Smile Politely

A restaurant by any other name

Last Monday night — the 4th of July — bacaro’s Facebook lit up like fireworks at 9:46 p.m. with this message: “If you would like to follow the progress of our new project, Carmon’s Bistro. Please friend our page. We will be posting pictures, menu ideas, and previews to the beverage list.”

At 9:51 p.m., ol’ John Steinbacher was likely just finishing up his last bite of Custard Cup when he posted that very bit of information to the SPlog.

Ever since then, we’d been wanting to ask the man behind the new “new” Carmon’s just what the deal is, what we can expect from it, and when the doors will likely open.

For those of you looking for a small history of the storied venue, this simply won’t be the article you are looking for. At a later date, around the opening, check back for a bit more on that, along with food porn, finished decor, and the like.

But for now, we just wanted to let you all know what we’d found out. If the way the Facebook world responded is any indication, keeping people in this version of Carmon’s isn’t going to be much of an issue.

Smile Politely: Did you like Carmon’s as it was? Did you come here before you bought it?

Thad Morrow: The food was good, but, I mean, you have to look at your market and say, ‘This is not what people really want,’ and we can either change, or not change. I think that was the issue.

SP: We came here a few times, and I remember we once got the Mahi Mahi. It was really good, but it was like $25.95 and it was a pretty small portion; I just never felt full when I’d eat there. It was very good though, no question. But for me, if you want to spend a bill between two people, you want to walk out being like, ‘That was so worth it’… not one sense of regret.

Thad: Exactly.

SP: So what’s the plan?

Thad: The plan is, well the good part is, the build out is — well, it’s done. So all we gotta do is paint it, put in new bar stools, table tops, and chairs. So it’s not cheap, but it’s on a serious budget. The beauty of it is that it can keep the prices quite lower. I like bacaro and I like fine dining, but I also like the opportunity to do something a little more casual that doesn’t involve table clothes, candles, and whatever. So like on Tuesday night you’d want whole roasted trout for like $18 bucks.

SP: Now you’re talkin’…

Thad: At my other place the thing is, it’s really expensive to run, where as this place — less expensive to run, small, 40 seats, easy to handle, smaller staff. The upside is the traffic space, perfect amount of people, and you can do it for cheaper.

SP: Here’s the real question that I have for you: do you think that there’s enough culinary talent in the community to be able to staff this restaurant as well as bacaro? Because Josh (Boyd, sous chef at bacaro) is coming over here, is that right?

Thad: That’s the other thing, I guess that I’m lucky that I have all of these great cooks and they’re all working in the same kitchen, and they need something else to do because I have like too many right now, and I’m like, ‘Shit, now what am I going to do?’ because I don’t want them to go anywhere else. Like, Mike (Miller, chef de cuisine) and Josh — Mike’s been there for a while and is good with everything. Josh is equally as good, and I’m like, ‘That’s dumb,’ because I have two great guys coming into the kitchen.

SP: So, what will the menu look like roughly?

Thad: It won’t be a huge menu, but it will be like seven starters and seven entrees — just classic bistro things — charcuterie plate, house-made charcuterie.

SP: You’re going to continue breaking down hogs there?

Thad: We’re going to do the exact same thing that we do at bacaro, like local, all house-made stuff, just in a more rustic way and there won’t be crazy garnishes or any of that stuff. The stuff that would be bought with a ton of money, we just take that away and use great products and just do it simple, simple, simple.

SP: Lunch?

Thad: No lunch.

SP: Seven days a week?

Thad: Six days a week.

SP: No Sunday?

Thad: No Monday.

SP: What might set it apart from bacaro?

Thad: There will be charcuterie, there will be soup — just think Paris bistros in the modern 1930s. But the prices will be lower, it will be easier for people to come out for dinner, and that was the intention.

SP: So when do you see it opening?

Thad: September. I’m on like a shoestring budget and a super-small time frame.

SP: Ultimately, with the size that it is, and assuming you can pack them in, it will be profitable.

Thad: I think so. We had to look at the numbers and we ran the P and Ls, and we did the business plan, is it going to make money? We’ll see.

SP: What was the turnaround time from Jeff (Mellander, owner of the building, as well as bacaro’s building) approaching you to saying, ‘Yes, I’m going to pull the trigger, post it on facebook, Josh you’re coming over here.’

Thad: Yeah he mentioned it a few months ago that I should think about it, and then I did the business plan, and then we got it running in a couple of weeks.

SP: Did you have this idea in mind before or was it just pure opportunism?

Thad: When I was in Paris a couple of months ago, I thought that was really cool and I love Balthazar, and I always wanted to do a place like this, I just didn’t think it would be here. I was looking at southwest Champaign or somewhere else downtown and this just happened to be the perfect venue.

SP: How much input will Josh have on this menu?

Thad: Pretty much all of it. I have certain requirements of what I want. I want oysters, I want a mirror there with the oyster specials for the night. If you’ve been to Balthazar, it’s like a mini Balthazar. So you get oysters, you get charcuterie, you get hard-boiled eggs at the bar. Come in, get a $3 or $4 glass of wine — boom, boom, boom.

SP: So essentially, you’re going to be able to tap into the people who would maybe like to go to Bacaro, but just can’t do it more than once a month or a few times a year.

Thad: Well yeah, but I mean — I want to do something different. Like if you’re a woodworker, you build a table, then you want to build a chair.

SP: Do you feel like this particular project is going to stretch you to the point where it’s too much?

Thad: It certainly stretches me out a little bit, but I think also that it forces me to be a bit better of a manager and owner, really hands-on. But I also have really great people that I work with and they can do it, I just need to relax and let them do their thing.

SP: So, then, do you think you’re going to be in Champaign-Urbana for a while now? Are you committed, like some of us?

Thad: I think now, yes. My kid is here and I want him to grow up and say that, ‘my dad built cool.’ A lot of the driving force is him. Because otherwise, I don’t think I would have done it. I wanted my dad to be proud of me, but I also want my kid to be proud of me too. So yeah, I’m in. There’s a great ability to get great product here, there’s a growing talent pool, and opening different restaurants is the only way to get that critical mass.

SP: So now that you’re doing another one, isn’t there a part of you that kind of feels like, ‘Hmm, I have other ideas too.’

Thad: Oh I have a full list. I have a book full of ideas, I just didn’t think I’d be doing them here.

Photos by Justine Bursoni

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