Cheftell: Chef and Restaurant Owner Casey Douglas

Interview with Casey Douglas of the Apollo Grill on March 14, 2013.ImageEvery time my family and I have enjoyed a dinner at the Apollo Grill in Easthampton, Massachusetts we have always been excited to go back and try something new, whether it be their newly added buttermilk fried chicken, their gourmet grilled vegetable quesadilla or one of their phenomenal nightly specials.

The eclectic, retro setting filled with outer-space paraphernalia will temporarily transport you to a different era while you savor exceptional food and service.  If you are looking to experience casual fine dining at a reasonable cost, reserve a table at the Apollo Grill.

I recently sat down with the executive chef and owner of the Apollo Grill, Casey Douglas, to learn more about his experience in the food industry and his inspiration behind opening the Apollo Grill.ImageImageImage

L: Have you always had a passion for culinary arts or was it something you never expected to pursue as a career?

C: I never really expected to pursue this as a career.  I’m six out of seven kids and my mom would try to introduce vegetables and things like that and we were just not into it.  For her, cooking was a challenge to feed the seven kids.  I was a pretty picky kid and then I followed my older brother into the restaurant business (and at one point all seven kids were in the restaurant business).

I like the experience of being around people and that developed into an appreciation for food. So then, by the time I was eighteen/nineteen, I’d eat anything. I’d try anything. It was just a surprise to me that this is where I ended up.

L: So are all of your siblings still in the restaurant business?

C: No. I’ve got Jeff who runs the daytime operation here at lunch. He does all of our soups and makes the cookies.  I’ve got a sister Kim who has been the front of the house manager for the last ten years and she is on medical leave.  I’ve got a brother in Boston who owns a restaurant, Ashmont Grill, and he operates a restaurant called Tavalo, which is right across the street. I’ve got a younger brother who is deaf and he washes dishes for me. So I’ve got two siblings that are not in the restaurant business.

L: Are you originally from this area?

C: I grew up in the South Shore of Massachusetts in a place called Hassett.  Then I moved closer to Boston.  So, I was in Boston from the time I was twelve until I was thirty seven. I moved out here because I knew there were jobs in the restaurant business. My wife was a graduating nurse and she knew there were jobs, so we moved from Boston to out here to raise our family.

L: How did you learn to cook? Did you attend a culinary school?

C.: Nope.  I learned along the way.  I got a job washing dishes the day I turned sixteen at a high-end bistro on Beacon Hill and the English woman who owned it had a real passion for teaching and food.  So it was a great experience to be in a world of all these foods. I worked there for two consecutive summers and then I just worked at high-end restaurants. Then, I worked for my brother who owned a place called Icarus for fourteen years. I was actually married there. It was a high-end restaurant in the South end of Boston. So basically, that’s my training.

L: So it sounds like you have been in the food industry for most of your life.  Have you always enjoyed it? Was it ever a struggle and you were not sure if you wanted to continue with it?

C: Well, I did go to art school when I was twenty-three because I had a real passion for art. But I realized that I couldn’t make a living at it the way I loved it.  I realized that I could make a living in the culinary field. So I focused on that. My wife and I decided that we were going to start a family and I was going to drop out of art school and I was going to take on more responsibility in my brother’s restaurant and start to run that.  That’s where the passion elevated.  I went from being a cook who would go to music shows and art shows to being a professional.  I had to take it seriously – work on management, work on the business end of it.

L: What is your favorite part about working in a restaurant?

C: For me, now, it is a financial reward just because I have had this business for ten years and it’s working well.  We are going to open up a second business on Main Street in Easthampton called Galaxy.  It is going to be a high-end bar and restaurant and it will open in July.

My favorite part? It’s hard to say.  I cook the line now because I am short staffed.  I like cooking the line.  I’m good at the line – it’s multi-tasking.  I am a great butcher.  I love to butcher.  So the hours are the only thing I don’t like.  Other than that I like it all.

Dan, who just came in, him and I have worked together for the last five years.  He lives in one of my apartment buildings.  He and I are traveling out to Las Vegas on Sunday to celebrate my daughter’s twenty-first birthday.  He and my daughter are friends. I have another employee who is out there now. The comradery is good. It’s that sort of thing – there’s nothing about the business I don’t like.

L: In this business you are always around people.  It’s non-stop.

C: Yeah and I’m a people person. It was a little slow last night and a couple came up from West Springfield. They said they had never been here before but everything was awesome – the presentation, variety, execution.  They said that they would be back.  They found us through The Advocate. They said it was just a great place and that they had traveled all around the world.  It feels good to know that what you work so hard at is really appreciated.  It is rewarding.

L: What do you believe is the most challenging aspect in the food industry today?

C: Staffing. I am short staffed and I am cooking the line. I’ve been doing that since Valentine’s Day.  I had a cook work for me for three years and have to leave. I’ve been short staffed for a month now and I brought someone in who had ten years of experience and at the end of the week I had to say sorry you’re not the guy. I’d rather be short staffed and have a really good, strong team than have a team with a weak link. So staffing is tough, but I have someone starting tomorrow who has gotten really great recommendations. I’m excited about that.  So, staffing is the challenge.

L: You said that you have worked in many restaurants.  Before opening your own restaurant were you always a line cook or did you ever work on the business or management side?

C: I was a dishwasher and I worked at French places, so I was the garde manger, then a sous chef – all of those French terms to get you up the ladder. So yes, a line cook.  I opened up this business almost eleven years ago and that’s when I threw my hat in and I was like I’m the line cook, I’m the business manager, I’m in charge of the financial well-being and advertising aspect of the business. Sometimes I have staff where I’m not the line cook but usually I’m on the line.

L: Was that challenging at first to start up a business and have to work long hours on the line?

C: Yeah, we came to this location because the landlord made it very affordable. My wife and I set it up so that the worst thing that could happen if we fail is that we won’t have a huge loan.  We borrowed $80,000 to open this business and we thought we would do $350,000 our first year and we did $550,000. We almost doubled our expectation of what we would do. That’s unusual in the restaurant business.  Opening up under-funded is the number one reason most businesses fail. It’s the lack of working capital.  We didn’t have any of that – we were in the back of a factory, but our rent was super cheap. So we just did really well. It was one of those things where I just got lucky.

L: So you mentioned that Apollo opened 11 years ago (2002). What was your inspiration behind opening up your own restaurant?

C: I had worked for a bunch of people and having worked for my brother I knew how hard ownership was.  Then I worked for the Green Street Café, and Squires Square in Willamsburg, MA (a white-table cloth establishment that has since closed) and then the Del Ray Bar and Grill.  I was the chef there for four years. I was getting paid pretty well and I thought I could downgrade my effort and still get paid pretty well.  After a month, I was like, I can’t do this. I can’t come to work and not care. I have to go open my own place.  That was the inspiration.  I do this with such passion that I’m either all in or I’m not.  I can’t earn money for someone that doesn’t respect me – that was the inspiration to move on.

L: What was your vision for your restaurant when you first opened? It has always had a retro- eclectic style.  Is that what you were aiming for?

C: The vision was to understand what the Easthampton market is and satisfy them in a way that makes me happy. I left the Del Ray, a high-end place, and I said I don’t care if I serve burgers.  They will be great burgers. I buy meat from a farmer in Brimfield. It costs me $4.79 a pound. I can get it at the supermarket for $2.00, but I am passionate about serving good quality food to people who appreciate it. When we first opened we were more of a fine dining establishment but very affordable. As we expanded we opened up the menu to have quesadillas, burgers, and pulled pork at night.  That turned out to be a really good business decision. Our sales went from about $10,000 a week to $14,000. We also expanded the bar, so we have more business from the bar. So, it is not necessarily what I had initially envisioned, but I envisioned that I was going to evolve with what was available. I came to this location because I knew I could expand. I knew it was going be a roll of the dice where the public told me to go.

L: How did you decide on the name Apollo Grill?

C: I had lists. Lists, lists, lists! I tripped across Apollo, who is the God of Arts and Science.  So food is arts and science. I’ve got a daughter named Audrey and a son named Angus.  And as far as marketing we’re listed first all the time.  It also gave me an instant identification. People my age remember when the Apollo Space program was going and it gives them an idea of image and something to talk about.  It also gave me a logo, instead of a location, address name or being the Eastwork’s Café.  So it just struck a cord.  Apollo has a twin sister Artemis, he brought up the sun and she brought up the moon, and my sister was the front of the house manager. So it was a lot of different things.

L: So was that then the inspiration for theme and the décor in the restaurant?

C: Yeah exactly.  We wanted a retro-eclectic scenario. My wife suggested we buy these salt and pepper shakers at a yard sale and ever since people bring them in.  When they go on vacation they bring us back salt and pepper shakers.

L: What makes your cooking style and menu unique and independent from the other restaurants in this area?

C:  Our scratch baking. I was at the bank today and the banker said, “Oh that Thai coconut chicken soup was awesome.  Did you make that?” And I said, “Yeah! We make all our soups. All our stocks.”  Our freezer has bread, nuts and things we make and put in the freezer.  We don’t buy processed food. We have cans of beans and tomatoes but otherwise we don’t have canned food. That’s what sets us apart. It’s good fresh cooking and knowledgeable.  My brother is over fifty and I’m going to be fifty. Dan is thirty-seven. Sampson is thirty-nine. We are an experienced staff.  We don’t have a bunch of eighteen year olds who don’t know food. It’s a staff that knows what they are doing. That’s what sets us apart.  We have buttermilk-fried chicken on the menu now but we treat it right. We marinate it for two days in buttermilk and seasoning. It is an example that we don’t just do what other places do. We put the effort and energy into it.  Part is experience and the other is knowledge.

L: Do you have a signature or favorite dish? Which dish on your menu are you the most proud of? What would you recommend to a first time guest?

C: It’s a dish that I came up with at The Del Ray.  It is a pistachio encrusted salmon with a mango hollandaise (a regular hollandaise but instead of lemon, I use mango puree) served with purple sticky rice, which is black sweet rice that we finish with coconut milk so it has a little bit of a risotto quality.  We serve all of that with a Napa slaw that has got Thai basil in it with hoisin dressing.  The Thai basil is spicy and very flavorful.

It’s a dish that I did at the Del Ray and I brought it over here and after the first year I tried to take it off the menu and do a different dish but people were like, “ahhh no!” So I can’t take it off.  People come in for it.  My wife gets it every once and a while and she said to me, “That’s a damn good dish.  I forget how good that is. The flavors work so good together.  You have the hot risotto, the cold slaw, the crunch from the nuts, the butter from the sauce. It’s got all the textures and flavors in every direction but they work really well together.” That would be the signature dish that I think surprises people the most.

L: Do you have a food philosophy? Do you change your cooking style with food trends or are you more of a traditionalist?

C: I’m a little bit of a traditionalist. What I’ve learned so far I’ve kind of mastered it, so I stick to what I know.  I played a little bit of the trend card.  You wouldn’t hear pork belly five years ago on any menu and now I have that on my menu as a special every once and awhile. We do all sorts of different things to it and people love it. I’ll be early on to the trend sets in the Valley but sometimes trendy is not as good as the tried and true. Parts of it will be successful and other parts won’t be. It evolves.

The new place will definitely play with some gastro techniques and stretch it a little bit.  That’s where I’m going to learn because the younger generation seems to have figured it out.  That was a trend (gastro) but you don’t hear so much about it anymore. But I think parts of it are successful, so I would like to learn a little bit more about it.  But it is not what my market comes here for, so I don’t want to bring in stuff that, although they might enjoy, others would not embrace.  It’s not what they came here for.  They came for the burger or the scallops because they are simple and fresh.  Why mess with something.  The formula works really well here, whereas the new place we have to invent ourselves and be different than this place.  That is where we are going to start to play more.

L: Do you believe it is important to eat locally and buy local products? What are the benefits?

C:  Yeah, I think it is. My brother was on a group called the Chef Collaborative 2000 and they were really the start of the farm-to-table concept. He is actually on the board of that now and it has been really good for his philosophy and business wise.  So when I moved out here to The Valley, it was easy.  I started a chapter out here, but it was difficult because the level of chefs out here are not as sophisticated as they are in Boston. It wasn’t my job to educate them about the benefits of local farming.  They weren’t embracing it.

I became a part of CSA when it first opened up, so I spoke at their events and helped them figure out how to get restaurants on board. Here, like I said, the hamburger comes from Brimfield and the cream comes from Hadley. There is a farm on East Street called Mountain View Farm, and I was with them when it first sort of started.  I helped them do seminars at their farm, which generated a lot of interest.  We have a great relationship.  I just go to the farm and they eat here. We don’t do bills or anything. They just come and eat and I just get stuff from their farm.  And I get a ton of stuff from them, so I look forward to that time of year.  The problem is I have to go pick it. But I am lucky to be out in The Valley where everything is so close.

L: What is the most difficult part of your job today?

C: I strive to do so much.  If I were to put it in cruise control… life would be good. But my wife and I are both very driven people.  My problem is that I can’t stop.  I always just want to do something different.  The opportunity to own real estate is really attractive to me. That is why I am opening up this other business. That has made it difficult. I am taking on another project, yet I am still running this one. I’m wearing two hats.  We are working on re-designing this (Apollo). We are going to change the look of this place a little bit and try to market it for function space because it is so big.

So that’s the challenge that I have.  I try to do alot.  I think about the future and I say, “Okay, I’m fifty years old. I’ve got ten more years of good, hard working left in me. Where am I going to be at the end of ten years?” If I were to stay here in this location all I would have is my fixtures – my stove, chairs, plates.  I wouldn’t have much to sell. That is why we are going over there and getting the real estate, so at the end of ten years I’ll have some real estate to sell. I’m always thinking about improvement and the future and that kind of stuff. It’s good. I’m lucky to have a choice.

L: That is exciting to have a new place. What has the process for that been like?

C: Not too bad. I’ve got some investors and planted the seed. I’ve got the ball rolling. I’ve got a bank that is giving me $300,000. (I asked for more).  I’m going to be short on some capital and I’ll have to scramble but I’ve done that before. What is really exciting is that I’m going to get a lot of bang for my buck.  The design is looking great. It’s going to be a nice high-end restaurant in Easthampton. When I speak to other business owners here they think it is so exciting that we are going to be spending so much money and making a “jewel” in town. But I’m just doing what I want to do. I’m not thinking about the town, but I guess it is a good thing for the town. Williston will be a big supporter of it.

I opened up Venus in the Cellar Bar with a partner three years ago. I was a minority owner and at first it was pretty exciting. It was cool at first. I was going to get to spend other people’s money, I had $35,000 invested in it. I owned a third of the business but she over spent (like I am going to overspend). But then she brought in another investor and then I owned only ten percent. But I didn’t want to run her business for ten percent.

So I ran it for six months and then we evaluated where we should be. I’ve got a business here that is successful and I am not going to compete against myself for ten percent. At the end of the six months we looked at the sales and we had ninety-eight percent of our sales according to our business plan, but our debt structure was higher because she borrowed more money to fix the building. I needed to own forty percent of the business to stay. That year she ended up closing. It gave me the understanding that I know how to put together a business plan and I know how to get money because I did the whole loan process with her to get her the money. I know how to open up a place and I know how to hit the expectation in sales. So, I just repeated that formula in another location. My focus has gone from food, food, food to business. Then to business security. That is how I have evolved as a chef.

L: Do you think it was a natural progression for you as a chef from cooking to the business side? Is it where you always saw yourself ending up?

C: Yeah, it happened naturally over time.  I am very frugal.  I didn’t graduate from high school. I went to a private school called Country Day. I was not the best student and I wasn’t challenged.  My parents weren’t around and I went to this country club school and I didn’t get some credits at the end. So, I didn’t get much of an education. I got an education from being in the business for so long.  It has been a learning process. Since I am so frugal, it has given me the time to learn.

L: In the non-stop restaurant business do you feel as though you have adequate time to spend with your family and friends?

C: Ehh…my kids both work here. The kids definitely lost out in the early years. When I was the chef at the Del Ray I worked twenty-eight straight days, took a day off, and worked another twenty-eight straight days. When I first took it over I lost a ton of weight. I just worked so much because I was given the responsibility to run that kitchen. I put a lot of priority into it. I took it very seriously and I had a lot of pride in it.  So, it definitely was a sacrifice on the family when the kids were younger. Definitely the weekends. But now as the kids are older they come in and eat a couple of nights a week, they work a couple of nights a week. The family is much more involved. The restaurant is part of my family. Dan lives next door to me. My brother Jeff lives next door to me. And now my sister lives with me (she is on disability). We have created our own family around the home and the restaurant. It has come back to be fine.

L: What advice would you give to someone attending or thinking about attending culinary school or pursuing a job in this field?

C: Don’t go (he laughs).  Unless you feel that you are driven to ownership or a certain level that makes it worth it. A talented line chef is a dead end job. You’ve got to aspire to be your own person: a personal chef, a catering chef, a restaurateur, a food writer – something that gives you the independence.  Otherwise there are so many line cooks and so few owners and managers.  You only reach a certain point and then you’re done.  The restaurant I worked in when I was sixteen years old charged more than I charge for food. So thirty-five years later the check average has stayed the same or gone down but all the expenses have gone up.  It’s just not a real lucrative business for many people my level.  Managers get compensated fine, waitstaff gets compensated really well, bartenders get compensated really well, line cooks not so much. You have got to have a passion. You have to have a direction you want to go in to be successful.  Otherwise, it’s a tenure career that gets you in burn out mode. That guy (line cook) that walked out on me was just that case. Very talented guy, very committed, but he reached the top of his skill set.  He didn’t want to manage people. He is a very talented line cook but he reached the top of what I can pay him and there was just nowhere else for him to go.

I would say to aspiring young people go apprentice at a really good place and see how hard it is and what the sacrifices are. Then decide if you are going to go to culinary school to bypass years of hard knocks to get to a certain level.  I think when I was younger when someone came out of culinary school they were pretty good. But as the Food Network was coming on and food became a trend those schools opened up to anyone who had money and the quality of students that were coming out of those schools were downgraded. So I’d be a little leery about culinary school (he laughs). You are going right?

L: Yes I am!

C: Then go there and decide what you are going to get out of it and what field you are going to go into.  You could even decide to be line cook for five to ten years, just know that you are going to have to do something to rise above it.  Do you know what you are interested in doing yet?

L: No not exactly.  I am interested in maybe the catering side of the business or being a personal chef as well as writing and photography.

C: Those can be really good livings.  A good friend of mine is a personal chef and he loves it. The people that rise above end up owning and those that don’t end up getting burnt out. My brother is sort of an example.  He is fifty-three and he was out in Colorado living with his daughter.  He called me and said that there was nothing for him in that town but he just doesn’t have the passion to own a business or manage a business.  That’s why he only does part of it for me.  He has never rose to that other level and for him it is frustrating but he has a passion for cooking.

The successes are rare. Well, they are not rare, there is a lot of money in the business.  It is not like other companies where CEOs make a ton and the workers make pennies.  It is just that in the restaurant business there are certain levels so I caution people.  Work for someone you respect.

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To find out more about the Apollo Grill, located on 116 Pleasant Street Easthampton, MA click here.