This story was originally published in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
“How do you do it?” It’s a question Mike and Taylor Monen hear a lot. And for good reason. In a business that can be notoriously tough, the husband and wife team has built quite an impressive restaurant empire over the past six years. Owners of seven restaurants, including five here in Chattanooga, the Monens never set out to become restaurant moguls.
“I never even considered being in the restaurant business until after I went away to college,” says Mike Monen, sitting in the open-air dining section of Community Pie, the couple’s fifth restaurant.
In 1992, Mike left his home in Chattanooga to attend the College of Charleston. After his freshman year, he decided he liked the city so much that he wanted to stay there during the summer.
“My dad said ‘That’s fine, but you’ll have to get a job and pay your own rent’,” Monen explained. That led to his first experience working in a restaurant—a local barbecue joint called Sticky Fingers.
Mike continued to work there throughout college, and when then-owners Jeff Goldstein, Todd Eischeid, and Chad Walldorf approached him about heading up a proposed expansion into their hometown of Chattanooga, the budding restaurateur jumped at the chance.
“Working at Sticky Fingers in college, I really developed a love for the restaurant business,” Monen says. “So I was really excited to get the opportunity to open the first out of town Sticky Fingers here in Chattanooga.”
At Sticky Fingers, Mike learned the ins and outs—and the ups and downs—of running a successful restaurant. But, more importantly, it’s also where he met his wife, and future business partner. By the time Sticky Fingers sold out to a private equity group in 2006, Mike and Taylor were engaged, and ready to take a break from the restaurant business.
“I thought we were out of the business for good,” Mike confesses. “It was a lot of fun, but it was also a lot of work, and we were both looking forward to taking some time off.” However, the duo soon realized they wanted to give restaurant ownership another try.
“Taylor and I had always talked about opening a restaurant together,” Monen says. “So we brainstormed and came up with the idea for Taco Mamacita.” They opened the unique Mexican eatery in September, 2008. And, within a year, business was good enough that they decided to open a second location in Nashville.
“We originally promised ourselves that we’d only open one restaurant,” Monen says. “But we quickly realized that we had a great group of employees who deserved to be, and had the desire to be, promoted. So we started to think maybe a second location would be a good idea.”
Growing along with their own workforce has been a major ingredient in the Monen’s success story, according to Mike.
“That was our formula from the very beginning,” he says. “We were going to get the best employees possible, train them the best we could, put an endless amount of energy and effort into it.
“Then, when we feel like we’ve got employees who are ready to take on a new location with us, that’s when we start thinking about opening a new restaurant.”
“We had always wanted to open a restaurant in Charleston,” Monen says. “We both love the city and have a lot of good friends there.” And over the next four years, they launched four new restaurants here in town—each of which has its own unique story.
Then came Community Pie—a traditional Neapolitan pizzeria in Chattanooga’s City Center. “In my earliest days of wanting to open a restaurant, I had always dreamed of having a pizza joint,” Monen says. “And when were approached by River City Company about this space, we thought this would be a good fit for our twist on pizza.” The only problem? Mike and Taylor had never made pizza before.
“We reached out to experts to study the craft,” Monen says. “I went to San Francisco to study with a Neapolitan pizza guru, who taught us about ingredients, oven temperature and all the qualities that make an authentic Neapolitan pizza. “And Taylor studied the craft of making authentic gelato with an expert in Bologna, Italy.”
That experience led to the couple opening Milk and Honey—a small gelato shop next to Taco Mamacita on the North Shore.
“Milk and Honey was Taylor’s idea,” Monen says. “She originally wanted to create her own brand of gelato that we could sell at Community pie. “But when the space opened up, we decided Milk and Honey could live as its own location.”
The popular North Shore destination has already undergone two expansions, adding additional seating as well as a bigger kitchen space. In addition to gelato, Milk and Honey also sells a variety of espresso and coffee drinks as well as pastries and café-style breakfast and lunch items.
The couple’s latest restaurant offering is Clyde’s on Main, which Mike described as a dive bar concept, “but with better food and working plumbing.” The restaurant, which features a full bar and a variety of unique sandwiches and entrees, is located in the old Clyde’s Auto Glass on Main Street.
“Something we always try to do when we open a new restaurant is to try and make sure we are filling a niche that doesn’t already exist,” Monen says. “Sure, there were already places to get a good burger before Urban Stack, but none of them really focused on the burger with a bunch of unique twists.”
Next up for the Monens are two more locations in Nashville. “Early next year we’ll be opening an expanded Milk and Honey up there,” Monen says, “along with a sort of hybrid of Urban Stack and Clyde’s.”
And as for how they manage as a husband and wife team?
“It works because we treat home and work equally and we respect each other’s strengths,” Monen says. “But, Taylor is definitely pulling more than her share of the weight both at work and at home. I’m just riding her coattails.”
Story by Keith Rawlston
Photography courtesy of Taco Mamacita