Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary (plus or minus a few months).
Estella Erdmann and Nathan Ketcham in the Samba dining room. [Gary R Wise]
Samba Grille started out as a Brazilian steakhouse but has outgrown what co-owner Nathan Ketcham refers to as an "identity crisis," blossoming into a critically acclaimed darling of the upscale dining world. There's still plenty of land grazing animals (as well as fish and fowl) featured on Samba's menu, but just not in the traditional rodizio-style as it began a year ago. Owners Nathan Ketcham and Estella Erdmann reminisce about their naiveté in choosing a location to open in the heart of downtown, explain why the rodizio just didn't work out and tell us what they're most excited about for year number two.
When is your exact year birthday?
NK: August 23rd was the day we opened, September 7th was the grand opening party. So I guess the 23rd is realistically the day.
I know you've been through a lot of changes, can you go through the evolution of your first year?
NK: Do you have 18 hours? EE: Laughing.
So, perhaps just the highlights?
NK: We had this shiny, bright-eyed view of the world of being, "oh, we're in the theater district, they have a really big issue of getting people in and out quickly for meals," so we had experience doing rodizio, which is the meat service, Brazilian steakhouse-style. Her [Erdmann] and her husband owned Guri do Sol in The Woodlands, so very strong experience with that. So, in our minds (because we're incredibly familiar with the concept), it's one of those things: you sit down, you eat a really great meal and you go. We thought, "oh yeah, people will love that." EE: Laughing in the background. NK: It didn't turn out quite that way. Once you tell people that they can eat what they want, they're going to stay for 10 hours.
When did you make the switch from rodizio to just a regular menu?
NK: Originally, when we opened we had the rodizio and just a few a la carte options. Really good options for people wanting seafood and things like that. And then we had to keep adding a la carte options because we had a good portion of people ordering it. So essentially we went from a 75/25 ratio of people ordering rodizio/a la carte and the next month it was less, and then it was less, and less and less?until it got down to virtually nothing and people were raving about the a la carte dishes. Logistically in the back, it was a nightmare trying to handle the two.
How did you two meet?
NK: At her restaurant in The Woodlands. EE: Nathan was our bartender/mixologist and we just realized that we had the same ideas and concepts and thought it would be a great partnership. And so far it's been great.
So Nathan was just bartending one day and was like, "hey, let's open an awesome restaurant downtown, so - let's do it"?
EE: We talked about creating concepts all the time. NK: We had created more of a concept that's closer to what we're doing now to open in The Woodlands. That fell through due to the ridiculous prices in The Woodlands. To open up restaurants there - you might as well open something in Vegas.
What's been your steepest learning curve?
NK: Downtown. All I'd heard about downtown was from 6 - 7 years ago when downtown was a cool, hip place. When we opened [Samba], the movie theater, the Angelika was open [which was also a tenant in the complex that houses Samba Grille] and two days after we opened, it closed. And that was just shocking. We went from having an anchor, a draw, to not. That was a big deal. Within our first year, the movie theater closed, the clubs upstairs closed, the sushi place closed and the Italian place next to us closed.
What are your thoughts on social media?
NK: We have all sorts of people come in that want to do stuff [tweet, etc.], but I've never had anyone insult one of my employees [referencing the Down House incident], so I cannot tell you how I would react in that situation. That's just part of this business. Every guest is a guest.
What are you most excited about looking forward to the next year?
NK: The new menu. I'm really excited about the quality of food that we have and the ideas. Mainly, in my view, business is not where we want it to be nor where we need it to be, part of it being downtown, parking issues, things like that. On top of that, we had kind of an identity crisis for a while and we're trying to show people who we are now. I'm very happy where our food's at and where our ideas are at. EE: The center [where Samba Grille is a tenant], which has a lot that's coming to it, like the Sundance [movie theater], I'm looking forward to that, which will obviously draw more attention here. Coming from the Brazilian steakhouse, that was all I knew, when we first opened Samba, so this has been a really big learning process, but I'm really excited about it and I love it. We're happy with the menu and we can't wait to let it evolve more and see where it goes from there.