Eat STL: Songbird
Photo from Chris Meyer
In many ways, food is more than just sustenance. It inspires conversations, holds cultural importance, and tells the chef’s story. Student Life Producer Emily Talkow presents Eat STL, a series that profiles chefs in the St. Louis community. In this episode, Talkow talks with Chris Meyer, owner of Songbird.
This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.
CHRIS MEYER (0:00-0:36): Well, when we would go to the market we would start set up usually at 5:30 in the morning. It’s dark and, you know, it could be drizzling, it can be 30 degrees, it could be 98 degrees. So you get about four hours of sleep and so some mornings it, it is a lot to get ready for the setup. And it’s a lot of physical, I mean, it’s, it is a lot of equipment, a lot of logistics. But every morning we were there, you know, there’s the birds and they start about like six in the morning. And so just when you’re like, this is messed up. I can’t believe we’re doing this. The birds start chirping.
EMILY TAKOW (0:38 -1:11): I’m Emily Talkow, and you’re listening to Eat St. Louis. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day. I’m definitely a morning person, and there’s nothing better than starting the day off with a delicious meal. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Chris Meyer, owner of Songbird. Hearing Chris talk about the origination of the name brought a smile to my face, as I adore the sound of the birds in the morning as the sun begins to rise, there’s really nothing better. Songbird is one of those restaurants that feels like home as soon as you walk in. I hope you enjoy this conversation with Chris as much as I did.
CM (1:12-1:23): Hi, I’m Chris Meyer. And I’m the owner of Songbird. I have done other things like I worked in not-for-profits, but I’ve always had no matter what, like a restaurant job. So, yeah, it kinda gets in your blood I think.
ET (1:23-1:32): A lot of the chefs and food entrepreneurs that I’ve talked with discuss how food has played a big role in their family for as long as they can remember. Chris shares this sentiment.
CM (1:32-1:50): We cooked every meal at home and my parents always had a huge garden. My grandparents always had gardens. So it was a big deal about canning, what season it was getting the garden ready. It wasn’t just a hobby, it was a huge part of like what our family ate.
ET (1:50-2:05): Chris was involved in the food industry for most if not all of her life. But she didn’t necessarily seek out opening a restaurant like Songbird. She was working at a restaurant that was going to temporarily close down for 4 months, so she needed to pivot to something else during that time.
CM (2:05-2:50): So a couple of us paired off and started doing odd jobs together. Mike Miller was, a cook. I was a server. We were really good friends. So we worked together that whole summer that the restaurant was closed. And then when the restaurant was getting ready to reopen, we decided not to go back. And we felt like we worked really well together and we wanted to continue some type of project. So initially we thought, okay, we’ll do a line of kitchen themed t-shirts. So we had taken separate, different restaurant jobs and we’re just working on this project and I had always gone to the Tower Grow Farmer’s market. So I had reached out to Patrick, who’s the owner, asking if he thought we would be a good fit. And he said, well, yes and no. I need you to provide some kind of food.
ET (2:50-3:02): So Chris and her partner listened to Patrick, who is the owner of the Tower Grove Farmers Market, and figured that prepared food was in line with the messages of the t-shirts. Eventually, the food overtook the t-shirts and Songbird took off.
CM (3:02-3:31): The market has pretty strict guidelines, so you have to source 70% of what you’re selling from the market vendors. And Mike and I had already worked at restaurants that source seasonally, were farm to table, so we were really familiar with that style of food. So you really just basically start by making contacts with the farmers that are at the market and then seeing what’s coming in season and then planning a menu around what’s available.
ET (3:31-3:34): Working at the farmers market isn’t always easy.
CM (3:34-4:03): So kind of, the dynamic of the market is people have their regular vendors that they like, they go right to them, they buy what they want, and then they kind of mill around. But if you’re a new vendor, it can take a while for people to get used to you. So at the beginning it was very scary because people would be like, oh, that looks good, but then not want to take the chance. There were a couple markets that were really demoralizing and scary and we just kept, you know, plotting along. So it did get better.
ET (4:03-4:10): I asked Chris more about the tough aspects of starting a new stand at the farmers market and asked her if there were any moments where they almost quit.
CM (4:10-4:41): Yeah, we had a lot of those moments. So the first two years of the market, we kept our full-time jobs, so that was good and bad. It was like, good, you’re not relying on that for your income, but it’s, it’s also a lot of extra work. The market is challenging because it’s outside, so we were out there in snow flurries, rain. We would work in every market, no matter the weather. I think that Mike and I were just really committed to making it work and we are pretty driven people, so we’ll figure it out was kind of what we were thinking.
ET (4:41-4:48): If you have ever been to Songbird, you know they do something special with their breakfast sandwiches. But it didn’t start off that way immediately.
CM (4:48-5:18) We had a pretty small flat top, and so we knew we were, it had to be some type of grilled bread. But we had a list of like, things people could add and we just really wanted to get a feel for like what appealed to people. Rather than being helpful, I think that it just confused people. Like they couldn’t make a decision. And so I, after a couple weeks of that, I said, let’s just try offering a curated sandwich and changing that sandwich to see what appeals to people.
ET (5:18-5:27): So the easiest thing for them to do was a breakfast sandwich with cheese, bacon, and egg, all of which were optional. One of the additional toppings people could add to the sandwich was honey.
CM (5:27- 6:01): I’m a beekeeper. The honey was one of the selections that you could add just because we had it and it’s kind of funny, but I went to Catholic school and the, the cafeteria, whenever you had chili, they’d always give you a peanut butter sandwich that had honey on it, and it’s something that my family would’ve never done, but it was really delicious. So I said, why don’t we think about offering honey just as an add-on? And it never really took off, at all. So we stopped it. But we kept it, we had it packed with us every week.
ET (6:01-6:07): This never really took off until one gentleman in particular came by the stand.
CM (6:07-6:36): That fall, this gentleman who was a regular, he was obsessed with the sandwich. He, we was not that busy, so he had time to talk to me more. And he is also a beekeeper, very high up in the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association. He has an enormous amount of experience and once I found out he was a beekeeper, I was like, “Oh, Bob, why don’t you let me put some honey on your sandwich?” So, because we had it, I just put it on there, like as a fluke, and he loved it.
ET (6:36-6:40): After this day, honey grilled onto their sandwiches became Songbird’s signature!
CM (6:40-7:23): And then he was like, “why don’t you let me bring you some of my honey?” So he has a pretty unique situation. He has bees in a forest on property that he owns, and the honey that he brought me that fall from the harvest was pretty spectacular. There was like a hint of like cedar or pine plus the honey flavor, so it made it less sweet and almost more savory. So I was like, screw it. We’re going to put this honey on every sandwich because it was like really, really amazing. Rather than have it be optional, we started just saying, we’re gonna put honey on there unless you tell us not to. And slowly that really kind of took on a life of its own.
ET (7:23- 7:30): In general, the market proved to be invaluable, in large part due to the interactions Chris had with their customers.
CM (7:30-8:06): The market was so helpful, because whether it was the prepared food or the sandwich, you are feeding a couple hundred people a week, which is similar to a restaurant. But that next week, most of those same people are gonna come back. Whereas with a restaurant, it may not be that frequent and that food becomes part of their like weekly ritual. And so they’re much, once they get comfortable, they’re much more likely to offer you feedback. That feedback is like really invaluable, right? Like, oh, that toast seemed a little dry, or I love that dish.
ET (8:06-8:09): But there is only so much growth that can occur in a market.
CM (8:09-8:38): At first it was somewhat liberating to just be able to provide really quality food for people, but not have all the overhead and the structure of a restaurant. Then you reach a certain point where you really can’t grow, you have to lock into a space in order to continue growth. But I don’t think the idea was ever like, yes, we’re gonna have a restaurant per se. I think it was more about control of the food and offering the style of food that we wanted to offer.
ET (8:38-8:50) Today you can find Songbird in a more residential area of Tower Grove. Their mission statement is: “Songbird is a community-focused restaurant serving locally-sourced breakfast and lunch cuisine, all freshly prepared to order.”
CM (8:50- 9:55): We are in the middle of a neighborhood here, I think community is really important to Mike and I. It always makes the job more enjoyable if you know the people you’re feeding and if then you have some kind of relationship. I think the market really hammered that home because you’re standing at a folding table in the middle of a park. There’s no guarantees that one person’s gonna show up and buy your food. So the relationships that we built, with our regulars was like really invaluable to our success. And that’s community. That’s having them bring their relatives to the market that are visiting, that’s having them, you know, have their kids graduate, you know, when you go through their life with them. And so when we signed the lease here, it’s also a neighborhood. We felt like we have to extend that same, you know, openness to the people that live in this neighborhood. COVID really solidified that because whether people were working or laid off, you’re not really driving. So they’re walking up every day to get their coffee or their sandwich and we’re like commiserating together.
ET (9:55-9:59): Sustainability is also a key component of their mission statement.
CM (9:59-10:34): You know, Mike and I met working for a chef named Josh Galliano, and sustainability was very, very important to him. And he introduced us to a lot of great farmers before we even started the business. But I have been going to the market before we were vendors because they had a commitment to sustainability. I’ve just always had an interest in food politics. So the level and the sophistication of the small farms in this area is really unprecedented. And so not to not tap into that would just be foolish on our part.
ET (10:34-11:04): This commitment to sustainability contributes to the uniqueness of Songbird’s menu, as they strive to source their food locally and seasonally. If you’ve looked at their menu, one thing that you’ll notice is that it is relatively limited. Chris believes that instead of being too ambitious and having too large a menu with everything just being mediocre, it might be better to start off a little on the more conservative side. They looked at breakfast and tried to come up with something that fits every breakfast category: A sandwich, a dessert option, and more.
CM (11:04-11:28): So we kind of outlined those and then we, it is very much, I, I feel like a collaborative effort of everybody on staff involved with the food. So it’s kind of like, what are certain people’s strengths, what appeals to them? And then we just started talking about what we felt like we could get seasonally or what we could get year round, and then crafting a menu based around that.
ET (11:28-11:32): Chris’ knowledge and passion for the food industry is palpable.
CM (11:32-11:48): It’s something I’ve always done and I, I feel like I continue to do it because I enjoy it because clearly I, if I didn’t enjoy it, I would’ve done something else. So yeah, I think it’s just that you know, certain people get a bug about this business and it keeps drawing you back in.
ET (11:51-12:17): Well, I can tell you I for sure have that bug. Thank you so much to Chris Meyer for taking the time to talk with me. Be sure to follow Songbird on Instagram @songbird.stl and check out their honey grilled breakfast sandwich, among the other incredible eats on their menu! Stay tuned for future episodes of Eat St. Louis. In the meantime, head to studlife.com to check out our current issue and other recent stories. For Student Life Media, I’m Emily Talkow.
Music rights reserved for Kevin MacLeod