In Autumn 2019, restaurateur BJ Lieberman and his wife Brownwyn Haines were bursting with excitement as they left the restaurant life they knew and struck out for Columbus, Ohio.
Leaving Washington, D.C. and the fine-dining restaurant scene where Lieberman had worked after culinary school, the couple had a well-planned dream to build a comfort food concept with the help of chef friends who were all-in on the idea.
“We moved from Washington, D.C. in September 2019, and at the same time, my chef friend Justin, who is now our head chef, also moved from D.C. to Ohio,” says BJ Lieberman, chef/owner of Chapman’s Eat Market. “And we had two other managers who sold their homes to move here with us on this venture.
“We were, what is known in the game of poker as pot committed!”
With all their chips on the table, the only thing Lieberman knew for sure is that they couldn’t “fold their hand.”
“We didn’t plan to open our concept in the middle of a pandemic,” says Lieberman, “but all the contracts were signed two weeks before … so we planned instead to do constructions during the expected two-month lockdown.”
In this week’s Q&A with Boxerbrand blog Recipe for Success, Lieberman talks about the surprises and happy accidents that took them from an uncertain hand to a royal flush.
Boxerbrand: What happy accidents did Chapman’s Eat Market create?
Lieberman: After we realized the pandemic wasn’t going to end in two or three months, and that the restrictions weren’t going anywhere, we had two happy accidents. The first thing was really fun. We had always planned to do an ice cream program with our unique recipe. But we introduced it much sooner than we planned because the whole world pivoted to a to-go concept that we definitely did not plan to do.
We immediately rolled out a to-go ice cream pint and it went so well that at one point we were selling 300-400 ice cream pints a week. And it has remained so popular that our ice cream is now a permanent fixture on our menu.
Boxerbrand: What makes your ice cream special?
Lieberman: If any maestro in the ice cream world were to see our base recipe, I’m sure they’d tell us we’re doing it all wrong! Most ice cream is made with a certain amount of egg yolk and sugar. With ours, we use twice the amount of egg yolk and we cook our eggs more than most. We’ve also come up with some wild flavor combinations, for example, the Buckeye, which is named for our Ohio team. Our ice cream is a chocolate-covered peanut butter, and it’s so popular we consider it and our other lines to be a year-round food! We also came across a farm that had a bumper crop of mint they didn’t know what to do with, so we bought it all and made a most-minty chocolate ice cream that was also a major hit.
Boxerbrand: Tell me about the other happy accident that made you famous.
Lieberman: First of all, I hate putting food in to-go boxes. And second, I never planned to put a hamburger on our menu. Out of necessity we introduced a double-burger that got a cult following. Our burger with shoestring fries was noticed by the New York Times, and pictured in a story about its top hamburgers and top-50 restaurants. We tried to take the burger off the menu when the pandemic ended but our patrons complained and insisted we bring it back. Today (17 August) marks the three-year anniversary of the rollout of our burger and we did a special menu to mark the occasion. We sold out our reservations of 160 in five minutes!
Boxerbrand: What is the actual concept of Chapman’s Eat Market?
Lieberman: It’s hard to put a name to what we do, but the closest is to say we make global comfort food. One of my favorite dishes is Southeast Asian Khoa soi, which my wife and I discovered on our honeymoon in Thailand. It’s a dish traditional to northern Thailand, which we put our own spin on. Our chicken & shrimp Khao Soi is made with yellow curry, fava leaves, herbs, banana, chiles, peanuts and fresh and crispy noodles.
Our pasta is another example of comfort food. When we think of pasta we think of Italian food, but before it was considered Italian, it was Chinese. The noodle dishes in China are an inspiration to our food, with the intersection of comforting flavors that we bring out when we incorporate fresh local eggs and tomatoes with a simple butter sauce.
Boxerbrand: How did you attract customers?
Lieberman: We have no marketing budget, and we like to say we built our brand one customer and one pint of ice cream at a time.
Boxerbrand: How do you make your patrons feel special?
Lieberman: Earlier this year I was talking to another restaurant owner, who own’s Rose’s Luxury in D.C., where I was the opening sous chef. We were talking about what makes us feel special when we dine out and one thing we agreed on was how great it feels when the restaurant delivers a free dish to the table. So we decided to build that idea into our business model. The way it works is that all of our servers have the authority to decide when a dinner table should get a dish, and they have the agency to decide for themselves what that little extra should be. So they don’t have to run the decision past a manager, but can instead decide in the moment. So if you have a patron who can’t decide which pasta they should choose, maybe they’re trying to decide between two dishes, the server might decide to bring a portion of the dish they passed up, and say something like, “I know you had a hard time deciding, and I thought you might like to try both.”
Another example is if a table feels too full to order dessert, a server can drop a scoop or two of ice cream off at the table if they choose. Every server is empowered in this way that gives them a special connection to the business and the customers.
Boxerbrand: Speaking of staff, what’s your experience with labor?
Lieberman: Labor is definitely our biggest concern. We’re lucky that at Chapman’s we’ve been able to hang onto our staff. We have many who’ve reached their two-year mark with the company and we’ve got six who’ve been here from the very beginning.
But recruiting and hiring staff is pretty much a full-time job right now, and sometimes it feels we’re always one employee short.
The most remarkable thing we’re experiencing is resume ghosting. We’ll get a resume from somebody and go back and forth in email exchanges to establish a date and time for an interview, but seven out of 10 applicants never show up. Or sometimes you’ll hire someone, they’ll show up, do all the onboarding processing, and then they’ll just stop showing up. My friends in New York and DC are experiencing the same thing. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Boxerbrand: How do you retain your staff?
Lieberman: We strive to show our staff respect and demonstrate that we have their backs. We also pay a fair wage. When we realized our base salaries were a little low, we had to rework our business model and start charging guests a little more per plate. Food is an interesting thing in terms of perceived value. A guest may look at a $20 plate and think they could make the same dish at home for $4. What they don’t realize is that each plate, in addition to the item they buy at the grocery store, also represents labor costs to create and serve the dish, and costs to keep the lights on.
Boxerbrand: Overall, how is business?
Lieberman: Well, the New York Times named us among the 50 best restaurants in the country last year, and we’ve spun off two more concepts. We just opened a jazz lounge and cocktail bar called Ginger Rabbit Jazz Lounge, which strives for a sophisticated roaring 20s undertone and Hiraeth, which is Welsh term that has no literal English translation, but instead is a feeling akin to homesickness, but in a good way. This is a more ambitious, fine-dining concept. And we’re all in! — Chapman’s Eat Market uses Boxerbrand’s Classic Leather menu cover line in its table presentation. Thank you!