At 6 a.m. on January 15, Rob Dalzell is already two hours into his day. He's chopping olives and joking with two employees in the concrete bowels of his first restaurant, 1924 Main.
He wears a black T-shirt and pin-striped black pants with the word "Chefwear" on the hip.
The employees — Chrystal Tatum and Lindsey Kiliany — playfully roll their eyes when their boss brings up odd facts about them, such as Tatum's old pet hedgehog and Kiliany's shock the day she found herself serving University of Kansas football coach Mark Mangino. They tease Dalzell about being from Fayette, a small Missouri town halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis with little in it but a traffic signal and a Dairy Queen. And they sing along to oldies such as "Come and Get Your Love."
By 8 a.m., the women will transport the olives — along with grilled tortilla sandwiches they call "sandittos," massive tubs of soup and dozens of single-serving salads — two blocks down Main in Dalzell's mustard-yellow Toyota FJ Cruiser to his second restaurant, Souperman.
Meanwhile, he'll be around the corner, lighting fires in Italian stone ovens at his third restaurant, Pizza Bella. And nearby in the Power and Light District, behind glass walls covered in brown butcher paper, construction workers will hammer away inside Dalzell's unfinished fourth venture — Chefburger.
It's clear during his and Tatum's walk-through later in the morning that there's still much to be done at Chefburger. There's no kitchen equipment yet, and the walls remain unfinished. Over the next two months, construction delays and absent city inspectors will force Dalzell to put off his planned March 1 opening by 10 days.
It wouldn't be the first time that Dalzell faced opening-day headaches. He was so unprepared for the huge turnout on Pizza Bella's first day that he now uses that mistake as his rallying cry as he prepares to unwrap Chefburger.
Dalzell is used to keeping this kind of hurried schedule. At 33, the lean chef with an often stubbly face is quickly becoming a downtown restaurant mogul. His eateries include fine dining and fast casual, and they remain — for now — unique to Kansas City. Someday, Dalzell hopes to franchise his restaurants nationally; he has set 30 restaurants as a goal for the first round.
"Eight out of 10 restaurants fail," he says. "One of the big reasons is nobody really wants to do the work."
Doing the work isn't an obstacle for Dalzell — it's an obsession. Seven days a week, he rises at 4 a.m., heads to Scott Fitness in the City Market and then spends at least the next 16 hours cooking, cleaning, tending bar and closely managing employees in one or all of his four restaurants. "Basically," he says, "I leave the house at five, and sometimes I don't get home until midnight."
That doesn't leave a lot of time for his wife, his two young daughters or his oafish Labrador, Bud. Dalzell talks about a far-off future when he and his wife, Margarita, will lounge on a beach, unfettered by restaurant responsibilities. Until then, the endless days will help put his kids through school and allow him to pay Margarita's mother to be a live-in nanny. "Means to an end" is a mantra that the self-described workaholic repeats. "In the back of my mind, I say, Nobody's going to work harder than me — or longer."
Doug Dalzell, his father, says he has encouraged his son to take a break and reports, with a look of awe, "He told me, 'For me, relaxing is coming into the restaurant. So why take a day off?'"