The St. Pete Young Professionals’ Leadership Roundtable series is a monthly, member-exclusive program that connects young professionals with major leaders to discuss personal and professional growth, goals and success.
The Black & Bleu burger, a trifecta of grilled cheese on sourdough, or smoked brisket, mac & cheese and a craft cocktail. Is your mouth watering yet? All of these enticing items can be found at the diverse concepts that comprise the Hunger + Thirst Restaurant Group. Stephen Schrutt, founder and CEO, stopped by the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce to meet with the St. Pete Young Professionals (SPYP) to let us pick his brain about who he is and what he does.
What are the steps and obstacles you overcame to open your first concept?
Schrutt didn’t always have these four concepts in his back pocket. In his mind, serving was never intended as a career path but the traditional route of school and a desk job kept leading him back to the hospitality industry. He received an opportunity to advise and partner on the Westchase World of Beer’s expansion to Blend Lounge. Ultimately, Schrutt made a choice to step away from that partnership to focus on his own vision, but credits that experience as invaluable to where he is today. He had no “Plan B” at the time, which made the choice even more difficult and high-risk. However, his experiences in hospitality, management and partnership molded his vision of what a full-service restaurant and bar should be.
His first successful concept, The Avenue, can be found on 1st Ave S as you head east towards Downtown. Finding and securing the location was not easy for Schrutt, but he was determined to not give up until he found the right place. Once he drew up his “vision” for the Avenue, the physical changes could take place. He knew he wanted a full-service restaurant and bar, with live entertainment and that “welcome” feeling that keeps people coming back.
A critical piece to creating the right vibe and level of energy is selecting employees who will support and continue that vision. Schrutt is unabashedly focused on developing a certain culture within his workplaces. He is a big enthusiast of internally promoting individuals to leadership roles. Case in point, his Operations Manager has been with him since the beginning and started as a server. According to Schrutt, the qualities she possesses that make her an integral partner is her drive, adaptability and integrity. Just as hiring the right people is critical, being able to adapt and change with feedback is also imperative. Schrutt values feedback from his employees and looks at each day as a learning experience and an opportunity to change for the better.
A friend of Schrutt’s, Doug Hensel (aka DJ Fresh of the Rays), stopped by to share some insight into what makes Schrutt tick. According to Hensel, “He is by far one of the best operators I’ve ever seen. Stephen is a vibe and mood setter. He knows how to do everything from the ground up and this allows him to be a great leader to people who work for him. He also is continuously reinventing his concepts and finds creative ways to make something appeal to his audience and customers, with close attention to detail. Stephen continuously updates his concepts in a tasteful way to surprise his customers when they come in for their next visit.”
How have you experienced doubt and what have you done to overcome it?
Not every moment has been smooth sailing for Schrutt. He has had his doubts and found ways to move forward. For Schrutt, it was critical to remind himself that doubt isn’t a friend to progress. Schrutt said, “there are certainly moments where you are overwhelmed and think to yourself, ‘what did I get myself into?’ but you have to continue to be focused, driven and stay the course towards completing your goals.”
Schrutt added that for him, knowing he could fail and continue on despite those missteps, is an important characteristic for a leader to have. Getting out of your own way by acknowledging that failure is something that can happen allows you to achieve things you may not have thought possible. Then when you’ve created something great and you look back, you can push yourself to do even more things that challenge or scare you.
What is your favorite thing that you’ve learned about running a restaurant and bar?
As we’ve learned, every career and venture has its struggles but there are many positives that come along with it. Schrutt has enjoyed the process of it all; learning each and every task that contributes to a restaurant operating as a well-oiled machine. Proper, one his newest concepts that boasts slow-smoked meats and crafted cocktails, has a smoker on the property that runs 24 hours per day, 6 days a week. It must be fed wood consistently and Schrutt found that out as he spent time with the Chef into the wee hours of the morning.
What advice would you give to young professionals or those who are in the beginning stages of their entrepreneurial journey?
Everyone wants to feel accomplished about what they do, even if at the current moment they’re not in their dream job. Schrutt advised, “You have to work hard and be relentless when it comes to success. It does not just fall into your lap. If hard work and tenacity is the foundation, then you’re setting yourself up for success from the beginning.”
Personally, Schrutt stays organized and plans out his days the night before. Juggling his four concepts is only possible by prioritizing and delegating to the right people. Insight into his strengths and weaknesses over time allowed him to surround himself with the right people who helped fill in the blanks when it came to running a restaurant. Now, with his four concepts running at full speed he looks forward to growing his ideas within the blossoming city of Saint Petersburg.
Stephen Schrutt is a Tampa native and studied Mass Communications at the University of Tampa. He helped develop and open Blend Lounge in Westchase of Tampa but wanted to venture on his own and develop his own concepts. Five years ago, he opened the Avenue [eat + drink] which most recently won "Best Casual Restaurant" from the Downtown St. Pete Neighborhood Association. In 2015, he opened Kings Street Food Counter and later that year he announced the opening of Proper which is a Southern Kitchen specializing in Smoked Meats. Alongside Proper is Park & Rec to complete his Hunger & Thirst Restaurant Group. Focusing his concepts in the Downtown St. Pete market allows him to constantly stay in touch with his guests, staff and focus his efforts to keep Hunger & Thirst Restaurant Group creative, original and consistent. Understanding the importance of community, he constantly seeks to support local charities and nonprofit organizations.