The Eatsie Boys have come a long way from selling gourmet sandwiches from a colorful bus in front of Agora, with the speakers blasting Beastie Boys songs (some of which inspired the names of the dishes). Since they launched the food truck in 2010, Matt Marcus, Ryan Soroka and Alex Vassilakidis have expanded to open a cafe in Montrose, 8 Wonder Brewery and a successful ice cream line, all while maintaining the humility and personality that made the hometown guys so popular. In this One Year In interview, we chatted with Soroka and Marcus about their first year with the cafe.
There was recently some controversy on when exactly you all opened. Was it December or January?
Ryan: The whole December versus January thing, it's more akin to, our single dropped in December, but our album really dropped in January.
With everything the three of you have going on, have you all stayed in your own little corners, each managing an individual project?
Ryan: We all wear multiple hats. Seasonally and cyclically, we spend our own
individual time focusing on one area, but then something will ramp up and one person will shift to another.
Matt: Just this morning we said, we're about to change our menu on Monday, and we're all working together to get the food costs done and make sure that the layout of the menu is correct. We decided that this thing [the cafe] is working very well for us, and we want to focus on details in this year.
Ryan: It's a well-oiled machine, and now it's time to tune it, and make sure that cost controls are down, that our scheduling is perfect, that our menu and what we're offering is a good balance and variety of things. We're still really breakfast focused, lunch focused and coffee focused, but we're going to make a big push to PM traffic and to get evening diners in here. So we'll be slowly implementing plated specials in the evening.
What didn't go as planned in your first year that you're going to change up this year?
Ryan: Well we changed our hours twice in the first year. It took us a little while to figure out what the neighborhood is like here, what the traffic and flow was going to be like.
Matt: I think we stayed open the first three months until like, midnight or something crazy like that.
Ryan: Yeah, so we found our sweet spot with our operation, and then we introduced brunch within a few months of being open and really went full stride into brunch. Brunch is great for us. It's packed all the time.
Did you anticipate that the brunch would do as well as it has?
Matt: Well we wanted to bring something new. I know it sometimes can be frustrating that we change our menu, but we want to keep it fresh for our staff and for our customers. We try to change up the menu every week, and it's fun.
Ryan: Right, we have the standard menu Monday through Saturday, and Sundays are our chance to showcase Matt and the other chefs, and they do something fun and fresh every Sunday. But back to your question: So we did hours of operation changes, we implemented a brunch, we did some menu changes on the fly—saw things that maybe didn't go over as well as we thought they would, or retract and be like, whoa this thing is selling way better than we expected.
[Gary R Wise]
Matt: We've gone through three menu changes in the past year.
Ryan: And coffee is a brand new game to us. We don't come from a coffee background, so that's been a program that's grown and we're learning. And I take pride in making as tasty a cappuccino as I can make. We work closely with David [Buehrer] at Greenway, and they've been helped us build our coffee program here.
That might be newer to you because you were in a food truck before, and now you have the space for that sort of thing. Speaking of which, you were one of the first food trucks to go brick and mortar, how was that transition for you? Did you have help from others? Have you helped others go brick and mortar now?
Matt: We're always an open door to any food truckers or anyone in the industry. We've learned and grown from so many different people.
Ryan: We've never been shy from saying that when we opened there were people who helped us along the way. Oh My Pocket Pies, H-Town Streats, Fusion Taco at that time, and Bernie's. There were only a handful of us [food trucks] then, and we got a lot of good advice from those people. And as we grew in the food truck scene, we helped out a lot of trucks with any questions they had. And when we opened here, there were a lot of industry people who we leaned on, who gave us great advice. Ziggy [Gruber] from Kenny & Ziggy's—
Matt: He was a big help to us.
Ryan: And Seth Siegel-Gardner, Josh Martinez. People with some serious industry chops who came and give us their two cents.
Matt: Everybody that we could, we'd try to bring over. And it was really cool that everyone would come over.
Ryan: And in turn, I think we've reciprocated that to other food trucks that are going brick and mortar.
What's it like for you as a chef to now have a permanent kitchen compared to working from the truck?
Matt: It's completely changed my day-to-day. When we started, it was me doing the prep and working on the truck a lot. Now we have a full staff, a lot of them went to Le Notre.
Ryan: Yeah, we have a staff that's talented, hard working and passionate. We're also proud we have a low turnover. This industry is notorious for losing staff, and we've held on to the bulk of our crew this year. And we're lucky for that.
What's been your biggest accomplishment with the cafe this year?
Matt: Being open for a year.
Ryan: We built this with our bare hands, so we don't have the budget or resources to have a high-end architectural consulting firm come in. We put blood, sweat and tears into this place, and yeah it's funky, yeah it's weird, but it's 100-percent Eatsie Boys. And it's the three of us, and our parents helped, and our friends came in. And we put this place together, and I'm proud of that. That was a really great learning experience.
Matt: The Matzah Ball Pho, that was a culinary enlightenment to me.
Ryan: Up-and-Coming Chef of the Year. Top 100 Restaurants was probably it for me; that was such an honor. I think also, the relationships that we're building with other people in this industry is really rewarding. It's truly a community, and there's a great scene going on here in Houston. Everyone really supports each other and goes to each other's establishments, and really cross promotes. It's fun to be a part of that.
What are the biggest lessons you've learned in the last year? Any surprises?
Ryan: This is not a glamorous lifestyle. We work eight days a week. We love it, but every day is a long, hard day. It's rewarding. Everyone wants to open up a restaurant, and for good reason, there's a lot of allure and fun, but I've learned that there's a lot that goes on behind the scenes to make a restaurant function.
Matt: I mean, there are many things that I've learned.
Ryan: Purchasing, staffing, scheduling, food costing, menu development.
Matt: Yeah, we learned a lot on the fly here that nobody taught us, besides what we learned in school.
Ryan: Yeah, but that's all textbook stuff, really applying that in the real world is...
Matt: Applying that is important. And customer interaction. The food truck was one thing dealing with customers, but this is a completely different level here. We get three times as many people here as we did with the food truck in one day. And learning customer interaction has been important and fun.
What other big changes do you see for the cafe in the next year. What do you see for the future?
Matt: We're going to try to bring in fork-and-knife options. Hopefully this year we want to bring in some friends and do some pop-up dinners, and fine-tune this place. And plot what we're going to do next. We're always doing that.
Are you considering opening a second cafe anywhere?
Ryan: We've looked at a few spaces, and I think we've pumped the breaks a little bit for 2014, and we want to focus on this place. It's only year one, we can't really get too far ahead of ourselves.
Matt: And the brewery, too. That's been open a year, too.
Ryan: Well our first brew was in February , so we're pushing a year there. And the ice cream. We sell a lot of ice cream, like a lot of ice cream, so we are going to focus some efforts on growing that little sub-business of Eatsie Boys.
Matt: That's something that just changed recently, is we brought in pints.
Ryan: Yeah, pints to-go for takeout. And we're BYOB, we're going to really do some things to push that element here. Whether that's plated specials, whether that's just some fun things to get the BYOB program going and get some 8th Wonder in here. It's weird because Eatsie Boys was started in 2010, the food truck thing we only did two years of it, the cafe's been a year and sometimes I think it just happened yesterday.
You maintained that momentum.
Ryan: Yes, right.
Is there anything else you want to say that I haven't touched on?
Ryan: We love Montrose; this neighborhood's been great to us. There are a lot of exciting things happening in our city, and it's been fun to be a part of that, even in the smallest way.