September 2019

5 Drinks with: Marshall Sampson of Santa Fe Cafe and Pizza Co.

Author: Barry Kaufman | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

He’s drinking: Herradura

I’m drinking: the el camino [El Jimador Reposado tequila, lemon juice, organic agave nectar, ginger oil and Montelobos Mezcal]

Marshall Sampson has reached an interesting time in his restaurant career. For 13 years, he’s owned Santa Fe Café with his business partner Sean Crosby, and for those thirteen years he’s devoted his sole focus to keeping the experience fresh at one of the island’s go-to restaurants.

But that all changed with a field trip to Kennedy Space Center.

Now, with business partner Billy Watterson, he’s expanding his reach to launch Pizza Co., a fast-casual concept that serves up piping hot pizza in 90 seconds. The first location has already opened on Main Street, with a second to be opened inside Burnt Church Distillery, which Watterson owns with his brother Sean.

We sat down at Santa Fe Café with the restaurateur to talk (over tequila) about what it takes to leap from one restaurant to three, how Pizza Co. is different from other pizza places, and what life in F&B is like for a father of three.

Barry Kaufman: How did Pizza Co. come about?
Marshall Sampson: It was actually on a field trip. I didn’t really even know Billy [Watterson, his partner in Pizza Co.] before the field trip, but our daughters were going to the Kennedy Space Center. We spent the night there, and I said I’d drive a bunch of the dads. We had three other dads and their daughters in the minivan, and Billy sat in the front seat. He was telling me about the distillery and how he wanted to do a restaurant in there.
He started picking my brain. At first, I wasn’t even talking like I was going to do it; I was just giving him some advice. He was asking about Santa Fe Café, and I told him if the distillery is going to be your main focus I don’t know if you want something with so many moving parts. So, he asked what I’d do, and I told him, “Honestly, I’d do a pizza shop.”

BK: What made you think that?
MS: I’ve been traveling around and noticed a similar model to what we did at Pizza Co. I had lunch at one and wound up sitting there for an hour thinking, “This is a really smart design.” I like the amount of people it took to run it, and I’d been talking about doing something else on a smaller level. Santa Fe Café is a monster. There’s a lot that’s involved keeping a large restaurant going. A small footprint—it’s something you can wrap your hands around a little easier.

So, we started out talking about pizza, and by the end of that trip, we were looking at property and picking out names. We got home, and our wives were like, “What just happened?” Within a week we had the spot on Main Street picked out. We moved very quickly. It was one of those situations where two people just met at the right time.

BK: How did the pizza recipe come about?
MS: I actually went to school for dough right when we got back. I started researching dough, researching where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, and the company that I purchased our oven from has a school in Maryland. I did a crash course up there for a week and literally did dough from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. No break for lunch, no nothing—just learning everything about dough, everything about sauce, everything about olive oil. And still a week just skimmed the surface.

I learned what I could learn, took that back with me, and made four different batches of dough a day for months, trying out different recipes, trying out different times, trying out different temperatures… Billy and Sean [Crosby, his partner in Santa Fe] were testing out all this stuff and Sysco was nice enough to let us use their test kitchen up in Columbia. I brought all my stuff up there, did a few sessions and finally found a dough I fell in love with. Everyone seems to really like it.

It’s got more of that northern feel to it with crispiness to the bottom of it but a little doughiness to the top. It’s the best of both worlds. I was tweaking it up until we opened.

BK: Are you as hands-on in the kitchen here [at Santa Fe]?
MS: I can go in the kitchen if need be, but it’s not the best scenario. I can do the grill just fine, but there are people way better at it than me. If we’re busy, I want my best people in there and I’m not one of those guys. But I can do three of the stations down there [at Pizza Co.] if need be to get by.
But that’s just if I have to. Stuff’s going to happen. I have them teach me well enough to get through a night and make sure everything’s on point. When the regular customers come in and see me back there, they say, “Uh oh. What happened?”

BK: With Santa Fe being so much work, why was now the right time to delve into another venture?
MS: Well, it is a beast, but the staff I have here I’ve had for a very long time. I finally felt comfortable to where I could pull myself away and it wouldn’t hurt the restaurant. Scott Goldberg, who’s been my bartender forever, stepped up, and I’ve given him some of my duties. He’s done an awesome job with it, but my staff in general know what to expect and they know the customers. It doesn’t run itself, but they run it very well.

I felt comfortable pulling myself out. Once I get that underway, I’ll pop back and forth, but I’d give that another month over there before I start dividing my time. My staff here made that whole thing over there possible.
It’s coming along very nicely. As we speak, I have my first manager training a new staff member. I never did any advertising for staff over there; I just filled the schedule through word of mouth.

BK: You’ve got to be the only restaurateur I’ve heard that from in years.
MS: (Laughs) I don’t want to jinx anything, but everything has just fallen into place really well with that. I’ve just been rolling with it. No panic. I just accept that it’ll work out, and it seems to be working out.

BK: Are you going to be as hands-on when the second one opens in Bluffton?
MS: I’ve actually got my four managers that were the first part of my staff over there. I’ve trained them all to be managers, so they’ll stay with this one while I go on to the next one. I’ll leave [Hilton Head] in their hands.
The funny thing is, we were talking about the distillery on the field trip. The first day or the second day we were thinking, “That’s pretty far away; maybe we should do one before the distillery opens. We want to do this right now.” That’s when we started looking at property on Main Street.

BK: What’s the experience moving from approachable fine dining at Sant Fe to fast-casual at Pizza Co.?
MS: It’s a totally different animal. Over there, I streamlined everything. We have one size pie, one size drink, one size salad. Everything there is built for speed. Everything here is relaxed. It did take some getting used to. Some things I had to feel out. Here, I know what’s going to happen at 6 o’clock, 7:30, 7:45… whereas there you just kind of … you get destroyed at 6 p.m., 6:30, and then it’s a ghost town at 9. It’s a different experience, but it’s fun. Coming from this craziness to there has made it a little easier starting from scratch.

BK: How about the difference between carrying on a legacy like you have at Santa Fe vs. establishing your own?
MS: It’s one of the reasons I wanted to do that. Santa Fe is my baby now, but it’s not my creation. I appreciate everything that Jim built here. He designed this whole thing; he made the initial menu, and I worked for him for eight years before I even bought it. He showed Sean and me a lot. And I don’t want to leave Anna out; she taught me a lot about front-of-house and taking care of customers.
But I still consider this their baby. It is nice [at Pizza Co.] that everything over there has been Billy and me. Everything that we’ve thought of and everything we’ve put in, and to see it live now, it’s just… And you’ve met Billy. He’s a firecracker. It’s awesome to work with him.

BK: Has this given you the itch at all? You have two restaurants under your belt; you’re going to have three. You ever thought about hitting that level where you’re a group?
MS: Yes and no. I always say I just do what I feel I need to do and want to do at the time. If it works out that way, that’s great. I’m 100 percent focused on this right here. I’m a very cautious person to jump into something; maybe that’s why it took 13 years for me to do anything else besides this (laughs). It’s all about opportunity. If the opportunity presented itself and it seemed like the right thing to do, yeah, I would.

BK: So, it’s not like the notion was floating around in your head before that field trip.
MS: No, not really. It’s funny, Rachel (my wife) and I were just talking about how this place has been running itself, and it’s given me some more free time. It’s nice—I’ve been home and everything. Then I get back from that trip and it’s like, “Well…”

But the whole family has been awesome. They get it. They know what I do. They’ve seen how stressful it can be. Sometimes I’m not home, but I make the most of it when I am home. Before we opened Pizza Co., I made sure we did all the trips, made sure I was home, because I knew I was going to be gone for a while.

BK: Hasn’t that always been the case? Working in this industry, you put in a lot of hours.
MS: Always. Here, I put in serious hours, but from a restaurant perspective, I was basically retired. I could come in in the morning, do everything, come in in the evening and be done by 8 or 9 to put the kids to bed. Which is all I can ask for, being in the restaurant business.

Now, I don’t see my 13-year-old because I’m gone at 6 in the morning, and then by the time I get back at 10:30, he’s spending the night somewhere.

I always say to succeed you have to struggle. From everything I’ve seen growing up, you have to work really hard and something has to be sacrificed. Unfortunately, right now it’s my family time. It’s just the way it is. I work on a balance, and I’m aware when I’m unbalanced. I just keep track in my mind of when I’m unbalanced so I’m not missing anything in my kids’ lives.

Family is the most important thing to me, but there’s also taking care of my family financially. I might be lacking in the time right now, but I’m looking into the future to time I can spend with them. I make the most of the time I have right now, knowing that what I’m doing now is going to help them in the future.

BK: When you were first hired on here at Santa Fe, what were you doing?
MS: I was waiting tables. I was sitting at the Tiki Hut, looking in the paper when I saw the ad. I went in, met Anna. I was selling real estate at Dunes Marketing Group during the day and did that for three years. I just noticed how special this restaurant was and said, “If you ever feel like selling this place, let me know.” And, you know, they laughed. A year down the line, they asked if I was serious about it. Two years later, Sean and I put a deal together to take it over.

BK: That is quite a power move, asking your boss, ‘What do you want for this place?’
MS: I just knew the history this place had, and the quality this place had. It seemed like a good idea. I didn’t know if they were going to sell it or not; I just put it out there.

BK: It seems like you’ve done alright with it. How do you stay relevant on an island where restaurants open and close all the time?
MS: You have your select few: the Reilley group has been around forever, and obviously Steve [Carb of SERG Group] does great. You have Hudson’s; there’s a good core that have been around 25+ years.
It’s kind of funny, I went to school with the Reilleys, and I know Andrew [Carmines, owner of Hudson’s]. We all grew up here. It’s kind of cool to have all of us continuing on. I remember going to the Reilleys’ house jumping off the roof into the pool. That was a crazy household. They had a good time. Tom and everybody—[they] were awesome.

BK: Who was the troublemaker back in the day?
(NOTE: He did answer this question but asked that it be off the record.)
MS: We all got into a little trouble back then. We all had our fair share of mischief.
But I’ve seen a lot of people who aren’t from here open a restaurant in the summer and they’re raking it in and then they get through winter and they didn’t focus on locals. Even in summer if locals are going to be brave enough to come out to the restaurant, I’m going to take care of them. I’m going to make sure I do whatever I can, because that’s us. We’re local.

I love the tourists; I love this industry. But that’s three months. You can’t base your business on three months. I still close for two weeks right after Thanksgiving. Every other year I take the staff on a cruise. This year we’re going to Cozumel and Grand Caymans for seven days.

BK: I need to put in an application.
MS: It does help, staff-wise. You gotta put in your time before you’re eligible for it.

BK: Are you going to try anything like that at Pizza Co.? You’re going to have three different staffs—that’s a lot of cruises.
MS: I actually cross-staff. Some of my Santa Fe crew works at Pizza Co., too. That’s helped out a lot. That place never closes. This place I always close for two weeks; last cruise we went on we re-did this whole deck. Last year we re-did all the floors. There’s always some project I do. We don’t close just to close for two weeks.

BK: Given that there’s always something like that, are you really ready to do this in three different places?
MS: Uh… (deep breath) yeah. It works until it doesn’t work, and everything I’ve done so far has worked. It’s been a challenge, but we’ve been successful in everything we’ve done. The hardest part for me has been giving up the reins and actually asking for help.

Now I’m starting to delegate more than just doing it myself. It’s a work in progress, but it needs to be done for what I want to do.

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