Opening a restaurant in downtown Wheeling started with a dream. It’s succeeding with raw determination.
“I said I was in a trust fall with downtown Wheeling, and it has been just that. I trust that this is going to continue to work out. It’s almost as if, no matter what, I’m going to will it into continued success if necessary.”
Trust isn’t the only thing that Matt and Katie Welsch have had to lean on over the past four months since they’ve opened The Vagabond Kitchen on the first floor of the McClure Hotel.
“I think the thing I underestimated the most was how much day-to-day stuff there was to take care of that has nothing to do with cooking. I figured that eventually I’d be doing more administrative stuff than actually working the line, but I was surprised at just how fast that really happened.”
While he maintains a controlling presence in the culinary decision making and day-to-day operations, he has admittedly had to learn how to relinquish control in some areas.
“At the end of the day, this is my kitchen. My name is attached to it. I’m the one that is associated with the quality of food and experience that each and every one of our customers has. That’s really important to Katie and me. That being said, it’s been crazy to realize just how much you have to rely on other people to do their job in order to make it happen. To be honest, that’s the part that scares me the most. It goes against my natural wiring, but that’s healthy too. It’s forcing me to grow as a person.”
Welsch admits that this growth is made easier by being lucky enough to have good people around him.
“Not everyone who started with the kitchen is still with us. That’s par for the course in the restaurant business. But each and every one of those individuals helped to make us what we are, and I’m grateful for them. Sometimes, things just don’t work out. However, we have a core of people that consistently move us along toward bigger and better things, and as we learn to work better together and create ways of doing things that are repeatable, we are finding more consistent success.”
One of those people who have been handed a larger responsibility is Chef Ryan Butler who recently was made sous-chef at The Vagabond Kitchen.
“I met Ryan at a festival and invited him up to see the kitchen. At the end of the tour, he basically told me that he was there to work, and so I thought, ‘Hey, well why not?’ From that point on, he really stepped into the role of someone I could count on to do things the way I wanted them done. He adapted the skill set that he brought with him to what we refer to as The Vagabond Way. After awhile, I felt like he was doing all the things a good sous does, so I gave him the formal title.”
Another key personnel move was making Chef Chris Young as Lead Prep which means he is in charge of making sure that the Kitchen is always prepared for the next rush.
“Chris has been in kitchens for most of his life, and his strength is looking ahead and knowing what we will need before we need it. That’s the thing that so many people don’t understand about this business. The step that everyone experiences, the actual cooking and presentation of the plate at your table only happens well if there were a dozen other steps done earlier in anticipation of that happening. That is where Chris has been invaluable and why I feel really lucky to have him in that role.”
It is Chris who has been responsible for a lot of the amazing soups and lunch specials that have really caused the Kitchen to take off in recent months.
“Chris is here a lot during the day, and I think he’s been able to see what works for Wheeling. I have seen him make adjustments and put together soups and specials that people really enjoy. We always want to come up with new ideas and bring downtown Wheeling new culinary choices, but at the same time, it’s nice to have a Chris, a Ryan, and really everyone involved in the process that after have begun adjusting what we do to who it is we are serving.”
But even with all of the forward progress, Welsch knows there is a long way to go before they can be considered a success.
“This is a grind every day. We’re still learning how to make it all fit together. In a professional kitchen, there are so many moving parts. The line has to be on point with the prep area, and then there is the constant back and forth with the front end backed by a hopefully consistent management philosophy. It’s a lot, but it’s fun. It’s fun to every once and awhile take a second and say, ‘Wow, we built this. We’re really doing this.’”
It’s hard to find those seconds on most days though. Both Matt and Katie live and breathe the restaurant both at home and while physically at the kitchen.
“You hear it all the time from small business owners, but it’s true. Owning a small business is the hardest work you will ever do. There was some sort of misconception that once I was able to get my crew in place, I could just leave the kitchen and rake in the money. In reality, I have never worked so hard and been so tired as I am now, and I’m still waiting for my money rake.
“I have to force myself to take time off. I have to schedule it, or it won’t happen. When I’m at home, it’s usually because I think I can be more productive there. Katie and I started scheduling time for each other — just saying, ‘You know what, no matter what has to suffer, this is our time.’ If not, we’d go crazy and be at each other’s throats all the time.”
Still, Matt says he can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I say all the time, this has to succeed. What else am I going to do? I have finally found the thing that brings me a sense of pride and accomplishment. I love creating a place where people know they are going to get good food and service. I love being a part of a growing community in downtown Wheeling. This is my home, and this is what I am bringing to the table — quite literally, I guess.”