In a city filled with incredible restaurants, it’s hard to stand out. Especially when you’re located in a somewhat run down strip mall on the outskirts of town. Chefs/owners RJ Moody and Rob Laudicina have successfully muscled Spero into the market, but not with a gimmick or a big name behind it, but rather, by proving themselves. With delicious and unexpected food, a quirky, low-key interior, and two of the funniest, most lively chefs around, Spero continually wows diners. The restaurant consistently sends out great food at reasonable prices, and thanks to its welcoming ambiance, you’ll want to come back as often as you can to support this great establishment.
We sat down with the two owners to learn more about their background and how they got together to open Spero:
The Daily Meal: Let’s start with you, Rob. Where are you from and how did you get into the industry? How did you end up in Charleston?
Rob Spero: I grew up in New Jersey. As a kid, I read lots of books and got beat up a lot. When I was around 20 years old, I wanted to become a waiter, but was hired as a host instead. Then I got hired at Carrabba's Italian Grill and became a server, a bartender and then eventually started working in the kitchen. They promoted me to become a national trainer and I went on to open three locations in Michigan and Ohio. This experience led me to working for P.F. Chang’s for a year as a server and then I moved to SC in 2002 to open the new location.
And R.J., what was your background and how did you get here?
It was very different from Rob. I grew up in Connecticut and was super into sports. My parents worked a lot and as the oldest kid, I was cooking for the family at a young age, around 10 years old or so. I experimented a lot and in high school joined the culinary program at our school. The head of that program told me about the CIA and I decided to go to school there. I did an externship in the Poconos, at a resort, and eventually moved to the Outer Banks to work at The Blue Point restaurant. My aunt lived near there and it was there where I learned a lot about simple southern upscale cuisine. The owner was a Johnson & Wales graduate and used a lot of local products from area farmer’s market.
During my time there I worked my way up to AM sous chef. When the restaurant closed for renovations, I moved back to Connecticut and worked Greenwood’s Grille. This was a pub that changed ownership and tried to become an upscale restaurant. They made me the Executive Chef and I was only 21 years old. I made a ton of mistakes there. They wanted me to come out of the kitchen and socialize with the patrons but I had terrible social anxiety. So I left before a year and was hired by a regular customer at Greenwoods to work with him at his Italian restaurant. Here again we used a lot of local ingredients mostly from a local farm that was less than two miles away. But that restaurant was going through a rebranding and I did not feel like I was the best fit for the revamp, so I went to New York City.
Momofuku Noodle Bar was hiring on Craigslist and I went to stage there. I was hired as a noodle cook and then became a sous chef. I was there for two years, and Ssam Bar opened so I moved there to work. I was only there eight months and my girlfriend was moving to Charleston to go to school at MUSC, so I left and moved here.
Ok, so then what? How did you two meet?
Rob: I was hired by Liberty Tap Room and worked there for nine years—in everything from bartending, serving, dishwashing, and managing. Then I went on to open Pearlz, and I was hiring a bartender. And in comes R.J. to apply for the job.
RJ: Yes, when I first moved in town I worked at McCrady’s for a hot second, then went to Page’s Okra Grill and worked there for a year. I needed a break from high-end dining restaurants and Page’s was great. I then went to Red Drum and worked for two years, and then went to The Lot and worked for a year. And then applied to work at Pearlz.
So it was destined to be.
Rob: Wait it gets better. Someone who used to work at Pearlz told me a story once about one of his mentors. He was telling me how great a chef he was and how awesome he was. And the one thing I will never forget was him saying this guy had a tattoo of the word “oven” with a question mark on his arm because he often forget if things were in the oven.
So when R.J. came in to apply to be a bartender and I noticed his “oven?” tattoo, I knew it had to be him. I hired him on the spot but not as a bartender, as an oyster shucker.
R.J.: Yes, I needed a break from the kitchen and the bartending gig seemed perfect. And you can make more money. So oyster shucker worked just the same and I met Rob so it was all meant to be.
So then what, how did Spero come about?
R.J.: We were looking for over a year for a food truck. We were tired of working for other people and we found a food truck in Virginia. We drove nine hours to Virginia and when we got there found out the photo posted of the truck was much older than the actual truck and it needed too much work. So we came back and the Hello My Name is BBQ space became available. We jumped on it and here comes Spero.
What are your roles at Spero?
Rob: I bake the breads. I help cook some. And I check the tables.
R.J.: I cook.
What is the most popular dish?
Rob: The most popular dishes are the sandwiches and the bread plate. The menu changes so much depending on products available.
What’s the most stressful thing and most rewarding thing about Spero?
Rob: Managing cash flow is stressful. Watching this place grow and having great repeat customers are the rewards. It was also great to pay off our loan and get a new grease trap. We also loved getting our first review by the City Paper.
R.J.: My favorite thing here is the big table. We made them after being inspired from Pinterest. I also love the art work and showcasing younger artists. My greatest experience was being part of the Food Film Festival. It was the first time to we were out of the restaurant to do an event.
Any words of wisdom or things to share with others rising up in this market:
Rob: I wish there was a crystal ball and we knew how to staff each day. But we don’t know and we are learning from it all.
R.J.: Goals are for a day off and to hire someone to help in the kitchen.
For more on Charleston dining and travel news, click here.