March 27, 2022
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing K.C. Gulbro — Chef and Owner of FoxFire and Copper Fox Restaurants.
Nationally recognized Chef and Restaurant owner K.C. (Kristopher) Gulbro’s passion for food came at an early age, working in the restaurant industry since he was sixteen and holding every position from dishwasher to line cook. After years of mastering his skills in the restaurant and hospitality industry, K.C. and his father Curt, opened the doors to FoxFire restaurant in 2003. In April of 2021, despite the closures and lockdowns, K.C. and his award-winning team persisted and opened his second venture, Copper Fox Pub and Banquet Hall.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restaurateur?
I always look back to when I was growing up watching Cheers. I thought how amazing it would be if I could have all that? I actually found out later in life that my grandfather on my mother’s side owned a bar in Chicago named, This Is It. My grandmother worked there, and after my grandfather passed away, she stayed committed to the bar. My mom and sisters used to work there (way before I was born), so it’s safe to say it’s in my blood. It’s crazy how I knew none of this until I started bartending and cooking at the age of 20.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on?
I love working with steak and it’s what I’m focused on at this time. Steak is something that is incorporated into so many cultures, and the possibilities are endless with preparation and technique. There really is something about cooking and enjoying a juicy steak. It excites me and I enjoy how people are always drawn to it.
What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food?
I am part Italian and have always felt a deep connection to my roots and food in general, especially steak. Early on, it was the bold spices and flavors that stimulated my mind to learn more tricks and techniques. I carry that with me now, to push myself to have the best steakhouse in Illinois!
Can you share a story about that with us?
Since I started my culinary journey, back when I was 15 and washing dishes at the former Baker’s Square in Wheaton, Illinois, I have always been enamored on what restaurants mean to people. Restaurants are more than the food they serve, they are a place to confide and feel comfort. Working as a busboy, I observed and learned that every team member serves a purpose and contributes to each guests’ experience. My two restaurants, FoxFire and Copper Fox, are an escape for many. We encourage patrons to leave their worries at the door, even if just for a little while.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a restaurateur?
Most recently we hosted a private party for a group named Fun Club, and we weren’t exactly sure what that meant. They asked if they could have total privacy in the room they rented, and after further research we realized they were a nudist group. Well, it turns out that they asked our coordinator if they could eat in the nude, and she thought they were not serious. We have a wonderful staff that was more than understanding, every guest was accommodated and left happy. It is definitely a brunch party I will never forget.
What was the lesson or takeaway you took out of that story?
Always be prepared for the unexpected, and ask questions! If my staff wasn’t comfortable with this party, I would have kindly told the guests we were not able to accommodate their request. It could have been a very uncomfortable situation, but our staff asked the right questions and set expectations that ended in everyone having a blast.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
Being young, It’s always hard to start something on your own. I lived in Iowa for many years, and decided I had enough of working for others. I thought I had what it took to become my own boss, and even if I did, I had no capital. It was nearly impossible to try and get a loan in your twenties with no collateral, and even harder for a restaurant in Iowa. In 2004, I got my first break as my father and I went into business with another chef and friend, and in 2005, I bought FoxFire. I went from being a minor partner with barely any input, to being a chef and owner with the freedom to create incredible menus and memories for my patrons.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
Trial and error. We always do research and experiment before putting a dish on the menu. Sometimes we watch what’s trending in our city and through different food magazines. As a team we gather information, then develop and display new cuisines as specials. We take the feedback given and enhance the dish, adding final touches to make it perfect before putting it on our menu.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
The perfect meal is something that takes time and effort, and has to go with your day and mood. Whether it be a bleu cheese New York strip, or a golden brown grilled cheese with tomato bisque- the perfect meal is something that brightens your day.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from?
For my restaurants, I like to try new places and always be up to date with what’s trending. As a chef, I’m always in tune with what’s new with food, but as a restaurateur, I want to visit and be inspired by places that elevate the dine-in experience for everyone. Thankfully we’re located in a suburb of Chicago, and restaurants to visit are endless.
Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
Social media is a huge creative outlet, my girlfriend also plays a part as my muse. She always tries to send me the latest trends and techniques. I also turn to my staff to spark a fuse, and see how we can do something better.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Right now we are looking into new charities to help and ways we can give back to our community. In the past, we’ve helped St. Judes, and The Special Olympics Torch Run with our local Police department. During COVID-19, we donated meals to our local hospitals and homeless shelters, doing whatever we could to give back. We are always looking for more ways to give back, it’s a great feeling to help and support the community that made FoxFire and Copper Fox as successful as they are today.
What impact do you think this will have?
I enjoy being a part of this community, and establishing a name for ourselves in Geneva, IL. I’m blessed and will always help my neighbors and bless it forward. I think this is one of the reasons our establishments have thrived for so long. In church we would call it “blessing” it forward, and by doing so, it allows more blessings to come.
What advice would you give to other restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Be a part of the community and give back, it’s all about supporting one another! Stay competitive and never be afraid to try something new. Also remember to take a break every now and then. You do not work for the restaurant, it works for you. Don’t be afraid to let the people you put in charge run it from time to time. It keeps them on their toes. Professor Jim Mulyk at College of DuPage said it best. “Train those under you to do your job, so when they get to that point, you can focus on the next task”, this only makes you and your team better. By training and showing management and chefs to do what I Iove, we were able to expand. Manage yourself with mercy, the restaurant will not make you money if you work yourself to death. Enjoy the work you do and love the life you live.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Love thy neighbor. As a restaurateur you should not be afraid of your competition, but embrace them all. At FoxFire we have a great relationship with other nearby businesses and restaurants. We never turn away requests for help, and if we can lend products, we will. Good will towards others comes back tenfold and I continue to live by that.
- You own the restaurant, it doesn’t own you! This is a failure for many restaurateurs, but if you look at it, does Bobby Flay or Gordon Ramsey work at their establishments every single day? That would be impossible! Instead, they put the best people in places to help them maintain their brand. My first 15 years as a restaurant owner, I worked double shifts every night, more than 60 hour weeks. I would get to bed at 2 am and wake up at 8 am, just to do it all over again. It was a bad cycle that didn’t benefit me or my health, so I’m happy to pass it on.
- Giving back and blessing it forward. Whether it was a chili cook-off to benefit the Fallen FireFighters Association or sponsoring the local little league teams, it’s important to be active in your community and give back. It isn’t all about getting your name out there, but how rewarding and grateful I feel giving back. I wish we could have done more of it in the beginning. Giving back lets the community know you’re invested in them, and they in turn will invest in you.
- Stay in the loop. In order to be happy in this industry, you have to yearn to learn and adapt quickly. By staying in the know, you may learn new ways to improve your restaurant and customer experience. Your concepts will always seem fresh. And it will keep customers coming back year after year. You cannot keep the same menu, or the same wine list, year after year. Things in this industry go out of date fast, so staying in the know will only make your life easier in the long run.
- Always invest in your employees. As I mentioned, always train those under you to do your job better. We support any of our staff to pursue a degree in hospitality and culinary arts. If we can help them with their schooling, we do what we can. It is part paying it forward, but it shows that we care about their future, and it has a positive effect on all of our employees. As an owner, keep an open mind to what they learned, as you can learn from them as well. It will give them a sense of ownership and build their confidence in the kitchen.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
I would have to say the New York Surf and Turf, this dish is always a crowd pleaser! We start off with our Certified Angus Beef Prime New York strip cut steak, which has the perfect amount of marbleization, yet still lean. With so much flavor, and at 14 oz, you will not leave hungry. We top that with our signature Scallops Dijon, 3 pan-seared to perfection scallops topped with a garlic-bacon butter sauce finished with toasted panko. There is so much to savor in each bite, leaving our guests full and their plates empty.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
When COVID hit so aggressively, we saw the impact it had on our neighborhood kids, so we stepped in and decided to help. We offered to sponsor the local youth traveling baseball team, providing them with the gear and uniforms needed for three of their large tournaments. We knew these kids needed a boost to keep them going, and we were determined to bring our community closer together. I would inspire the movement to “Bless it forward’’. We wouldn’t have been able to thrive without the support of the Geneva community all of these years, and we love to give a helping hand where we can. It would be amazing to see others do this as well, because it really is the little things that make the most difference. Another thing we do is give away free soup and coffee to the city’s public works, first responders, and postal workers when the temperature gets below freezing. I love to offer my services wherever I can help, and really think it’s why I have been blessed with such success. I’ll continue to “Bless it Forward’’ and hope we can all pick up this movement.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!