One step inside of Kickbacks Gastropub or Goozlepipe and Guttyworks and it is evident that there is a highly creative and analytical mind behind the madness of the two restaurants. A King Street institution, the recent expansion from Kickbacks into the steampunk-themed second wing, Goozlepipe and Guttyworks has solidified that this restaurant is here to stay. It is truly one of a kind. It has over 200 different beers on tap, over 200 food menu items, 100,000 bottles of 1000 types of vintage beer in a basement beer catacomb, and intricate and intriguing steampunk decor. If you haven’t been, we promise you that you have never seen anything like this. Both spaces now attract beer tourism and steampunk tourism as well as local Riverside residents. We sat down to speak with Steve Flores, the owner and inventor behind the unique spaces, to find out more about the expansion.
The corner space on King Street in which Kickbacks resides had been a restaurant for over 70 years prior to Kickbacks opening. Sixty of those years were two restaurants, Guiseppe’s (memorialized by the mural on the side of the building) and Ezell’s BBQ. After Ezell’s closed, the space turned over rapidly from restaurant to restaurant. Kickbacks has been operating now since 2005. Steve’s friend owned the restaurant for about a week before his partner bailed on him and he called Steve to ask if he’d be interested in buying a restaurant. Steve firmly said no, but he had a friend who worked for Joe’s Crab Shack and and they ended up going in 50/50 to open Kickbacks. They struggled together owning the restaurant for the first two years, and it took going out of business for a few hours to realize that there needed to be major changes in order for this to work. Steve bought the business outright, took on the debt accumulated, and began the intensive process of what he broke down as “committing themselves to not sucking anymore.” Since then, Steve works tirelessly day in and day out to improve the guest experience, the menu, the beer, the behind the scenes operations, and the physical space. Every day is committed to being better. For Steve, this is a daily learning experience. He comes from a background of life insurance and real estate. His entrance into Kickbacks was that he owned the property that houses Orsay currently and also the Kickbacks property. He sold the Orsay property to now owner Jon Insetta and Steve kept Kickbacks. He had no restaurant background other than short periods bartending and serving and tackled the huge feat of restaurant ownership that has a nearly 99% 10 year failure rate. The result was the original side of the restaurant, Kickbacks Gastropub.
Steve described Kickbacks as “the original side – think of it as a beer museum. It made sense to turn it into that because I was inspired by all the beer I was surrounded by. As we started to get more and more beers on tap, the handles became very difficult to store. So, I put hanger bolts into the rafters and it became commonplace for us to get a ladder and screw the tap up there. Most places just give the taps back to the distributor, but because ours are constantly changing we have to get them, sometimes modify them, inventory them. It’s gotten out of hand so now it’s a graveyard for the ones we don’t use anymore.” The beer tap museum/graveyard has been an 8 year process for them, and there are no duplicates. Plus, Steve told us that it’s really only halfway done. Kickbacks grew exponentially and very rapidly and soon hit a point where not only had they run out of space, but the kitchen could not keep up with the demand for food from the patrons. Reflecting on that time, Steve told us “We had a reputation for taking forever to serve people. We put inserts into the menus that read ‘if it’s a busy night it’s going to take an hour.’ It’s not because we’re incompetent, it’s because we only have four guys cooking. And it’s not because we can’t hire more people, it’s because that kitchen only has space for those four people.” At that point, Steve knew that if they were going to add the bigger kitchen then he would also take the opportunity to add more seats. The important part of this expansion was that he built it because people were already showing up and he wanted to give them seats, he did not expand with the hope that customers would come. He knew the demand existed and they were ready for the expansion. This is a direct reflection on Steve’s belief in customer service. He repeatedly said that everything they’ve done to change things at Kickbacks has been specifically to help treat his customers the right way. Thus the idea for Goozlepipe and Guttyworks was born.
Steve knew he was about to attempt something that not only hadn’t been done before, but also that once finished he knew even he couldn’t repeat. “My mantra from the beginning,” Steve told us, “was that we’re going to do this expansion one time, make the best of it, and focus all our energy on it. We know we screw up all the time. But, we pat ourselves on the back that we’re only screwing up about 10% of the time. We use that as a never ending battle to get better.” At the time Steve began to design the expansion, there were no steampunk spaces in the world of restaurants. Steve used his visions of what it should be and he drew it, gave it to an architect, hired engineers, and had that team create the shell of Goozlepipe and Guttyworks. Then Steve and his team took over from there. The result is a space that I really cannot verbalize in a written article. The pictures throughout this piece speak for themselves – Goozlepipe and Guttyworks is breathtaking. No matter what seat you’re in, throughout the restaurant you will see a new piece of art nestled in corners, hidden in walls, or dangling from the ceiling. Each visit will be a completely independent and new experience. The intricacies that go into designing and building out a space like this are innumerable. It’s pretty amazing that this space is unique to Jacksonville and locals can bring visiting friends and family and be immersed in art, architecture, engineering, and excellent comfort food. Steve easily captured the essence of the expansion, saying “Instead of ‘why do this?’ it’s ‘why wouldn’t we do this?’ For instance, why wouldn’t we have 180 beers on tap? Why wouldn’t we have 200 menu items?”
As far as the expansive menu, Steve said “Everything we’ve added to this menu is based on common sense and what I would want to eat in a restaurant and hopefully what other people would want. I’ve always been a gradualist. We add things to the menu one at a time. Here we are 200 items later and we probably have the biggest menu outside of The Cheesecake Factory. What do you want to eat when you go home and you don’t feel like cooking something complicated? Hamburger Helper. So we added that to the menu. Then we started adding vintage items which started out as a joke but people started ordering them. Now we sell 100 cans of Spaghettios every week.” Steve laughed as he told us the origins of the Hamburger Helper menu item, “We used to get the Hamburger Helper from Walmart when it would be on special so I’d get a whole shopping cart full of it and I’d use the same joke every week with the cashier. I’d ask ‘How does the meat stay fresh in this box?’ and they’d look at me like I was crazy. They’d tell me, there is no meat in this box. You’ve got to get the meat separately, so I’d look at the line behind me and say ‘Well, I’ve got to go get 100 lbs of ground beef. I’ll be right back!’” Overwhelmed by all the choices? The best selling items on the menu include the basics: wings and burgers. Kickbacks is also famous for it’s Monte Cristo sandwich. I had always wondered why you don’t often see Monte Cristos on menus any longer and Steve answered that question for me during our interview. “We have the best monte cristo in the world” Steve told us. “If you had it at Bennigan’s, they get too hard and too crispy and cumbersome. Everyone got their first Monte Cristo at Bennigan’s. But we came up with this patented way of doing it. There are a lot of reasons why no one even tries to do it. You actually have to dip your hand into the frying oil. The idea is you can touch fire if you only touch it for a second.” That’s a lot of love that goes into their Monte Cristo sandwiches, so definitely try one on your next visit to the restaurant. Steve recently added a Krispy Kreme burger as well and now they’re buying six dozen Krispy Kreme donuts each week. They’re also about to add an express lunch menu consisting of ten sandwiches that are premade to guarantee a fast lunch. To add a unique twist to that, there will be a sandwich called The Dagwood that will be all ten sandwiches combined. With that many menu options, the kitchen management behind the prep each day has a highly scheduled and dedicated routine. Steve does not ever want any food to go bad or to waste food, so the restaurants have a 24-hour prep team. When an item runs out, it is put on a board and the prep team begins to work on replenishing that menu item. As things run out, Steve says there is usually a 3-4 hour lapse without the menu item before it is freshly made and ready to be served again. For a menu that expansive, it is amazing to know that every menu item is freshly prepared every single day.
Kickbacks was deeply ingrained into the Riverside neighborhood prior to the expansion, and continues to be a cornerstone of the neighborhood now. Steve estimates that 90% of his clientele live in Riverside or Avondale. The remaining 10% travel to Kickbacks in search of special beers. For that reason, Steve has never focused on anything outside of the neighborhood. He doesn’t advertise at all. All 108 of his employees live nearby, most close enough to walk or bike to work. Kickbacks doesn’t focus on catering to those from out of town, but now tourists are actively seeking out the beer selection and the steampunk theme. Steve still goes above and beyond for these guests. For his beer tourists, he will even personally pick them up from their hotel, bring them to the restaurant, guide them through the large selection of beer, then take them back to their hotel when they’re finished. This above and beyond customer service is representative of Steve’s daily goal to improve his restaurant and build a solid reputation amongst residents and tourists alike. Steve definitively stated, “I’m not going to try to chase people. What is going to happen is we are going to impress the people who come here to the point they’re compelled to tell their friends and family and say ‘you’ve got to come to this place.’ They’ll either say ‘sure, let’s check it out’ or they’ll say ‘no, I went there 2 years ago, 4 years ago, 10 years ago, and I’m never going back’ and that is what it is. A lot of people have a reason. If we advertised ‘look how awesome we are’ or ‘look how big our beer selection is’ then we will have people coming in for the wrong reasons. We just want to bring in people who are awesome, that’s it. Our customers are advertising it, there’s more people coming than ever before. So, we’re focusing on our current customers and making them happy every single day.”
So what’s different about Kickbacks and Goozlepipe and Guttyworks for people who haven’t been in awhile? First off, the service will be tremendously improved from anything you’ve seen before. When it was just Kickbacks, they had eight servers with no food runners or drink runners. There were 4 cooks in the kitchen because it was so small that there was no room for more employees. The entire former staffing schedule was 28 people to cover 20 hours a day 7 days a week. Now there are 52 people working on Friday and Saturday nights to keep all the 450 seats in both restaurants well served. There are 18 servers at one time, 5 bartenders, 5 drink runners, 5 food runners, 4 hostesses, 2 managers, and 1 person manning the parking lot. That’s just front of house. The kitchen encompasses even more staff members that banishes the former hour long wait for food. In regards to the food, the menu is constantly evolving with new specials and permanent items. Every tiny detail is regulated here to serve the 10,000 guests that come through the doors each week. Even more amazing, the restaurants are open 365 days a year and 20 hours per day. To deal with high demand, the kitchen has developed a “tapas” style food delivery method. This means in order to serve each guest their food exactly when it is plated, they may stagger some food delivery during peak times. This ensures that the food is always fresh and hot. Steve is passionate about the improvements and said, “We’re different. And we ask our customers to be different. When you walk in, you should expect that we’re going to be different. Don’t mistake our timing for inefficiency or weakness. For example, some of our Belgian beers are very difficult to pour. We have some that take 5 minutes to pour. The server has to ring it in, the bartender has to labor through pouring the beer and then it gets run up two flights of stairs and then a customer will write a review that it took forever to get a beer. We’re serving the customer something that they couldn’t get anywhere else in this country and we served it to them right and then they are upset about how long it took them to get it. We do things right and they interpret it as being wrong.” This example stuck out to me and made me realize the tremendous amount of training that Steve must put his wait staff and bartenders through to be able to understand every minute detail of the hundreds of beer options. Every bartender must know where each beer is located, what size pour is correct for that beer, the angle of the glass to pour it in, the correct way to handle the head on each beer. That is a truly talented team to be able to manage that and still provide a superior guest experience that isn’t available anywhere else in Jacksonville and probably very few places in the world.
Goozlepipe and Guttyworks is projected to be completed by spring or summer of 2016. Then, Steve’s primary goal will be just focusing on getting better. Right now, most of Steve’s energy involves the behind the scenes construction of the catacomb basements and private dining rooms. He’s also working on making a “bible” of how the restaurant should be run daily and every possible scenario to be tackled daily. The behind the scenes daily routine is intense at the two restaurants. A simple keg blowing is a detailed process of removing the other kegs from around it to replace it, choosing a new beer, calculating prices and researching the beer, documenting it for the staff and the website. Steve laughed and said, “There is a reason why people don’t do what we do. I left out a hundred steps of that process.” Even through all the work and construction and redesigns, this is clearly a labor of love for Steve. He is passionate about the future of Kickbacks and Goozlepipe and Guttyworks and is thrilled to see it continue to grow and improve. Even the logo has evolved, Steve said that the addition of Goozlepipe and Guttyworks is so unique he did want to include “Jacksonville, Florida” on the logo as more and more people seek it out and connect it to being a part of Jacksonville, not only a part of Riverside. Steve told us, “There are still ghosts we’re chasing. People from the past don’t know we don’t suck anymore, or they don’t care that we don’t suck anymore. The people that come in here fresh without any knowledge of our past most of them think this is a pretty cool place. Some people tell us it’s the best place they’ve been in their life. There is no better compliment than that.”
Photos courtesy of Jill Cruz.