Chef Travis Tveit opened his first restaurant, Chowderhead, specializing in clam chowder and sandwiches on March 7, and business has been brisk at the former Ruins location ever since.
Tveit, who previously worked at Iron Goat Brewing and Tony Brown’s Ruins and is the drummer for the band Indian Goat (which is on hiatus but has booked a show at the Lucky You Lounge for May), also juggles being a dad that first time—for 1½-year-old Elias—along with the Chowderhead race at 825 N. Monroe St.
I’ve had lunch at Chowderhead twice and highly recommend all of the chowders – the original clam chowder, the steelhead trout clam chowder, and the specials of the day (the two I tried were excellent). One chef told me, “I’ve been dethroned as the Chowder King,” much to Tveit’s surprise and delight.
And I also love the Cuban sandwich. Another chef described the sandwich as “pretty perfect.” Tveit chatted about Chowderhead, hard work and fatherhood during a short break on the first Saturday of the assignment:
Congratulations on your first Chowderhead restaurant, Travis. How did you come up with the concept and the name?
When these were ruins, I noticed that there were only a lot of people in this area during the work week. Tony Brown asked me if I wanted to take over his restaurant, so I started thinking about what I think would do well here.
I have always loved soups and I know how to make many of them. I wanted to open a lunch place that offers soups and sandwiches. The name Chowderhead gives away what’s served inside, and the name is meant to be funny – it’s humorous and fun.
It just fitted into what I wanted to do and I thought people would react to it because there’s nothing quite like it here – and they have. We are open on Monday (March 7th).
When did you start thinking about Chowderhead?
On December 28th. We had a few days off over the holidays and I just felt like Tony would text me about working at Ruins, whether we’d be hiring more staff or changing the menu or if we’d be open seven days a week or times change location again. I thought something was going to happen and I was right. It was a text message I had been waiting to receive.
I was definitely surprised, but at the same time I was also very grateful and happy that Tony thought of me, that he thought of asking me if it was something I would be interested in because he could have asked anyone else who definitely wanted to be in here.
I’m really grateful that he thought of me to give me a chance. This is a chance for me to finally have my own place. And now here we are a few months later. I still worked for Tony for about a month, so the turnaround time for Chowderhead was about a month.
What’s new in this area?
I have a business partner who owns a construction company, so the paint outside the building, the new floors in here, we restored the wood paneling all around the front, we did all that work very quickly. I cleaned the kitchen, wrote recipes and made sure everything was the way I wanted it before we opened.
I was ready to go when we opened on Monday. We don’t have beer yet, but I hope to have this in three weeks.
How was the first week of operation?
It was long ago; it must have been a long time ago. I worked 18 hour days. I will leave here around midnight and come back at 6am. I’m fine physically and mentally, but I know I can’t keep up the 18-hour work days forever.
Absolutely for the first two to three weeks I knew it was going to be a lot. I have to take care of the staffing. I currently have a dishwasher and a line cooker. I still need some help.
What advice would you give a first-time customer to order besides the chowder chowder?
Definitely the meatball sub. It was the #1 bestseller alongside the Cuban sandwich. When I first drafted the menu, I was told I overpriced it, so I lowered it. Now I am told that my prices are very reasonable.
Overall, I just want people to feel like they’re getting a good deal. Price changes on the menu are inevitable but I’m fine with where I am right now.
What’s your favorite sandwich on the Chowderhead menu?
I like the turkey and bacon pesto because it’s such an easy sandwich. Working here alone for weeks, I ate this sandwich more than any other sandwich. It’s so easy to do.
What other flavors of chowder are you planning?
I made a corn chowder for that first week. I want to make a Manhattan Clam Chowder, a tomato-based chowder. A vegetarian potato soup. I would like the third option not to eat meat sometimes, because many people are vegetarians. There are many different types of chowder.
What was the most surprising thing about opening your own apartment?
The mindset shift you have when you go from working for someone else to working for yourself. It is stressful. It’s different when I’m self-employed. Now I want everyone to come in… even a minute before closing. It used to really annoy me, people came so late, and now I have a different mentality when it comes to work.
And how is paternity?
It is amazing. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s been hard being apart from him because I’m here so often, but I know it won’t be forever. What I do now will benefit his life when he is older. He’s definitely a big motivator – I’ll work 18-hour days for him.