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Hangin’ With Klecko: Advice about Hiring Cooks from a Pro

In addition to being a fashionable suburb, Shoreview serves as the northern boundary of my bread empire. I’ve always had the mindset that before you expand your kingdom, it’s smart to circle the perimeter first, to find out if your foundation is solid enough to expand.

That’s what I was doing when I drove past a strip mall and noticed that the long tenured Meister’s bar was gone.

Meister’s threw down an interesting vibe. The couple of times I’d been there it seemed to be packed with bikers who talked about motorcycles and stock portfolios.

Now the place was called Shore 96.

Abbott J. Gould keeps a calm kitchen at Shore 96.

My curiosity pulled me over and I stepped in. The first thing that got my attention was the space had been remodeled. I really liked the new aesthetic. When I asked a server if I could talk with the manager, she escorted me to Scott Mars (part of the Half Time Rec ownership) and his executive chef, Abbott Gould.

Scott introduced me to Abbott and mentioned that he first hired him to help run Half Time Rec and was so impressed that when the opportunity to open Shore 96 presented itself, he wouldn’t sign the lease unless Abbott agreed to come aboard.

The place was packed and I apologized for dropping in unannounced, so I asked if I could come back at a more convenient time.

On the day of my return, I crept toward the line where I found Abbott cooking alongside two women. When he saw me, he smiled, cleaned himself and his station, and led me out to the dining room where we camped out in a corner booth.

As one of the servers handed me a Diet Coke, I reminded my host of his employer's comment about not opening the restaurant unless he (Abbott) was willing to be quarterback.

 Abbott answered: “Yeah, I was flattered and appreciative for his persistence. At the time when he first asked me, I had some things going on, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t want to take on something like this unless I felt ready.”

“So what changed?” I asked.

“I guess a few things, but most importantly, I began to realize this was a long-term opportunity for a lot of people. Scott and his wife live just down the street. They have a young family and it just makes sense that they’d want to grow this and turn it into something special.”

At this point, one of the cooks interrupted to ask a question about inventory. When she left, I asked: “What’s up with the female cooks? Both times I’ve been here you’ve been the only guy on the line. Is that intentional?”

Abbott responded: “Yes and no. When we opened, I only kept on one of the cooks from Meister’s, not because she was a woman, but because she was good. I guess I’m not as inclined to go after cooks with five- to-10-years' experience, they do things their way. I’m looking for people who will plug into our system, and sometime the best way to do that is train them yourself.”

Then Abbott paused a second, and reloaded before finishing his thought: “I’m a fan of running ads. The most important thing I can say to convince people to consider working here is that I run a calm kitchen. When people apply, I’m not looking at gender as much as ability to remain calm. I’ve worked in angry kitchens, and I’ve made servers cry. It didn’t take me long to figure out that angry kitchens don’t do as well.”

When I asked if there was anyone in particular who taught him that, without flinching he rattled off a list: “My first cooking job was at Keys Café, where I was lucky enough to work with the owner, Barb Hunn. One of the things that impressed me was that she never yelled. Sometimes she raised her voice, but she never yelled. She always kept control of her kitchen. In fact, when we had our soft opening, Barb showed up and that meant a lot to me.”

Abbott continued: “Philip Dorwart is another one. Ask anyone who’s worked at Table of Contents, they’ll tell you how great he is to work for. And JP Samuelson. That guy’s a pro. I was with him for brief periods at Solera and Bistro.”

Next I mentioned how city kitchens were having trouble finding staff, and asked if the suburbs were experiencing the same thing. I really like the direction Abbott took this: 

“Sure, everybody is looking, but like I said earlier. You’re in a better position when you train new talent. If you teach them well and keep them happy, you won’t need to hire anymore. One of the things I like to emphasize to new hires is to think like cooks, not chefs. That comes much later in the game.”

“How long did it take you?” I asked, and that’s when Abbott’s grin went ear to ear before answering: “There was a couple of times that restaurant owners called me chef, because it was in their best interest, but you got to be careful. If you give somebody that label too soon, it can be a hindrance. The time I felt like it really meant something was when I worked part time at Tilia. I don’t remember what led up to my conversation with Steven Brown, but I do remember when he called me chef, I felt conformation.”

At this point customers were filing in and I knew my time was almost up, so I asked if there was anything left that Abbott had to do, to be where he wanted to be.

“I’m feeling pretty good. I’m surrounded by a strong crew, but if there’s one thing I’d like to improve on it’s morale building. I worked with a front-of-the-house guy at Nighthawks named Andrew. This guy was fantastic. In addition to making our customers feel special, he would go shopping on his own time and find place settings for the bar. Another time he kidnapped our resident Tori Hunter bobblehead and left Polaroids and ransom notes for the crew. A personality like that can be priceless in this industry. I wouldn’t mind being a bit more like him.”

As we stood up and began to say goodbye, I was embarrassed because I’d forgotten to ask the question I came to ask: “I’ve noticed that in your neighborhood, you have to compete against chains and franchises. Do you have a strategy for that?”

Abbott began tying his apron and chuckled while answering, “Isn’t it Kerouac who said, ‘Buddha says ignore all the other Buddhas?’ I think if we remember that, we’ll do OK.”

As I pulled out of the parking lot and steered the bread truck toward Metropolis, I couldn’t help thinking of how much I liked Abbott Gould.

This guy’s the real deal. 

Dan “Klecko” McGleno is the CEO at Saint Agnes Baking Company in St. Paul and can be reached electronically at kleckobread@gmail.com, at the office at 651-290-7633, or on his cellular device at 651-329-4321.

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