Jimmy Seidel, chef-owner of Snarf's: "I'm having a love affair with fried chicken"
This is part one of my interview with Jimmy Seidel, chef-owner of Snarf's and Snarfburger; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
If you've ever wondered why Jimmy Seidel, owner of Snarf's and Snarfburger, named his joints what he did, all you have to do is consult a dictionary: The definition of "snarf," depending upon which dictionary app you have, is to eat or drink quickly, voraciously or greedily. But the dictionaries of the world could just replace that terminology with two words: Jimmy Seidel. "[Snarf] was my college nickname, because I grubbed my food, my cocktails, my life. I snarfed down everything I could," recalls Seidel, who just turned fifty and plans to enter his "silver decade" by snarfing every day for the next year. "It's going to be one year-long party of snarfing," he quips.
Born in St. Louis, Seidel traveled around the world with his parents, and food, he says, was always first and foremost in his mind. "It was always about eating. We'd be having lunch while we were discussing where we were going to have dinner," he remembers. Although he was immersed in restaurants, he never worked in one until he was in his thirties.
"I actually wanted to be a fireman until I was about five, and then I took one of those career personality tests in high school that suggested I should be a highway patrolman, which was hilarious, because they were always chasing me," says Seidel. Instead, he graduated from Drake University with a degree in economics and finance and spent the next decade in the stock market, starting as a broker. "I pretty much hated it," he says. "There's nothing worse than making cold calls all day and having people slam the phone down." He did time as a floor trader, too, in Chicago, but "wasn't that good at it." Besides, he points out, "The world changed because of computers, so business started drying up and there were no more floor traders."
That's when he started to focus on the sandwich industry. "I'd always wanted to open up a sandwich shop, and to be honest, I was pretty sure that I could create a very good sandwich shop that I could duplicate; I thought I could make a better mousetrap," says Seidel, who notes that he never even wrote a business plan for the original Snarf's, which he opened in Boulder in 1996. "I didn't have any restaurant experience, but I understood the business side of things, and I have a knack for knowing what people want, so I sat down and wrote out a menu of all of my favorite sandwich combinations and soups that I knew and loved, and opened the first Snarf's in a market that I thought would appreciate my sandwiches," he explains.
Four years later he opened another Snarf's, also in Boulder. "We wanted to build a good reputation before opening our second location, so we waited until we were sure that we'd done that before embarking on more growth," says Seidel, who now owns ten Snarf's outposts in Colorado, plus two in Chicago and two in St. Louis -- and before the end of this year, he'll add another location in Highland, two more in Chicago, one in Austin, and another in St. Louis.
Seidel is also searching for a spot to unleash another Snarfburger, his followup to Snarf's, which began in Boulder as a throwback to those walk-up windows of old. "I'd been making burgers for my employees for a while, just for fun, and they loved them, and I kinda always wanted to give a burger place a shot, so now I'm in the sandwich-and-burger business," says Seidel, who currently has three Snarfburgers: the original in Boulder, a second in Lafayette, and a third in Chicago. Denver is likely to be next.
"The best part of being in this business," Seidel stresses, "is our customers, who love and appreciate our sandwiches and burgers, all of which are made with love by people who really care about what they're doing." And that, he adds, "makes me feel really, really good." In the following interview, Seidel unapologetically admits to having a love affair with fried chicken, explains why he'd like to open a multimillion-dollar Snarf's, and sings the praises of chef Justin Brunson.
Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Jimmy Seidel: My first food memory was of my mother making fish that stunk up the whole house, which is to say that it wasn't a good first food memory. I was then forced to sit at the table until midnight until I ate it. I'm still tortured by the thought of it.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, tenacious, gregarious, stubborn, loyal, generous, creative, colorful, intense and driven.
Five words to describe your food: As good as it gets.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love hearts of palm and anything that includes pig. I'm also obsessed with giardiniera peppers, and we even sell our own blend in the restaurants. In fact, we're even starting to bottle the hot-pepper oil, and people love to splash it on their sandwiches for a little extra kick.
One ingredient you won't touch: The only thing I can think of is a raw clam. Then again, any food, if made right, can be delicious. And I'm not afraid to try anything once.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: Definitely more fried things. I'm over the health-food craze. It's widely known that I'm having a love affair with fried chicken.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: Greek yogurt, for the simple reason that I'm tired of hearing about it. Don't get me wrong: I like Greek yogurt, but can't we talk about something else that's a little more interesting? Like sandwiches?
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: There are some pretty amazing gadgets out there, but I'm an old-fashioned guy, so I have to go with the food processor. It's the Renaissance man of the kitchen, and it does it all while saving time. It chops, it mousses, it emulsifies, and it's my go-to piece of equipment for making homemade soups.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: Besides her fish, my mother was a really good cook, and I have a lot of fond memories of her cooking and the delicious smells wafting from the kitchen. Her cooking was the beginning of the end of my girlish figure.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix? I'd drive fifty miles for Popeye's. I think I already mentioned that I have a fried-chicken obsession.
Favorite dish on your menu: My favorite dish is a classic hot dog with bacon, cheese, pickles, sweet pickle relish, onions, tomatoes, mustard and hot peppers. I think it's the perfect food.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? I'd love to have a broiled lobster tail-and-butter sandwich with a squeeze of lemon. Doesn't that sound great? It would be the featured dish at the $3 million Snarf's.
Weirdest customer request: We've had a lot of weird requests over the years, but the one that sticks out the most is the customer who came in with a frozen pizza and asked us to cook it in one of our toaster ovens. We obliged, and then topped it with hot peppers at his request. We love our customers. He was happy.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Good drivers.
Your best traits: I like to have fun, no matter what I'm doing. Opening Snarf's and making people happy has been a blast. Of course, there have been obstacles and challenges, but I think it's important to be optimistic and enjoy life. I don't take myself, or life, too seriously. I love what I do, and I'm extremely driven and passionate when it comes to my business, but having fun is also a priority for me. Isn't that why we work so hard?
Your worst traits: My driving. If you talk to anyone who knows me, they'll also tell you I have a hard time sitting still and staying focused. But when you're operating seventeen restaurants, there are a lot of distractions. I start to get anxious if I have to sit still.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd probably be a judge or a ballroom dancer.
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