Scratch boss goes back to basics

Scratch Kitchen and Lounge chef-owner Patrick O'Brien returns to the kitchen at his trio of restaurants

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MELISSA ELSMO

Contributing Reporter

Patrick O'Brien has spent the last six years building his Scratch Kitchen and Lounge brand--that's SKL to those in the know. A recent Facebook post from the SKL owner piqued curiosity among fans of his casual restaurants.

"I used to be a chef and be creative and love my job," his post read, "well in the blink of an eye, I became a business man and tied to a computer, aka....not happy."

A seasoned culinary professional with 30 years of experience in restaurant kitchens and deep affection for the local food scene, O'Brien had always dreamed of opening his own restaurant. He put his mark on Madison Street just shy of six years ago when he opened Scratch Kitchen and Lounge, a 1200-square-foot storefront shop in the middle of Forest Park's shopping and dining district. Thanks to O'Brien's background in fine dining, the folks at Scratch Kitchen and Lounge have never cut corners. The place earns its hip moniker to this day by serving only homemade food—everything from the bread-and-butter pickles to the ketchup is made from scratch at Scratch. Locals know a good thing when they taste it and O'Brien's high-quality casual fare served up in an urban setting on a suburban main street began to draw a crowd. The tiny restaurant's survival came as a result of high-loyalty customers.

"Our best customers were (and still are) in the restaurant three times per week," says O'Brien, "and before I knew it my 50-seat restaurant had turned into a million dollar business."

The SKL brand, known for serving up good food in a fun family-friendly environment, has proven to be a solid concept and suitable for replication. The success of Scratch Kitchen and Lounge gave way to the opening of Scratch on Lake, District Kitchen and Tap, and the recently shuttered Scratch Deli and Café, which has now turned into the catering arm of the SKL business.

Business has been up and down across all of his restaurants over the years, but O'Brien admits the deli took his burger-centric brand "off concept." Closing the shop reminded him of the importance of sticking to what he does best and remaining true to the SKL brand he has built over the years.

All that struggle and growth, however, came at a personal expense for O'Brien. After two-years in business, the creative chef had turned into a full-time manager. He was mired down in minutia, his home kitchen had become an office, and he realized he wasn't doing what he loved most.

"I've always touched tables," says O'Brien matter-of-factly, "but I had become more of a business man than a cook and something needed to change."

A reshuffling of loyal staff has helped O'Brien refocus on his first love, creating chef-driven riffs on traditional comfort food. O'Brien promoted longtime SKL employee Jeremy Lampley to District Manager position and announced his own return to the kitchen. O'Brien is looking forward to creating cool specials, interacting directly with guests, and rotating between his trio of local restaurants.

While Scratch Kitchen and Lounge in Forest Park will remain focused on the casual fare like burgers, mac and cheese, and canned beers that have made it a Madison Street mainstay, look for center-plate dinner items like lamb and fish to pop up on the menu at Scratch on Lake, and more creative uses of the wood fired pizza oven (think pork chops) at District Kitchen and Tap in the Harrison Street Arts District.

"Don't expect to notice huge changes," says O'Brien, "The cooks in the kitchen will still be doing their thing as usual, but I am looking forward to creating innovative new dishes and focusing on special events."

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