retreat gastropub co-owners sydney and jennifer caldwell photo by leah clay-downing

Employees take over ownership of several St. Louis businesses

When Travis Howard, co-owner of Yellowbelly and Lazy Tiger, was thinking about selling Retreat Gastropub, he didn’t want to pass his baby to just anyone. He wanted buyers who cared.

He didn’t have to look far for that emotional investment. It was rolling napkins and buffing goblets behind the bar, and it was on the phone at the host station tracking down Brussels sprout stalks for the evening appetizer. Howard sold the restaurant late last year to trusty employees Sydney and Jennifer Caldwell. And, so far, in Howard’s estimation, his former baby is in great hands. “Those two are good, hard-working people,” Howard said. “I don’t have any worries at all.” 

In the last few years, a number of owners have passed the torch to faithful employees. At Baumann’s Fine Meats in Brentwood, Kenny Clifton enjoys “tweaking the smoke” – using different woods, the right flame, experimenting with new rubs for the meat. It’s a skill he picked up from his former boss, the late Jim Lucas. Clifton and his co-worker – now business partner – Jack O’Leary, bought the business last September from Lucas’ widow, Ann, who ran Baumann’s with her husband from 2008 until Jim passed away in 2017.

Clifton left college and went to work full-time at Baumann’s in 2016. O’Leary, who was pursuing an accounting degree at Fontbonne University, started just before Clifton. The Caldwells are similarly bushy-tailed: Jennifer joined Retreat in 2016, working her way from server to general manager by 2020; Sydney took the job in 2018 to put herself through graduate school, completing a master’s program in social work.

Clifton said even though Ann Lucas received a cash offer from an interested buyer, she wanted to find a way to help the boys purchase the store themselves. “A personal relationship with the customers and overall community was more important to Ann than anything,” Clifton said. “Jack and I already had that.”

Both men – you can tell – intend to honor Jim’s memory and Ann’s kindness with shrewd business sense. These are two lads in their mid-20s with fresh faces and interesting plans – but they’re also respectful of old ways and cautious of changing too much too soon. They have, however, implemented a few small tweaks, so to speak. Their changes to date include a fridge procured from the recently shuttered Hanlen’s Fine Meats & Catering in Kirkwood, as well as a new meat case. 

Like Clifton and O’Leary, the Caldwells haven’t made many changes at Retreat so far. They suggest that once they have more capital at their disposal, they may focus on elevating the menu a little and making small changes to the interior. They’ve also started experimenting with bar-focused, ticketed events such as cocktail competitions and pop-ups. And they’ll be returning sooner rather than later to the good ol’ days of paper menus. “I hate QR codes,” Sydney said. 

A new day also dawned over Big Sky Cafe in Webster Groves when one-time busboy Dominic Weiss purchased the sustainability-focused restaurant from previous owner Tim Mallett. Weiss started at Big Sky Cafe 32 years ago, and his career took in stints at Mallett’s other restaurants – Blue Water Grill, Ellie Forcella and Remy’s Kitchen & Wine Bar – before he returned “home” to Big Sky a decade ago. 

Having worked his way from napkins and forks to pan-seared Buttonwood Farm chicken and scallops with truffled risotto, Weiss is a far cooler cat than he was in his early days. “I was young and excited, and I remember getting overwhelmed in the beginning,” he said.

But that was then. Weiss took the reins as chef and owner in November 2021. Mallett, his mentor, was ready to retire; Weiss, not so much. “There’s so much of me in it, the people who are here are family to me and that includes a lot of our regular customers,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to not be part of that.” He said he has no big changes in mind, only to continue Big Sky’s legacy and to never, ever tweak his restaurant’s caramel-pecan apple pie. That pie, he stressed, is the same now as it ever was, the same as it will ever be.

Back at Baumann’s, Clifton, looking a little dreamy, talked about a signature sandwich, and his plans to develop the formula for a standout dressing. It feels like the right kind of idea for this store. When Baumann’s opened in 1946, a movie ticket cost as much as a dozen eggs, just 55 cents. All these decades later, a deli counter in a meat shop offering a few takeout hoagies hardly feels like, “Too much too soon.”

Editor's note: Since this article was published in the print edition, we’ve gathered that another notable hand-over is set to take place by the end of the year. Eleven Eleven Mississipi’s owners Paul and Wendy Hamilton are selling to longtime managing partner Jason Arnold, who has been part of the team for 18 years. Hamilton said this switch won’t change much, and that he’s delighted to be able to “reward Arnold and give him ownership.” Meanwhile, Hamilton said he’ll still be involved, but looks forward to “relaxing a little.” In addition, Pint Size Bakery & Coffee has also announced a former employee will be taking over ownership in July.