STLMade Conversations: Bulrush

Okay, so: What is Bulrush?

It’s a restaurant in Midtown, down near the Fox. And what we do is we look at early 19th century Ozark foods, but we give it a contemporary or modern twist because modern diners don’t want to eat what they were eating back in the early 19th century. So we take those modern sensibilities, modern cooking techniques and apply them to the research that we do, and everything we serve is based in research. So to us, that means we find letters and journals from the time period, not textbooks, and dig into these personal narratives, personal stories, and try to get into the minds of those folks. And then give them a new voice, a voice that has relevance to today.

How has Bulrush tackled 2020?

So COVID’s been crazy, right? It has for everybody. And none of us had the playbook on how to respond to a pandemic. My spouse likes to say, whenever someone gets down about how they’re responding, he says, “Well, you are doing the best you’ve ever done in a pandemic.” You know, this is our first one.

And just like everyone else, we were watching it in February and I was already getting concerned and we were making some adjustments. Then we get to March and it’s clear things are going to get bad, real fast. And so by the end of March, like everyone else, we quickly pivoted and did carry-out. Well, what does carry-out mean when you’re a tasting menu restaurant? We’re fine dining.

So we did what everyone else did. Here’s where all of a sudden, all these à la carte dishes, here’s comfort food, and we can do that as good as anyone else, but it’s not our passion. And so we did that and then April happened, we all shut down. May came and we reopened. And that whole time we kept doing it. I don’t want to say our hearts weren’t in it, but they weren’t.

I mean, our passion is storytelling. Our passion is the creativity. And when you put a roasted chicken in a box and send it to someone that you don’t know, if they’re eating it hot, if the skin is still crispy, if they don’t understand that the seasoning is completely foraged, you know what makes our food unique?

It was just disparaging. It was demoralizing. And so I could feel that in my energy for certain and the impact of my energy on my team. And so we got to this point near the end of May, where I said, look, I’m tired of doing second-best.

We want our food to be the best it can be. And it’s never going to be the best going out in a box. I don’t care how well you plan it. And so we stepped back and said, look, at this point, we knew the pandemic wasn’t ending anytime soon.

What’s Changed for the New Not-So-Normal?

We talked about, how do we re-envision this long-term/short-term change to be something that we can be excited about every single day?

I thought, wow, wouldn’t it be fun to do a drive-thru tasting menu. But when we sat down for this new brainstorming session, I brought that up to the staff, and I don’t remember who, someone said, “well, why don’t we do like Sonic does?” And all of a sudden, the light bulb went on for all of us.

And so right now we’re doing a five-course tasting menu. Each course comes out on a tin tray lined with linen. You get the fancy silverware. We’ve had to think through all those little details like the glassware. I can’t give you a stemmed, fancy crystal wine glass. So we have things that fit in your cup holders, things designed for cup holders, but they’re nicer. All of our dishes are compostable. We do a lot with bamboo and recycled sugar products. And we do that because then you don’t have to worry about dishes being reused.

And so when you get your food, you get a QR code. And each course, you snap your QR code. It’ll take you to a YouTube video. It’s either me or my staff telling you the history, the story behind the food, which satisfies my need to tell the story, but without me spraying on you.

And so now you’ve got that story. You got the history, even because of this technology, you can click to see more. Now, down there, I’ve already described the course, but we do a brief version. Here’s the detailed version for the foodie who needs to know it all below that as a link to a Spotify playlist, you can listen to what we’re listening to in the kitchen.

How have people responded to it?

So we didn’t know what this would become. We’re just like, okay, we’re going to do this. And if it meets our needs at that point, like I’m happy with that concept. I’m cool.

Well, the very first customers, they pulled in a Subaru Outback. They popped the hatchback up and they sat in there. And I remember laughing with my staff. I said, well, that’s gotta be the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever seen because I’m 6’3”. I can’t imagine doing it. They clearly weren’t 6’3”.

And they just put the trays on their laps and ate out of the back of their car. And, you know, I registered it, but I didn’t think much of it. I thought, Oh, isn’t that cute?

So the next weekend, now there’s a little bit of buzz, you know, and we still weren’t full, but we had a decent crowd. And all of a sudden people were bringing tables and putting them at the back of their car, putting tables on the sidewalk. Someone brought a Japanese-style dining room table, you know, the ones with the short legs.

And they had a big SUV and they sat with legs crossed in the back of the SUV with the Japanese table. And as time went on, all of a sudden people were bringing candles. And someone brought an iPad that played a fireplace through the whole meal, so they could eat front of the fireplace. We’ve had limos where we never even saw the guests. We handed food into these blackened windows and anonymous hands pulled the trays away from us and ate their food. One of the local brewers brought one of their delivery trucks, and they had emptied out the truck, put a solid wood dining room table in the back, and they had the candles and the flowers. And we had people put flowers on the dashboard. It’s amazing. The stuff that we’ve seen, because now people are getting the potential fun of it.

What surprised you about it?

It’s just this creativity that’s happened that we didn’t anticipate. And to me, that’s what’s made it worth everything. Like my needs are met on that first night. I’ve got people I’m telling my stories to, you’re getting good food, but to see what they’ve created with the context that we’ve given. That’s cool.

Thanks for talking with us, Rob. 

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity by Lauren Harms Milford

“ Seeing how people are supporting us and then making it their own, it doesn't get better than this.”
– Rob Connoley