January 19, 2010
A 10th birthday party at and for Sebastian's
And why not? The party was at, and for, Sebastian's Food and Spirits, which Scott and Patrice Sebastian opened exactly 10 years ago in Caledonia, in the building that had been the Spinning Wheel restaurant since the 1950s. As Patrice greeted guests and longtime customers, Scott took charge in the main dining room making such delicacies as spicy tuna roll and shrimp tempura roll, right -- all of which quickly disappeared.
Ten years ago, Scott and Patrice had a lot of help from her family -- she's originally from Mount Pleasant -- when they were renovating and planning to open. Still, not everyone thought they were making the right decision. "Ten years ago, everyone said you're not going to make it" with an upscale restaurant, Scott recalled. "People insisted we needed to add sandwiches to the menu. But I was never worried. Not once. It never entered my mind."
There was no permanent sign when the restaurant opened in 2000. The big awning over the front door that was supposed to carry the new restaurant's name was just an open metal framework; the awning itself didn't come for two months. So, tied between two trees, was a big piece of painted fabric with the message: "Opening January 19th, Sebastian's Food and Spirits."
That canvas sign was hanging in Sebastian's Tuesday night -- this time surrounded by balloons -- as part of the festive decor for the restaurant's birthday party. Joining Scott and Patrice was their daughter, Cory, who was a 12-year-old tomboy in the yellowing clipping announcing the restaurant from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel of Jan. 16, 2000. Cory, now a 22-year-old young woman, started work Tuesday as the restaurant's private events coordinator and dining room manager.
Restaurants are not easy businesses to open and run; the failure rate is very high (as anyone trying to keep track of Racine's eateries knows very well: Wilbur's Bar b que, Timothy York's Bistro, Red Lobster, Blueberries... ). And Racine is not exactly an upscale area: it wasn't ten years ago when Scott and Patrice put every cent they had into the restaurant, and it sure isn't today. Yet, Sebastian's is thriving.
What's the secret? (Besides really good food!) "We're not cheap," Scott agrees, "We have high standards, our staff has a great work ethic, and I think we put out a good value. But there's no smoke and mirrors; if we served high-priced crappy food we'd have been gone a long time ago."
Scott talks that way -- sometimes his frankness gets him into trouble -- and he has a large audience. His blog -- Salty's Kitchen -- has more fans in France than in the U.S. You never know what he'll be talking about: knives, brisket, running a restaurant, trying to save someone overcome in a fire, sushi, Top Chef...
Not everything works, of course. Scott and Patrice took over Craig and Helen's Bistro on Main Street downtown -- renaming it The Yellow Rose -- and ran it for five years before closing in 2008. "Hindsight's 20/20," Scott says. "If I could do it over again, I wouldn't. I'm a control freak, and you can't control two places at once."
But back to Sebastian's. Scott writes on his blog about the opening ten years ago: "People said we were crazy. (They were right about me anyway.) It's been one helluva decade. We survived 9/11, the housing and banking crisis, seven sous chefs, opening a second restaurant, closing it after five years, food TV, celebrity chefs, buying and selling four homes, moving four times and becoming an empty nester. Turning 50 was kinda big as well."
Thank you for ten great years! read the sign over diners in the main dining room. Few seemed to be paying attention to it -- at least not while trays of food and deserts were being passed. Everyone appeared to be looking forward to the next ten years: the cherry dumplings, the lamb, the brisket, the scallops, the truffles... Not every day, of course, or even every week. But for special occasions -- yes! A Happy Birthday indeed.