Chef Gerard Craft of Niche Food Group in St. Louis is an unusual restaurant entrepreneur, and even he admits that his growing food and drinks empire once seemed very unlikely. The Washington, D.C., native fell into the restaurant business after college, when he started working as a cook in Salt Lake City. Once he discovered cooking was a true passion, he pursued other chef opportunities, eventually working in kitchens on both coasts before settling in the middle of the country.
Craft’s move to St. Louis was serendipitous. “I had lived all over the place and I wanted something new,” Craft says. “I saw an emerging scene here with some young chefs starting to do different things. I was 25 and it seemed really exciting. And you could find real estate really cheap in St. Louis, so I gave it a shot. Looking back, it was pretty crazy, but it turned out to be the right move.”
Craft opened his first restaurant, Niche, in 2005 in a boarded-up building in the city’s Benton Park neighborhood. He committed to the space sight unseen and turned it into an upscale American bistro that thrived in the city for more than a decade, surviving economic turmoil and a move to a larger space. Niche closed last year so that Craft could open a new concept, Sardella. The chef, who now considers St. Louis home, operates five restaurants and bars in the city under the Niche Food Group banner: the Italian-influenced Sardella, the French-themed Brasserie, the cocktail-heavy Taste Bar, the osteria-style Pastaria, and the fast-casual pizza and pasta venue Porano Pasta. Craft, who has become a restaurant pioneer in St. Louis, earned a “Best Chef: Midwest” honor from the James Beard Foundation in 2015. Today, his company’s revenues equal roughly $10 million a year, with the beverage component comprising about 28 percent of that total.
“We try to emphasize hospitality and quality—it’s amazing how far those two things go,” Craft says. “We try to give the best product we can and be friendly, accommodating and reasonable with prices. People really know us and trust us for our quality and hospitality. We have awesome people working for us. Those key elements form the basis of who we are.” Craft adds that innovation is also at the core of Niche Food Group—the company is constantly trying to reinvent itself, be better and move forward.
Creating A Scene
Craft is one of a handful of St. Louis restaurateurs helping to boost the city’s dining and drinks options. His restaurants have a refined image and great local support. Sardella opened this past November in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton, Missouri. The concept, named for an Italian sauce made with sardines and peppers, features a seasonal menu that highlights Italian fare prepared with global influences. Craft describes the venue as upscale but accessible and says his emphasis is on creative small plates. The space is outfitted in bold colors and features upscale design elements like polished wood, marble and brass.
Sardella’s menu features a variety of small plates, from uni risotto balls to beef tartare to the popular charred snap peas served with roasted garlic custard, red pepper jelly, basil and Calabrian chili vinaigrette (small plates are $3 to $17). The restaurant also serves pasta dishes like brisket agnolotti in a lobster broth and pappardelle topped with braised pork and a red wine sauce, and such larger entrées as spice-roasted chicken, stout-braised oxtail and bavette steak ($15 to $29).
Wine makes up 20 percent of total restaurant sales at Sardella and the list skews towards Italian labels, though it contains several boutique producers from California and France as well. The restaurant offers 14 glass pours ($9 to $22) and more than 100 bottled selections ($36 to $310 a 750-ml.), including labels like the 2015 Antonutti Grave del Friuli Sauvignon Blanc and the 2014 Occhipinti Il Frappato. Sardella also boasts a lengthy craft beer list, ranging from locally produced Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.’s Zwickel Bavarian lager to Evil Twin Brewing’s Falco American IPA (beers are $7 to $9 on draft; $3 to $18 a bottle or can), as well as specialty cocktails ($11) like the Street Lights, comprising Lillet Blanc, Galliano L’Autentico liqueur, Yellow Chartreuse and Regans’ No. 6 orange bitters.
“Sardella borders on being a hybrid concept where people can stop in for drinks or book in advance for a celebratory meal,” says Chris Kelling, the general manager and beverage director for Sardella and Pastaria. “Sardella has a mix of everything for drinks and a super-talented bar team. We match the drinks with the food and the season.” The St. Louis population is educated, Kelling adds, and expects high-quality drinks options—this level of consumer awareness keeps Sardella at a high standard.
Niche Food Group’s most drinks-focused venue, Taste Bar, has become a destination for St. Louis’ savvy cocktail enthusiasts. The concept started in 2009 as an intimate, late-night drinks den with fewer than 20 seats, but moved to a new, larger space in the Central West End neighborhood a few years ago. Taste Bar now boasts more than 50 seats and has a full working kitchen. “There weren’t a lot of unique cocktail bars in St. Louis in 2009,” Craft explains. “We wanted a bar that was more civilized, a place where you could go to get a drink and a small bite to eat super late.”
Taste Bar has a dark and moody interior that evokes steampunk culture. Drinks sales make up more than half of the concept’s total revenues, led overwhelmingly by cocktails, and the menu changes often. Signature cocktails ($10 to $14) include the Fevergrass Fizz, mixing North Shore Distiller’s No. 6 gin, lemongrass-infused Yzaguirre Blanco Reserva vermouth, Domaine De Canton ginger liqueur, egg white and lemon juice, and the Club Trip, comprising North Shore Distiller’s No. 11 gin, locally produced Maypop Missouri passionflower tincture, carrot and lemon juices, and passion fruit syrup and purée. These drinks are joined by a lengthy roster of classics and myriad sipping spirits ($5 to $30 a 2-ounce pour). Taste’s food menu highlights snacks and small plates, listing bacon fat–fried cornbread and deviled eggs alongside veal sweetbreads and mussels in white wine ($5 to $15). The venue also offers a couple larger plates ($17 to $26) and desserts ($6 to $9).
“I would consider Taste to be 50-percent cocktail bar and 50-percent restaurant,” Craft says. “We have a small menu that changes all the time and some of the best cocktails in the city.” Kelling adds that when he moved to St. Louis in 2009, Taste was the only bar in the city serving cocktails on the level of bigger markets like San Francisco or New York City. “In 2009, St. Louis wasn’t a big food and drink city,” Kelling says. “There were a few people doing really great things, but you had to go far and wide to find them. There still isn’t the market saturation of some larger cities, but you don’t have to go as far for quality food and drinks.”
Niche Food Group’s other restaurants contribute to the city’s growing on-premise maturity and depth of options. As its name implies, Brasserie is modeled after a traditional French brasserie and serves rustic French country fare with an all-French wine list. The venue in St. Louis’ Central West End is located in an old building with squeaky floorboards, aged paint on the walls and a tin ceiling, and it showcases large lithograph prints.
Brasserie’s food menu starts with amuse-bouche and hors d’oeuvres offerings, including gougères cheese puffs, wild Burgundy escargot and foie gras terrine ($6.50 to $20.95). The concept’s larger dishes range from trout Grenobloise to beer-braised chicken legs to hanger steak and frites ($15.95 to $52). Brasserie pours a handful of draft and bottled beers ($5 to $24) and lists specialty cocktails ($9 to $11) like the Étrange Acide, comprising Milagro Silver Tequila, Suze liqueur, lemon juice and sugar, topped with a drizzle of Cartron Crème de Cassis liqueur. The concept lists roughly 15 wines by the glass ($9 to $13.25) and about 80 bottled offerings ($32 to $165 a 750-ml.), with the vast majority of labels priced at less than $100 a bottle. Wine makes up almost 20 percent of total sales at Brasserie.
On the opposite end of the dining spectrum, Niche Food Group’s Porano Pasta is a fast-casual concept with a fun drinks component. The counter-service restaurant allows guests to build their own pasta, rice or salad dishes by choosing a base ingredient and adding in a variety of proteins, vegetables, sauces or dressings, and toppings (bowls are $8.95 to $12.95). Porano Pasta pours Scarpetta wines on tap ($6 a glass; $15 a carafe), offers a handful of canned and draft beers ($3 to $6) and serves a Negroni Slushy ($6), a frozen take on the drink made with Hendrick’s gin and Aperol and Lillet Rose aperitifs.
Rounding out the company’s portfolio is Pastaria, a casual osteria-style concept that emphasizes wood-fired pizzas and fresh pastas in a warm and inviting space with industrial accents. There are traditional Italian dishes like smoked pork shank pappardelle alongside more inventive offerings like Italian ramen, a dish of spaghettini topped with a soft-cooked egg, chicken, basil and Grana Padano cheese (pastas are $11.95 to $17.95; pizzas are $10.95 to $14.95; larger entrées are $18.75 to $19.95). Pastaria’s beverage menu features affordably priced Italian wines ($9 to $13 a glass; $36 to $84 a 750-ml.) and boasts more than 10 draft beers and an additional 20-plus bottled and canned brews ($5 to $8 a draft pour, bottle or can).
“Pastaria is meant to be a super approachable neighborhood spot,” Kelling says. It’s also Niche Food Group’s first concept to be expanded and its first to open outside of greater St. Louis. The company will debut a Pastaria in Nashville, Tennessee, in August. “We knew we wanted to expand Pastaria outside of St. Louis,” Craft explains. “Nashville is only four hours away so it’s easy to oversee, and the population is exploding. There are a lot of awesome restaurants in Nashville, but none like Pastaria that shoot for everyday dining and welcome families and college students. We’re exploring other markets too.”
Craft adds that he’s not currently planning to debut any new concepts in the near future, though expansion can’t be ruled out given his current level of success. The chef notes that he likes to take on new opportunities when he can and says his focus is on approachable dining. “Our original restaurant, Niche, started to evolve to the higher-end, but since closing it we’ve come back a little closer to our roots to be more accessible and serve really great food that’s unique and at prices people can afford,” Craft explains. “I had no intention of growing, but once we started opening other restaurants, it taught us a lot about business and gave us new opportunities.”
Kelling adds that Niche Food Group is well positioned for today’s dining trends. “There will always be a place for higher-end restaurants, but people today want to be more comfortable and don’t want to feel intimidated or that they have to be polished to match a restaurant’s staff,” he says. “People want to be comfortable, but they recognize quality. They want to be in a beautiful room and have a high-quality meal and nice beverage offerings without breaking the bank. That’s where dining is going.”