Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
San Antonio residents were ecstatic last year when popular chef Mark Bliss moved back to town to open his first solo restaurant. Circumstances had allowed him and his wife Lisa to take a two-year break skiing in California, during which time they solidified their plans. Bliss opened in February 2012 with a whole lot of serious buzz that turned into local and regional accolades for his "truly American cooking." Here now, Bliss talks about how the restaurant came to be, from seeking church permission for the liquor license to making the decision to open only five days a week.
How did you come up with the concept?
I'd always wanted to do my own place without any outside interests whatsoever. My wife and I were at a point in our lives where the kids were in school and I'd always basically done this for other people. After a lot of debate, I figured the easiest thing was to have people work for me. So that's why I decided to open my own place.
I spent two years skiing pretty extensively while my wife and I took this little break. My family has a home in Truckee, so that's where we lived. I was stuck on this chair lift and I thought, "I wonder what Jack Lewis" — our landlord out here — "is going to do with that gas station." So I called him up from the chair lift. And he was thinking about doing a test kitchen. He didn't really know how to go about managing that, the food aspects. So I said, well my wife Lisa and I would like to open a restaurant.
A few months after that, we sat down and got everything ironed out. I did my due diligence as far as my beer and wine license because I'm surrounded by churches and Texas law states that you have to get permission of whoever owns [nearby] churches. That was the only hindrance at the beginning we thought we might run into.
How did that go?
It went really well. One of the churches had a pastor that actually owns the church so that was really easy. The other church, they had not had a pastor for a few months so it took me a little while to get in touch with somebody that could actually give me their blessing, so to speak. After that happened, everybody was very kind and happy that we were going to be down here doing something good for the neighborhood. We have a wonderful relationship with both of the churches.
People were pretty excited to have you back in San Antonio. What was that like before the opening?
There was a lot of anticipation. The fact that I was doing it kind of off-the-beaten path down in Southtown. It's a new area for a lot of eclectic restaurants. There's a few restaurants down here that have done very well. The Monterey and Feast are two that are kind of doing more of the snout-to-tail cooking, bringing in the whole pigs. A lot of the gastropub idealism was already kind of taken, so I thought I would do something that I was comfortable with, which was a little more high-end, a non-pretentious comfortable experience for people across the board.
So you guys are in the hot neighborhood?
Yeah, there's definitely a lot going on down here. There's a lot of people still moving in, which is great. It's becoming kind of like South Congress in Austin or [how] the Lower East Side in New York started really developing after David Chang went in.
And how did your opening day go?
It was great. We decided to close on Sundays and Mondays. I had a lot of peers that do not understand how we could just do five nights a week and make a living doing it, but we keep our manager team pretty thin since I'm the chef and also I share the general manager responsibilities with my wife. My wife is incredibly talented when it comes to financial aspects. She ran a motorcycle dealership for 25 years and before that she worked at a savings and loan as a comptroller. So all I needed was a really good front of the house person and we found that in Daria Kossowska. She has extensive wine knowledge and service knowledge.
When did you decide to open just for five days?
That was always from the beginning. I always thought, I'm 52 now, when I started this process I was 50. I still work the line, and I know that just from a physical standpoint that's not something that I can do six or seven days a week. It's really nice because a lot of independent restaurants don't have a lot to offer in terms of benefits, insurance for their employees and things like that. So I thought everybody having two days off in a row would be a big plus. And it turns out that it is. So we've also been able to close a week in the summer and a week in the winter.
That's great. So how did the reviews go?
It was great. We got a wonderful review in the local paper. Texas Monthly has a star rating system for restaurants and I think the most they offer is three stars. You're lucky to get one. We received our first star with a very wonderful review from them as well. And we also were just named the best new restaurant in San Antonio in Texas Monthly last month.
Congrats. And since you opened have you changed anything or learned any lessons?
The menu has become more extensive as people have become more accomplished at their stations and with their tasks. A lot of people have a hard time dealing with daily change and we found a crew that doesn't have any issue with it at all. They kind of thrive on it. It keeps everything pretty much fresh and new.
Overall we've got an extremely positive atmosphere here pretty much across the board. People who don't share that personality type I don't think could last here very long. This place just really runs well and it's very clean and tight and people take a lot of pride in that. We clean out storage units every day and make sure things are really organized. We don't have a lot of space. The most people I've ever had working in the kitchen at one time is 11. Right now we have 9. I also have 17 employees in the front of the house. We have 100 seats inside and we do 68 seats outside.
I'd always been told it's always different when you own it and I would have to say that's a great truth. After working for people my whole career, you kind of wake up and go, "Oh God I can do whatever I want to do today." There's a huge amount of freedom in that from the creative standpoint to a business standpoint. If something's not working we can change it and fix it immediately without going through a huge discussion.
This time last year a reporter asked what took you so long to open your own place and you said you had some insecurities about the business end of it. How has that been now that you've had that under your belt for a year?
You know, the biggest thing was the fact that my wife was available to actually do this and I trust her implicitly. She's probably one of the most honest people I've ever met in my life. I got really lucky I married a really bright woman. Which is what I told my son. I said, "What helped me become very successful was marrying your mom." It's true. There's a lot to be said for that. She has a lot of integrity and that definitely helps us do what we do well.
Glad to hear that.
It's true. We've been married 27 years, almost 28, which in this business is really really rare. That's why the two-year break was really nice. We got to reconnect and spend 24/7 together and see if we really wanted to work together too.
Did you plan your dream restaurant during the break?
Yeah, once we decided to do this we started looking at design catalogues and different magazines. We went to a lot of different restaurants on the West Coast. We wanted something very timeless and comfortable. We came back with pretty strong ideas as far as what we wanted, the whole process of that was great. All I can tell you is that honestly of my whole career it's the easiest thing I've ever done. I knew I could train people to do what I wanted them to do in the kitchen because I've been doing this for 30 years. That was the no-brainer aspect of it. The rest of it was just hoping people were going to come in. And we got lucky that we did.
People say the honeymoon period lasts six months or eight months and I think ours is still going on. We still have people that have never heard of us. There's a million and a half people that live here. I think we served this year close to 30,000 people in the last year, which is a pretty impressive number for a small restaurant.
And does it feel like it's been a year for you?
No. It seems like I just loaded a shotgun and shot a shotgun blast. That's about how fast it went by, man.