Fit to Serve: Kelly Lough Phillips

Director of operations for JKBD, owners of La Poste and Django

My interview with Kelly Lough Phillips began with an e-mail from her husband and business partner Bryant Phillips, who called her “one of the most capable restaurateurs I’ve ever known.” Lough began her service career at Gold Star Chili at the age of 10, and now, at 35, is the Director of Operations for JKBD, the partnership that owns and operates two restaurants, La Poste Eatery in Clifton and Django Western Taco in Northside. Not only did Phillips open two successful restaurants in two years, she did it while pregnant each time, and even survived being struck by lightning during the second. “We like to get pregnant, open a restaurant, and have a baby,” says Lough.

My family went out to dinner every Friday night. You could find us every Friday at Pete Rose’s restaurant in Springdale.

My restaurant career began at Gold Star Chili, which was owned by the family of my best friend. We were 10 years old, and each Saturday morning after soccer we went to Gold Star to wash dishes and bag cheese.

In high school I worked at The Red Squirrel as a server. The other servers were all older and worked nights at Outback Steakhouse. I was privy to all the restaurant gossip—probably too much information for a 16-year-old, but I loved it and knew I wanted a career in the industry.

When I was a senior in high school, I was hired as a hostess at Hooters. I lasted two days. Day One: they gave me my uniform—tiny white hot pants and tiny top. Day Two: I put the outfit on, went to the restaurant, got through 30 minutes of the shift, and quit.

Dave &  Buster’s was next. After serving cocktails for three months they moved me to their headquarters in Dallas to be trained for management. I was part of a small team that overhauled the entire training manual. That was a big deal for a 20-year-old and the first thing that made me think I’m going to do more with this.

I returned to Cincinnati and began working at Chateau Pomije in O’Bryonville. This is where I began my wine education. Lana Shteiwi [now Lana Wright, co-owner of Senate and Abigail Street] and I were best of friends, serving and co-managing the restaurant. It was an amazing crew of professionals, all working towards their own entrepreneurial goals. Lana and I ran the restaurant, always with the goal to open our own restaurant. We had a lot of late-night conversations about what we were going to do: a fine dining, wine-centric restaurant with wine flights and a wine room where customers could choose their own bottle. It was one of the most memorable and exciting times in my life. We both realized our dream, just not together.

Boca turned the game up five more notches. Boca completely flipped a switch for me. It took everything I had learned so far and completely focused it. I was working with highly skilled people in service and food knowledge. They really cared about the food—the attention to detail was unbelievable. I worked there a couple of years serving, left amicably over some disagreements and prepared for my wedding to Bryant. On the day before my wedding, David Falk [owner of Boca] drove out to my parents’ house and asked me to come back to Boca, and offered me the general manager position.

After our honeymoon I took over as GM of Boca. That was a big deal for me. I respected David and cared about that restaurant so much. I was so proud of what we did at Boca—we operated at the highest possible level. Unfortunately, four months later I had to have major shoulder surgery, which was going to put me out for six months. I had to let Boca go, which was really, really hard.

The day I got the doctor’s release for my shoulder, I blew out my knee. With a year of recovering from shoulder and knee injuries, Bryant and I had to time for a lot of conversations about our fundamental beliefs regarding this industry. The conversation about opening a restaurant together grew from all that time off.

We made a list of five chefs we’d be interested in working with. Dave Taylor was one of them. I didn’t know him—had never eaten his food. Bryant loved his food. So we got to know each other over several meals. It was instant chemistry, but there was the question of whether could we work together. So Bryant and Dave worked at The Wise Owl for a year together with the goal that if it worked, we were going to move forward with our plans to open a restaurant. And it did.

We heard Jens Rosencrantz was sniffing around to do something. The four of us ate lunch and drank Gavi together at Via Vite, and the deal was sealed.

The strategy was to hire A-Team players, restaurant professionals. We knew we were going to have a huge wine program, we knew that the food, while simple, would require a staff with food knowledge.

I don’t get wowed by fancy explanations of food. I don’t need a dissertation—I just want the information to be very clear and concise and know that the server cares about the food. Informed but genuine service. Be educated about what you’re selling, and translate it in a genuine way.
If you put your elbow in front of my face, I’ll notice. A server should pay attention to a customer without stalking them. They should be able to articulate the food, wine, and atmosphere in a genuine way. That’s what I consider great service.

What I don’t like is the negative chatter—people talking negatively about others in this business. It’s a big part our team’s manifesto: When you’re outside of La Poste or Django, remember that you are an ambassador of the restaurant. If you don’t have something nice to say about another business or person in this industry, don’t say anything. If I hear something negative that one of my staff said about some other restaurant, we’re having a face-to-face. If you’re getting called in to my office at 3:30 on a Monday, it’s because of something that happened Saturday night.

I live by “firm but fair.” My staff needs to be able to trust me. I believe I’m a natural leader, but that’s not enough. If I’m firm, fair, and consistent, employees can trust me. They know they are supported and that we have each other’s back.

Even though I’m five-foot-nine, I love wearing five-inch heels when I’m on the floor. I enjoy being six-two and being able to see everything in the dining room. I have a better view.

I love this industry so much. Obviously I love food and wine, but I really love being able to create an experience for people. I like being a part of changing someone’s day, making it different for them.

I’m very aware it’s a team effort—it takes all of us to make it happen every day. But I’m always the tallest.

Kelly Lough Phillips talks about being struck by lightning.
I was six months pregnant with Madeline when I was struck by lightning. It was a Saturday afternoon, it was raining, and there had been a thunderstorm. Bryant and I were headed to the restaurant; he was backing the car out of our narrow driveway. I was standing at the end of the driveway with an umbrella when suddenly there was a bright flash underneath the umbrella. I could feel something enter my right arm and exit my left. I felt like I had been sucker-punched. I threw the umbrella and ran back up the steps to the house. I screamed at Bryant that I had been struck by lightning. He had seen a bright flash and had heard a really loud pop (we discovered later that the lightning bolt had hit the house two doors up, and traveled down the hill). We rushed to Christ Hospital to make sure the baby was OK. They hooked me up to the ultrasound and it zaps out—completely powers down. ZZZZZzzzzzzt. The technician was spooked—we all were. They had to bring in another ultrasound machine. Thank goodness we were all fine.

A shortened version of this interview originally appeared in the March 2013 issue.
Photograph by Annette Navarro

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