He realizes people have been wondering, and he respects the fact. That’s why Matt Welsch, known to many as the “Vagabond Chef,” has tried to be as transparent as possible.
Nearly 200 people contributed an average of $116.23 per person to Welsch’s Kickstarter campaign to assist him with relocating to a new storefront more than a year ago, and those folks, along with many more, were left pondering when that reinvented eatery would open. A grand total of $22,085 was collected from 190 individuals, and before too long they will see the new tabletops and bar surfaces, and they too will receive the promised incentives when Welsch swings open the doors to his new restaurant on the corner of 12th and Market streets.
“By and large most of those people remained very supportive, and I offered all of them their money back. Only one supporter took me up on that offer, and they got their money back,” Welsch reported. “That person had a bit of a negative attitude about it, but it was very important to me, and since they received their money back, I’ve not heard anything from them.
“Thankfully that individual was the only one because, honestly, I would have been hard-pressed to give everyone their money back because the deal was done with the woodworker to do the tabletops,” he continued. “But I would have done anything I could to make it happen if everyone did want their money back. I would have taken one of the job offers I’ve received that would have taken me out of this area to make it happen. That’s how strongly I felt about it.”
There existed a lot of chatter and promotion about his potential move to upper Market Street across from Market Plaza, and while the deal with Tito’s Sloppy Doggs moved forward, an unbeatable obstacle forced the Vagabond Chef to re-open operations at the State Cellar for lunch service Monday through Friday.
“Unfortunately, deals like that one fall through all of the time. That’s just what happens in this business, and while I didn’t like it at all, I’ve come to realize that the business side of owning a restaurant is more difficult that I first realized,” Welsch said. “I now realize that I shared too much information about the move, but this time I’ve waited until all of the paperwork was signed with the building’s owners, and all of the finances have been finalized.
“I can now say that this is as surely going to happen as anything is sure in this world,” he continued. “That was important to me because I know it hurt people when the new location fell through. When that happened, my first thought concerned all of the people who supported my Kickstarter campaign. They all believed in this happening and, then it didn’t. Some people thought that was it. I was done, and that the money had gone to waste.”
The new Vagabond Kitchen will be situated at 1201 Market St., where former businesses such as Thom McAn Shoes, Domino’s Pizza, Nogales Mexican Restaurant, and the Tiki Bar & Grill have operated in past years. Welsch intends to open the new location at some point in November as long as the renovations allow for it.
The chef is already working with construction crews on the interior space, and a new exterior look will occur, as well, and Welsch is preparing to interview and hire staff members for the floor and the kitchen. He has learned much, he admitted, from management to crowd pleasing.
“I’m just working very hard so I can take everything I have learned the last couple of years so I can build on that experience,” Welsch said. “There are a lot of things I am going to nail down this month like the uniforms, the training program, and a solid interview process to make sure we get the right people so we’re all thinking about a customer’s experience beginning when they walk into the restaurant.
“I have learned a lot, and I am sure I still have a lot more to learn, and one thing I have realized is that at the very beginning I approached the restaurant with a chef’s mind. I was so focused on the food, and while that’s really important, it’s not the only part of it all,” he explained. “For one thing, I know how important location is now, and I want to have a really attractive space for our customers to come into, and that wasn’t the case with our previous location.”
Once open, the Vagabond Kitchen will offer lunch and dinner services Tuesday through Saturday, and Welsch plans to offer two different menus to ensure quickness and quality when his customers are facing time constraints during the workday.
“I really feel that I got a lunch menu nailed down at the State Cellar. Good food and trying to do our best to engineer it so it can be to our customers as quickly as possible because people do not have long during their lunches,” he said. “That’s why a lot of those menu items will be on our lunch menu at the new place, but I also plan to add some items to it like burgers and some fried items.
“And I am still developing the dinner menu. There will be some of the items that we offered at the first restaurant, and there will be more, but there cannot be too much because we’ll be making everything very fresh,” Welsch continued. “We will have features, too, and I think that will allow our customers to come to understand the process of making real food with zero preservatives.”
The Marshall County native, in true vagabond fashion, has cheffed at a plethora of places throughout the United States before deciding to return to native ground a few years ago, and initially his goal was to reinvent the Upper Ohio Valley’s collective palette with menu items unique to the Wheeling area.
While many consumers enjoyed the new tastes, Welsch came to realize some locals wanted what they wanted and would pass on the experimental.
“When I first opened at the McLure I was stuck on the artistic idea of being chef and there were certain things I didn’t want to do because, honestly, I thought they were hokey,” he said. “But now I’ve learned that it’s most important to offer people what they like. My primary job is to offer the customers a great experience.
“I am always thinking about that experience and what people really want, and about what I can bring to them that are based on my experiences,” Welsch continued. “I have been to a lot of places around this country, and I have learned a ton, and what I still want to do is bring some of those things here to the Ohio Valley for our customers to try. But those local favorites will be there, too.”
While Nogales and the Tiki Bar simply used the same hard plastic booths installed by Dominoes in the 1990s, Welsch is working with the building’s owner so the eatery features a fresh interior with comfortable seating options, a bar area, a new walk-in cooler, and a revamped kitchen space.
“It’s not going to be just a big open room like the restaurant was when we were inside the McLure. That felt like a cafeteria to me, to be honest, and that’s not what I want with this new place,” Welsch said. “There are a lot of details I am working on right now because I am starting from scratch, really, so this is a process that takes it all back to the drawing board.”
Just as this vagabond worked with Wheeling area artisans to decorate his former location, Welsch hopes to accomplish that once again to dispatch something of a message to locals residents and visitors.
“I am trying to work with as many local artists so that the interior of the restaurant can be really, really special because I want it to be a ‘This is the best of Wheeling,’ atmosphere that allows the people who live in this area to feel good about that,” Welsch said. “And I want it to be, for the people who are visiting, something that lets them know how great a place Wheeling and the entire area is.
“I’m not sure how I’ll be able to add local music to this scene yet, but that’s definitely something I would like to do,” the chef continued. “My goal is to promote what everyone is doing here to make it a great place to live and visit.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)