Before they were Columbus culinary superstars, Kevin and Katy Malhame were idealists with a dream of creating a restaurant unlike any other in Central Ohio.

Editor’s note: Back in 2004, Columbus Monthly assigned freelance writer Sonya Huber to write about a new Short North restaurant called the Northstar Cafe. The idea was to offer an intimate look at the challenges a new restaurant faces—and Sonya’s story succeeded in doing just that. But it also, unbeknownst to us at the time, captured the birth of Kevin and Katy Malhame’s mini-culinary empire, which now includes four additional Northstars, as well as Third & Hollywood in Grandview and the Brassica Middle-Eastern fast-casual chain. Take a look back to a time before the Malhames had realized their culinary dreams—or had perfected the most beloved veggie burger in town.  

Kevin Malhame is exhausted, but his eyes rove restlessly across the dining room, unfocused and yet taking in every detail. He glances upward. 

“This light is much higher than the other ones," he says, tugging gently at the pendant halogen lamp above the blond wood table of the Northstar Cafe in the Short North. "I looped it around the duct up there," he says to his wife, Katy, who joins him in peering into the naked ceiling, "so I guess I'll get up there and loosen the cord."

They trade to-do-list details, and Katy reaches to pat Kevin’s hand as they talk about the leaking ductwork. It's Sept. 9, and their restaurant—the place they've dreamed and schemed about for years—has been open for two weeks. In the dining room, a few customers relax with cups of coffee and freshly squeezed juice in the post-breakfast lull. Like any parents of a newborn, the Malhames aren't sleeping much.

A server arrives with platters bearing the main attractions: granola and yogurt festooned with huge berries, an over-easy organic egg surrounded with chunks of sweet potato hash, a breakfast burrito arranged like a small sculpture.

Kevin and Katy take careful bites, analyzing. Kevin inspects a cross section of the breakfast burrito. "There's nice contrast here," says Katy, pointing out the layer of smoked breakfast sausage. "Good compartmentalization.”

A salesman strides into the restaurant, holding a sample takeout cup. Kevin paces as he and the salesman trade costs and terms such as "die-cut Kraft," the technical name for a common takeout paper coffee-cup design.

"Have you had any luck with the die-cut Debbie?" asks Katy, referring to a kind of takeout paper bag. The ultimate paper bag, in fact, according to the Malhames. The salesman shakes his head.

“This might sound silly, but two years ago, we saw the perfect takeout bag in New York City," explains Katy, almost embarrassed at their level of affection for a paper product. "It has handles, and it's a perfect small rectangle. We saw it and said, “This is the bag: But we can't find it!"

Kevin continues to talk with the salesman, and Katy turns to look at her husband. "He needs a haircut," she says, noticing Kevin’s slightly shaggy hairline. “I’ll have to somehow get him out of here and tell him to go get one.”

She says last night Kevin's side of the bed was empty as she fell asleep. She woke up at 6 a.m. and panicked after realizing he wasn't home. When she called the restaurant, John Skaggs, the head chef, replied in a whisper, "He's asleep here on the couch.”

***

Katy, who grew up on a farm in western Ohio, knew when she was a little girl she wanted to be a caterer or party planner. She met Kevin, who grew up in New Jersey, when they were both undergraduates at Washington University in St. Louis. Kevin was studying engineering with the goal of designing an environmentally friendly restaurant. They married in 2001.

After college, they paid their dues in the restaurant business. Katy moved through Cameron Mitchell's local empire, working at Cap City Diner, the Columbus Fish Market and the corporate office. Kevin worked in Palm Beach, Florida, for Houston's Restaurants, which owns 35 restaurants around the country. They saw each other about a weekend a month.

They shared a goal. "Our mission is bigger than a restaurant,” she says. "We're trying to create a place that's environmentally conscious, that provides a steady income for organic farmers. And we want to bring organics to a more mainstream audience. We're trying to be approachable, not 'in-your-face' organic," says Katy. ''The goal is 100 percent organic someday, but right now we’re responsible, sustainable and local. We don't want to brag. We're just humbly saying this is the best food we can serve. And we'll charge the least we can. So it will take sales volume to make it work.’

The Malhames have balanced their idealism with a stiff dose of pragmatism, which has included seeking advice. Two years ago, they approached Magdiale Wolmark and Cristin Austin, owners of Dragonfly/Neo-V Cuisine, a noted vegan restaurant on King Avenue. They were inspired by Dragonfly's success and told Wolmark and Austin they wanted to try something similar, a restaurant focusing on organics and locally sourced foods.

Wolmark agreed to talk to the Malhames. “A lot of business people would say, 'No, I don't want to share my secrets.’ But I wanted to support a local foods system," he says. "If you help people, it also helps you.”

Kevin and Katy relied on quite a bit of help from friends and family, who contributed loans to fund 75 percent of the restaurant's start-up capital, with the balance coming from the Malhames' savings. “It is difficult to get reasonable loans for a first restaurant from institutional lenders because of the bad reputation that restaurant start-ups have as a dangerous risk." Kevin says.

The Malhames focused on Grandview as a location and pursued three different leases, but then they saw the Short North space on North High Street. They committed to the site in late 2003, found an architect and planned to open Jan.1. Their architect, however, got tied up in another project. So they e-mailed the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University to find a graduate looking for a low-budget creative project.

"I replied, out of curiosity," says Andrew Rosenthal, an OSU alumnus who worked for Acock Associates before starting his own firm, GRAD, with partner Carl Gieseke this year. “We didn't even have business cards finished yet. Everything was still at the printer.”

After trading e-mails, Kevin and Katy met with Rosenthal to sketch out their wish list. “We wanted to use a lot of natural materials, to have it be very earthy," says Katy. "We wanted an open kitchen, and we wanted the space to be cozy and yet also open and airy.”

"They'd thought so much about the ideas and had an inventory of images," says Rosenthal. "The nightmare client already has a design. This was a nice puzzle to assemble.”

A walk-through of the space revealed potential roadblocks: a brick wall, once a building exterior, divides the back half of the large space. The barrier, running perpendicular from the back wall, had to be incorporated into a plan that uses the area for dining and a big kitchen. Rosenthal got to work. 

As soon as the contractors were hired and supplies began to come in, Katy and Kevin faced difficult choices that strained their budget. Costs for heating and ventilation were stunning—about $60,000. "That includes hood air conditioners, installation, and the surprise added costs of the pizza oven's welded duct," Kevin says. Disposable cups and plates would have saved a bundle, but the environmental costs—for the Malhames—were too high.

To save money, Katy’s entire family pitched in with the painting. Her father nearly fell through the dropped ceiling while hanging speaker wire. Her sister used large flat foam pads, earth-toned fabric and Velcro to create the upholstery for the booths. Katy and Kevin sandblasted the plaster from the brick wall and rented a grinder to scrub carpet residue from the old terrazzo floors.

The Malhames managed to bring contractors and equipment wholesalers into their vision, and soon the workers and suppliers, too, were helping them save cash. Still, in the final days before the restaurant was finished, Katy and Kevin found themselves at the bottom of the bank account and had to pay Rosenthal and others with food credits.

The design work and elbow grease led to a space that's a cross between Ikea (the Swedish minimalist-yet-comfy design firm) and a rustic hardware store. There's an elegant, floor-to-ceiling curved wall of slate shingles, and near the front is a living-room area with deep couches and a huge tiered magazine rack stocked with everything from The Economist to Yoga to O. A television sits high in a corner, tuned to closed-captioned news. The front of the restaurant—with its tall windows, high ceiling and natural materials—can fool you into thinking you're relaxing outdoors.

***

It is Aug. 6, 10 days before the Malhames think they will be open for business, and there are problems. The foodstuffs are slow in coming—literally, one pallet at a time; the kitchen is off-line until the building passes final inspection.

"It's really easy for restaurants to call up a large supplier, but it's much harder to pull together local produce," says Katy. She retrieves a black three-ring binder, and her eyes light up as she turns the pages, as if she's sharing a family album. "This is one of my favorite parts of the job." She pages through the sheets, each listing contact information and products for farmers around Ohio, many of whom the Malhames met through the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association. She points out the producer for their pork, then finds another page, commenting, "She's awesome," of one farmer, and of another, "He's so cute. He reminds me of my grandfather.”

John Skaggs, whose official title is "culinary leader,” pulls a container of cherry tomatoes out of the walk-in cooler. "Try this,” he says, handing one over and smiling because he knows what reaction will follow: a look of organics-induced shock as flavors of earth, citrus, smoked meat and rainwater all seem to explode from one tiny tomato-bomb. Skaggs, a culinary school graduate, joined the Northstar team in May after working as executive chef at R.J.Snapper's and in catering. He was excited, he says, to get in on the ground floor of a new project with a fresh outlook, and he seems eager to fire up the ovens and get to work. "We'll be testing all kinds of stuff," he says. "We've got five kinds of bacons to try.”

Barry Adler, owner and operator of Rain Fresh Harvests in Plain City, arrives carrying bags of fresh herbs. Adler has farmed for years, but is taking the leap into organics. "They're just starting, and I'm just starting. Them taking the dive into this encouraged me to do this," he says.

As Adler talks with Skaggs about the yields for various herbs, Katy sneaks bites of garlic chives from a Tupperware container.

“We need to pay you, Bany," she says. He pats his pockets for an invoice,  then unfolds the list of herbs he's brought. Katy opens the checkbook and prepares to record the transaction. “There's no invoice number," she says to Adler, whose organics business is so new that tracking sales is the least of his worries.

"Well, let's call it zero-zero-zero-one,” he says.

They cheer, and Katy hugs Adler. “Congratulations! Money's coming in!”

While Adler prepares to leave, Skaggs considers the narrow profit margins that, they hope, will support the restaurant and so many of these farmers. “It's going to take a lot of sets of eyes," he says, to monitor the business closely. For us, it's cheaper because there's no middle man. We all understand the statistics, that the odds are nine-in-10 that we'll fail. But we're the ‘one.’ ”

The odds for the Northstar, however, might actually be much better than the "one-in-10"

conventional wisdom, says H.G. Parsa, associate professor of hospitality management at Ohio State University. Parsa studied restaurants in Columbus between 1996 and 1999 and found a closure rate of about 60 percent. His study concluded that many of to be closures were prompted by personal reasons—divorce, illness, retirement—rather than a balance sheet in the red.

Parsa's colleagues since have expanded the study to other markets, with similar results. Yet the myth persists, and the 90 percent failure figure is constantly repeated, including in ads for the television reality show The Restaurant.

The myth about restaurant closings persists for two reasons, says Parsa. Restaurants are more visible than most businesses, and there's also the matter of emotional attachment. “We always care, are always sorry to see a restaurant go. People talk about food from birth to death,” he says. "Restaurants are a part of our lives, our culture, our identity. We don't have the same attachment to a bank.”

Parsa, who worked in the restaurant industry for 15 years, found that despite the low profit margin for restaurants, these businesses are the most generous in giving donations to the community, supporting everything from little league teams to scholarships. "A restaurant is not a place of business," he says. "It's a place where you are somebody. Most restaurant owners are not in business for the money. Why would you work a 70-hour week with no vacations if you didn't love it?”

***

As it turned out, the Malhames' idea of opening Aug. 16 was too optimistic. By Aug. 13, the building inspector still hadn't arrived, which threw off the weekend plans for recipe-testing. And the sign for the front of the building failed a review by the Victorian Village Commission.

The next Monday, however, the inspector appears, and the Northstar is declared structurally sound. The Malhames fire up the roaring pizza oven and fill their mixing bowls. The initial team of 25 staff members, including Katy and Kevin, put on their earth-toned Northstar T-shirts and start their training.

“Our big thing is that we were not necessarily looking for a lot of restaurant experience, but a certain amount of life experience, a passion to learn and to apply that," Katy says of her new staff. "We wanted great attitudes and good energy." The staff has its share of restaurant veterans as well as a few whose backgrounds include law, architecture and retail.

As the employees get acclimated, a few slate tiles crash down from the top row of the curved wall; the tile company soon arrives with replacements. The walk-in cooler needs to be defrosted, Friday is devoted to training on the register as glitches in the software are ironed out

"We're still figuring out the equipment. We're testing a few different kinds of dough in the pizza oven, experimenting with spelt,” says Katy, describing an ancient grain that is becoming popular as an alternative to wheat, which a number of people are allergic to. ''And the veggie burgers are a little bit dry, but everything else is tasting good.”

Despite the flurry of activity in the kitchen, Skaggs seems serene and good-humored in his white chef’s jacket. "Our breakfast is pretty right on, with the exception of the exact portion sizes and presentation on the plate. Presentation is key. You eat with your eyes first, right?" he says. “All the notes we've been taking on top of recipes that I thought were mostly done, we're going to redo those and have them laminated by Monday.”  And Skaggs will discover the missing element for the veggie burgers: smoked onions.

The plan, Katy says, is to practice Monday and Tuesday, then open Wednesday for breakfast and lunch, for real. The dinner services, she says, will have to wait until mid October.

***

Wednesday arrives, however, and the sign, "Opening Very Soon!" is still taped to the front door. The activity inside is a test run of sorts. The dishes have no prices yet. The staff seems a bit mystified with the menu, but very friendly. There are, however, people at the tables—friends and acquaintances of the Malhames and folks from the neighborhood—all eating Northstar food.

On this cloudy August day, the globe light fixtures cast a gentle glow, and the world music floating from the speakers is upbeat. There are plenty of outlets for laptops and fixings for the coffee, which is brewed too strong and served in cups too warm to hold. But the ricotta pancakes—in all their organic, good-for-the-earth glory—are light, sweet and an inch thick. Served with real maple syrup.

Curious pedestrians peer in the windows and tug on the locked door. Katy tapes a second sign: "By Invitation Only.” The next night, the Malhames take the staff to dinner at Dragonfly for a pre-opening-day celebration.

Finally, on Friday, Aug. 20, the Northstar officially opens. It is so packed and busy that Katy barely gets a chance to take a breath.

Wolmark of Dragonfly continues to encourage the Malhames, but is hesitant now to share advice. "My stuff is more focused on vegetables, more seasonal. I'm vegan, and they're serving meat. Some people may go to them instead of to me, but we generally promote each other's places.” It's clear, however, he's thinking about his own bottom line. "There comes a point where the market is saturated. As a result of their entry into the local scene, new issues have cropped up,” he says, though he doesn't mention specifics. "It's too early to tell how it's going to turn out.”

***

By Sept. 9, the Malhames are tweaking that pendant lamp and seeking answers from the salesman about the perfect paper bag. There’s a sign near the cash register announcing that the restaurant is accepting applications. "We're so busy, even more than we expected," Katy says. "I have to have more people. We planned to start hiring two weeks ago, but we've been too busy to do it.

Katy is exhausted, but her smile is still infectious. "Kevin's brother and parents were in from D.C. last weekend, and while they were here, we ran out of silverware,” she says. When the forks and knives emerged from the dishwasher, she says, "I had to put Kevin’s mom to work in the basement, rolling silverware.”

“We have to pick and choose our battles," Kevin says. “We need to hire a bookkeeper. There's nothing like working a 12-hour day and then sitting down to do data entry.”

And the sign still hasn't been approved. A bike rack needs to be ordered for the front patio. Does the front of the restaurant seem too sterile and cold? Kevin isn't sure. He tugs again at the lamp. "Now I've pulled it down too far," he says.

One of the servers rushes by with an armful of dishes on her way to check on a customer seated near the front windows. Katy turns and says, “Thank you, Sierra.” She turns back around, eyes wide. "I don't have to say anything," she says, as her employees move around the dining room. "It's working.”

Now, if only they can find that die-cut Debbie.