NICOLE GALLI MOHLER
He started at McDonald's and spent lots of time at Panera. Now he's CEO of St. Louis' most-loved chain.
Long before being recruited to lead the pack as CEO at Lion's Choice
, before helping to oversee Panera's exponential growth and before his studies at the Wharton School and MIT became a reality, Michael "Kup" Kupstas was just a kid who fell in love with food.
"My mother was a wonderful cook. She could create wonderful dishes out of the things most people would toss out," Kupstas explains. "My brothers and I started watching her at an early age. It's where I learned the importance of creativity in the kitchen."
For Kupstas, the meals of his youth were celebratory events, even those that didn't fall on special occasions. Every Sunday, the family would gather for a 1 p.m. meal — "The Meal," as he calls it. Loved ones would engage in robust conversation over what seemed like a feast.
As soon as he was old enough to get a job, Kupstas looked to the restaurant business, landing a gig at McDonald's, where he ultimately became one of the chain's prestigious brand ambassadors. "I was an All-American Bun Boy," Kupstas laughs at the title. "It was a competition to see who could toast the best buns — you know, get that perfect caramelization."
Kupstas put himself through school by cooking at McDonald's and bartending at a pub. He'd planned on graduating with a marketing degree and getting a high-profile job outside of the restaurant industry, but he soon realized that wasn't the way things worked. "I realized that people don't get hired straight out of college for those 'great marketing careers,'" Kupstas says. "So I went back to what I knew."
What he knew was food. So Kupstas began his post-collegiate career working for the General Mills restaurant group, first for its Betty Crocker Pie Shop concept on the East Coast, then relocating to Minneapolis to help the brand develop its Nature Valley granola bars. From there, he went on to work in menu planning and strategic marketing for Red Lobster and Long John Silver's until he saw an opportunity with a relatively small company looking to expand.
That company was Panera Bread. Under Kupstas' leadership as senior vice-president and chief franchise officer, the brand (known locally as Saint Louis Bread Company) grew from 52 to 1,600 locations across the country.
All the while working for large, national chains, however, Kupstas retained his passion for food at the personal level. He built a pizza oven in his backyard, formed a competitive barbecue team called the Wizards of Hog and even wrote a cookbook with his brother-in-law, Boys That Cook for the Ones They Love.
Kupstas left Panera in 2012 to open the upscale bistro Forks in the Air in Rangeley, Maine. His retirement was short-lived. He soon found himself partnering with Katie Lee and Ted Collier as they were about to launch their wildly successful Katie's Pizza and Pasta. "We started out just chatting, but after a few months, we decided to do something together," Kupstas explains. "I began helping them right after they signed the Rock Hill lease and we've been partners for almost four years now."
Kupstas was content in his post-corporate life. But then the newly minted chief operating officer of Lion's Choice, Becky Fine, came calling. A longtime colleague of Kupstas from his days at Panera, Fine wanted Kupstas to join the leadership team of the St. Louis-based roast beef restaurant as it looks toward its future and eyes possible expansion.
Though he was at first hesitant to get out of semi-retirement, Kupstas couldn't say no. "Here is this 50-year-old brand that has this fanatical customer base, and it seemed to represent everything that food means to me," Kupstas explains. "This place is about memories as much as it is about the food. It's so much more about a transactional way of feeding people. Everyone has a story about the place and their own special order. We have grandchildren coming in telling stories about their grandparents' memories. It's unbelievable to hear." On May 31, the 25-restaurant chain announced his selection as its CEO.
Though Kupstas won't discuss whether Lion's Choice has plans for a national expansion, he admits that the chain is reviewing its options while remaining fiercely committed to honoring its legacy.
"I feel humbled to be able to steer the brand into the next decade while respecting everything it means to people," Kupstas says. "Food is my life. I've been fortunate enough to find all these different ways to use that in a way to influence people's lives."
Kupstas took a break from preparing his signature order — a regular roast beef sandwich with extra seasoning, horseradish and a side of au jus — to share his thoughts on the St. Louis restaurant community, his love of Big Macs and bourbon and why there's no business like the restaurant business.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I co-authored a cookbook, Boys that Cook for the Ones They Love. It’s full of short stories and recipes from guys who enjoy preparing food for family and friends.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
My mornings. Take the dog out, head to the Center of Clayton for a workout, coffee times two.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I’d blink, snap my fingers and instantly end hunger in the world.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
Finally seeing the recognition of St. Louis chefs and restaurants on a national scale.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
Affordable and accessible local and sustainable foods.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Lion's Choice’s original roast beef with extra seasoning, horseradish, au jus on the side, please. Or Pappy’s ribs.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
Katie Collier of Katie's Pizza and Pasta. She’s one of the most talented and creative people in the food world that I know.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Smoke (especially from fruit woods). Maybe in that I’m distinctive and slightly sweet, while at the same time, you’ll know when I present.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
Is there another business?
Name an ingredient never allowed in your kitchen.
Provel cheese. I respect the history and the role it plays in St Louis, but it’s really not for me.
What is your after-work hangout?
I’m on the couch with my wife and our labradoodle.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Big Macs and great bourbons…. though I don’t think I’ve ever had those together… um.
What would be your last meal on earth?
Lobster five ways!
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