On a frigid morning, Todd Schulte all but pushes me out of the Genessee Royale's warm dining room. Schulte's West Bottoms bistro is at 1531 Genessee, but he keeps an office on the sixth floor of the Livestock Exchange Building across the street. That's where he insists we talk.
"I can't get anything done in the restaurant," he explains. "People keep asking me about Happy Gillis, and it takes 20 minutes to explain everything."
Here's the short version: Schulte, who opened a breakfast-and-lunch venue called the Happy Gillis Café & Hangout in 2008, recently sold the Columbus Park operation to chef Josh Eans, who plans to keep the name and move with his family to the apartment above the restaurant.
The decision surprised Happy Gillis regulars, but Schulte told me that Eans is the right candidate for the space.
"I had entertained offers for the business over the years," Schulte says, "but I wasn't necessarily looking to get out of it."
In fact, he says, Happy Gillis became a well-oiled machine that ran very well without his being there all that often, thanks to longtime manager David Allison and his crew. Schulte was spending much more time at the Genessee Royale, which turned three years old December 9, and with his retail soup enterprise, Uncommon Stock.
The soup side of the operation, Schulte admits, has cooled recently. "When you're running two restaurants full time, it's difficult to also focus on a seasonal business," he tells me. "But my business partner, Bill Haw Jr., and I are going to spend more time developing that part of the business."
Schlute says he has no plans to sell Genessee Royale, but don't expect to see nighttime hours at the place (though he'll continue the $25 prix fixe "Stockyard Suppers" the last Thursday of each month) or for the restaurant to open on Sundays (the second-busiest day of the week at Happy Gillis). His immediate emphasis is on the soup.
The first step, Schulte says, is moving the retail soup operation from Columbus Park to a new storefront on West 25th Street, near La Esquina's performance space. The completed shop will sell refrigerated soups (and some frozen varieties) to carryout customers. He's toying with the idea of offering hot soups, too. He was a big fan of chef Rob Dalzell's downtown Souperman, which closed in 2010.
Freeing himself from his Happy Gillis responsibilities gives Schulte more time to consider other ventures, though he also wants to spend a little more time at home with his two daughters. "My 13-year-old has actually asked if she can come and work at Genessee Royale with me," Schulte says. "I told her she can't even keep her room straight - how can she hold a job?"
When Schulte and his wife, Tracy Zinn, opened Genessee Royale in 2010, they considered capitalizing on the popularity of Happy Gillis (which has always done slightly more business than the West Bottoms venue) by calling the restaurant Happy Genessee. Now he's happy he didn't.
"As we got into it, we realized that the two restaurants had very different identities," he says. Different demographics, too: "They each attract different kinds of people because they're in two very different communities. But people are totally loyal to the restaurant they like."
Schulte says if he's clearing tables at Happy Gillis, a customer will sometimes call him over and say, "I've been to Genessee Royale, but I really prefer Happy Gillis."
"And a few days later, I'll be walking through Genessee Royale, and a customer will whisper to me that they had been to Happy Gillis and they like Genessee Royale much better.
"I'm glad people have their opinions," Schulte says. "As long as they like one of the two restaurants, I'm happy."