From Portland to Paris, Indie Rockers Are Taking Over the Restaurant Biz
Support your local artists (by eating at their restaurants)
This past spring, the Denmark-based microbrewery Mikkeller, which operates more than 40 bars worldwide, opened their latest outpost in the 9th arrondissement in Paris. By design, the cozy corner space isn’t located in a touristy area, but is in a neighborhood populated by restaurants, small butcheries and bakeries, and boasts features such as a tiny balcony with quaint views and yellow brick tiled floor inspired by those typically seen in Danish churches.
Mikkeller had been looking to open in the city for a while, but the Parisian bar became a reality thanks in no small part to the insights and assistance provided by the new place’s co-owners: Bryce and Aaron Dessner of the indie rock band the National. The brothers are long-time friends of (and creative foils for) Mikkeller, which was co-founded by a math and physics teacher named Mikkel Borg Bjergsø in 2006. In the last half-decade, the Dessners have worked with the microbrewery on the Copenhagan-based Haven Festival and collaborated on their own Mikkeller beer, Reality Based Pils.
“There’s a big commonality between the way that Mikkel does beer and the way the Dessners do music,” says Jacob Gram Alsing, operations manager at Mikkeller. “When you see the Dessners, and you see their way of making music, there’s no doubt that there’s no detail that is not turned. It’s the same thing with Mikkel — we care about details.”
The Dessners aren’t the only indie musicians who have become involved in the bar business. In recent years, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy opened a (well-reviewed) wine bar and restaurant called the Four Horsemen in Williamsburg, while Hold Steady drummer Bobby Drake has co-owned the Greenpoint bar Lake Street with several other musicians, including Get Up Kids’ Rob Pope, since 2013. Indie musicians have also invested in brick-and-mortar restaurants: Interpol guitarist Daniel Kessler was the co-owner of the now-closed seafood joint Bergen Hill, while Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Régine Chassagne helm the Haitian restaurant Agrikol in Montreal. Chef-owner Brooks Headley, who cut his teeth playing in ’90s punk and emo bands like Born Against and Universal Order of Armageddon, even received a 2019 James Beard nomination for “Best Chef: New York City” for Superiority Burger, his acclaimed all-vegetarian space in the East Village.
Artists have always had side hustles and additional revenue streams to make ends meet. But why is there such a close connection between indie music and the food world?
Franz Nicolay, keyboard player for the Hold Steady — a band that had the Massive Nights IPA brewed for them by the Connecticut-based Hanging Hills Brewing Company — sees crossover between the two industries because of familiarity: not only do bands often form in neighborhoods with vibrant nightlife options, but musicians (especially those in their 20s) work in bars and restaurants when not touring or performing. “If you’re thinking about getting into a business, opening a business, the advice people will give you is like, ‘Don’t get into any business you don’t know,’” he says, while adding the caveat that the music industry has unfortunately now become a less-viable long-term career plan. “You can’t start a record label anymore. Maybe you can work for booking agents, but it makes more sense to get into restaurants and bars.”
Financial pragmatism, if not a retirement plan of sorts, also plays a role, Nicolay theorizes. “If you’re going to keep doing it beyond your thirties, being in bands and living in these urban neighborhoods where young people live, it makes sense to take your little chunk of money and invest it in something. And if what you know is bars, pool your money with a couple other rockers and open a bar. It’s just part of thinking about your future.”
Having a steady post-band plan in place is one reason Adam Turla and Sarah Balliet, the husband-and-wife co-founders of the band Murder by Death, opened the Neapolitan pizza restaurant Pizza Lupo in Louisville, Kentucky. Murder by Death are still going strong — in fact, Turla says he’s in the middle of planning a 20th-anniversary tour for the band for next year — but opening an Italian restaurant had been nearly a life-long dream, not least because Turla’s mom is from Italy and still has family there.
The genesis of Pizza Lupo also embodies self reliance — taking control of your own fortunes and creating something you want to exist — which is a mindset goes a long way to cement the specialty food world’s appeal to people who grew up in the indie rock scene, especially those who are frequently on the road.
“People who travel want to bring back the things that they love from the far-off lands they travel to,” Turla says. “It’s like, ‘I want to have that at home.’ I mean, we would go to Italy every year and it was, ‘God, I wish I could eat food like this in America.’ And especially living where I’ve lived, that was just never an option. One of the reasons that we opened our place [is] this is a place I want to eat, and people don’t have that option.”
Turla also points out that the restaurant world allows musicians who are used to being self-employed to maintain that lifestyle, and he also sees parallels between the services provided by both food and music. “When you’re an entertainer, people treat you like you’re the one with the power but, really, the audience is the person that we are serving,” he says. “We are entertaining them. And I think that’s really similar to the food-service industry.”
For Scott Winegard, doing “elevated hippie food,” as he puts it, became his passion in the early 2000s, when he became burnt out on band life after stints as bassist in post-hardcore icons Texas is the Reason and New End Original. Luckily, he had a burgeoning interest in restaurants, thanks to his tenure working at the groundbreaking East Village vegetarian joint Angelica Kitchen and a roommate in culinary school who left cookbooks around their apartment. Today, he’s the co-chef at the vegan haven Farm Spirit in Portland, Oregon.
To Winegard, the cool-hunting mindset and penchant for obscurity that permeates certain corners of indie rock — what he calls the “limited-edition lifestyle” — explains a lot about why so many are drawn to specialty food world.
“Sourcing products is, for me, like finding the cool record or finding a rare guitar pedal or an amp,” he says. “Music drove everything every day for me. All I wanted to do was be in a band and follow bands; literally, you wanted to get the cool T-shirt, you wanted to get the cool record, you wanted to make sure you got the colored vinyl. You want to have something different than everybody else.”
Working in the restaurant industry also gives musicians the best of both worlds, Winegard observes: being able to have a less peripatetic lifestyle while preserving the positive aspects of working within the independent music ecosystem.
“Sourcing and finding the right people to deal with and creating a relationship, and having that community — like, building a community within a community — is something that I definitely have held onto,” he says. “The punk rock world that I came from, it wasn’t mohawks and drinking beer and smashing things. It was like more of like a mindful, thoughtful, let’s-change-the-world kind of punk rock. Finding responsibly sourced things was really important, and not charging too much for things.
“It’s not just about it being a business; it’s about doing the right thing. It’s supporting the right people that are doing the right things as well.”
Providing options for conscious consumers underscores operations at Jewish deli Frankel’s Delicatessen, which is co-owed by Holy Ghost!’s Alex Frankel and his younger brother, Zach. The siblings had always joked about working together: Zach was fond of dreaming up outlandish restaurant concepts, and the pair would even write fake menus together. However, this idle fantasizing became much more serious on Mother’s Day in 2015, when the brothers realized they couldn’t buy high-quality bagels and lox for their mom in her Brooklyn neighborhood. “We had a eureka moment of, ‘Wait a second, this is crazy. There’s a lot of us Jews out here, and there’s also a lot of people who like this food. Why isn’t there anything out here?’” Alex Frankel tells InsideHook. In 2016, Frankel’s Delicatessen opened in a Greenpoint space that once housed a Polish restaurant.
Opening a family-run mom-and-pop place offers “an alternative to mainstream options,” he says. “Everyone listens to music and everyone eats, but it’s nice to have some choice in what you consume.” For artists enmeshed in a music industry that’s increasingly dominated by corporate interests, being able to provide this kind of alternative is gratifying. “In both music and food, there’s increasingly less mom-and-pop operations, or things that are, you know, not chains, and where there’s real humans behind it,” Alex Frankel observes. “Especially in New York — I grew up here, and every day it gets more and more Chase Banks, more and more Duane Reades. It’s exciting to think that, okay, we [have] this little space — our restaurant seats 18 people, it’s 400 square feet — and we can do something that’s not a Starbucks. It’s not a Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s by us, for us.”
For indie musicians used to the DIY lifestyle and perspective, it’s easy to apply this mindset to operations at their non-music businesses. Both Turla and Frankel say they were extremely hands-on doing the gut renovations of their respective restaurants, involved in everything from designing the spaces to the actual physical construction. Perhaps more important, the ideas of community, partnership and friendship permeate how these musicians approach operations.
Frankel, for example, stresses several times how instrumental head chef Ashley Berman and director of operations Taylor McEwan are to keeping Frankel’s running smoothly. His longtime musical collaborator Nick Millhiser, with whom he released a new Holy Ghost! album, Work, in June, is also tied to the business, as a restaurant partner. Pizza Lupo’s chef is Sarah Balliet’s brother, Max, who is known in Louisville for launching the taco truck Holy Molé. And Winegard is good friends with Farm Spirit’s co-chef and owner, Aaron Adams. It’s not a stretch to say that working together on specialty food endeavors replicates the collaborative, collective creative spirit that emerges within a band.
Mikkeller’s Gram Alsing confirms the same is true in the craft beer world. “If you Google beer collaborations now, you will see people are collaborating all over the world,” he says. “We help each other a lot in this industry; everybody’s collaborating with everybody. I feel that it’s the same thing as when musicians jam and do gigs together and are at each other’s shows and on each other’s albums.”
It should come as no surprise that the craft beer world has begun to attract a ton of musicians for beer collaborations — the more unique, the better. In 2014, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Guided By Voices’ landmark Bee Thousand album, Dogfish Head brewed a limited-edition 10-percent ABV imperial lager called BEER Thousand that came packaged with a vinyl live album recorded on the band’s first tour. (The LP’s median sale price on Discogs now hovers around $60.) And just last year, the brewery partnered with the Flaming Lips to make a 6.5-percent ABV fruity pale ale called Dragons & YumYums.
Gram Alsing notes that indie rock and craft beer also intersect at “the search for having the uniqueness, the innovation, the quality. Having something that is interesting and not necessarily very easily accessible,” he says. “The reason I listen to indie rock — and the reason I listened to grunge back in the day — and the reason I like to listen to metal is that it’s not pop. It’s stuff where I have to figure out what it is I like about it. There’s something about it that makes me curious. I think that’s where the alignment between indie rock and craft beer is.”
Musicians are curious people, and tend to relish a challenge. In specialty foods, they’ve found one. As Winegard points out, being in the restaurant world offers deep personal fulfillment, by letting chefs be present in the here-and-now creating new things, rather than relying on the past for praise.
“I’m literally serving food that’s being picked the day of, the day before. I get deliveries on Tuesday that the farmers are picking on Monday,” he says. “I’m always challenging myself, I’m always pushing myself every day. You play the same song over and over again, it’s not like I’m trying to make the song better. It’s a song, and it’s written. I can be a better bass player, a musician, but you can’t just change the band.”