COURTESY PAPPY'S SMOKEHOUSE
John Matthews keeps pushing forward even in the midst of the chaos of 2020.
Like everyone in the restaurant business, Pappy's Smokehouse (3106 Olive Street, 314-535-4340)
co-founder and owner John Matthews has been weathering the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic since March, wondering when things will get better and just hoping to survive. Finally, he reached the point where he knew he needed to take matters into his own hands.
"I thought in March that by July 4th, things would get better, and in July, surely by August," Matthews says. "I realized I had to figure it out, that I'd rather control my own future and make decisions about how things are going to play out. I'd rather make up my own game than play by somebody else's."
That instinct to take matters into his own hands was the catalyst for Matthews' newest restaurant venture, the second location of Pappy's in St. Charles. As he explains, the decision to open another Pappy's in the midst of a pandemic was one he came to after realizing that there was a large customer base in St. Charles County, many who would regularly travel into St. Louis to visit the Midtown smokehouse. With the help of two of his regular patrons who lived across the river, he scouted locations and settled on a spot right near Mid Rivers Mall, planning to open sometime in October.
For Matthews, opening a second Pappy's has given him time to reflect on the last twelve years. Before opening the smokehouse with Mike Emerson and Skip Steele in 2008, Matthews worked in commercial printing and real estate, and got into barbecue as a hobby. Eventually, that hobby took him to the competition circuit, which led to a reckoning about the next step in his life.
"I remember Mike [Emerson] and I were sitting in the Crestwood Rich & Charlie's complaining about work," Matthews recalls. "We just said to each other, 'What about barbecue? I bet we can sell that.' The next thing, Mike got in touch with Skip Steele, and we started putting it together. Who would've thought that we'd win Best New Restaurant that year, Best Barbecue in our second year, Best Service at a place where people are eating out of plastic containers I built in the parking lot?"
Though Matthews is proud of the barbecue he and his team produces, he feels that the secret to Pappy's longevity is found in that commitment to service — something that might seem at odds with what you'd expect from a casual, counter-service smokehouse.
"We took notes from Danny Meyer, who's a St. Louis boy, and his philosophy of enlightened hospitality," Matthews explains. "It comes down to that whenever somebody comes down to your restaurant, you engage them, have fun with them and make them feel welcome that they came. You want them to walk out saying, 'I could've gone to a lot of places, but I'm glad I went here.'"
Matthews plans on carrying that ethos forward to the forthcoming Pappy's, but he's also hopeful that a commitment to service will sustain his peers in the industry as they weather the COVID-19 storm. An industry veteran, Matthews is concerned for his colleagues in the business, especially those on the fine-dining side of things. He's also not shy about admitting the financial difficulties that restaurants face as Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money dries up, feeling that restaurants are being left to fend for themselves in an impossibly difficult environment.
Still, he hasn't lost hope.
"The problem now is that the PPP money has run out and you are treading water on your own," Matthews says. "For the most part, restaurants are only at 30 to 50 percent of their usual volume, and it doesn't help that nobody is working in the city and there are no Cardinals fans downtown. Everybody in hospitality is feeling everything we are, but I think that people who are super smart and work hard will do well. I'm hopeful for everyone. Hopefully, we can get to the sanity of it."
Matthews took a break from the smoker to share more of his thoughts on the current state of affairs in the hospitality industry, the important routine that keeps him sane and what gives him hope, even in such challenging times.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
I rehabbed homes and did remodeling for years before taking barbecue to a commercial level at Pappy’s. I have some solid construction, plumbing and electrical experience and am a wizard on a tile saw.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
To be able to fly.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Garlic — good on almost everything that’s not a dessert.
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
I get up and go to bed at relatively the same time. Maybe age has something to do with it, but it provides some structure for me.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
Ice cream. I just got turned on to a guy who makes his own gooey butter cake ice cream — AMAZING!
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
My fiancé, Amy — we did great in March and April. My buddy Scott — been friends for almost 40 years. And my father. And while we’re at it, my golden retriever, and let’s do this at our farm in Osage County.
What would be your last meal on earth?
That’s a moving target. Right now, I’ll say a pide or ćevapi from Balkan Treat Box.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
I think the fine dining scene will be the last to come back. Having a waiter, a sommelier and bus people will be reduced to one person for a while.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
In my experience, I've realized that 95 percent of people are generally good people and that those calm, cool heads will prevail in the end.
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