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Bluestem GM Eric Willey Talks Momentum and Dining Room Revamps

This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the world meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of the restaurant world's hottest tables.

[Photo: Bonjwing Lee/courtesy bluestem]

bluestem general manager Eric Willey joined the team at Colby and Megan Garrelts' Kansas City destination just 12 months ago, but it's been a monumental year. The Garrelts opened the doors at their American continental spot back 2004, but it wasn't until last year — after debuting their second, more-casual restaurant Rye — that Colby Garrelts finally earned the James Beard Award for Best Chef Midwest, bumping up demand for one of the restaurant's scant 43 seats. "When we won the James Beard award, [for some] people in Kansas City, it was the first time that they'd actually ever heard of bluestem," says Willey, who joined the team when bluestem's longtime manager shifted his focus to Rye. In the following interview, Willey discusses fine-dining in Kansas City, strategies for keeping up Beard momentum, and reveals major plans to revamp the bluestem space.

What's the worst time to try to get a reservation at bluestem?
The worst time is Friday and Saturday. I would say for us, if you go a couple weeks out, then you shouldn't have a problem. But if you're a week out and trying to get a reservation on a Friday or Saturday, it probably won't work. We're limited — we have 13 tables, we can seat up to 43 guests at one time. And ever since the James Beard Award, it's been busy. ... On Fridays, the later seating gets booked up earlier, just because people are getting off work, they can't make the 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. And then on Saturday, it's the complete opposite: People are trying to get the earlier reservation, because they have a show later on.

Let's say I walk in off the street. Are tables in the restaurant available?
If I have a table available, you can absolutely have a seat. It seems like it always happens when we're completely booked and I have to turn people away, and then there's that random couple that walks in and I just had a no-show or cancellation, and we're able to get them in. Which is nice, because a lot of those are husbands who forget anniversaries. [Laughs] And then they look like a rock star.

Is there anything I could do to make my wait shorter?
The way that our format works, with our tasting menus, it guarantees that our two-tops are going to be at least an hour and a half to two hours... But if you came into the bar, we could fix you a drink, or an appetizer. What we always do is if someone's set on doing our dining room menu, if the chef is capable, we will do the dining room menu in the lounge. It's not something that we advertise, just because? if we have our lounge full of 60 people doing the tasting menu, the kitchen's obviously not going to operate. But the bartenders have the full authority to ask the chef, if somebody's interested in doing the tasting menu, then they can absolutely do it on the lounge side. It's something we address beforehand: It's not the same experience as it is in the dining room. It's the same price in the lounge as it is in the dining room; you are getting the multiple courses, it's just not quite the same experience, the level of service. [But] nine times out of 10, we can absolutely accommodate a tasting menu in the lounge.

[Photo: Courtesy bluestem]

Given bluestem's accolades — like the Beard Award — it seems like the kind of spot where people who know what to expect: the small dining room, reservations recommended. But do you get people who wander in off the street and have no idea what to expect?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. If somebody comes off the street and they want to eat in the dining room, the thing we always do — we try to be tactful about it — is we show them the dining room menu, we show them the lounge menu, and we show them the differences and make sure they're comfortable with the dining room and that format. So one of the first questions, if somebody's trying to get a table, we always ask them, "Have you dined with us before?" If they haven't, we go through the little spiel, just to make sure that they're comfortable. And about half the time, people come in the dining room and then half the time, people are like, "Oh, the lounge is what we really want." And that just saves embarrassment. If we just take everybody and seat them in the dining room and they haven't dined with us before, and then they sit down, the server comes over, the amuse bouche comes over, and then they realize, "I can't afford this." And then it gets really embarrassing.

When you read reviews of bluestem, the word "ambitious" comes up a lot. Do you find that attracts a certain kind of diner?
Yeah, absolutely. Especially in Kansas City, and what we do, I think we put ourselves in a position where we're for the more adventurous diners. We're not a meat-and-potatoes type of restaurant, so I think that's why a lot of people choose bluestem. They know they're coming here for more than just food. It's the whole experience: the plating, the service, the wine. And they know it's not just food, but it's an artful, peaceful dining experience.

So how do you guide a steak-and-potatoes guy through the meal and make them feel comfortable?
Our servers are trained to deal with those kinds of diners. If they're looking for a more traditional type of experience, we'll suggest the three-course instead of the five-course. And with that, you can almost get a steak-and-potatoes type of experience. You would be able to get smoked potato soup, and then you would be able to get our beef, and then dessert. So a lot of it is our servers are trained to pick these diners out, if you will. But I would say that what we do is, and what I reiterate to our staff, is we make people feel comfortable. Even though it is fine dining, we take more of a homestyle approach to making people feel comfortable in here, so it doesn't feel so stuffy. We try to be really approachable in what we do ... I think people feel intimidated. If people aren't used to going to a nice [restaurant], they come in here and there are food items they haven't heard of, like foie gras, things of that nature, we try our best to explain these items and make people feel comfortable. And then I think they kind of break that barrier down. And then there's some people that can't get out of it, and we're just not their type of restaurant. But what we try to do is make them feel comfortable.

What's the craziest request you've ever gotten from a guest?
I've gotten quite a few. In January, it's hilarious, I get engagement things all the time. Like, sometimes literally two or three [in one night]: on New Year's Eve, I had three engagements. But I would say the most recent in memory is, I had this guest and [his date was] a girl he really wanted to impress, but he called me ahead of time. He came in two days before the actual reservation and he paid for a 10-course and a wine pairing, so he didn't want the bill brought to the table, which is totally cool. And then basically, that day he came in and he brought me six presents. He had them numbered, and basically every two courses, he wanted to have one of the presents brought out.

And you did it?
Oh, absolutely? she loved it. She really did. I thought it was corny, but you know, we get every different type of person in here. That's what I enjoy. If we can do something to better the guest's experience, then we'll go above and beyond. I was in the country club business for seven years, and that's just the kind of thing that you do in the country club. You have to go above and beyond, and that's what I try to do here, because people are spending a lot of money and if we can make those requests happen, then I want to do that.

What about failed marriage proposals or bad dates?
[Laughs] I've had that. There was a lady, her guest went to the bathroom, and she's like, "Oh my gosh, I'm on the worst blind date." I think they were on the second or third course, and to help her, we basically sped through the dining experience for her. And we just paid a little more attention to her and her needs. But a failed marriage proposal? I don't know what I would do. Bring more drinks? I haven't had that experience yet and hope not to — we're not allowed to buy drinks for anybody, but I would probably buy him a drink.

[Photo: Bonjwing Lee/courtesy bluestem]

So earlier, you mentioned a change of business after the Beard Award.
Yeah, absolutely. Our first third of the year was pretty slow. So James Beard was in May, and it was definitely a spike that we needed in business. It was immediate, too: The week after, we started booking out, and I would say the month after James Beard, we were basically full from Tuesday through Saturday. It was a great buzz, and we're still capitalizing off that buzz, I would say.

Did the opening of Rye have anything to do with it being slow?
Yeah, we actually talked about that in meetings all the time. Like... "Well, we see all the regulars down at Rye now." Kansas City is a metropolis, there's a lot of suburbs, and a lot of those people who live down south who used to come to bluestem could [go there instead]. It's not bluestem food at Rye, but it's the same quality of food, the preparations, and at a cheaper price point and different atmosphere. Yeah, Rye definitely hurt us, ironically enough.

What's the plan to level it out a little bit?
We're going to do a remodel here, and we think the remodel and relaunch will kind of pump new energy and get our name out there again. With the James Beard, we're still doing well off of that. And I think the newness of Rye has worn off just a little bit and regulars are starting to return to bluestem again. Instead of going to Rye once a week, maybe they're coming out here once or twice a month.

Tell me more about the remodel. Anything you can share about the aesthetic?
We're working through the process of still getting those investors. We have plans drawn out that we're going through. The plan is sometime next Spring, we would do the remodel. We're basically trying to give it a new facelift, a little bit more — I hate to say "modern" — but modern pieces. The best example would be something like a Saison in San Francisco; I know that Colby and Megan were out there a few months ago and loved the aesthetic of Saison. So I think that was a lot of the inspiration. We're going to open up the kitchen, right now we have carpet in there and we're going to go to hardwood floors, no more white linen tablecloths. I would say slate trays with dark woods, stuff like that.

Does the remodel involve a larger space or more seats?
The dining room won't change that much in terms of number of seats. And the lounge actually will probably — it won't gain any number of seats — but we feel like right now, it's truly like a lounge, with soft seating and low seating. We're going to kind of bring up the seating and do tables and high-tops, so we feel like the diner will be more pushed to eat instead of lounging for three hours. We hope that will help us improve the revenue of the lounge because it'll be more like an eating establishment than a lounge. And we feel it will especially help us during brunch; it'll be more appealing to the diner. Because right now, it's hard to kind of dine over a coffee table, if you will.

And finally, what's your must-have Gatekeeper tool?
I think confidence and a positive attitude are two things that are essential, especially in this caliber of a restaurant. Confidence is extremely important, because if you exude that confidence, then they feel safe, they feel like you know exactly what you're talking about and you don't come off as being phony. I would say confidence is the best tool we have here.

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900 Westport Rd., Kansas City, MO 64111

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