Lori Wyant Selby – owner of hit Prague burger restaurant The Tavern

14-01-2013

On the border of the districts of Vinohrady and Žižkov is where you will find The Tavern, a cosy bar and burger restaurant that has become a big hit since it opened just over a year ago. Indeed, a leading Czech food critic recently offered a simple explanation as why to The Tavern is always full: Because it has the best burgers in Prague. It’s owned and run by Lori Wyant Selby and her chef husband Dean Selby, an American couple who are long-term residents of the city.

Lori Wyant Selby, photo: Ian WilloughbyLori Wyant Selby, photo: Ian Willoughby I stopped by at The Tavern the other day to speak to Lori, who hails from Kentucky. My first question: What brought her to the Czech capital in the first place?

“I came to Prague in 1991. I’d gone to London right after school, to do a six-month work thing after I graduated. A good friend of mine was here with the first wave of English teachers and said, come visit me.

“I was like, OK [laughs]. I didn’t really know that much about Czechoslovakia, other than the Milan Kundera books that I’d read and some history. But I got some pretty postcards. I got off the bus in Florenc and thought, this isn’t quite what I had in mind [laughs].

“That was a kind of random stop-by. I was going to stay for a couple of months, and it’s been 22 years, in March.”

Have you mostly worked in the food industry?

“No. I was a bar tender in London before I came here. My friend Mandy and I started a kind of burrito take-away thing from our house, and we did catering and stuff.

“We got involved with these guys who ran a club called Ubiquity and did Ivana’s Bean City Burrito Bar over the summer. After that we worked at the restaurant Radost and set that up and worked on the menu and trained the staff and stuff.

“That was, I guess, 1992 and after that I decided I never wanted to work in the food industry again. There was a big break – I’m a script supervisor, I work in movies – and this came along a year ago. So there was a 20-year pause from my food industry career.”

Before The Tavern you had something called Lokál Burger. I remember meeting a guy who was the owner of Prague’s farmers’ markets and him telling me proudly that you guys were going to be appearing at one of his markets. What was Lokál Burger?

“That is connected to the guys with the farmers’ markets. Dean and I are members of a gardening association here and about five years ago we started growing our own vegetables.

Photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio PraguePhoto: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague “We met a lot of people through that and we knew people as well who were organising the farmers’ markets. One of their big concerns was the fact that there wasn’t that much of an interesting choice of food for the stands.

“They knew about Dean’s cooking background and they asked and me if we could put something together… So we just brainstormed and thought about what sort of gaps there were in the fast food options here.

“We came up with this idea of Lokál Burger, which is connected to supporting local farms; we use only Czech beef and as many available local products as possible. We try to get our vegetables from local farmers and we get our beef from a farm in Šumava.

“We just sort of did it for fun. Dean likes a good challenge and he got this idea of the bun to meat to sauce ratio and we started playing with a bunch of different things. We did some pop-up stuff in Bukowski’s…”

Which is a pub near here.

“Yes, exactly. We did another event at Meet Factory, we did bicycle events and things.

“It was so difficult to pack up the car and prepare everything and then to have to unpack it, serve it and pack it up again that we thought, why not just open a restaurant? [laughs]. On the surface it seemed easier, but now we know the truth.”

The Tavern’s been open here now for just over a year. What was the concept behind it when you set it up?

“Obviously we wanted to do burgers. We thought the best thing to do would be to concentrate on our burger products and do each burger as wonderfully as we could. Instead of having one of those huge menus that you see in a lot of Czech bars and pubs, we thought, let’s just do burgers and let’s do them really well. That was the sort of initial idea.”

When you first opened you were open one night a week, then two, and you’ve gradually built it up. At first when you were open just a couple of nights a week, was that a strategy to create a sense of scarcity?

Photo: The TavernPhoto: The Tavern “Absolutely not [laughs]. We were actually open a couple of nights a week because the wiring in the kitchen is for a very slow, maybe 10 lunches type of place. We’ve pushed the wiring to its maximum capacity and we’ve gradually had to reconstruct as we’ve gone.

“Also, there was a big challenge in getting the best sort of staff in and trained. We wanted to be very careful about opening more before we had the right people in place, which we do now. So we’re hopefully going to go to days [at present the Tavern is mainly only in the evenings, except on Saturdays] before the terrace opens.

“But it’s all been a very gradual process. We wanted to open up at least a couple of nights a week just so that we could get some interest, but it wasn’t a sort of strategy to build a buzz or anything like that – it just sort of happened that way.”

It’s a very tough industry, it’s very competitive, and they say that something like one in three restaurants close within the first year. What would you say has been the secret of your success?

“I don’t know. I think it’s right place, right time, a lot of it. I feel like in Prague there’s still a big gap when it comes to mid-range places where people can meet for a casual meal.

“There are plenty of wonderful high-end restaurants, they are plenty of pubs where you can get some goulash. But this filled a gap at the time…there are other restaurants as well that are starting to do that, like Nota Bene and Los Adelitas, places like that.

“Overall, I feel like there still aren’t that many of places of this type. So I think people are open to a casual dining experience in a relaxed atmosphere, where they don’t have to spend a ton of money.”

If we look at restaurants in general in Prague, the service has improved here over the years, but sometimes it’s still often quite poor. Why do you think that is?

“We faced that challenge when we opened, and that was another reason why we slowly built our opening times, because we really wanted the right staff here who would lend part of the atmosphere, actually.

Illustrative photo (not The Tavern): archive of ČRo 7 - Radio PragueIllustrative photo (not The Tavern): archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague “I think a lot of restaurants hire professional waiters who have gone to some sort of school and gotten some sort of degree, but they don’t enjoy it, they don’t have the personality for it.

“The people who work here are not trained waiters, they are just nice people who came into The Tavern and liked being here and wanted to be a part of it. We thought that was more important than someone knowing where to put a fork or a knife – especially since we just serve out of baskets.

“But yes, I think the problem is that it’s more looked upon as a job, not something that the wait staff actually enjoy doing. But we hope our wait staff enjoy working here.”

A lot of places in Prague sell burgers today. Do you and Dean go out check out the competition?

“Not so much. I think we’re kind of burgered out, to be honest with you. But I think it’s good to know what’s out there. We certainly think that it’s a positive movement and the more people who contribute to the discussion, the better it is for all of us.

“We’re excited about the fact that new burger places are opening, doing their own buns, using better meat, making their own sauces. Because I think it just builds the energy and helps to create more of a discussion topic. People want to try this one, they want to try that one.

“We don’t expect people to only come here every night of the week, so I think it’s good to have worthy competition out there.”

As I said, you’ve been here for just over a year, you’ve been doing very, very well. What does the future hold for The Tavern? Will you expand, open another branch?

“The first thing is we want to get open during the days. That’s going to require hiring another section of staff. Hopefully by the summer when we get the terrace out we’ll be open for lunch as well.

“We’re now doing a Saturday brunch and we want to move that into a Sunday brunch, too. We’re testing all sorts of recipes for that. That’s the first step, to get this place up and running full-time more so than it is now.

“We have a lot of ideas for possibly doing some frozen veggie burgers, maybe selling them out of shops. The veggie burgers are a big hit and we’re very proud of them. We also hope to do more farmer’s markets and things, when we have a bit more time.

“Then we’ll see. The smoked pulled pork has been very successful. Dean’s very passionate about that and it’s possible we could do something with that.

“We also have big plans for Lokál Burger. We want to do a Lokál Burger type of fast food thing here, because that’s still lacking – a place where you can just go into a fast food place and get a good burger to go without having to commit to a meal, just grab it on the run. Those are just a few ideas that we have for the future.”

14-01-2013