Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Matt Marcus of Eatsie Boys & 8th Wonder Brewery

Back in 2012, the Houston Press did a Chef Chat with Matt Marcus of Eatsie Boys, but much has changed since then. At the time, they were still working exclusively from their food truck, mostly in front of Agora coffee shop.

These days, Marcus and his business partners, Ryan Soroka and Alex Vassilakidis, have a whole lot more to keep up with. The original Intergalactic Food Truck has been sold, but there's a solid gold one now. You can usually find it parked next to their brewery, 8th Wonder. Fortunately, their primary restaurant is not on wheels. It's now Eatsie Boys cafe at 4100 Montrose.

In Part 1 of our new Chef Chat with Matt Marcus, we dive right into the present and talk about some of the pressing issues of Houston's food scene. Why does it seem to be harder to run a food truck these days? Also, why are so many restaurateurs complaining that they can't find servers or kitchen help these days? We delve into these questions and more.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2, where Marcus will tell us about a longtime friendship and all about Eatsie Boys' food.

EOW: First, introduce yourself to our Houston Press readers. Who are you and what do you do?

MM: My name is Matt Marcus, born and raised in Houston, Texas. We started Eatsie Boys in 2010 with the little, tiny food trailer, and we blossomed into a brick-and-mortar and multiple food trucks. We've started 8th Wonder Brewery as well. It's our craft brewery in East Downtown. We're in 160 bars and restaurants around town, and we make some of Houston's best beer.

EOW: 8th Wonder Beers are at 160 restaurants around town now?

MM: That's correct. Well, Austin and Dallas as well.

EOW: Wow. Your production must have just ramped up like crazy.

MM: Yeah. Probably about six months ago, we doubled the size of the brewery as well as we took over another portion of the warehouse that we're in and we opened up a tap room. It's basically a tasting room that anybody can come to seven days a week and taste any of our beers. Our food truck's there as well.

EOW: That is wonderful. I recently had the chili from the food truck outside, and it was terrific. I think it was bison chili.

MM: Yeah. We have a lot of our standards that made Eatsie Boys famous. So the truck and the meat have an amazing chef that I work with. He does his own thing and he does awesome specials for the brewery.

EOW: Wonderful. Well, Mai Pham did a three-part chef chat series with you in 2012. At the time you didn't have a brewery and you didn't have a brick-and-mortar restaurant. You still just had the food truck. Tell me the nickname of the food truck.

MM: The Intergalactic Food Truck! Yeah, we were [parking] at Agora at the time in 2012 and also doing these pop-up dinners at Grand Prize [Bar]. We've come a long way since then. We were at the point when were just about to open the cafe. The cafe has been going strong now for almost three years. The brewery is full steam ahead as well.

EOW: I'm going to have you step me through the story. Just pick up exactly where you left off. So, you were still doing these pop-up dinners at Grand Prize and you still had the truck. The restaurant was under construction still. Tell me the story of how the construction went, how did the permitting go and the time for permitting.

MM: We were lucky enough that [the cafe] was a beautiful building that already had a lot of the city's regulations in place. We were kind of grandfathered into the craftsman stuff, but other than that, we did everything organically. We didn't raise any funding. We did everything bootstrap through our food truck. It took us a little while to get that funding together, but we did it, and that's why it kind of took us a little longer to open this place. We worked with family members and people that we like to work with to help us design the place. That's how we got here.

EOW: You come from a food family. Your dad has The Grateful Bread and he's got the stand at the Urban Harvest Farmer's Market on Eastside every Saturday. He makes some of the best cured bacon I've ever had in my life. Did that influence you?

MM: Yeah, for sure. I've always been raised in a family that's centralized [around] food. I'm Jewish, and I feel like the culture of Judaism has a lot of food behind it as well. Like, different ceremonial foods -- what we eat on Passover and different holidays and stuff. I was always raised around that and had two grandmothers who loved to cook. I started the Grateful Bread. A lot of people don't know my dad took it over.

EOW: Really? No, I did not know that.

MM: Yeah. My dad took it over and he just saw a lot of value in what I was doing. So he kind of made it what it is today. He's making some of the best bacon in Texas. He's also producing our sausages that we use in-house here [at Eatsie Boys]. Nobody's better than my dad to make it for us.

EOW: When was the grand opening here at Eatsie Boys cafe?

MM: It was in January 2013.

EOW: What was it like?

MM: Our first six months was a madhouse. We had issues with ordering and running out of stuff. We quickly fixed that. Once all the press died down, we got into a better rhythm here and we learned how to run this place properly. The first six months, though, were very crazy. Between training staff, losing staff, learning about what to order and what to have on hand here, it took us a little while.

EOW: You mentioned staff, and I hope you don't mind, but this might be a good point to discuss a hot-button issue in the Houston restaurant community right now. I'm hearing from chefs all the time how hard it is to get staff right now.

MM: It is. It's extremely hard to get staff right now. I'm lucky enough to have a staff that's been with us for a long time. I treat them with respect and they do exactly what I need. But my needs are for a sandwich shop. Some of the great restaurants in town are having problems finding skilled labor.

That being said, I find that cooks these days that are coming out of culinary school aren't spending the time that we once did training ourselves. I spent almost three years staging at different restaurants with my nose to the ground. I never thought that I deserved anything. I thought that I was just there to cook and to learn. It feels like a lot of new cooks these days, along with kids coming out of culinary school, aren't really taking that in perspective. They think they can leave culinary school and just be the head of a restaurant.

EOW: I've heard that, too. I've heard a lot of just-graduating culinary students have this sense of entitlement that they're all ready to have their Food Network show or something.

MM: Yeah. I graduated from culinary school in 2003 and ever since I left school, I never stopped my pursuit of knowledge. I think that's one of the biggest things that a lot of cooks these days aren't about. It's a craft and it's something that you have to hone. You can't just do it overnight. It takes a long time.

EOW: Do you think this is maybe a little bit of a backlash because for probably 15 years now, people have been watching these shows where people compete, like The Next Food Network Star or whatever. So now people think, "Hey, this is like a game that I can win and I can win my own restaurant."

MM: Absolutely. Making food is probably my easiest part of the day. Making something taste delicious is pretty easy for certain people. But I think running a successful business is much harder than just cooking some food, and that goes hand-in-hand with running a successful restaurant.

EOW: Who are your partners?

MM: My two partners are Alex Vassilakidis and Ryan Soroka. We were high school chums back in the day, and fortunes crossed our paths. We met each other again, right before the food truck kicked off in 2009. They approached me that they wanted to start something new in Houston. There were very few trucks at the time, so we hopped on it.

EOW: You're equally involved in each place, the brewery and the restaurant, so you're in a unique position to be able to talk about what's happened with gourmet food trucks over the past couple of years. Everyone was talking about food trucks back in 2012 and 2013. Something's happened over the past year and a half. What's going on?

MM: It's just like any other trend. The people with strong roots in the trend will always make it through, as long as they're persistent with it. But there's a huge trend going on right now. Even today, there are new trends opening every day that I've never seen before. When we started, I remember being like, "Wow, there's 20 trucks!"

Now there are almost 250 gourmet trucks. There are over 1,500 trucks in the city of Houston. But to have these gourmet trucks in -- It all has to do with saturation. We're not in a city like Austin or Portland where we have a lot of walking traffic that are able to support that kind of community. So here, the trucks now have to find a spot that they can stick to and run it out there, or they need to [cater] parties at different locations and stuff like that. It's much more cutthroat.

We were very lucky to establish a brand and then also establish a place where people always know where to find us seven days a week. Also, I think that one of the big problems with the trucks today is they're not putting in the work and the grind for people to see them there.

EOW: You have the advantage that you have a brewery and stationary location to be at.

MM: Very lucky, yeah. It's a symbiotic relationship. The laws of Texas are such that we're a distributor of beer, so we kind of create our brew pub on-site with a food truck.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook