In mid-March, when the restaurant community ground to a halt and hospitality workers across the country found themselves idled, the Clover and the Bee's (100 W. Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-942-1216) Mike Risk found himself busier than ever as he tried to navigate the chaos thrust upon his businesses by COVID-19.
"Jesse [Mendica Risk] and I were still in the restaurants because we had all this food to mess with," Risk says. "We were running a mini grocery store for all of our employees, trying to conserve what we could and clean out the walk-ins. It was our only way of going out, so we'd go work in the restaurants for a couple of hours and then come home. We were also trying to deal with the Mack, trying to get PPP loans, working with bankers to see where we would end up. It was a lot; we were working, working, working."
If anyone would have a packed schedule during the coronavirus-induced great slowdown, it's Risk. A veteran industry professional, the chef has been working nonstop in kitchens since he was nineteen. Shortly after graduating high school, Risk got his start at Trattoria Marcella and knew right away that he wanted to eschew college to soak up as much knowledge as he could from owners Steve and Jamie Komorek. For twelve years, he worked alongside them, learning everything from how to run the financial side of the business to how to tend to the restaurant's garden and develop relationships with local farmers.
In 2008, Risk decided he needed a change, so he left Trattoria Marcella to help open Ninth Street Deli in Soulard with his friend and business partner, Brian Tracy. After two years, Risk joined Tracy at his other business, the Mack in the Southampton neighborhood, and eventually transitioned to that full time in 2009.
Risk kept busy running the Mack with Tracy, but his decision to take time out of his busy schedule to help a friend would change his life. The friend was working at Olive + Oak, which had not yet opened, and he called Risk begging for help on the line for the restaurant's opening night. Risk obliged and realized instantly that he never wanted to leave.
"Getting back into that way of cooking really lit a fire under me," Risk says. "I thought, 'Oh my god, what have I been doing for eight years? I really miss this.' That one day became two nights, then three, and it just spiraled from there."
Risk continued to work at Olive + Oak until owner Mark Hinkle tapped him to be executive chef at the restaurant's sister concept, the Clover and the Bee, when it opened in 2017. And now, he's taking on an additional role in the company, helping Hinkle develop and run O+O Pizza, the forthcoming concept that will occupy the old Olive + Oak space (the restaurant has moved down the road to bigger digs).
Though balancing the Mack, the Clover and the Bee, and O+O keeps him incredibly busy, Risk is filled with nothing but joy when he reflects on where he is in his career. It's why, even when faced with the challenges brought on by the pandemic, he can't help but feel the responsibility to do everything he can to make sure the industry he loves weathers the storm.
"I love the restaurant industry," Risk says. "It's all I've done since I was fifteen, and I wouldn't have it any other way. I feel like I have excelled in it, and I want to care for it and preserve it — and I'm hopeful. I think we end up on the good side of this. We'll end up with some great restaurants, including some new ones, and there will be a cool restaurant boom once people can get their bearings again. That's my hope."
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
Nothing. Hospitality has always been about the customer’s experience; it’s their break from the everyday. We have always been here to provide them with that. Hospitality is about the customer.
What do you miss most about your job?
Plates and the buzz of customers conversing at tables.
What do you miss least?
Really, nothing comes to mind.
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
Walking! I walk to and from work every day, weather permitting. It’s the best hour of my day to meditate, reflect and plan.
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
Pizza, pizza and more pizza — and not stressfully, just working on pizza for the new O+O Pizza to open soon.
What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Charcoal, Natural Light and rosé.
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
My new wife Jesse Mendica Risk and my two sons, Will and Cal. These three are my world.
Once you feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
Some type of sporting event or concert for sure.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people are allowed to return to normal activity levels?
Values — how much we value our customers, our employees, our restaurant business as a whole. We can make or change entire neighborhoods, and that’s an amazing thing.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
The St. Louis restaurant community! When this all began, everyone was on Zoom meetings, calls or email trying to work together to tunnel our way through this as a city. It was really cool to be a part of it, watch and see people step up and navigate through this. Standing ovation to the St. Louis restaurants and restaurant groups who lead the way.
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