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My Biggest Mistake: Learning to let go

When Bob Brazell first worked in a restaurant kitchen as a teen, he fell in love with the instant sense of camaraderie he developed with his coworkers.

“If you are working a station in a very serious kitchen, you’re going to war every night, and if you got a guy by your side, you get to know him real quick, so some of my best friends for life I met in kitchens,” said Brazell, 40.

Bob Brazell

Restaurateur Bob Brazell led crawfish boils on April 17 and 18 for the opening of Proper Cannabis’ dispensaries in south St. Louis County and Warrenton. (Photo by Spencer Pernikoff, courtesy of Bob Brazell) Click here to see a larger version of this image.

In spite of those bonds, as Brazell ascended to become a chef and owner of St. Louis restaurants, he found it difficult to allow his employees to carry some of the weight on his shoulders.

“I always felt like I had to do everything myself,” he said.

That became a problem for him a couple years ago when several of his new endeavors suddenly took off at once.

Brazell had experience with juggling responsibilities. He started attending the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in St. Louis at age 26 while also working in the kitchens at Monarch Restaurant in Maplewood and Niche in Benton Park — both acclaimed, high-end restaurants that have since closed.

After a short stint as executive chef of a south St. Louis eatery targeted at athletes, Brazell stuck around the city’s Cherokee Street neighborhood and opened Byrd & Barrel, a fast-casual fried chicken restaurant.

“When I told people I was going to open a fried chicken joint in a half-burned-down Popeyes on Jefferson [Avenue], they looked at me like I was crazy, and I probably was, but it worked,” he said.

Not only did he have success at that location, but he also was able to start serving Byrd & Barrel’s signature chicken “Nugs” during St. Louis Blues hockey games at the Enterprise Center. Along with his business partners, in 2014 he worked to elevate the Tamm Avenue Grill in the St. Louis neighborhood of Dogtown from what he called a “hole-in-the- wall bar” to a restaurant with a sleek, newly renovated patio offering tasty burgers and pastrami sandwiches.

Then in 2019, Brazell and his partners took over another restaurant — and one with a rich history: the Tenderloin Room at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in the city’s Central West End.

The restaurant had been around since the 1960s, so Brazell concentrated on keeping its classic elements while also “bringing it up to speed,” he said.

“There are a lot of people who live in the Chase, and that’s like their living room . . . and we didn’t want them to be like, ‘Oh, they ruined it.’”

After renovating the restaurant and adding a bar menu, Brazell and his partners reopened the Tenderloin Room in December 2019. Amidst that excitement, though, he became so invested in Tenderloin Room renovations and menu that he had difficulty delegating to his employees, he said.

“It’s great to have all these [restaurants], but if I can’t take one day and be with my fiancé and see my family, then what’s it worth?” he asked.

Then Brazell, like all restaurant owners, had to confront the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 12, 2020, he closed a deal to buy the former Blues hockey bar Bobby’s Place on Hampton Avenue, where he planned to open a second Byrd & Barrel location. Shortly thereafter, most of the United States shut down due to the pandemic. By August, not only had he not opened the second Byrd & Barrel, but he had closed the Tenderloin Room and the original Byrd & Barrel.

Still with the number of vaccinations increasing and the infection rate decreasing in the region, Brazell hopes to soon reopen the Tenderloin Room and open the new Byrd & Barrel in August.

And he’s now better prepared to manage it all because he has learned to trust his staff.

“I’m still involved at every place, every day, but it’s just about coaching people and letting go,” he said.

“We hire the right people for a reason, and they are all phenomenal at what they do. And I’m a believer in letting the pros do their job, so you have to know everyone’s strong suits, and if somebody is better at something, put them in that role.” — Bob Brazell


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