I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Volpatt, the co-founder of Big Bottom Market in Guerneville, CA. He has spent most of his life cooking with family and friends and in 2011 turned his passion for food and wine into a career. His food from the Market was recognized by Oprah Winfrey in 2016 as one of her “Favorite Things” and Running Press, a division of Hachette, will be publishing his first cookbook called “Biscuit” in April 2019.
- Thank you so much for doing this with us! What inspired you to become a chef (or restauranteur)?
Throughout my life I have been inspired in the kitchen. My mother, father, brother, sister, and many other relatives are amazing cooks. My cousin Lou Lou (may she rest in peace) and her husband PJ were the owners of a restaurant in Annapolis, MD called the Oxbow Inn where I had the chance to work in my early college days. After transferring to the University of Pittsburgh I was further inspired by my good friend Lee Deiseroth, owner of The Fluted Mushroom, a high-end catering company in Pittsburgh. Every weekend working with Lee and his staff in the kitchen I learned the art of presentation, important knife skills, mise en place, and many other important cooking skills. All of these life experiences have culminated into many of things we do at Big Bottom Market to keep our guests happy and coming back for more.
2. What has your journey been like since first stepping foot in a kitchen?
The kitchen has always been an important part of my life and from early childhood we were encouraged to participate in the entire process of food preparation. My father was adamant about us tasting food and wine and as his palette became more sophisticated we were brought along for the ride. He and my mother, another huge inspiration for me, also required us to help keep things clean and organized in the kitchen.
One of the best things my mother taught me was the art of advanced preparation. Anytime she has a party or guests over, she always made sure that everything was ready ahead of time. She wanted to be able to greet guests as they arrived and not be mired in getting things ready for a soiree. This one lesson has stood the test of time as my team and I plan for new menu items, catering jobs, and many of the other things it takes to ensure that customers are being served in a timely manner.
3. Do you have a specialty? If so, what drew you to that type of food?
Biscuits are my specialty and the subject of a cookbook I authored that will be published by Running Press, a division of Hachette, in April 2019. Our entire team was drawn to the biscuit, because we wanted to find something that would make us stand out. So, we tested and retested recipes until we found the perfect one.
In 2016, the Big Bottom Market biscuit mix and honey were named one of Oprah’s Favorite Things. Even before Oprah recognized us for our tasty biscuits, people were traveling far and wide to taste the many iterations we’ve created with our base biscuit recipe.
4. Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef?
The Oprah experience was a crazy one for us. The day we learned we made the list I was in the emergency room awaiting a CT scan and as they were wheeling me into the scanning room my phone rang. I recognized the number. It was from the offices of O the Oprah Magazine. I asked the orderly to slow it down and when I answered, an editor from the magazine if it was “a good time” time to chat. “Of course” I replied, with a wink to the orderly, as the editor proceeded to share the news around Big Bottom Market biscuit mix being chosen one of Oprah’s Favorite Things.
That call kicked off a month of preparation. My team and I, headed up by Donna Prowse, our operating partner and good friend, immediately sprung into action. We rented a facility and produced more than 8000 bags of biscuit mix and gift boxes that included honey from a local supplier. Before the designation we were selling maybe 25 bags of biscuit mix and 25 jars of honey a month. In less than three months we ended up selling more than 6000 bags of biscuit mix and honey.
The experience changed the trajectory of Big Bottom Market, legitimized our brand on a national level, and led to a partnership with a distributor that sells our products all over the United States. We are now working on launching Big Bottom Brew coffee and are introducing a new Big Bottom biscuit mix. We also feature wines in Big Bottom Market under our brand that we make in conjunction with two Sonoma wineries: Thomas George Estates and Taft Street Winery.
5. What is your definition of success?
Success is the ability to get stuff done. I’ve spent my entire career working on doing what I say I am going to do. Give me a deadline and I’ll meet it head one. Challenge me with something I “can’t” do and I’ll prove my challenger wrong. This has been my driving force and I encourage others to follow this mantra.
6. What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
One of our goals when we first opened Big Bottom Market was to open other markets and expand the brand. We had this idea to open the Big Bottom Biscuit Bar and serve only biscuit dishes in a small space to save on the cost of a lease and really simplify our offering to bring costs down.
We partnered with a team of restaurateurs in New York City and opened in a street facing coffee window in one their restaurants in the Upper West Side. When the business launched it was very well received by the press, with coverage in the New York Times, Eater NY, and more.
We soon realized that the consumer was confused about the location. The coffee window was part of an Italian restaurant and we could only be open for a brief period of time every day. The few hours we had in the window was not enough to grow the audience we had expected and after about three months we closed down.
While the concept was not a roaring success, the customers that we did get loved our biscuits. We were able to leverage that partnership to help with getting us onto the Oprah’s Favorite Things list, which resulted in even more brand credibility.
When the time is right and with the right partner and piece of real estate, we may revisit the biscuit bar concept.
7. Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
The cookbook has been a huge focus for our team and so many people inside and outside of the business have played an important role. We are excited for the launch in April and are upping our social media game to help garner more followers. We have been posting @big_bottom_market almost daily with everything from mini recipes to images of our tasty biscuits and more.
We also recently launched 20MileRadius.com, a blog focused on everything we love within a 20 mile radius of Big Bottom Market. Each week we post something new about the food, wine, and people in our community and love the response we are getting.
8. What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?
#1 — Meet people in the business and talk to them about their experience.
#2 — Don’t buy into the “mean chef” mentality. It permeates some restaurants and creates a toxic environment. Good people make good food and that shines through in every dish you prepare.
#3 — Do what you say you are going to do. As I said before, success is getting things done.
9. What is the key to creating the perfect dish?
Research, patience, and preparation. If you have an idea dig into how others approached something similar, be patient and use mistakes to help you fail forward, always be prepared (mise en place baby!).
10. It is said that food is a common ground that brings people together. As someone who makes food for a living, what does this saying mean to you?
Food has been a big part of my life and a bond for my friends and family. It reminds me of a time I was at the beach with my extended family and my cousin PJ made a dish he calls Clams Pasillipo (steamed clams with tasty broth). When he served the dish we were all ravenous as we grabbed shells and joyously dipped bread directly into the bowl he was serving from. It was a common occurrence for us to dig in and share and that memory makes me think of my family coming together to enjoy something we all love… good food and good people.
11. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef” and why?
#1 — It’s not that easy — When we opened the market I honestly thought that we would be an immediate success. I had no idea that it would take years to become profitable and find the right mix of product and service to help us find our niche.
#2 — Don’t rest on your laurels — After a few years we got complacent. We let things go and were not there all of the time watching the business and improving on what needed to be edited or changed. I personally thought that I couldn’t do it and that I was incapable of success. Then I changed the conversation in my head and decided to mix things up and drive towards a more profitable business. It is working and I am very proud of what the entire team has accomplished. But… we won’t stop, we will continue to iterate and change things up.
#3 — Food cost really matters — We never costed out our menu in the beginning. We made food to make food and were not making food to not only taste great, but also make money. That changed about a year or so ago when we embarked on a project to really dig into cost and understand how to choose menu items and prepare things with margin in mind.
#4 — Treat your children well — We call the people that work at the market “the kids” and do everything we can to respect and honor the work that they do. We also respect their decision to move on if that is what they desire. A few years back we had to terminate an employee for his involvement in a gang. He ended up in juvenile detention and when released he asked for his job back. We thought long and hard about giving him a second chance and after setting some strict boundaries he joined the team again. After about a year he came to us to say that he had gotten accepted to train for a position in the healthcare field. He would be making more money, have great benefits and very set hours. It was a proud moment to watch him move beyond his gang days and into a field that makes him (and us) very proud. As someone who was chastised by former bosses for moving on to do more with my career, I vowed that I would honor anyone working with me the chance to expand their wings into something different and better.
#5 — Look beyond your four walls but get the four walls in order first — In the beginning we were so focused on the four walls and missed the forest for the trees. It took years before we started to look beyond our amazing town for bigger and better opportunities. Coulda woulda shoulda right? While I wish that we would have started down a brand expansion path years before, I know now that it was not our time to shine just yet. We actually had to get things within the walls right first before we could really spread our own wings.
12. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I like the idea of giving back and my business partner and I recently got involved in a wine brand called Equality Vines. Each and every bottle we sell gives back to an equality cause for the LGBTQ community and women. This inspired us to launch two Big Bottom Market wine labels that also give back to local causes in Western Sonoma County. We are proud to be supporters of the Friends of Guerneville School and the Sonoma Land Trust. $1 of every bottle we sell from our “b” brand goes the school and $1 of every bottle we sell of the “Market Reserve” label goes back to the land trust.
I’d like to say that we are already helping to inspire a movement where brands not only get, but also give.
13. Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to cook for and why?
Oprah. She changed the trajectory of this business by including Big Bottom Market on her list. I’d love to make her a meal, inspired by biscuits, and talk to her about how we’ve capitalized on her generosity and reach. And… If you are reading this Oprah let’s eat together very soon.