Once called “very, very, very dangerous” by Sean Brock, restaurateur Brooks Reitz has quickly built a small empire of the kind of restaurants that guests immediately feel at home (but with better food, and probably decor). In the past four years, Reitz has gone from general manager at The Ordinary to co-owner of two of the most popular dining establishments in Charleston, Little Jack’s Tavern and Leon’s Oyster Shop, with a new Italian-influenced restaurant, Melfi’s, on the way. And while juggling three establishments is involved, Reitz does it while also maintaining his bar mixer business Jack Rudy Cocktail Company.
Here, Eater talks with Reitz about ambition, success strategies for up-and-comers, and why he ultimately decided to shutter his Instagram darling, Saint Alban.
What have you been up to since you were named a Young Gun in 2013?
A lot has changed since then. I was at The Ordinary, and I think we had been open for about five months. Around month six is when I gave my six-month notice. A year and a half later, I opened Leon’s, continued to do Jack Rudy — which occupies a lot of my time, though it may not be overtly obvious to people. We have a warehouse just up the street.
A year after Leon’s, we opened the ill-fated cafe Saint Alban, which I miss daily. We closed Saint Alban down about seven months in and reopened the space as Little Jack’s Tavern.
So a lot has happened since then — a lot that I didn’t anticipate when I got that award. I feel like Charleston has continued to be the place for me, at least over the past four years.
Was owning your own restaurant always the end goal?
One hundred percent. I realize now that starting a restaurant is difficult physically, and dealing with the city and builders, and all of those things, but the biggest obstacle, I realized this when I was working for other people, was that I thought I would never have a restaurant of my own because I didn’t have any money. My parents weren’t going to give me any money for a restaurant — they didn’t have any. So I just thought I would have to work for other people for my entire life and hope I would be with someone who would offer me some equity.
Jack Rudy was the accidental side project, and it was successful. I sort of joke to my wife and friends that Leon’s is the restaurant that Jack Rudy built, because I would have never been able to invest money into the restaurant if that business had not succeeded.
Have you always been this ambitious?
I’m ambitious, but also strategic. I ultimately moved to Charleston because my son was being born here, and I wanted to be closer to him, but I could have gotten a job anywhere. However, Mike Lata just won the James Beard Award, so I thought if I wanted to be somewhere with the most food media, movers and shakers, chefs, and sous chefs coming through, then I needed to work at FIG. That restaurant was about to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue who came to Charleston. I felt like I put myself in the best position for succeeding and I feel like I moved to Charleston at the right time, just before it was about to pop.
Do you consider what happened to [the short-lived all-day cafe] Saint Alban a failure? A hiccup?
In terms of pure business, judged by financial metrics, it was a failure, but by all other metrics, which I sometimes care more about, it was a success. That’s the hard lesson I’ve had to learn. I think it’s easy for myself and others to view restaurants as creative, fun ventures, but they are businesses at the end of the day. Saint Alban taught me that you have to be very cautious when you are developing a concept. You really have to ask yourself, “What will my customers respond to? What do they want?” You really have to remove your ego from the situation. It can’t be about wanting to open this cool thing with the stuff I like, the music I like, and the food I like, and cramming it down people’s throats — not that I had that attitude in opening Saint Alban, but it was definitely a passion project. It was the kind of place I wanted to hang out in, and it was very well liked, an Instagram darling, so to speak, but that doesn’t pay the bills. You’d walk in at 10:00 a.m. and the place would be packed, but you walk in at 2:00 p.m. there’d be seven people in there not spending money. I didn’t anticipate how people would use it.
How do you make it all work? Are you up at 5:00 a.m. every day?
Oftentimes people ask me, “How are you out right now?” or “Are you at the restaurants all the time?” And I have to be honest that when I started Leon’s, I did work all the time to get that place up and running. But then I had this moment where I had a philosophical switch and I think it was because my son was getting older and I met Erin, who I’m now married to. I sort of stepped back and realized that I had been grinding really hard for about 10 years. I was really young when I took my first GM job in Louisville. I want to set up a life that is good for me, not a life where I’m working for my customers. I’m hard on myself and my wife is always cheering me on, because I feel guilty if I’m not working all the time, but I’m not always working. My schedule is more like a nine to five, which is a surprise to most people. The way that we’ve structured everything is that I don’t have to be the one unlocking the doors and locking them up.
What advice do you have for people coming up in the industry?
That is a great question and one I often asked of other people. My advice would, first of all, is to be frugal. Saving money will allow you the flexibility to make some better decisions strategically. I think the dangerous part of this business is that it’s so easy to go out after work and drink and eat and spend a lot of money, but that is sort of a vicious cycle that keeps you trapped in the thing that you’re doing. Spend less money on alcohol, which will allow you to be a bit more healthy, because this business is tough, physically, and I’ve seen too many of my friends kind of let themselves go, so be as healthy as possible and develop healthy habits.
If you want to own a restaurant, don’t take a job that is going to pay the most money and has no room to grow. If you’re a young person, and you move to a new town, let’s say Charleston, look who is in business doing the type of things you’d like to be doing. For me, it was Adam [Nemirow] and Mike [Lata] at FIG, so I went to work for Adam and Mike at FIG.
Finally, when you are in that arena, assert your interests in doing more. There’s always incredible opportunities to move up in any restaurant and if you raise your hand and say, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know, I’m interested in being more than just a bartender,” the people around you will put you in the position to succeed.