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Tony Maws Is Still Bewildered by Boston's Burger Obsession

The Kirkland Tap & Trotter has reached its first anniversary, and chef/proprietor Tony Maws reflects on its first year, the balance act between Kirkland and Craigie on Main, and lots more.

Tony Maws at The Kirkland Tap & Trotter
Tony Maws at The Kirkland Tap & Trotter
Photos by Rachel Leah Blumenthal for Eater

Does it feel like it’s been a year?
I guess in the sense that I’m buying vegetables and fruit right now that I was buying a year ago, yeah. A year in restaurant life sometimes feels like it’s twice the speed of normal life, and sometimes it’s like a snail’s pace, so it depends on the day, but it does both. But it’s been a good year. A long year, but a good year.

"Sometimes I wish things happened faster, but sometimes they don’t. That’s just part of the process."

How has year one here compared to year one at Craigie on Main?
The openings of Craigie and Kirkland were very, very, very different. When we moved Craigie Street Bistrot to Craigie on Main, we were keeping the same concept and a lot of the same staff; we were just trying to do what we were already doing the prior six years but trying to do it better in a different setting that we had built to be able to say ‘yes’ to a lot of things we had grown accustomed to having to say ‘no’ to, just due to the limitations we had at the Bistrot.

Kirkland was really a new entity. There were only a few of us that are involved in both places; now there’s four. We didn’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul, taking all my fantastic employees from Craigie and bringing them over here. We took just a select few, but we really wanted Craigie to keep doing what it’s doing. In no way have we been trying to ignore Craigie on Main. That’s my baby, my first baby. I can’t ignore that.

The other thing is that what we’re trying to do here is very different than Craigie on Main. One of the discussion points we’ve had since day one — a lot of things that come naturally to us with the Craigie experience, we have to almost stop ourselves and be like, "Wait, wait, wait...that’s what we would do at Craigie on Main, but does that make sense here at Kirkland?"

Also, it’s the public point of view. Maybe you’ve never heard of me and we’re just a new restaurant in the neighborhood. Maybe you have heard of me, and you think you’re walking in here to get some offshoot of Craigie on Main. Well, that’s not going to happen.

I think when we opened up Craigie on Main, even though Craigie Street Bistrot had begun to sort of get its name spread, there was a different type of attention paid to the opening, and it was a different time too. Eater’s role was different; all the other blogs’ roles were a little bit different. They were certainly present but not as omnipresent as things are today. So we open up the doors here, and there’s a lot of speculation, and you guys ran articles leading up to the opening with little glimpses and stuff — and all of that seems so surreal.

I think we’ve done a really good job this year, and I say that with pride and confidence, but I also know that if you’re going to be a restaurant that’s going to be sustainable and wants to continue to grow, it takes a lot longer than a year to really achieve full efficiency and really get all the systems working the way you want them to. Sometimes I wish things happened faster, but sometimes they don’t. That’s just part of the process.

How have you felt about the reception you’ve received this year in terms of reviews and feedback from customers?
Mostly I feel that the parts that people have commended us on have been accurate, and the parts that people felt challenged by have sometimes been pretty accurate too. If we continually grow, we know we’re going to improve. Craigie is in its 12th year now, believe it or not, and our thing over there is always about improvement, so I hope no one thinks about me saying we want to be better in year two as saying that year one wasn’t what we wanted it to be.

Year one posed its own challenges, and it’s its own chapter. When we opened, how we opened, the weather from last winter, which was completely madness. Our first summer. All these different things. Trying to figure out staffing models that work within the framework of this business. We went through all the same things at Craigie, too; I just think that people were paying a different type of attention. That’s the world we live in. It’s not always fun, but we filter what we think is really important — and everyone’s got an opinion, and good for them. The ones that care to share constructively and objectively, you listen. Look, no restaurant is for everybody. None. What we’re trying to do is figure out how to be the best restaurant to the people that want to be a part of the Kirkland Tap & Trotter.

"I’m still spending the majority of my time at Kirkland, and that’s no secret. Do I miss Craigie? Absolutely."

How do you split your time between the two restaurants, and has that balance shifted much over the course of the year?
I’m still spending the majority of my time at Kirkland, and that’s no secret. Do I miss Craigie? Absolutely. I’ve got a fantastic team over there — the wheels spin in the right direction, and the systems have been in place for a really long time, and I’ve got some great young cooks and managers over there that are just doing fantastic work. So I’m over there and I taste and we talk all the time, but they’ve achieved a level where they’re in power to make a lot of really important decisions, and they keep our guests happy, and I’m really proud of them. Kirkland is still an evolution; like I said, both restaurants will be. I just think Kirkland right now is where most of my time is, and that’ll change. I don’t really think I’ll ever have a schedule again; I think that’ll just be really, really hard. But no complaints.

When we spoke a week in, you were talking about how you’re very much a masochist and perfectionist and you hardly knew what day it was at the time. Do you feel similarly today? Have you been able to balance in any kind of a relaxed feeling over the course of the year?
I don’t know how many restaurant owners or chefs I would ever call relaxed — I think it’s relative. [Laughs.] We’re still really pumped up to do both restaurants as best as we possibly can, and the restaurant industry requires a ton of energy and a huge commitment. On top of that, I’ve got a family that’s very supportive but also very important to me, and they deserve time too. You put those all together, and it’s going to create a very busy lifestyle, so do I always know what day it is? Well, one or way or the other I have to because I have to make sure my son is going to school on time or getting to baseball practice on the right day and we’re ordering the right food for the right day...but we have a lot of people who help me with that too. [Laughs.]

How’s the kids’ menu doing? Do you get a lot of families coming in?
Yeah, we do. I’m very proud to offer a menu geared towards kids that’s made of real food with real technique. There are some great restaurants out there that have kids’ menus that don’t pay that same amount of attention. Maybe it’s because I’m a dad or because of my involvement with Share Our Strength, but I just feel that I have a very unique position and strong responsibility to make sure that young people eat real food. And that doesn’t mean it has to be fancy, but it means that things aren’t coming out of a package from a national supplier that’s frozen and cryovaced and produced somewhere far away. I just don’t think that that’s what real food is about, and that’s certainly not what I want to introduce to my own son. So we’re very proud to offer the menu we do, and it’s been very well-received and, I think, appreciated by the parents that live in this neighborhood.

"I sometimes laugh and I sometimes cry when I think about how people are so dependent and so comforted by this thing called a hamburger, so we sell our fair share."

And on the regular menu, what would you say has been the most popular item?
I am still amazed and baffled, bewildered, by our need and complete fixation on a thing called a hamburger. I think we make a decent hamburger. I sometimes laugh and I sometimes cry when I think about how people are so dependent and so comforted by this thing called a hamburger, so we sell our fair share. At the same time, we have a lot of things on the menu that are what I’d want to eat on a Monday night, and we sell a lot of those too. The crispy fried pork ribs, the octopus salad, the duck for two that we’ve been doing, lobster that we usually run on the weekends — all have a lot of really great fans. But whatever you read about hamburger trends or hamburgers being so over, tell our guests that, because holy moley do they enjoy their Kirkland Tap & Trotter hamburgers.

Is there an item on the menu that you’re really attached to that you wish people ordered more of?
Some people had said that we didn’t serve a lot of vegetables. We put a lot of vegetables on the menu, some really fantastic salads — they’re interesting and they’re not just an Iceberg wedge or the typical mesclun salad. I think they sometimes get overlooked because people still just want their hamburger and fries. Also, I’d put our grilled chicken up there with any chicken in the city, hands down. That’s my favorite thing to eat at the end of dinner.

What has been the hardest moment of the year?
It’s a constant wave. There’s highs and there’s lows all the time. Staffing challenges, training challenges, business operation challenges. I don’t know if I can really pinpoint a moment; I’m not trying to be evasive. Was there ever a moment when I wanted to completely break down and cry? There’s nothing that’s been definitively bad or crazy. I think the snow last year was pretty ridiculous. I’m a very proud New Englander, and that was a little absurd. Snowing the day before Valentine’s Day and the day after Valentine’s Day on a weekend that’s really important to the success of restaurants was pretty dramatic.

And on the other side, is there a best moment that sticks out?
We’ve had a lot of really good moments. Again, not that I don’t appreciate the first year, but the best is yet to come. This restaurant keeps on moving in a really fantastic direction, and we’re still adding things.

What’s in store for year two?
No grand announcements. I think we’ll take all the information we’ve gathered from year one, both here at Kirkland Tap & Trotter and also year one of operating two different restaurants, and the conversation is always centered on, "What are we going to do to be better at this? How do I become better boss, a better manager, a better owner of two places, a better mentor? How does my management team accomplish similar goals with the people who work for them?" Listen to the right people, paying attention and continuing to evolve in ways that make more and more people happy, and that’s the name of the game. We’re here to make people happy.

"A lot of my friends who have opened up more than one restaurant say the hardest one is the second."

Do you think you’d ever consider opening more restaurants, or is two the magic number for you?
For awhile, my personal mantra has been "Be careful what you wish for." For two, there are a lot of challenges that I expected, and I knew going in that there would be challenges that would be curveballs to me or that I wouldn’t anticipate, and they certainly exist. There was never a grand moment when I said, "Ah, I’m ready to open my first restaurant." That opportunity came about, and it seemed like a good risk and a good thing to do at that time. And we were thinking about a second restaurant ten years into it, but it wasn’t like I put my foot down one day and said, "I’m going to open up two." There was an opportunity that was presented; I talked to my team, and it seemed like it was a good deal.

So if you ask me today if I think that there’s going to be three, I think it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Would I turn down an opportunity? Honestly, I have no idea. Certainly it’s a conversation I’d have with my management team and obviously with my family. A lot of my friends who have opened up more than one restaurant say the hardest one is the second. Coming up with the systems that support two, coming up with the personal systems that allow you to be this chef and owner for two different restaurants when you can’t be in the two places at once — that is really challenging, and it’s just completely different than anything I’ve done for the past twenty years as a cook growing up in this business where everything has been so hands on. Now you have to not be so hands on. So there’s a lot of dramatic change, and a lot of it is very positive. I’d have to think long and hard about what three would mean for me, mean for my restaurants, and mean for my team and my family.

Any other thoughts on how the year has gone?
I think it’s been a terrific ride, and for anybody that came in month one or month two and had a great time, I hope to see you soon. Some of the stuff that we’re doing right now is, I think, objectively and uniquely pretty special. It’s really nice to be able to have two different restaurants that do two different things from a creative standpoint, because I can write down any idea on a piece of paper and pretty much get to do it; it’s just a question of where as opposed to crossing it out and saying, "Ah, that’s not what this place is about." Now we get to do a little bit of a lot of things. It’s pretty cool.

Tony Maws

Craigie On Main

853 Main Street, , MA 02139 (617) 497-5511 Visit Website

The Kirkland Tap & Trotter

425 Washington Street, , MA 02143 (857) 259-6585 Visit Website