Bill Kunz of Highway 61 Roadhouse on Longevity in the Restaurant Industry
Looking back, Bill Kunz knew early on that it was intended for the food industry.
Her grandfather was a cook; his uncle too. The vacation at her great-grandmother’s house was massive food shows – and totally non-negotiable. On weekends, he would go with his grandfather to the Soulard farmer’s market, and every year, just before Thanksgiving, the two would go together to Ravioli de Mama Toscano to make ravioli.
Even his first job, washing dishes and scrubbing the floors of a bakery on the Hill, seemed to seal his fate. However, when it came time to make a career decision, Kunz had other plans.
“I graduated from high school and went to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, knowing I wasn’t going to work in the restaurant business,” Kunz says. “I wanted to be a professional football player and even play in college, but it didn’t work. I saw the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, had a hotel and restaurant school and I was like, ‘Well, damn it. I might as well become.
Today chef-owner of Highway 61 route and kitchen (34 South Old Orchard Road, Webster Groves; 314-968-0061), it’s hard to imagine Kuntz choosing any other path. His career spanned about three decades and all types of different environments, and he flourished every step of the way.
His career began as soon as he left university, when he was convinced to return to Saint-Louis thanks to an offer from the restaurant group that owns Houlihan’s. It started at the West County location and eventually moved to the St. Louis Union Station property. At the time, it was one of the chain’s busiest spots in the country, and when asked to move on from running the room to the kitchen, he got quite an education.
“I spent eight months there,” Kunz remembers. “We were a kitchen from scratch, and I still have nightmares working for one of the guys there. However, I learned a lot from him.
After about five years of working for Houlihan’s, Kunz was recruited by the Hyatt hotel operating in Union Station at the time. Hyatt was looking to get into independent dining, and they wanted him to run their restaurant, the Powerhouse. He did this for about a year, then moved on to Club Riverport and eventually Hooters. Although he stayed with the wing for five years, he admits it wasn’t the kind of job he wanted.
“It sucked,” Kunz admits. “I helped them open Westport, then I became general manager of [the] Union Station [location] then zone supervisor. I didn’t like it, and I realize it’s because I didn’t like being removed from the day-to-day running of a restaurant. This is what I loved.
Kunz left Hooters for an opportunity with a game development that took him to Dubuque, Iowa. There he was tasked with redeveloping catering operations for a river casino – an industry that was in its infancy. The gig took him back to the St. Louis area, where the development group was opening the Growler’s Pub, then to Miami for another game boat, and finally to Growler’s.
He loved working for the organization, but when a friend approached him with the offer to go into the business, he realized that was the direction he wanted his career to take.
Their first restaurant, Frank and Patty’s, was a modest burger and hot dog restaurant in Kirkwood. Although they believed in what they were doing, they had more ambitious plans in mind, namely a great restaurant in Lafayette Square which they would name Lafayette Town Hall. However, their plans were dashed when Kunz received a phone call that is every business owner’s worst nightmare.
“We were supposed to open on a Wednesday in September and a Friday just before I got a phone call from one of our construction workers,” Kunz recalls. “He said to me, ‘Turn on your TV, the building is on fire.’ There was a huge fire in a nearby warehouse, and two of the flaming cartridges blew from the warehouse, landed on our building, and reduced it to ashes. I thought, ‘Too bad for that.’ ”
Kunz had no choice but to keep moving forward, so he and his partner purchased the building from Webster Groves which would become Hwy 61 Roadhouse and Kitchen. Immediately Kunz knew he wanted the restaurant to have a Cajun inflection, not just because he had always been intrigued by the style of cuisine, but because it was a way to connect St. Louis with his sister city. down the Mississippi River, New Orleans.
He and his partner chose the name Hwy 61 in reference to the “Blues Highway” that connects the towns along the Big Muddy, and then they walked it, collecting souvenirs for the restaurant and ideas for the current menu. of road.
The restaurant received instant recognition, including a place in the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. However, before the show aired, Kunz’s business nearly derailed with something even worse than a fire.
“I had a heart attack on October 4, 2012,” Kunz says. “I was in the recovery room for another operation when it happened. At the end of it all, I realized I needed to make a few changes – that if I had to stay, I couldn’t weigh 460 pounds. I made the decision to have gastric bypass surgery and have been doing what I have been doing ever since.
Now the solo owner of Highway 61 and a longtime restaurant veteran, Kunz reflects when he thinks about where he’s been and where he sees the industry heading. He admits it’s a tough business; While working in the city he saw many great restaurants come and go. However, he believes that having this valuable perspective is what has helped him see the path to success in an increasingly competitive field.
“With so many new restaurants opening, we need to do something to set ourselves apart,” Kunz says. “I hate the word staycation, but maybe we can call ourselves a dinner-cation. We are really trying to give people an experience.
Kunz recently took a break from the kitchen to share his thoughts on the St. Louis restaurant scene, his passion for cycling and the two upcoming concepts that may pique the interest of a man who’s seen it all.
What is the thing people don’t know about you that you wish they knew?
That I’m not that outgoing when I’m not at work.
Which daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
I have to ride a bike.
If you could have one super power, which one would it be?
The ability to read minds, discover the best possible people and [learn] what makes them vibrate.
What’s the most positive thing about the food, wine or cocktails that you have noticed in Saint-Louis over the past year?
I think the new food truck park in Affton will be very interesting.
What is the local food, wine or cocktail scene missing that you would like to see?
I would love to see food critics give a little love to restaurants that have been around for a while and not always focus on new things.
Who is your favorite for St. Louis?
Uncle Leo Pizza with Cajun Hot Sauce from Zatarain.
Who’s the only person to watch right now in the St. Louis food scene?
With Schlafly [Beer] buy Trailhead [Brewing Co.], it will be interesting to see if they will develop their craft brewery activity.
Which ingredient is the most representative of your personality?
Salt and pepper. Discreet touch but very important as a finishing flavor enhancer.
If you weren’t in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I was either learning to repair bicycles, or to do computer graphics, or to teach at a cooking school.
Name an ingredient banned in your restaurant.
What is your meeting place after work?
After work, the bed. I hang out more before work, and it’s on Grant’s Trail.
What is your guilty pleasure in food or drink?
What would be your last meal on Earth?
A protein shake after my last bike ride as therapy for my soul, then a pizza from Ale Emporium in Indianapolis or Andolini’s [Pizzeria] in Tulsa.
We are always hungry for advice and feedback. Email the author at [email protected].