It’s tough enough to start a new business. Tougher still if that business is an independent restaurant. And tougher still if your vision for what it will be lives only in your imagination.
“I’m trying to make an old Memphis cafe,” Kevin Keough, owner of Café Keough at 12 S. Main St., said one recent afternoon as he sipped coffee and explained his dream. “But that doesn’t exist. So I had to make it up, what I think it could have looked like.”
Café Keough's turkey sandwich
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
What is certain is that Café Keough, which had a soft opening Dec. 23 and is now open Monday to Saturday, occupies the Commerce Tile Building, which in 1904 was built as the Memphis Trust Co. Building.
“This was a bank, but not a teller, money-changing bank,” Keough said.
Yet, it is easy to envision that it was. High ceilings. Windows that are 16 feet tall. The long bar looks like it could have once been home to teller cages. Café Keough is spacious – about 3,000 square feet that are usable, the owner says – and has a distinct feeling of formality mixing with a more informal vibe. You could extend your pinky while drinking coffee, or just as easily sit at that bar and have a cold beer drawn for you.
It is, after all, the French meet Memphis. Keough loves New Orleans’ French Quarter and has visited the south of France. Given a choice between new and old – in restaurants, bars, almost anything – he will take the latter.
In his mind’s eye, France is never that far from New Orleans, and the Mississippi River always has extended that connection to Memphis. In fact, he enjoys the mere thought of Memphis cotton merchants sending their product back down the river for sale.
His great-grandfather, Johnny Keough, was a renowned Collierville businessman – the lumber and cotton industries, among others – and there is a street in Collierville bearing the family name.
The great-grandson, however, hardly was born to his present station. He began in the restaurant business as a cook at Blues Alley and Lou’s Place, working for the Savarin brothers.
For almost two decades, he worked for Karen Carrier at Automatic Slim’s on Second Street. He knows how hard this business can be. And, yes, he knows all about those daunting statistics that say restaurant startups are doomed before dessert arrives.
A research study a few years ago, published in the Cornell Hotel and Restaurant Administration Quarterly, placed the first-year failure rate at 26.2 percent, but the cumulative failure rate by the third year at 59.7 percent.
“Yes, there are always bad odds,” Keough said.
And yet he has his reasons for believing Café Keough will meet a different fate. For one, Café Keough isn’t going to try to be all things to all people. The menu, not yet printed, will be simple. Sandwiches and tapas.
“I’ve been at it so long,” he said. “Bartending since I was 20. I’ve got a chef (Demitrie Phillips) that’s been doing it that long and a general manager (Terry Jenkins) about that long. We have roughly 60 years of experience between us. We all feel what we’re doing is what’s needed in the neighborhood, what people want.”
Jenkins literally has been a bartender and/or restaurant manager everywhere from Colorado to Central America, from Louisville to some half-dozen places in Memphis, including B.B. King’s, Celtic Crossing and the Flying Saucer Draught Emporium.
“People downtown, they don’t go to Applebee’s or (TGI) Fridays,” Jenkins said. “People want to come in and see Kevin, see the general manager or the chef, and know that we know their name.”
Jenkins, who has a beard beginning to gray, wore blue jeans and a yellow button-down shirt under a backward green and white derby this day. He did not look like the marketing major he was at Michigan State, but a guy who understands in a real-world way that Café Keough’s success will be determined over thousands of one-on-one interactions.
“Ninety-five percent of bartending is talking to guests,” he said. “I can teach any schmoe off the street to pour a drink. As restaurant people, we’re expected to be on stage. This is the (guests’) safe sanctuary. They don’t want to hear Susie behind the bar whining about her boyfriend who is such a jerk.”
Given what they know, Keough believes they have everything they need to be part of that minority of new restaurants that survives beyond the third year.
“We’ve got a great location, a great building, great food, great coffee and liquor,” he said. “If anybody (messes) it up, it’s us.”