It was actually on a whim. There was a little restaurant in Boulder by my apartment that I was living in with some buddies, and they needed an assistant manager, like a front of house kind of manager there, and I was like, you know “what the heck. I’ll give a shot,” and it was close and I’d had some management experience and other stuff that I'd done, was kind of in leadership positions my whole life and so figured “what the heck”, and they took a shot on me and it was simple. I got to work at night you know right get off work at midnight, 1 o'clock and go have beers and I was in a college towns. So everybody was still pretty much my age, when I was 20 and had just turned 22 too. So it fit my lifestyle at the time and then I realized I was good at it, but that restaurant that I initially worked at was, it's now if you're familiar with the area, right with a highway comes from Denver into Boulder and one day they came and said, “Well, we sold out to big condo group is going to build condos for the students right here and we're closing up tomorrow, so here's a check, we’ll see later”. So all of sudden, I had this restaurant experience and no job and so I got another restaurant job because I wasn't saving any money when I was 22, so I needed a job pretty quick.
Marcus: Was the next one also management??
Chris: Yeah, it was kind of front of house manager, then I made the switch I kind of started to fall in love with it, realized I had a little bit of a talent for it. I'd always liked to cook. I just never thought of it as a career, and then so I went to culinary school.
Marcus: I was just going to ask you…
Chris:…in Boulder at the Culinary School of the Rockies, a little boutique school that you know kind of fit my schedule there, and then from then I’ve pretty much been the kitchens.
Marcus: So how much did that experience because when I think of Colorado and California and forgive me if this isn't a good classification, but the whole farm to table type concept, that it kind of started in that region, was that influential and do you just think of yourself... I mean I guess move…
Chris: That's definitely at Noble South, but a lot of that influence really came here once I got here. My main job that I had in Denver was I worked for the Nordstrom Corporation, the kind of upscale department stores, and they had restaurants in some of their stores. And I had, you know, kind of a cushy corporate gig and all that, all those nice things, and but then when I moved back here and kind of want to really fell in love with was, I fell in love with Mexican food when I was in Colorado. I can really kind of dug into that and when I came back here, I started the Dauphin Street Taqueria down with the OK Bike Shop down the road here.
Marcus: Very good.
Chris: I kind of developed that menu for them, it was kind of my frst gig back in town and then I moved on to the Wash House (in Fairhope) where I still am as well, in addition to Noble South. But over there is really where we fell in love with the kind of farm to table concept because in Baldwin County, a kind of farming community, all around where the Wash House is located is right kind of dead center right in there, and so we just kind of ran where to seek them out and that’s really…
Marcus: And that's really gets amazing to me that there's such a wide variety of things being grown here and that more restaurants aren't kind of capitalizing on that, because it would seem like it be cheaper to get locally sourced….
Chris: Yeah, what seemed is not easier and that's the thing I mean it's not, you know we deal with small farms and if it's raining outside in the farmer doesn't feel like going on the rain to pick what I need you know, it’s not going to happen that day. So things like that are harder, but we really wanted to... I mean we found that we were really surrounded by all this beautiful stuff and what started popping up with several guys kind of my own age that I felt like more like in my peer group there are some small farms over there, people that I've got to know since they started, since they started knocking on doors and going to restaurants, especial guys at Local Appetite Growers who are in Silver Hill, Chasing Fresh is more like a farm broker for me, Chase Corte, and I mean these guys are my age that I consider friends. I've been with for years now and of use their products that were helped a lot to you know not to stereotype, but I wasn't going to you know like an old school kind of farmer and understand and kind of say “hey, there’s this weird thing I've heard about, you know anybody that has that,” or “can you grow it for me?” And they’d say “yeah, no problem we’ll do what you want.” There is a little more, the lines of communication started opening up a little more.
Marcus: Yeah. I mean, I would imagine it's also good for them too because the things that you're asking for are probably not your typical. So they're probably priced a little bit better for them and also selling directly to they're going to get a better, I mean, a margin them selling to a wholesaler that then marks it up and sells to you.
Chris: Absolutely. And there are you know in a lot in a lot of cases it's a second job for some of these guy, as they farm on the side on a little piece of land, they have a day job, and this is kind of a passion project for them. And in most cases you can really taste that, or I believe that you can.
Marcus: I am kind of a nut when it comes to food and so like when I watch stuff on Netflix, it's like you know Sean Brock or Mind of a Chef and stuff like that, so I was even talking here in the office last week that there's a… I can't remember the name of it now, what is it? Anson Mills and yeah he kind of pushed that in his book because I mean he's all about knee heirloom quality products and rice and wheat and stuff like that and as somebody who really kind of likes that stuff. I just want to commend you for bringing that to, I think that's to the masses really it with Noble South, I mean the prices aren't, exorbitant like you would tend to see...
Chris: And the thing is that we try and educate our customers, as well. We don’t want to be preachy about it, you know, in the end we want people come in and have a good time, have a cocktail, enjoy the meal, whether you think about it or it just tastes good that’s fine, but we did want to at least open up a little more dialogue. I think that you find a lot more a lot of restaurants in Mobile ,about where it's from, how it grows, and you know, we kind of put a name in a place to it, as well. I think a little more than the lawn.
Marcus: Well putting demand on these specialty items too, sure, I think it's really cool. So when you're asked about Noble South, what do you say is the unique proposition of that restaurant? What is it that makes it different than the 41 other restaurants here in downtown Mobile?
Chris: Well I think it's the fact that we are I think what we consider ourselves a farm to table restaurant and I think….I know there's other places in downtown that uses some local products and all that. But we're pretty strict about it, I think we're the ones that kind of walk the walk so to speak, much more than than most. That was THE reason why we came down here, it is THE reason why we opened up the restaurant, we finally got to a point with the Wash House, man, a lot of the guys we communicated with said they were having trouble getting to chefs in Mobile and you know they weren't selling a lot of their products here. We can kind of maybe be the brain pool or we have access to all the stuff that maybe other people do both from a standpoint of originality, as well as it just kind of opening up people's eyes to the fact that it can be done you know. We have 52 seats, including the bar; I don't know we could have done it with one with 150 seat restaurant, but for being small like we are, and we can kind of change things on the fly, if we need to, so we're pretty mobile and pretty limber as far as that goes.
Marcus: Also I would imagine as something comes in, if it’s…
Chris: Yeah, I mean, we taste it, we look at it, when it comes in, and if it's something that goes out of season, it goes off the menu. We have stuff that people love and they ask about, and it's sad to tell them that we don't make it anymore, maybe next year, something like that.
Marcus: Casi was mentioning that the bacon, egg & cheese, pimento cheese, mind you, sandwich went off the menu for a while, was that because there was something like that?
Chris: It did. We started kind of around this time last year, I think, towards the end of the summer. It was during tomato season, we had to replaced it with a B.L.T. (bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich), with a classic B.L.T., because we were getting these beautiful heirloom tomatoes. But then we had to put it back on… and everyone’s been very happy, so...
Marcus: I guess we can let that slide, but don’t take it off the menu anytime soon.
Chris: Then we can have two bacon sandwiches, and that’s probably not a bad thing.
Marcus: Absolutely. I mean, because I had never eaten at your restaurant before in the 11 years or so that I've lived here, I haven't been able to go to the Wash House, but when I saw that on the menu and I thought, “you know, that's a really odd combination” and then I took a bite and we had to take a minute, just pause and just kind of like, appreciate that for that - it was amazing.
Chris: (Laughter) It is, you know, bacon, egg and cheese. It’s really good.
Marcus: Yeah. Hard to mess that up. So I have to ask what is your favorite thing to eat if you were sitting down for your last meal what would it be?
Chris: Wow, I would probably take a really good cheeseburger or I would take some really good taco's.
Marcus: It’s kind of hard to beat tacos.
Chris: Yeah, I mean that's really my first kind of love. My whole family's from Texas; I grew up, you know, with Mexican food.
Marcus: Good Mexican food.
Chris: And that's always had a special place in my heart.
Marcus: I hear you loud and clear.
Chris: I’m a pro-taco guy and all the stuff we do with the Noble South, we consider Southern food. We either try and kind of make it our version of kind of classic Southern things or we use Southern products and then kind of twist it around a little bit. I didn't grow up with, you know, grits and I didn't grow up with collard greens, and all that. I've discovered that since I became interested in food and kind of came back to Mobile and have really kind of fallen in love with some of that stuff, and then I’ve gone back and done a little bit of homework on it all.
Marcus: The ingredients are inspiring right…
Chris: Yeah, so it's been a whole new world to me. My family, my mom makes killer enchiladas. That’s what I grew up with.
Marcus: You keep mentioning Mexican food and I know you guys have expanded from the Wash House to Noble South, is there going to be a Noble Even-South-er?
Chris: Potentially we’ll see how it goes.
Marcus: Very cool. As an entrepreneur what's the one most important thing that you've learned?
Chris: The most important thing that I have learned from an overall perspective, I would say, find a niche and try to maximize that niche. Don't try to be everything to everybody.
Marcus: Right. Positioning.
Chris: And a lot of that is from a restaurant perspective, other than that just be prepared, be organized you know be prepared, do your homework and really focus on your customers, in whatever form that it takes.
Marcus: I mean you are in one of the most difficult industries to go into, so I would imagine that gets magnified you know tenfold when you start talking about being organized and the chaos that can come with a large rush.
Chris: And I'm not even in, some of that is in retrospect afterwards that I really should have this a little more in line and all that, but to a certain extent, we kind of winged it a little bit when we bought the building. We fell in love with the building. We wanted to get it before anybody else got it, then it was, “well, now we have this. Now what? We’ve got to get it opened, so let's try and make that happen.”
Marcus: No, it’s cool. Is there an area of the business that you're putting a lot of effort into?
Chris: It kind of went, we hit our one year mark on May the 8th. The first year we were like “let's just kind of survive” and we were lucky enough that we had the business there, so we didn’t have to worry about people coming in the door, which was a blessing, but we really got through there and it's like, okay we hit year one. How do we look? Now it's about becoming more efficient you know. I think we really did a pretty good job in that first year but it was tightening up, going to things like our inventories and our pricing and our whole kind of business model, like what's worked from where it initially started, to what is not working now or what needs to be changed on.
Marcus: Yes history changed on like that.
Chris: How does our labor look? Where we can make couple of more dollars here, more dollars there? What do we want the restaurant to look at in the next year five years down the road. We kind of finally got a chance to take a deep breath and that's really, just becoming more and more efficient. It’s just like everybody else... how do we get more to the bottom line.
Marcus: Yeah, increasing those profit margins by increasing the efficiency, I would imagine.
Chris: Right. Yeah and it's because the thing about the restaurant is, there's not a high profit margin. I mean anybody who's done it, or anybody who doesn't know that much about it, it's not like we, a lot goes into putting the food on the table and having somebody prepare it for you and somebody bringing it to you, having equipment to cook it on and all the gas it takes to run that equipment and all that. The profit margins are all tight, so it all comes down to really being able to manage what you have and learning the trends and that's really kind of where we're at now.
Marcus: Very cool. What are some of the other resources that you found helpful? Are there any books or websites or anything even…
Chris: Well, I’m an avid cookbook reader and not even, I don't even read a lot of recipes anymore. I actually try not to steal anything or made a conscious effort to steal anything, but in a lot of those books, there's stories about how their restaurants open or how they come up with things or inspirational things at that are always helpful to me, both from a creative aspect, as well as the business part of things. In my opinion, the best restaurant book I’ve ever read was by a gentleman named Danny Meyer who has lots of restaurants in New York City, but he's also the owner of Shake Shack, the Union Square Hospitality Group.
Marcus: Yeah, I’ve never been to one, but I have some friends up in the northeast that actually rave about.
Chris: Yeah that's kind of his chain concept, then there’s Gramercy Tavern...
Marcus: Actually, didn't he run the most successful restaurant in New York for like for number of years?
Chris: They were rated...
Marcus: I think I just read an article about him.
Chris: But he's about as well respected as a restaurateur there is, probably in the world, and he wrote a great book called Setting the Table that my older sister, who's also in restaurants, gave to me, gosh five about ten years ago now, when I was doing more the front of house stuff and that's still kind of the “bible”, so to speak, as far as how to take care of your customers and what goes into making extra effort.
Marcus: I will be adding that to my wish list.
Marcus: I learned a lot from other, I mean our industries are not terribly different and also as far as like building homes and stuff like that, I think there's a there's a lot of things that we borrow from that industry, as far as, it's always interesting to get outside of our own little sphere, because I think just like you I don't want to take too much from how somebody else is doing something, but if it's in another industry and I'm like you say the creative process ago how do you find inspiration or what thought process did you follow to get to where you're at? Those are all very informative.
Chris: Yeah, I mean it's invaluable to learn that kind of stuff on people you really respect and admire who are the best in that industry, and in the end, it's about taking care of people and taking care of our staff, and how do we, how do you achieve that. How do you make somebody I'm paying $9 an hour to cook, how do you make him actually care about what he's doing, and so we we fall short sometimes, and sometimes I think we really get it right. But that’s a really good jumping off point for me, as well as working for the Nordstrom Corporation and if you're familiar with them, ever done any reading about them, they have the service model that's kind of famous throughout the industry where they... I mean that's their thing - customer service. They do everything based around that top to bottom, from the day they started the company, and it was a really amazing corporation to work for, as far as that goes and what they demand out of their staffs or taking care of their customers.
Marcus: You have an interesting path. You started a little, I'm gathering that the first restaurant that you started in was little...
Chris: Yeah, it was just kind of a little like breakfast/lunch kind of thing.
Marcus: Yeah exactly. And then go, at some point time end up at Nordstrom Corporation, which is a much larger, but also has processes instilled that kind of, as long as you can work within that, but then you end up somehow at the Wash House down here in lower Alabama and it seems like you know that you've brought some of the same ideas...
Chris: And one of the things I think is we're starting to see in downtown Mobile is people with a little broader perspective, you know many people that have spent some time in larger cities, or that are either coming home, or finding that there's opportunities in Mobile, because it’s is still fairly undeveloped, you know. It’s still relatively inexpensive and all those type of things. And so that's what we were looking at when opened up Noble South and we get a lot of our best feedback from people who were out of town, like from the hotels and things like that, that are traveling from Chicago or Atlanta or Nashville or what have you, who had traveled down here on business or come to the beach or anything like that, and they're like, “wow, you know we didn't expect to find this kind of place in Mobile!” They’re used to….
Marcus: Everything being fried.
Chris: ...and not that there's a anything wrong with that, but we want to take a little bigger city perspective on it. Both from a way in which we cook and kind of the ingredients that we pull from, but also just in the look of it.
Marcus: The sophistication of the experience. Yeah, I know I get that. So I find that many business owners are really focused on their businesses, but they also have hobbies that allow them to stay balanced. What do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
Chris: I used to, but now I have two kids. I have a four year old and an eight month old and between the two of them and the two restaurants, we’re pretty busy.
Marcus: Yeah, it's like having four kids.
Chris: So yeah, it's like having (laugh)... between both staff and... but we like to travel, my wife and I, we like to travel and eat, obviously. It’s main thing. We kind of sneak out of town whenever we can.
Marcus: Your favorite city?
Chris: Well I’m a big new Orleans guy. Chicago. We spend a lot of time in Atlanta, which has really great up and coming restaurants. New York obviously is great. Austin’s coming up…
Marcus: I have recently went to Austin and one of the, I love the food there, but there was this little diner that I think really only served breakfast and it was probably 20 seats max, I mean it was really tiny, you know in seven of those seats were at the counter, and it was the most phenomenal, I can't remember the name of it, but I could look it up and if you ever there you really… if you haven't tried it already, you really should go because it was amazing.
Chris: Sure I'm usually there a couple of times a year.
Marcus: Yeah, same kind of ethic is what you have, I think, most of your stuff is farm fresh eggs and locally sourced bacon, and you know stuff like that.
Chris: So that's what we do, I’m a big music fan, so we try and see music and sneak away from the kids and all that. But very little of it pretty much of the last couple years, it's been kids and restaurant.
Marcus: It has a tendency to kind of change your schedule. Well speaking of schedule, give us a look at an average day - what does that look like for you?
Chris: An average day usually I get to the restaurant is about 8:30 am give or take who earlier sometimes a little later, will come in and start getting ready for lunch. The staff, the lunch staff starts coming in about 9, so I do little prep work in the kitchen, kind of get them set up by 11. Typically, if I have any running around to do or you know grabbing any extra ingredients, because not everybody we use delivers to us, so if I have any running around I need to do, I try and get that taken care of during lunch. Hopefully back in the restaurant, if I leave it all, back in the restaurant by one or two, start getting ready for dinner, so to prep work, get through the shift change, and then be ready to go buy five and I’m usually there till 10:30-11:00.
Marcus: I was going to say so you’re usually there ‘til about 11 o'clock and your day starts at eight or eight thirty in the morning.
Chris: Well, my day starts usually about 6 o'clock in the morning when my son taps me on the forehead right away, but the work day starts at about 8:00 or 8:30.
Chris: They're long days, but I’ve been doing it for so long, people saying it, but like I really don't know anything else.
Marcus: Right and they are you six days a week or five days a week or seven days a week?
Chris: Usually five and a half. Usually Sundays, we’re closed. Sunday we are ready to do nothing, usually my other day off I try and take five to see my family and all that or just work five days, but I mean usually I’ll kind of “pop in” at least for a little bit or...
Marcus: Are you much involved over at Wash House anymore or?
Chris: Typically I am just over there one day a week, but I have communication with them more. I mean that's they've been there for, I think it's actually 14 years this year.
Marcus: So I got it down.
Chris: So it's pretty I mean it's pretty stable and pretty much runs itself.
Marcus: Well tell us where people can find you? What are the different contact points?
Chris: Well our physical location is 203 Dauphin Street, right at Dauphin and Conception, right off the corner of Bienville Square. On the Internet, we have a Facebook page for Noble South, the Twitter account is @the_noble_south and the website is www.thenoblesouthrestaurant.com.
Marcus: Very good and reservations?
Chris: Reservations are recommended, especially on the weekends.
Chris: Through the week, we have the bar which you know we can always put people out and we also our newest project is a directly next door to the restaurant - we have a waiting area/new cocktail lounge called the Side Car, and so that is the first door down, kind of closer to Conception Street, just directly next door.
Marcus: Is that open already? I didn't know.
Chris: It's open now, typically we're just open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. And we use it for overflow, so if there's a little bit of a wait, you can go over there, have a drink, or we put people in there if they want the whole menu. If you just want a good place, if you're wandering around downtown, to have a really nice cocktail. It's very easy, really interesting, really good cocktails over there, so that is kind of what it's turned into. And we're going to put advertise behind that once we’ve got a little bit of tweaking of the design done inside.
Marcus: I love what you're bringing as far as the design ethic in to the interior of the restaurant. You can tell but it's not just the menu that you care about, it is the whole experience and the way that the wait staff is dressed, the way that the openness of the restaurant or natural lighting that comes in, and stuff like that and I know I've been in that that building before you all were in there and I realized it did not look like that.
Chris: No it did not. It took us about four months to get it ready and all the design credit all goes to my wife. She did it all. She did a great job on the meager budget that we gave her.
Marcus: Wives are good like that.
Chris: Yeah, so she was very kind to do that, and but yeah we wanted the whole thing to flow together. We think we did pretty well with that.
Marcus: Well, again, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share?
Chris: No, thank you for having us, and just in general, it's been a great kind of first year in downtown and we're really excited about all the things happening down here. We think it's really got some great momentum moving forward, and come join us. We will take good care of you, and I think you’ll enjoy the food.
Marcus: Well, I for one will be the one who will be back. Well, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me to share your journey as a business owner and an entrepreneur. It’s been great talking to you.
Chris: Thanks very much for having me.