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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

DeRushaEats: Kevin Kathman OUT at Jack's

DeRushaEats: Kevin Kathman OUT at Jack's

Jack's Octopus

That was quick.

Kevin Kathman, the acclaimed chef who rebooted the menu at Jack’s, formerly Java Jack’s in South Minneapolis, is out. He decided this morning along with his kitchen team of four others to pull out of Jack’s.

When I was last in, Kevin told me he was hoping to buy Jack’s from owner Jerry Nelson. According to Kevin, Jerry gave him carte blanche to look over all the financials. Kevin didn’t like what he saw.

Then, “Vendors started calling me last week, staff told me their checks were bouncing,” said Kathman.

While Kevin and I were talking, I got one of the weekly press release emails that come from Jerry Nelson. “Jack's features New Dinner Menu tonight! We've brought back some neighborhood favorites...”

I emailed Jerry, and he hasn’t responded yet, but essentially Kevin said that something stunk in the way the business was being run. He’s accusing Jerry of running personal expenses and car payments through the financials of Jack’s.

Kathman’s menu was extremely ambitious, especially in a place that was essentially a neighborhood coffee shop. I loved the miso shooter he made, and an octopus dish that had cauliflower three ways⎯fried, puréed, and browned. There was a fascinating agnolotti with chestnut purée when I visited too.

Ambitious for a place that was known for sub-par sandwiches and pasta. And Kathman said it was making money, “If we would have paid every single bill, vendor, rent and utilities, we would have showed a profit of $15,000. We were making money in the slowest time of the year,” he told me.

So now Kevin Kathman, who spent time at Kim Bartmann’s empire of restaurants, spent three years working at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, is looking for a gig. He said he’s taking his team to Chicago (for the time being), they’re sticking together. And he’s hoping to find them jobs when he opens another place in Minneapolis, as he said in the comments here, “with more solvent backing.”

Jack’s is back to burgers and sandwiches. (There’s a $12 pizza on the news release I got. “Reservations recommended” as well.) Whatever happened, it’s a shame, because Kathman’s food at Jack’s was winning praise and headed in an exciting direction.

Of course, in the restaurant business there are at least three sides to every story. I’ll let you know when I hear from Nelson.

UPDATE: I just heard from Jerry Nelson...

We did give Kevin the keys with one condition: keep the costs in line.

The labor costs were not in line and not improving. His team was costly and he was unwilling to have anyone take a pay cut or unpaid vacation.

Sales were about the same as our previous concept with three reservations on the books for this week. This was a straight forward business decision.

I wish him and his team the best.

Posted on Tuesday, March 6, 2012 in Permalink

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

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Comments, page 1 of 2 1 2 Next »
Mar 6, 2012 08:12 pm
 Posted by  Chef

We are not leaving to go to Chicago outright. We are all going to stagier in various restaurants and keep in shape. We have great hopes of getting the band back together in Minneapolis with more solvent backing. We all hope to continue what we started.

Mar 6, 2012 09:00 pm
 Posted by  Jason DeRusha

I'll clarify that. Thanks.

Mar 6, 2012 10:31 pm
 Posted by  farbo1998

As a cook with a B.A. in economics, when you ask for the financials of your company and you're handed the POS number instead of quickbooks, pardon the obvious, something smells afoul. When passion, energy, craftsmanship and dedication are intertwined with camaraderie, only idiocy can wreck the ship. I happen to be one of the unlucky people that had a check bounce from Jerry; his usual hands on approach was nowhere to be seen. Absent was his presence from Jack's, absent were apologies to the people who had trusted that there was a semblence of coherent accountancy - Jerry was silent and almost invisible until we were no long allowed to be there. We were all excited that things were really ramping up and then the other shoe drops like a giant stock pot. A big thanks though for the 612; it's a small community and we appreciate being well looked after, after something like this happens.

Mar 7, 2012 08:52 am
 Posted by  chezjoey

Whoa. That headline made me blush a bit.

Mar 7, 2012 09:00 am
 Posted by  Dancer Extraordinaire

To restaurant owners, chefs, and food writers:

I've read variations on this sort of story several times over the past year and I thought I'd weigh in.

This sort of pathetic public business drama is a huge turnoff on every level. Allegations of bounced checks, not paying staff, cooking the books, kitchen tantrums, etc may be hard truth. And in the Bourdain era, foodies (whatever that means) seem to delight in these details. But know that it does significant harm to the reputation of these places and the names behind them for the rest of the us.

Chefs and owners are part of a business model that must project confidence, professionalism and consistency to their customer. Expecting somebody to spend significant time and money on a dining experience means there has to be an implicit promise to live up to an expectation. Going out to dinner should not be a crapshoot where you could get a great experience or come up snake-eyes depending on whether somebody was running a car payment through the financials.

The back and forth provided above isn't something anybody other than DeRusha is going to take much interest in, other than x'ing out any and all places/names involved as dining options in the future. There are too many better choices than to waste time hoping a restaurant gets their act together, and the chef/owner start to act like grown-ups.

In summary, while it may be mistaken for excitement to the adolescents among us, all the Chefzilla/Solera/Jack's dramas end up doing is alienating the majority of people who are looking for a mature and responsible restaurant experience, not a night out at a soap opera.


Mar 7, 2012 10:00 am
 Posted by  Jason DeRusha

Dancer - Thanks for your thoughts on this. Are you suggesting we not write about these sorts of things? When a restaurant heralds the arrival of a noted chef, gets all sorts of publicity for it, then two months later the chef takes his whole team and walks out making allegations that people aren't getting paid - it seems fair to write about it.

I don't know that most of us delight in it. I think people always enjoy gossip and enjoy hearing about the underbelly of these operations - but I would hardly say that this community roots for failure. In fact, the opposite allegation was made with the LBV/Solera/Barrio drama - that the restaurant writing world didn't do enough to expose what was happening.

If people aren't interested in it, it's a blog, they certainly don't have to read it. If restaurants want to avoid the public drama that goes along with this kind of stuff - pay your bills.

Mar 7, 2012 10:03 am
 Posted by  hdd46

I for one am all about a night out at the soap opera.

Mar 7, 2012 12:08 pm
 Posted by  FoodIs...

This was a wasted opportunity for the Mpls food scene and I really do hope that Kevin Kathman is able to find a more suitable venue for his talents. I am sure that Kathman's food and labor costs run higher than most Mpls chefs, but his precise cooking is outstanding and unique in this area. In the long-term, this would have been a success, had the restaurant's financials been put together correctly. Just unfortunate that Mr. Nelson is blaming (at least publicly) three months of financial comps on Kathman. Yes, mediocre food cooked by low skill workers will win out in the short term, but your ceiling is set right off the bat with no growth in sight. I am sure that another group with stronger backing will indentify Kathman and let him realize his concept.

Mar 9, 2012 10:30 am
 Posted by  Naomi W

I disagree that people do not find the back story of these events interesting both as news and as lessons in life. So many people fantasize about opening, "that little place" and spend time thinking they could do a better job of running a restaurant than the people who are doing it. These stories are true life lessons where the readers can get a glimpse into the reality that running a restaurant - and making money doing it - is a whole lot more difficult than it looks. Prima donna Chefs, unethical accountants and fickle customers are all realities that are of great interest to those of us interested in the industry. I, for one, thank you for publishing both sides of these stories Jason.

Public comments to the blog that amount to gossip are a part of blogging reality. So long as the comments are not profane or incoherent, they should be allowed. If you don't like them. Don't read them.

Mar 9, 2012 11:33 am
 Posted by  KMF_OnlineEd

Let's keep it civil, everyone. Rather than edit comments from the public, our policy is to keep them published or remove entirely, so we've unpublished some. We encourage open discourse, but this forum is not about name-calling and personal attacks.

~ Minnesota Monthly

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