Jock hits grand slam in restaurant biz
Long before it was “cool to cook,” Wade Barkman would sneak back to his dorm room after baseball practice and prepare a new recipe.
And while he dreamed in those early junior-college days of playing shortstop for the New York Yankees, a different career aspiration simmered on the backburner.
Until finally, after graduating Texas A&M business school with a degree in business management, Barkman turned up the heat on his true passion, answering the calling to cook.
After graduating the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York in 2002, Wade Barkman added more skills to his culinary cache by training in Napa Valley at Wine Spectator Greystone restaurant. And after that, it was Vegas, baby!
Rising up the ranks at Caesar’s Palace Hotel and Casino, his talent as general manager of 808, the jewel of chef Jean-Marie Josselin’s restaurant group, garnered the restaurant a top-10 honor from Wine Spectator Magazine. And in 2005, he was personally named among the “Who’s Who” of rising stars in the culinary industry by Las Vegas Food and Beverage Magazine.
And then Barkman decided to play in the major leagues.
In this week’s Q&A with Recipe for Success @ Boxerbrand, Wade Barkman describes the wins, losses and love of the industry as he leads his own restaurant, The Republic Steak House of College Station, Texas, to three- and four-diamond awards.
Q: What’s a guy like you doing in the restaurant biz?
I came from a very driven, goal-oriented family. Both of my parents are doctors and educators. And they taught me to set high standards for myself. When I realized my plan to play shortstop for the Yankees wasn’t going to work out, I went to Texas A&M business school with the plan to go into business. Back then, it wasn’t cool to cook, especially if you were a jock. But I loved it. I’d been cooking since the 5th or 6th grade. And, by the time I finished business school, I was determined to go to culinary school and to own my own restaurant by the time I was 30.
Q: Where did your interest in fine food come from?
Both my parents were doctors, real workaholics. Because there wasn’t a lot of time to spend in a traditional kitchen, with a mother cooking, we spent our family dinner time in fine restaurants. I think that early experience with fine dining really inspired me to take cooking to its highest level.
Q: You were in the big leagues in the Vegas food scene at one point.
One of my proudest moments was at 808. It was the jewel of Chef Jean-Marie Josselin’s restaurant group. And under my management it was named among the top 10 restaurants. After that I was hired to direct the 2005 opening of Corsa Cucina for Chef Stephen Kalt in the five-star Wynn Las Vegas Casino. Over the course of two years, the restaurant was featured in Wine Spectator Magazine, Food and Wine, Las Vegas Magazine and Las Vegas Life. I was having a great time loving what I was doing. But, a couple years into it, my mother called to remind me of my promise to myself that I’d open my first restaurant by the time I was 30. Vegas was amazing. But I turned down other offers, pulled up stakes, and returned to College Station, Texas, a place I always loved, to begin my next chapter with restaurants.
Q: You opened The Republic Steak House in 2007, on the cusp of the big recession.
It was an eye-opening experience to own my own restaurant that slapped me in the face early on when I looked at the books realized I was spending $8,000 a day in operation costs but only bringing in $6,000 a day. We were just turning the corner, improving our revenue picture, when the recession hit.
Q: How did you survive the recession?
It was sage advice from my father that kept our restaurant going. He suggested we really turn to fine dining, offering higher-end plates and whiskeys. My father observed that recessions come and go, but that the very top-end restaurants survive. So, we became the finest restaurant in the area, never offering discounts, and focusing on offering the very best product. It was like being thrown into the ocean, and there’s no other option but to swim. I started swimming—hard.
Q: What obstacles have you faced down?
Our location has been a challenge from the beginning. We don’t have good signage or visibility. And from the outside, you’d think, “You’ve got to be joking? This is the nicest restaurant in the area?” We’re in a classic strip-mall setting with 14 other tenants, all of whom went out of business. And the lot has been under construction for three years.
The biggest running joke inside the restaurant is that we’re moving someday. We have a big plan to recreate the restaurant in a new space on the opposite end of this 8-acre lot we’re on. The goal is to build a 5,000 square-foot restaurant and a 1,700 square-foot gastro pub and wine bar.
Q: Your restaurant is the hottest ticket in town. How do you attract patrons?
We don’t advertise, but we’re packed every night. In a college town, everybody knows that we’re the finest restaurant around. We’ve built our reputation customer by customer. Once people get past the exterior, and walk through our doors, they’re transported to another level of service and gastro experience. We’re known for spectacular cuisine, an extensive whiskey selection, and award-winning wine list. We also have a dedicated staff. Our turnover is super low. On average our employees stay for over 6 years. We all work hard to deliver on a promise to be the best. — The Republic Steak House utilizes Boxerbrand menu covers in its table presentation. Thank You!