Matt Ratz will never forget the feeling he got from watching the moving trucks roll into the lot of the Clayton Regions Centre office building in early March of 2020. Like everyone else, he’d been growing increasingly concerned about a new coronavirus that was emerging as a global health threat, but he wasn’t all that sure what to make of it. However, if he and his brother, Mike, had learned anything since opening UKraft inside the building a year and a half prior, it was that the wonks who worked at its financial firms had an inside scoop into what was happening in the world. That they were not simply locking up but packing their things for the long haul was an ominous sign.
Nearly two years after those early days of the pandemic, the Ratz brothers cannot help but feel lucky. Not only has their brand, UKraft, been able to survive inside the sparsely populated Regions office building while their food truck found even bigger success than it had prior to the crisis, they have been able to propel that momentum into a growing fast-casual force. The current crown jewel of the emerging UKraft chain is their flagship location, a brick-and-mortar near downtown’s City Garden that opened early last year.
See all of RFT food critic Cheryl Baehr's restaurant reviewsThat they have been able to grow amidst such challenging times for the hospitality industry is a testament to the brothers’ vision, which has been percolating throughout their decade-plus in the restaurant business. Though the pair always dreamed of doing something on their own, they honed their chops working for others, with Matt focused on front of house and operations while Mike developed his skills in the kitchen.
Over time, Matt and Mike both homed in on the fast-casual sector, including the healthful-dining-focused Wicked Greenz, which opened its first location in Clayton in 2016. The brothers fell in love with the idea of a chef-driven quick service spot and, after two years, felt that they were ready to take what they learned as a jumping-off point for their own business. At first, the idea centered around a build-your-own healthy meal concept (hence the name UKraft) that would roll out as a food truck. As they worked out their plans, though, the idea transitioned into already composed wraps, salads, sandwiches and soups still centered around more fresh, wholesome ingredients.
UKraft may have branded itself as a healthier alternative to traditional fast food, but the Ratzes found success in positioning themselves as a restaurant that could cater to a wide variety of dietary needs, particularly focused on those working in offices. They gained significant steam in partnering with Ameren while the energy company was working on a new food service setup, and that arrangement gave them the idea to look for a permanent post inside an office building. In 2019, they inked a deal with Regions Centre and quickly became the go-to lunch spot for hungry office workers both in and around the building.
Their model should’ve gone down in flames considering that, two years later, the overwhelming majority of office workers are still remote. Instead, UKraft is experiencing growth month after month, something the brothers credit to their ability to adapt, as well as the fact that being a fast-casual setup allowed them to meet the pandemic moment. This is particularly true of their downtown City Garden location, which, given the times, should be a ghost town. Instead, the restaurant has ingrained itself in the minds of those in the area by making itself convenient, fast, wholesome and, ultimately, quite tasty.
The best way to think of UKraft is a boutique, and much more soulful, version of Panera. Though the restaurant prides itself in getting its food from the line into a bag with rapid speed, the Ratz brothers do not take any shortcuts to get there. This means that they make all of their prepared ingredients (sauces, condiments, dressings) from scratch; roast, sauté or bake their own meats; and slice and dice every single day. This gives their food a freshness, zest and texture that take you aback for what seems like simple café fare.
A shrimp BLT, for instance, pairs grilled shrimp that has been marinated in pesto with crispy bacon, arugula, tomatoes and herbed aioli onto crispy, pressed ciabatta bread. The flavors are simple, but what is most impressive is that the shrimp was incredibly firm and snappy, even after traveling about twenty minutes before being consumed. The same is true for the shrimp on the Spicy Thai wrap; here the shellfish is wrapped into a soft flour tortilla with ingredients like edamame, bell peppers and sunflower seeds for crunch, as well as a surprisingly spicy soy chili sauce that has the lightness of a vinaigrette.
The Hill wrap is another success, mostly because it is like having a gigantic antipasta salad from the city’s Italian neighborhood served in rolled-up form. Crispy romaine, tender salami and ham, banana peppers, tomatoes and kalamata olives — all tossed in mouthwatering white balsamic dressing — is like holding the Mediterranean in your hands, or at least St. Louis’ version of it.
Even something as simple as a Buffalo chicken wrap is done well here, thanks to UKraft’s light touch. Hot sauce-tossed chicken is accented with crunch celery and carrots, funky blue cheese crumbles and tomatoes. The key to its success, however, is the yogurt ranch sauce, which is lighter, tarter and much brighter than traditional ranch dressing. Subbing in the yogurt makes you feel less guilty for wanting to douse two ramekins of it all over your sandwich.
Matt says that the restaurant has a significant vegan following, thanks to its jerk jackfruit sandwich. One bite into this stunning, cinnamon and clove-scented delight and it’s clear why this is the case. The meaty fruit has a pleasant, firm texture, akin to pulled pork but creamier. The sweet, baking spice flavors hit the front of the palate, but as they subside, they leave in their place warm, savory heat that is balanced with cool cabbage and mango slaw. It’s a satisfying treat for both plant-based eaters and omnivores alike.
The chipotle chicken is the restaurant’s biggest sandwich surprise. Though the name evokes the sort of basic, bland boxed lunch fare you’d find at a grab-and-go kiosk, this dish is outrageously flavorful. Hunks of warm, white meat chicken are tossed in a gently spiced chipotle aioli, giving the sandwich the feel of chicken salad. Creamy avocados, tomatoes, onions and molten pepper jack cheese are piled on top of the dressed chicken, then pressed so that the meat’s juices, the dressing and the avocado form a delightful sauce that oozes out the sides. It’s shockingly dazzling.
Any of UKraft’s wraps can also be served as a salad or a grain bowl. The latter, which starts with a wild rice and quinoa base, is the perfect canvas for the honey apple version. Apples, strawberries, grapes and blueberries are tossed with chicken and granola for a grain bowl version of a Waldorf salad. The Santorini is another worthy offering, consisting of chickpeas, assorted Mediterranean vegetables and chicken. It’s the sort of meal where you can hear your body thanking you for eating it, having gorged yourself with brisket and au gratin potatoes over the holidays (just me?), though if you want to keep that decadence going, UKraft’s loaded baked potato soup or shockingly rich, beefy chili will do the trick.
Dishes like the chili, the soup, a steak and cheese sandwich or even traditional breakfast fare offered during morning hours show that UKraft isn’t necessarily trying to be a health food restaurant. As Matt notes, the word “healthy” can mean different things to different people and is very circumstantial. Instead, he, Mike and the entire UKraft team simply want to meet people where they are and give them options. Considering how much success they’ve had in the midst of such upheaval, that seems to be the winning formula.
multiple locations including 701 Market Street, 314-376-4352.
Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sat. 7 a.m.-2 p.m. (Closed Sundays).
Honey apple grain bowl — $11.
Chipotle chicken sandwich — $8.75.
Buffalo wrap — $9.50.