It takes awhile to realize that chef Todd Schulte is funny. When asked a question, he'll sometimes turn his head slightly to the left and briefly look like he's searching for the answer. But then he'll swing his eyes back to you and, with an exceptionally dry delivery, tell you exactly why he's not the guy who should be answering your questions.
"I thought for sure we were going to build this happy little
empire. Kansas City was on the map with Christopher Elbow. Oprah
would call us and talk to us about how we had given away our
fortune," says Schulte about the start of his first business, the Happy Soup Eater. A long beat passes. "I was very disappointed when I found out she was canceling her
So, while he may not make it on Oprah, the success of the Happy Gillis Cafe & Hangout and the recently opened Genessee Royale Bistro (which he co-owns with his wife, Tracy Zinn) means that Schulte needs to be taken seriously as a budding restaurateur in Kansas City.
He grew up in Baltimore, learning heartbreak when the Baltimore Colts left town and, later, falling in love with National Bohemian Beer (his parents still bring him a case when they visit). In the summer of 1989, Schulte drove north to Burlington, Vermont, ready to conquer the Northeast as a 19-year-old. After working as a busboy and barback, he saw a sign in the window of Leunig's Bistro -- a European-style bistro in downtown Burlington -- that they were looking for a line cook.
"I went in and filled out an application. The only thing that was true was my name and phone number," Schulte says."They gave me the job, and on the day I started, it was clear I had lied about everything. But they kept me on."
There he had gotten his first taste of the breakfast shift. He also discovered that he wasn't quite ready for Vermont winters; after close to a year, he headed back to Baltimore. He enrolled in Baltimore International Culinary College. During the 15-month program, he built on the basic techniques he had learned at Leunig's.
Toward the end of school, he was approached by two brothers who were set to open a bar and wanted to offer a better class of pub food. With the chance to live above the bar, he started there shortly before graduation.
"We were going to show Baltimore better than mediocre bar food," Schulte says. And that meant making potato skins and dipping sauces from scratch. Although the cuisine was different from what he cooks today, the principles were similar. Everything that came out of the two-man kitchen was handmade by the cooks on the line.
His next opportunity was an entirely different fusion restaurant, Nacho Mama's: A Mexican Hangout. The former pizza joint still served pizza but had an adjacent dining room that was turned into a Mexican restaurant. Happy Hour was named Elvis Hour for the Elvis statue draped in black velvet and chili-pepper lights. Diners had to navigate a hopscotch court painted on the floor to get to the bathroom. It was the Tortilla Flats of Baltimore.
Late at night, while dishing out pizza to the after-bar crowd, another culinary school graduate told him about opportunities cooking down in St. Thomas. Schulte shared a few recipes and then decided to escape winter in the harbor town.
"My parents and brother thought I was going for a couple of weeks, and then two and a half years later, I came back with my fiancee," Schulte says.
He was baking cheesecakes and washing dishes in the Caribbean when he met his wife to be, Tracy Zinn. She was teaching and working nights as a bartender.
"If all of the teachers in my life had been like her, I would have done much better in school," Schulte says.
After St. Thomas, the couple moved back to Tracy's hometown of Kansas City. And Schulte spent nine months working at Joe D's. But the cold chased them away to Naples, Florida, where they stayed five years. There they found the adoption agency that helped them adopt their first daughter, Eden.
The new family wanted to be closer to Tracy's family. Kansas City was comfortable. The executive chef post at Joe D's in Brookside was conveniently open. But when he was called away from a family picnic in Loose Park on a rare Saturday off to cover for someone on the line, he thought about whether he really wanted to be tied to a stove. And after close to two decades in the kitchen, he took off his chef whites. He took a job with the Seattle Fish Company.
It's humbling to have to go into another chef's kitchen to sell fish when you've laid down your knives. Over the course of 18 months, Schulte got the itch to be back in his own kitchen. His idea for a business started small and innocent, the kind of conversation where you talk about how you're going to afford to send your kids to school while sipping a beer on your front porch.
"Lots of good ideas are found in a pint, not so many in a quart, and I might have had a couple of quarts," Schulte says.
Still, he remembered reading a story about a soup delivery service in Austin, Texas. When he discovered that the owner was from Baltimore and had the same astrological sign (Aries), he figured this was a concept that might be his destiny. Black bean soup was the first of his creations for the newly named Happy Soup Eater. Chicken noodle soup followed soon thereafter, and suddenly he was filling dozens of orders from the kitchen at Lil's on 17th.
He found a space in Columbus Park, kept the Happy and named it after the street on which the former grocery store was located. Happy Gillis Cafe & Hangout opened in March 2008, serving signature soups, sandwiches and breakfast. The "happy empire" later grew with the addition of a happy wiener hot-dog cart.
"Columbus Park still has a lot to offer. And we're hoping we've created this little informal hub for the neighborhood to enjoy," Schulte says.
The success of Happy Gillis has led to other opportunities for Schulte and Zinn. Developer Bill Hall approached them about converting a former gas station in the West Bottoms into a restaurant. Four months ago, they opened the Genessee Royale Bistro in the newly christened Stockyards District. The name is a nod to the French settlers of the area, and the cozy bistro sprang from Tracy's imagination.
"For right now, the happy empire is happy with its three little parts," jokes Schulte.
That is until Oprah's network, OWN, comes calling.