Great people are doing great things in our community. One of our chief aims is to spotlight these people and their projects. To this end, we caught up with Joe Sundberg and Rachel Johnson prior to the opening of their new restaurant, Manolin.
Sea Creatures: You guys are opening in a matter of weeks, give or take. How did you go from dreaming about opening your own place to actually opening your place?
Rachel: A really big turning point for us was the trip Joe and I took to the Yucatán Peninsula. We went in January after Whale opened.
Joe: We drove from one side of the Yucatán to the other and then we went to Tulum. There was a restaurant there called 'Hartwood' that we really wanted to check out. They cook on wood fire. They have an oven and a grill...
Rachel: ...they don't even have electricity--in the whole place. They have oil lamps.
Joe: It was a really cool experience. The food was amazing.
Rachel: We were there for 5-days. The second to the last day was when we really sat down...
Joe: We had a notebook and we statred writing down what we want [Manolin] to be after thinking about for years and saying 'if we are going to do this, what do we want it to be?' We listed general conceptual things--under 40 seats, blue and white and orange color scheme...
Rachel: It is funny; I just looked at this list.
Sea Creatures: How close is reality to your list?
Rachel: Really close! We wrote down Alex's name [Manolin's Chef d Cuisine]...Alex was a 'for sure he'd be great' kind of idea...Mexico was the genesis.
Sea Creatures: So you had ideas, how did you make the leap?
Rachel: Basically, it came down to money, and we figured out 'yeah, we can do it.' I had money saved and we assumed, correctly, that we could borrow from family.
Joe: The initial stuff was a lot of work. It was conversations with the bank. Nobody wanted to give us a loan because restaurants are so high risk. We started asking around and learned that friends and family were willing to loan us money.
Rachel: We just decided to do it. We decided it would work.
Joe: It sounds really silly, but it is true.
Rachel: It is true that we had amazing resources. It sucks, it does come down to money...
Joe: But at some point you do have to decide to do it, if you are going to do it, or decide to be happy doing what you are doing.
Rachel: Putting in some time at different kinds of places...
Joe: Experience--figuring out exactly what it is you want to do, how you want your place to feel, what kind of environment you want people to work in--is a big part of it. Definitely working at Walrus was a huge, positive insight into what it could be like to work in restaurant family, a super close knit crew...
Rachel: It was the same for me working at The Dish...
Sea Creatures: Joe, you built the restaurant yourself; what things have you learned during along the way between cementing your ideas and executing them? What would you do differently?
Joe: I would have tried to get twice as much money as we did, and hired out all of the work!
Rachel: All of it!?
Joe: Pretty much. I feel a ton of ownership, but it is all consuming to build the restaurant. Just opening a restaurant is intense. Forget about doing it with your significant other. It is a pressure cooker...I would have been more realistic about how long it was going to take.
Sea Creatures: So you would not have taken it all on yourself if you could do it over?
Joe: I wouldn't have done the silly stuff--like drywall--and I would have taken one more vacation!
Rachel: These are all of things I have been saying all along!
Rachel: ...but I can't 'I told you so,' because if we had hired [the construction] out, it wouldn't have been done as well, and we would have spent three times the amount of money. That guy's skills are amazing (pointing to Joe), but it has been hard.
Joe: It is the biggest challenge--the communication part, the time management...
Sea Creatures: So that's looking back, how about looking ahead. What are you guys excited about?
Joe: Transitioning into doing what we feel like we are supposed to be doing...
Rachel: ...bartending, serving, hosting...
Joe: Yeah, getting back to work.
Sea Creatures: What are your roles in the restaurant going to be?
Joe: We are on the schedule. One of us will always be on the floor as a manager.
Rachel: ...one of us or Pat [Pat Thalasinos--bartender, minority owner, and all around awesome guy].
Sea Creatures: What about the restaurant is exciting--menu-wise or bar-wise...
Joe: I am excited about fresh juice. We want to do tons of rum, tequila, pisco--more warm weather spirits. We want to get away from the gin and bourbon thing that everybody is doing. Lots of juice. Lots of fresh things...but food, definitely ceviché. That's the big thing. Alex is getting really close with the preparations. One in particular that is more Peruvian in style--it has little fried sweet potatoes, avocado, aji amarillo...
Rachel: ...it is really good! His leche, the brine basically, it is called leche de tigre, is really good.
Joe: I am exited about carrot juice and pineapple juice in the bar, at least to start with.
Rachel: That was another thing, when we were in the Yucatán, everyone is juicing all the time.
Joe: You walk anywhere and there is a produce stand full of bottles of juice. It is great!
Sea Creatures: Are you guys getting nervous? How are you feeling now, two or three days before your first soft opening?
Joe: I feel really great! Playing basketball I always have this huge anxiety sitting on the bench, but I always feel great when I am playing in the game.
Rachel: I played Alice in Alice in the Wonderland in the 8th grade. Backstage I was throwing up in a cardboard box, but once I was out there, I was fine. This is the same.
Manolin is now open on Stone Way North in Wallingford. Go there! Sea Creatures has been and it is fantastic. Order the smoked char and say 'hi' to Joe and Rachel.