The Interview: Charleston Restaurateur Steve Palmer

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All roads lead back to Charleston for restaurateur Steve Palmer, a successful businessman who seems like everything he touches turns to gold. As Managing Partner for The Indigo Road, Steve was a leading force behind the transition of Oak Steakhouse and then the conception, development and management of The Macintosh, The Cocktail Club, O-Ku and The Oak Table. He also spends most days overseeing their newest venture Indaco, an Italian influenced concept opening this summer on Upper King Street.

Many may know Steve from his daily appearances in one of his various restaurants, but few know the story and flavored history of this top food and beverage entrepreneur. The Daily Meal sat down to learn more about this leader's past, present and future visions and inspirations:

The Daily Meal: You have been part of the Charleston hospitality industry for many years now. What were the early days like?
Steve Palmer: I tease when I say all roads led me back to Charleston but they kind of did. I first fell in love with the city when I moved here from Atlanta to attend the College of Charleston. At the time, Hurricane Hugo had come and gone and restaurants like Magnolias began to open. I started out as a server there and then moved over to Blossom when it opened to run the wine program. To say the least, I learned a ton and became enthralled in the hospitality community.

Steve also met David LeBoutillier, a restaurant consultant who over the years has had a hand in most every significant opening in town. The two joined forced and worked together for many years. Steve eventually followed David back to Atlanta to work at the famed Canoe restaurant and then back to Charleston to concept and open Peninsula Grill followed by Hank's Seafood. It was during this time that Steve had to come to grips with a deep, dark addiction.

TDM: Can you share a little about that part of your life and how it influenced you today?
SP: I was in a dark place doing what was really the norm but in an unhealthy fashion. I credit Hank Holliday (owner of the Holliday Company) who gave me two options while working at Peninsula Grill–go to rehab today or say goodbye to the job. I chose rehab and the rest is history. Hank and that ultimatum saved my life and I have been sober ever since.

Steve was nervous being a recovering alcoholic would make working in the industry, but actually it was easier than he expected and he now serves as a go to with others with similar struggles.

Leaving Charleston again he moved to Florida to work for the Ginn Company and designed and opened all of the restaurants and bars for over $100 million development projects including bars, golf clubs, hotels and more.

TDM: So what brought you back to Charleston?
While on a backpacking trip in the mountains of North Carolina, I got a call from a friend who was in need of someone to help turn a restaurant into a more profitable one. I said I would come for a few weeks, knowing I missed the city and was looking for any excuse to get back. That was four years ago and the rest is history.

The place was Oak Steakhouse and within months the place was making a profit. He also dealt with a high profile chef change and quickly found an excellent addition to the team, Chef Jeremiah Bacon.

TDM: Why Jeremiah?
Jeremiah and I hit it off immediately. When I asked him where he got inspiration from as a chef, he rattled off places like Gramercy Tavern, one of my all-time favorites. He also was talking about his vision for his future and mentioned finding 'the perfect place for his restaurant concept on 479 King Street." I had to stop him to tell him I had just signed the lease for that exact space. It was destined.

That it was and the two have made for a good partnership. Steve calls them each other's yin and yang.

I am impulsive and he is more thoughtful. We both have the same ideas just help get there at different vantage points. It just works.

Since the Oak Steakhouse, Steve and Indigo Road has continued to create high-end, thoughtful culinary places for the city. He often takes inspiration from his many trips he makes all over the world almost on a monthly basis. Often taking other team members, they visit as many food destinations they can to eat and absorb the good, bad and ugly to gain wisdom and ideas.

TDM: Talk about some places that have inspired you?
SP: The Macintosh was mostly inspired by Gramercy Tavern, O-Ku from a meal at Nobu, the Cocktail Club from Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco and now Indaco from Locanda Verde.

His real inspiration comes from a few extremely influential hospitality leaders. The first Chris Goss, the late Tom Parsell's nephew who was the backbone behind all of the HMGI brands for several years. The other Danny Meyer who is top of list for most successful business leaders, especially in this industry. Steve is such a loyal disciple of Danny that he has attended his leadership classes multiple times, has visited most all of his restaurants, sometimes on multiple trips and has a stack of his book Setting the Table to give to any and all staff he can.

TDM: Danny Meyer has inspired so many in this industry, talk more about his influence on you?
SP: Danny Meyer is who I aspire to be like. His philosophies and focus on service are in line with mine. I believe restaurants are 100 percent a reflection of who is running them and in Danny's cases you know his leaders love every part of the place they manage because you feel and see it in every single part of the dining experience.

TDM: So what's next for you?
SP: Besides the opening of Indaco in late summer, I am trying to travel as much as he can. All those years as a roadie for Bon Jovi and Guns & Roses made me into a wanderlust I guess (yes, that it is an entirely other story).

TDM: One last question, why Indigo Road?
SP:Indigo is the color of intuition and knowing. Ninety percent of all of my decisions have been based on intuition so that was clearly a good word. Then road: all roads for me have lead back to Charleston. I have left now four times and have always come back. So Indigo Road it was.