Walking into a restaurant where the servers know your name, where you wave to familiar faces, may seem like an image from a bygone area, especially in today’s world of chain establishments and revolving wait staff. But this wistful nod to a neighborhood joint is exactly what Ryan Riek and his brother, Justin Riek, are trying to accomplish, albeit it in a more upscale, contemporary way. Together they are the J and R of JMR Kitchens, with Justin’s wife Miranda as the M and third partner.
Each JMR restaurant – More, The Oak and Taste – is intimate, with an average seating capacity of 127. And each is nestled in or near a residential area. Downtowners can get to More on foot. The Oak is walkable from neighborhoods such as Meredith Woods. And Taste, located off of Dixie Trail, draws from areas like Sunset Hills. The trio hopes to redefine the customer experience through this hyper local theme, earning repeat patrons who feel comfortable at their establishments.
To earn that repeat business, JMR strives to know their guests, and it requires collaboration amongst the staff. Employee isn’t a word Ryan uses, he sees it as a team effort.
“We stress with all of our staff to know who is in the restaurant, build a rapport, remember who drinks what, and what their food preferences are,” says Ryan.
He enjoys the fact that each establishment attracts different kinds of locals, and as long as people enjoy what they bring to the proverbial table, they’ll continue to build on the concept. For Ryan, the driving force is a passion for the industry he is now trying to redefine, visiting each restaurant two to three times daily.
“You have to love what you do,” he says, adding that he started as a dishwasher at the age of 13. From there he held numerous other restaurant-related positions, including server, corporate trainer, general manager and, even, sous chef. The exposure to so many aspects of the industry has given him a unique and comprehensive vision for JMR Kitchens.
“Taste is our first child and will always hold that special place in our heart,” says Ryan. Rebranded in 2013, the small eatery is its most popular. The surrounding neighborhood quickly embraced the fresh menu (there’s no fryer), larger tapas portions, called morsels, and getting to know Ryan.
Ryan, a wine connoisseur, would bring limited production bottles into Taste to enjoy with customers who shared a similar love of wine. From there the list grew into about 50 bottles at various stages of aging. In the know customers can still ask for a bottle off this unofficial list.
At More, Ryan and Justin decided to cater to vinophiles through personalized wine lockers, a 7in x 5in, vintage-looking locker with customized nameplate. Some members add a first or last name others – such as “hot babe” and “el presidente” – play it up. Whatever works in 15 reasonable characters.
At $115 a month for six months (and six bottles) or $95 a month for a year (and 14 bottles), the program might seem pricy, but the selections are not grocery-store finds. The restaurant features limited allocations, such as a 2009 Barolo single vineyard. Bottles are stored in lockers on the first Friday of each month, and members receive detailed emails about the wine. Some enjoy it at More, others choose to take it home.
The Oak opened in 2014 under the JMR umbrella. Its niche includes an adopt-a-barrel bourbon program, which has had a waitlist since its inception. Barrels range in size from 2-liters (which the program uses) and five, 10- and 20-liter sizes that the restaurant uses for the house.
Here’s the idea: they pour under-aged bourbon into custom-built, North American White Oak barrels. (Under-age means about two years; most bourbon is aged between eight and 12 years.) The flavor enhances, color darkens and sweetness grows thanks to notes of honey, vanilla and citrus.
“The surface to mass ratio is very intense,” Ryan says. “Three months in a 5-liter barrel is adding quite a bit of age to a product.”
Renting your own barrel creates a sense of ownership and camaraderie at The Oak. Guests invite friends to sample their cask, creating a community of bourbon lovers who share similar interests—contributing to Ryan’s and Justin’s vision of a place where everyone knows your name.