He drinks neither booze nor coffee, but Troy Williams wants to sell both. In four short years since moving back to St. Louis from Atlanta, the 32-year-old Williams has set out on a course that would exhaust most people. He opened the popular jazz bar Troy’s on the Park, across from Lafayette Park, as well as the new Breakfast Tools, open since November, tucked quietly away in the mix of tidy brick homes and small storefront shops of the Lindenwood neighborhood of South St. Louis.
But that, it seems, isn’t the half of it. The jazz club is closed, for the time being, at least — Williams says he’s trying to move it to a better location. He’s also, he reports, putting the finishing touches on a crêpe café slated to open on Lindell in the Central West End and has acquired space for a coffee/pastry café in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood. And he’s planning a coffee club on Washington Avenue. “By the end of the year I’ll have” — a long pause as he counts his dreams — “four cafés, the bar, and I’m still working on deal for an art gallery,” Williams says. “There are no black-owned art galleries in St. Louis, and that’s pretty sad.” Almost as an afterthought, he adds that he’s also launching a jazz-record label, Troy Sound, and building a recording studio on Washington Avenue. Not even Blake Brokaw, the hyperactive powerhouse behind Tangerine, the Chocolate Bar and the now-shuttered Hungry Buddha, had this many plates spinning in the air.
Williams hadn't planned on getting into the café/bar business when he moved back home. He says he opened Troy's on the Park in 1999 after a bad experience at a jazz bar that he says was racially based. "I know it's a bad reason [to open a business], but it's reality," he says.
Of course, all the entrepreneurial spirit in the world won't get you anywhere unless you're selling a good product that people want -- like, say, homemade fluffy pancakes with a hint of spice, big omelettes and biscuits and gravy like Mom used to make. Mom, in this case, is the vibrant Arletha, who can be found taking orders at the counter, flipping pancakes, frying eggs and running plates to the diners sitting at Breakfast Tools' six tables.
Like the rest of the establishment's interior, those tables are handmade: basic jigsaw-cut plywood tops painted black and attached to stands. The rest of the small space -- a former neighborhood beauty shop -- was designed and constructed by Williams, who obtained an associate's degree in commercial art from St. Louis Community College before leaving for the South (he pursued a degree in marketing at Alabama's Talladega College but soon moved to Atlanta, where he spent seven years working for Home Depot and doing modeling on the side). With its big-striped, color-washed walls (Williams: "The paint was a mistake, but it turned out better than I thought"), exposed-conduit lighting and stuffed burlap coffee sacks hanging around, Breakfast Tools has a funky, contemporary style that's upscale yet comfy enough for this residential neighborhood. "It's a trip now, because I'm getting a fluctuation of young city-ites who are finding out about it," Williams reports. "Me being African-American in a predominately white neighborhood is a story in itself. The support has been phenomenal."
Williams came up with the restaurant's quirky moniker because he wanted a place where you could build your own breakfast, where you could get a hearty meal. You order at the counter, where your choices are spelled out on the blackboard: pancakes, French toast, biscuits and gravy, omelettes, muffins. Ask for coffee, and you're handed a huge white mug you fill yourself from one of several pump carafes. Espresso drinks (hot and cold) and teas are served as well.
To the foggy-headed, breakfast is something you fill your gut with to get you through until lunch, by which time things have (ideally) become a bit clearer -- which is probably why so much of what passes for breakfast is mediocre and bland. But to those who love a big breakfast, biting into a piece of French toast spiked with cinnamon or chomping on a slice of bacon that isn't paper-thin and greasy is the way to start the day. Just the sound of eggs' being whisked is comforting.
Someone once said there are 422 ways to cook an egg. If that's true, Breakfast Tools, with its pair of apartment-size four-burner stoves and mix-and-match assortment of pans, isn't going to come close. But who needs coddling or poaching when you can get a fluffy two-egg omelette with your choice of fillings (seventeen in all) for less than five bucks? Add a few thick slices of bacon or spiced potato wedges for $1.50 each. Biscuits and gravy ($2.95, or $5.95 with bacon and potatoes), the most popular breakfast item at Breakfast Tools, is a simple pleasure that too often is served up as a gummy, flavorless mass of slop. Mom's version is creamy and chock-full of sausage and white pepper.
Pastries and muffins, delivered from a local bakery, are satisfactory, though on one visit the poppyseed muffins were too dry. Any oversights -- a forgotten order of bacon, undertoasted toast -- are quickly rectified. With room for just 24 patrons at a half-dozen tables, the small staff can easily make the rounds.
Despite its name, Breakfast Tools also serves lunch, with offerings ranging from sandwiches to salads and soups. House-made chicken- and tuna-salad sandwiches are thick with filling, and the tuna salad is flavored with chopped walnuts (not celery) for added crunch. A classic smoked-turkey club is improved upon with the use of baby spinach leaves rather than the customary watery iceberg lettuce. And Mom makes the brownies big and chocolaty -- well worth saving room for.
Williams says he'll be busy for the next couple of years. "My goal is to show everybody that you can do more than one thing," he says. "In the end, when I go to sleep at night, I can say you can be anything you want to be if you believe in yourself and just do it."
That may sound trite, but Williams seems genuinely passionate about his growing café empire. And it's good to know he actually finds time to sleep.