Closing your bustling restaurant for over a month is a pretty big decision for a small business owner. Todd Schaefer, owner of Abel Brown Southern Kitchen, can pinpoint the moment he realized he may be facing such a reality, “When I lost the fryer like a year and a half ago.”
At the time, Schaefer was updating his insurance policy and discovered the code had changed on hood vents, effectively rendering his fryer fried. “We had it inspected and they gave us a red tag and said we couldn’t use it. Even though it wasn’t such a huge part of everything, it was a key part. So the thing had to be six inches in (under the vent) but it was like-right here” Schaefer said, gesturing roughly six inches.
One of two new hood vents.
“So I bought a cheap table top fryer that was a piece of junk. We were only frying like a couple of things-okra-we were frying all this stuff to order, you know, everything, vegetables, garnishes and everything. It was really frustrating.”
“So that really was the impetus.”
The hardest part? “People are upset that we’re closed because they love coming here. We’re just trying to make it better for everyone.”
The kitchen has served Schaefer well over the past twenty years. Originally a French country restaurant Bistro 491, then fifteen years later, the restaurateur flipped the concept to a casual oyster bar, Abel Brown Southern Kitchen.
One of the mental hurdles Schafer had at the time was the poured concrete bar. He was convinced he couldn’t flip concepts and retain the rebar reinforced behemoth he had built in a remodel and expansion in 2001. Moving the fryer turned out to be a lot easier than jack-hammering the bar out.
As remodels go, this one has turned out to be more extensive than originally planned.
Schaefer said the biggest difference between Bistro and Abel, in the kitchen at least, is functionality. “When it went from a French bistro to an oyster house. No, there wasn’t as much work in the kitchen necessarily from a production standpoint, it just became far busier.”
“Our best year I think was 2006 or 2007. We did a good bit of business for this little place (Bistro 491). This year on our projections that we have, if we maintain our same numbers, we should triple that.
So we’re turning and burning, people are moving.”
In fact, Abel Brown was voted one of the top 50 southern restaurants in the United States in 2018. “I think we just made the restaurant more casual, more accessible, and our clientele is younger and more adventurous, willing to try anything.”
“With Abel Brown we made it real casual but kept really good service. We spend so much time cultivating our customers, keeping notes on everything and really focusing on service.
We provide good food in a good environment. Now we’re a lot more progressive as far as what we’re serving. We use really good products, and as long as we cook it right people come back for the service.”
“We’ve grown 30 to 40 percent every year since 2014 in sales. With the former configuration of the kitchen area, we had to move tables every day. We’ve had to move stuff around every single day. Get this out of the way, get that out of the way, we had the whole back area stacked full of stuff.
Now hallways have been opened up and walls moved, revealing a large space with great flow. ” The staff, once accustomed to working in hallways and corners, will now have room to work.
Gesturing around at once was a service hallway, Schaefer says “Once this area is roughed in, we’ll have a new ceiling, new walls, new lighting.
Gone are the long ago abandoned utilities and in their place stainless steel shelving and a working service area. “They can polish all the glasses here now. We’ve had a lot of breakage because we were so crushed for space. So we kind of focused on having a place for everything.
The redesign has yielded a kitchen twice as large, with 75% more open floor space. Two hood vents instead of one. The former Whole Foods cooler will now reside just outside the restaurant, as opposed to squatting in the corner of the kitchen.
Renovating the kitchen and back of house isn’t something customers will necessarily see, but the differences will be felt. “Adding equipment, like adding that fryer, with three bays instead of just one, will speed up things immensely.
“So as opposed to waiting on the chicken wings to be done so I can fry the oysters, I can do them at the same time you know, speed that aspect up.”
We’re expanding our menu and we’ll be able to serve more food in less time.
Abel Brown Southern Kitchen expects to reopen after Valentine’s Day.
491 Highland Avenue