Questions for a Restaurateur - Word of Mouth Neighborhood Bistro

Today marks the debut of a new feature on
Periodically we'll be doing profiles of local restaurant owners and chefs.
We've chosen to kick-off this series with two of our local favorites-- Word of Mouth Neighborhood Bistro owners Steve and Becky.
I hope you enjoy.

First food memory:  Steve: First bad food memory- Mom giving us liver for dinner; there's just not enough ketchup in one bottle to make liver palatable.

First good food memory: Steve: Every once in a while us kids would get pancakes or BLT's for dinner. Or, I was 11 years old in Los Angeles and mom would give us a dollar and I'd ride my bike and get one thing at McDonalds, Taco Bell, Weinerschnitzle, and Dairy Queen.
Becky: I remember scarfing down spaghetti with 10 brothers and sisters, so I could get seconds. Only going out to eat at Chuck Wagon Buffet, favorite part was the ice-cream machine and the soda machine. We never went to sit-down restaurants growing up. Had 3 sit-down meals a day at home.

First food jobSteve: washing dishes at VIP's on Liberty, across from Bentley's at age 16.
Becky: Dishwashing at Corvallis Country Club at age 16.

What are your greatest joys of owning a restaurant? Steve: Feeling the "Magic". Don't open a restaurant for the money. There are easier ways to make money and you don't get the best payoff- the Magic. We've worked on recipes, for months sometimes, and at times I've tasted the results of an "experiment" and actually gotten chills and tears in my eyes. Silly, I know, but it takes a passion like that to find the Magic. It is hard work to create menu items, to train everybody to do everything right, to make sure everything is in order and the hours are never-ending...but then you take a step back, feel amazed that all this is all working and wonder why-- because you don't really feel like it was THAT much work. The passion carried you. You enjoy it. You feel lucky-- like everything just "fell into place". That is the Magic.
Becky: Love surprising the guests with something different, Love the relationships with our great employees. Absolutely LOVE the feel of the house on 17th, and “wowing” the customers is the absolute best feeling.
More from Steve-creating new recipes/soups and trying new ideas, seeing how our guests react to them.

What are your biggest challenges?  Steve:Our employees are our biggest asset and at the same time, our biggest challenge. We can't expect them to have the same passion that we do-- they have a ton of other important aspects of their life. So it takes constant coaching to keep all the recipes and procedures on track. Also, as soon as they master one level of performance, we always want to take a step up, so then they have new challenges.
Becky: Waking up at 4:30am- And attacking the never-ending pile of laundry.

Anyone you would like to thank (and why) for helping with your dream of running a restaurant?  Steve:  I've had other restaurants before Word of Mouth, but it was always for financial reasons. Becky is a "super-taster foodie" and she is all about the quality and the fun and making sure every menu item "pops"-(has something that makes it stand out). So of course she motivates everyone around her to do the same and has been the driving force for us to make Word of Mouth different.

I know we wouldn't have the menu and the mindset we have now without spending seven years working on Catalina Island. Every summer was uber-busy, but every Winter was sloooow and was literally a "food research and development" period. Who gets to do that? Seven years of a captive audience (the locals) trying out your recipes and creations, that the company you work for finances. That period was imperative, even though we didn't realize it at the time. We were just having fun with food and feeding the locals. They were pretty harsh critics too, but that's a good thing.
Becky: my saint of a mother (Teresa) and younger sister Sally for providing the endless supply of strawberry freezer jam. Also Salem, for being so welcoming and supportive to our crazy little dream. And

What do you think is missing, as far as the food scene goes, in Salem? Steve: Imagination. Too many menus are the same. Bacon Cheeseburger, Chicken Strips, Hot Wings... If people experiment and come up with a fantastic menu item or two, or three and have or develop their abilities and passion--they can be successful. Marrying a Becky couldn't hurt either.

What do you cook at home that you never cook at the restaurant? Steve: Malt-o-meal. Microwave pizza. We never cook at home. It's a Cook thing. At Word of Mouth and on the island, we would let the cooks eat whatever they want and they would eat a grilled cheese with french fries in the middle or something like that. They leave the prime rib alone and go for the grilled cheese.
Becky: Cold Cereal, Cream of Wheat and reheated pizza. And Spaghetti!!

What's your favorite kitchen tool? Steve: I like a nice heavy stock pot for cooking soups and sauces; the thick walls of the pot distribute heat evenly and prevent burning. Another favorite is the Buffalo Chopper (a machine that has a rotating bowl and a whirling blade that chops food very efficiently). We use it for our hashes and Veggie Burgers. And you gotta have a nice sharp knife. Working with good food and a dull knife is like painting with really good paint, but brushing it on with toilet paper.
Becky: Ha, I love the microwave, my food can never be too hot, and the torch for making the crème brulee’ French toast of course :)

Any advice for someone who's thinking about starting their own business? Steve: You have to have basic skills in whatever business it is. I'll never open a Tire Shop because I don't know tires.
Make a business plan including who your customers will be and how much of your product will you have to sell to break even. Then add 20% to your planned costs, subtract 20% from your planned sales and see where you are. Do the same with 30%, 40%, 50%...
And then after all that, come up with plan B, plan C, etc., because rarely does anything work like you think it will, so you have to be able to adjust. That would be a good name for a restaurant, "Plan B"
And, if you're doing it just for the money you have a steeper climb. Yes, you have to be financially responsible because you owe it to your employees, to your vendors, to your customers and to yourself/family. But you have to have the passion or it will ALL be work, and nobody wants to work as hard as you will have to work to make your business successful. Oh yeah, and the Becky thing. It can't hurt to marry a Becky.

Becky: It is very stressful, not as glamorous as I had hoped & and you better be willing to dedicate everything you have to making that business succeed, and have no life. The bills never end, so even though you technically are your own boss, everyone is your boss in a way. Before you open, make sure you have something unique that you cannot get anywhere else. Also, you have to give people a reason to return.


gstatty said...

Cool Q&A, I like hearing about the lives of chefs and restaurateurs. This reminded me somewhat of Anthony Bourdain's book Kitchen confidential in which he describes life in the kitchen and restaurant biz as hard work, staying up late, getting up early, dealing with vendors and constant stress, which one doesn't enjoy unless they really love what they are doing. I've eaten at word of mouth and you can tell they enjoy what they do or else the food, ambience and staff wouldn't be as good as it is. Follow up question, is Becky the head chef or did they hire and train someone else?

Rebekah said...

Very cool! I love this idea! I hope to see lots more chefs featured on eatsalem.

Becky Mucha said...

thankyou for doing this KandN,it was fun to answer the questions. gstatty- I would say Steve is the head chef, I'm just the overly picky one about everything- I do cook on the line with him 5 days a week, which I love. We do have two other cooks that are very qualified :)

KandN said...

Becky, Thanks to both you and Steve for doing all the hard work on this. :) (Ideas are easy.)

Rebekah and gstatty- I can't wait to see how many restaurateurs we can get to participate.

Joe Lombardi said...

Steve & Becky, you are a GREAT team! And your creatvity and excellence [along with your friendly personalities and sense of humor] impact your staff and make Word of Mouth Neighborhood Bistro the finest dining experience in Salem. Kudos to you!!!