RESTAURANT FOUNDER Stephen Schrutt is making his mark in downtown St. Pete. Entering the scene almost six years ago with theAVENUE eat + drink, he found his niche and has since built a successful restaurant group by adding KINGS Street Food Counter, PROPER Kitchen & Cocktails and the most recent Park & Rec DTSP. We are impressed by Stephen’s business success and creativity and wanted to dive deeper into where he came from and where he’s headed.
Q. When did you know this is what you wanted to do?
A. When I was younger I had ideas of running my own business. As young as 10 or 12 years old I always envisioned owning my own hotel. I was really into restaurants, bars, hotels and hospitality as a whole.
Q. How did you get your start?
A. My first job was busing tables when I was 14 years old. I worked in a few restaurants and bars through high school and college. In my late 20s I decided to go back into hospitality—it was more like “I’ll give it a shot; maybe it will be a career, maybe it won’t.” I got out of the mortgage industry and just really wanted to find the next, long-term career. Being a creative person, I always enjoyed having my own vision and really wanted to do my own thing. The hardest thing was not knowing how to start. My biggest learning experience was opening up my own bar and having to create and learn everything from scratch. I’ve seen a change in myself over the past 6 years—I’m more patient, more understanding and more helpful with teaching people. Luckily, I’ve been able to learn a lot from family and friends that own their own restaurants and bars. I feel fortunate that I can learn directly from people I admire and respect and who were nice enough to give me advice and help.
Q. What was your first restaurant and when did it open?
A. How did your concepts evolve? theAVENUE is my first restaurant on my own. In November we turned 5 and we are steamrolling through to year 6. After theAVENUE came KINGS, followed by Proper and more recently, Park & Rec. theAVENUE was not a great location when we took it but I was excited about the other businesses coming in. After theAVENUE, we opened KINGS and were able to help develop an awesome and unique concept in an area that was growing. We saw the trend of what was coming. That’s something we want to be part of always. It’s exciting to help develop an area.
Eventually, when the pizza place next to theAVENUE left I knew I wanted the space. I wanted that synergy. I didn’t think the World of Beer location on the same block would end up being my third location, but it worked out perfectly. Proper ended up being a completely different build out. For it to take 13 to 14 months was not the plan. Especially with KINGS being brand new, it was a difficult time; probably the hardest year of my life. Now we are close to 100 staff. To be able to say I’ve created close to 100 jobs is something I’m proud of.
Q. Where are you from and how did you find yourself in St. Pete?
A. I grew up in Tampa and considered it home. I was living in Channelside and originally looked to open theAVENUE in Tampa but couldn’t find the right location. I ultimately decided theAVENUE should be in St. Pete because of the location. I had family in St. Pete, and honestly it was all about opportunity. I scouted St. Pete and I felt like it had the energy I was looking for—very welcoming and chill with a lot of good culture and a young hospitality scene that likes to help each other. I really felt like we were the right fit for downtown St. Pete.
Q. What is your favorite thing about your job?
A. I love that we are a family. We’ve created a family in a place that people consider home. That’s really what I’ve always wanted it to be. We have a really cool staff that care about each other. We have that at all of our establishments. It’s exciting to see.
Q. What do you love about St. Pete?
A. I really love that it has a local vibe and is very foodie driven. I don’t plan on leaving St. Pete. That’s why I have done more than one place here. I decided after a year at theAVENUE. I was so excited that it made it a year. I didn’t even think about more concepts, I just thought, “this is home; I’m staying and am going to continue to grow my business.” We’ve really built a family here.
Q. What inspires you as a restaurant owner?
A. I love creating. I can leave the restaurant after 14-15 hours and go home and be up for another 4 working on stuff that’s going to improve each place. Whether it’s looking at certain things by giving them another workstation or putting in a new special or an event. There are so many things that go into making the culture exciting for staff and guests. I just love it!
Q. Has a specific person influenced you?
A. My dad is definitely a huge influence. I value our everyday conversations about business and how to work well with people. I’m constantly bouncing ideas off of him and asking for his advice. He’s in broadcasting, advertising and television—a different business, but I learned a lot from him about managing people and business in general. He’s very successful in business and someone I’m very thankful to have.
Q. How would you describe your concepts?
A. We want to be original and give the market diversity not only from our four concepts but also from the other businesses in the area. Our concepts provide a unique atmosphere, great service and a place you can call home.
Q. What is the most difficult part of being a restaurant owner and what is the most rewarding?
A. The most difficult for me now with four different places is being pulled in four different directions and each place needing me. Although it’s difficult, it’s also very exciting. So essentially what is the most difficult is also the most rewarding.
Q. Of your 4 concepts, do you have a favorite?
A. It’s probably like having children—you can’t really say you have a favorite. But theAVENUE will always have a special place in my heart because it’s created everything else. When considering everything that goes into developing each place, it’s hard to choose. They all mean so much to me.
Q. Do you have a favorite menu item at each restaurant?
A. Oh yeah! I have a few things at each place. theAVENUE: Rasta Masta, close second is the Huckleberry. I also love our wings; my dad taught me right on how to do wings. My mom would probably want me to say the Diane salad at theAVENUE.
KINGS: Our grilled cheeses are awesome. I love our peanut butter crunch shake. Give me a grilled cheese and a shake and I’m happy.
Proper: Our brisket—it’s amazing! Fried chicken is awesome. Proper is still so new to me that I almost want to say the whole menu.
Q. Do you change your menus often?
A. We do change them. At theAVENUE we change our menu once a year but there are some core items that will always stay. We are working on a new menu now for theAVENUE and I’m excited because we will roll out a lot of new items but stay true to the favorites. We always try to add new things without taking away too much.
Q. If you had to describe your restaurant style in one sentence what would it be?
A. Original, creative, unique. We try to do things that are fresh and exciting. Those are the items that stand out to people and our style is very forward thinking.
Q. Do you eat at other restaurants around town? What are some of your favorites?
A. I have a few: Brick and Mortar, Z Grille, Gratzzi, Ruth’s Chris. Several places in Tampa as well: Avoroni’s, Donatello’s. I love Bern’s—it’s such a unique experience. The Epicurean Hotel is amazing. I like the Don Cesar and the Vinoy. Good food and good drinks. I’m pretty low key. When I’m not working I like to be able to escape and relax.
Q. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
A. Probably escargot. It’s not for me.
Q. What was your most memorable meal?
A. I’d say the first meal at each place when it opens. Not testing the food, but actually sitting down and enjoying a meal at each place for the first time. It’s pretty cool when I actually get to enjoy the food as a customer. Being able to sit back for just a few minutes and look around…you got to take it in.
Q. Did you ever want to be something other than a restaurant owner?
A. Basketball coach or sports broadcaster.
Q. What’s next for you and the Hunger + Thirst Restaurant Group?
A. Honestly, right now I want to focus on the four concepts—they are still young. Having four in this market is amazing. If I didn’t open another place I’d be just as happy as if I opened 10 more. Our main goal for 2017 is to focus on our catering and events. We’re currently building an offsite kitchen; we offer catering now but we want to be able to do a lot more. We will have a menu from each concept. We are getting close—we have the space, and we just need to finish the build. I’m hoping we will be up and running by end of summer.