New Hampshire restaurateur Chuck Rolecek might not consider himself an artist but ask just about anyone in the Granite State and they’ll tell you his work is sheer genius. From the iconic CR Sparks in Bedford to his masterpiece, Hanover Chop House in Manchester, Chuck Rolecek knows how to create a culinary sensation. He recently “resurrected” the former in Hampton and this loyal fan of all his addresses made a beeline for CR’s Restaurant where I’ve had the pleasure of dining more than once since it opened in November. Chuck graciously agreed to give “The Barking Tomato” a hearty helping of Q and A.
Choate: They say, Chuck, that “3’s the charm” so, how did you approach CR’s conceptually after CR Sparks and Hanover Chop House?
Rolecek: That’s an interesting question, Carolyn. CR Sparks was such a good experience for me; the restaurant was so successful when it closed in 2010 and I had visions of someday resurrecting it. I just didn’t know when – proof by the fact that I put everything in storage. But I also wanted it to reflect 2014 and maybe dining trends or people’s habits, things like that, so there was definitely some thought put into it.
Choate: So four years went by but in between I wanted to harken back to the CR Sparks era, because I truly think that having lived in that time and frequented it often, it really was a revolution of sorts in the restaurant scene in NH at the time. I made a list of those things that I thought made it so: independently owned – not a chain, upscale but accessible, superb menu and service, an extensive focus on events but without that country club or warehouse function feel. To my knowledge you’re not a chef so where did all those ideas come from when you put CR Sparks together?
Rolecek: Well, you’ll have to remember, my first opportunity as a business person, after I had an experience with the airlines – training flight attendants, writing menus, and developing specs back in the ‘70s and ‘80s – I really was a caterer so I really wanted to be a caterer first and foremost. But when you’re an airline caterer, in that era, it would be hard to get a good reputation for people to have a function, their daughter’s wedding, an anniversary, so it was a consultant who actually told me, ‘you better open a restaurant to develop a reputation so you can become a good caterer.’ So that was really the genesis: I wanted to be a caterer but I needed to be a restaurateur first. The way I thought to do it was, we’d have to be a place that served great food, that was good on service so we could shirk all those, you know, late night talk show hosts making jokes about airline food. [Choate laughs] Leno and Letterman, you know. And at times, it wasn’t very good, that was the general consensus for coach food on a Chicago to New York flight. The first class food, Chicago to Honolulu or San Francisco to Hong Kong, was pretty special so that’s where it really came from. I figured the restaurant really had to come out of the box and be unique and make a statement that we can do food and service so when we did get into our catering business and function business a few years later, we had the good reputation.
Choate: I think it would be remiss not to mention at this juncture that fact that you also had a degree from the University of Denver in the hospitality industry.
Rolecek: Yes. I wanted to be in the industry my whole life so I went to school for it and Denver was really good. Denver gave me a business degree as well as the culinary experience and, you know, other schools like CIA in Hyde Park, New York, is more for the culinary school. Chris Veatch, my chef here and also at CR Sparks, went to New England Culinary Institute up in Vermont, so he learned his skills in the test kitchen, I learned it in the classroom and I learned as much about marketing and personnel and business law as I did about hospitality but, it was a pretty good base.
Choate: And that is what you continually hear about today is the success – or not – of the restaurant trades because let’s face it, it’s a hard business to be successful at. It’s not just about the passion for food, you have to have the business acumen to stay in the game.
Rolecek: Absolutely. It’s very challenging and I mean, I feel sorry, there’s very many chefs I’ve run into who want to open their own restaurant but have no financial means and it’s not like the old days where you can present an idea to your local banker and he’ll lend you a couple hundred thousand dollars to start a restaurant or business. There’s a lot of talented people who can’t pull it all together. Even my first restaurant was very difficult to get that financing; a little easier three or four of them down the road but, at the same time, it’s a challenge and you really need a good education. If you don’t get it from working in the business, you better get it in the classroom at some point.
Choate: Within the industry, and after reaching that undeniable rung of success, there’s often the tendency and I know you know this, to outdo one’s self. [Rolecek laughs.] The bigger, the better, the more bodacious. Case in point, Hanover Chop House. Now people I know, who know you, have often told me at the time when you were juggling both, that the Chop House was “your baby.”
Rolecek: I really took that challenge because I thought it was a bigger challenge than even CR Sparks was because it was white table cloths, it was high-end, it was a much smaller – I don’t want to say demographic – it was a much smaller space to work with and the prices were going to be expensive. The cost of meat and shellfish and fine wines was a lot more expensive than the raw ingredients at a CR Sparks. We started out great, Carolyn, and then, ’09 recession kind of hit us in the second or third year we were really up and running and sales plummeted, people stayed away, it was too expensive, it was deemed stuffy, it was deemed a lot of other not-so-nice comments. It took me, to put my nose to the grindstone, after CR Sparks closed and for four years basically, we just worked that place so hard to the point where we got it back to where it needed to be and it’s a very successful place today.
Choate: So you did walk away from CR Sparks. The point being there that, first and foremost, correct me if I’m wrong, you are a businessman and as I recall, a pretty sweet deal came down the road, excuse the pun because it was a Lexus dealership, one that’s there today, who offered you an opportunity to concentrate on the Chop House. Was that an agonizing moment in your restaurant life?
Rolecek: You know, it wasn’t because the intention was, ‘I’m going to re-build across the street.’ It was almost like, it’s time to get a new location and Wayfarer was up for sale and I was looking at that as my potential [site], that would replace the event center for functions; I had a little bit of a tinge to get into the hotel business too and really incorporate another facet of hospitality – lodging along with the two food services ends both functions and restaurant so, I had the intention of taking the check from Lexus and putting a little away for a rainy day but rebuilding CR Sparks at the Macy’s parking lot. If you remember, that was right around 2009, and actually, that was when everything was going down the drain and I couldn’t get a banker to support me or back me; a developer to support or back me.
Choate: That’s pretty hard to believe knowing your track record.
Rolecek: I thought moving an eighth of a mile down the road would be just as successful, people would be in the habit of coming there. So, I had every intention of rebuilding, it was the recession of ’08 – ’09 that forced me to put all the stuff in storage, let’s focus on the Chop House, and, when the time is right, we’ll resurrect CR Sparks. I just didn’t think it would be in Hampton.
Choate: So when did the day dawn that you decided you were ready to resolve yourself of the Chop House and go on to bigger and better things?
Rolecek: That’s an interesting question because I had some aspirations at one point in my latter years of running CR Sparks, I ran so many political events in the function center and in the events center, you know we had the last four presidents had had functions there, an awful lot of other folks at all locals . . .
Choate: [Laughing] I think I covered a few of them. (Referring to her days as political reporter.)
Rolecek: I think you did. So, I was a little enamored of the whole political bug and there was a part of me that said, ‘Why don’t you sell the business? Why don’t you focus on running for an office in the state and we’ll send the message to people that you really want to take this seriously, you’re not going to dabble in it, you’re putting your heart and soul into it.’ And that was really the genesis of selling the restaurant to one of my general managers, Steve Clutter. Then I decided about six months later, I’m not sure I want to do politics but I had already sold the restaurant so I said, okay, new chapter: retirement. But that had like two pages in that chapter. [Laughing.] I’m not sure I enjoy this. It was actually on a vacation in South Carolina in which Chris Veatch, my chef today, came to visit me, we were playing some golf, there was no indication at the beginning of the round of golf that we were going to do a restaurant. [Laughing.]
Choate: [Laughing] How many holes? I gotta ask.
Rolecek: It was about nine, so we were into it for a little bit before I brought it up, “I’m thinking of doing a restaurant.” And a couple of holes later, “I’m thinking of going back to work in New England and maybe with you.” By about the 15th hole, I said, “Let’s finish up golf and have a discussion.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Choate: It’s been less than two months here?
Rolecek: It’s been less than two months. The project started back in June. We decided in February of this year, so a lot has happened since February to today and I think it speaks to the friendship we had in the early days. While Chris was only the chef at CR Sparks for one year, he was a chef of mine for five years. I had hired him in Vermont to manage our catering operation up there which was getting to be fairly large and also, we ended up in the terminal concession business at the Burlington Airport in 1992. So we literally had the entire airport, not just one coffee stand or one restaurant, we had the whole place. I needed someone with Chris’ creativity and energy and things of that nature so he did that for four years before he came down to CR Sparks.
Choate: It’s like creating something from the ground up. You could tweak what didn’t work so great at CR Sparks but I gotta ask, it’s always reinventing itself, this business, and we are truly living in a wireless age, a foodie blog age . . .
Choate: . . . a millennium age. So how do all these outside forces keep you up at night?
Rolecek: They keep me up at night looking at the various social media sites to insure that no one had a bad experience or if they did have a bad experience, they’re not telling the world. You know, 20 years ago when we opened CR Sparks, I did a comment card, I really believed in the comment card in those days because it reminded me of a thing I implemented at the airlines called, “Note to the Chef.” A flight attendant could literally write a note to the chef of whatever kitchen she flew out of and say, “the rolls were a little bit hard” or “they didn’t enjoy the lasagna” or “we didn’t have enough creamers for everybody.” So that immediate communication, back in the day, it was more of a “company mail,” today it would be text or an email. We eventually got to an 800 line or hotline that they could call so, I learned from that. That was a way to fix problems before they got out of hand. So I did the comment card in 1994 and it was such a valuable piece of information. I got a little bit of criticism that it was a little Denny’s-like, because Denny’s used to put the little comment cards, and Friendly’s did, with the crayons and the salt and pepper shakers and people would make their comments, but I felt that that was really innovative at the time and I did it for 20 years. Now, today, when I opened this restaurant, I don’t need to do it. People are already commenting, they’re doing it but, many people are not writing comments but are writing it on Open Table, TravelAdvisor, and . . .
Rolecek: …Yelp and our own website, our own Facebook page, and it’s overwhelming, it’s overwhelming for most operators, you almost need a designated person either in-house or there’s many ad agencies that say they’ll offer that service and they’ll manage your social media account. It’s a different ballgame in that sense. We’re still trying to please people, we’re still trying to put out a good culinary product, you still have to roll with the punches and “give them what they want,” it’s an expression I’ve used for years but, at the same time, you better be conscious and be ready to react to these comments right away.
Choate: Last but not least, are you having fun?
Rolecek: I am. I was very energized; I missed the business. After I decided to sell, I stayed on at the Chop House for a year but I had a very limited schedule and I just tried to make sure it was a smooth transition but I missed the excitement, I missed the Saturday nights, I missed writing new menus, the New Year’s Eves and Mother’s Days and things like that, and so it’s been good, it’s been really good, and Hampton has been very welcoming. I think we’ve found a niche here.
About The Barking Tomato: Carolyn Choate loves to chew on food. Literally and figuratively. In the kitchen from her garden in Nashua or her favorite market, a restaurant across town or across the globe. When not masticating, Carolyn is likely swilling wine or spirits as neither is far from her heart – or lips. Forget diamonds and Louboutins, she’d rather blow a wad on Pinot Noir and grass-fed filet with fresh sautéed morels. And write about it. You taste the picture: The “Barking Tomato” aspires to push your “foodie” button. Carolyn’s day job is producing local affairs programming for WYCN-CD. You can contact her at email@example.com.