Chef/Owner Ellis Grossman
Ellis Grossman does not solve problems in the same ways that everyone else does. This is not a mere observation, but a fact that has been proven through his work. As the owner and operating manager of Black Bean Company, which has three Charleston locations, Grossman has taken what we conventionally think about health food and put it into the context of fast food. What he walked away with was an original idea that turned his critics from initially scratching their heads to beating them against a wall, wondering how they didn’t get there first.
Grossman identifies himself as a man on a mission to bring health food to fast food, and although he knows that calling it a “mission” and attributing his success to a positive attitude sounds corny, he stands by it. “It is something I take a lot of pride in…I see such an importance in the farm and in the restaurant.” Professional but comfortable in his chef coat, Ellis Grossman was humble when we sat down to talk about his success “I was just a really lucky farmer,” he jokes, but would later reveal that he spent a year at Clemson University taking farming classes, something he never expected when he became an owner of Black Bean Company. Then again, he didn’t expect to be voted Charleston’s #1 vegetarian restaurant three months after opening, either.
Local ingredients have become a popular choice for restaurant menus, but as a born and bred Charlestonian who graduated from the local culinary institute and earned his chops as an nineteen-year-old manager at the nationally-lauded Hyman’s Seafood, Grossman’s approach is far from gimmicky. His vision for the upcoming West Ashley restaurant focuses on community, with walls decorated by local artists and a family-friendly experience that includes an expanded Children’s Menu.
A super hero in the world of sustainable farming, Ellis refers to dirt as “a living organism” and enjoys spending at least one full day a week at Thackeray Farms. He doesn’t lose himself in the romanticism, though. “It’s cute when you have one or two tomato plants in your backyard, but when you’ve got 300 plants per row it is a whole different ballgame…It’s not like I [can] go to the farm every day and throw the food in my truck.” It is this kind of rational thinking that has made Grossman not just a great chef, but also a great businessman. He attributes much of his success to vetted systems, which he learned in the most unlikely of places for health food advocates: fast food. “When I told my buddies that I was taking a job with Bojangles’, they told me I was crazy.” It was during his time with Bojangles’ (where he managed twenty restaurants at the age of 22) and a subsequent move to Taco Bell, where Ellis learned many of the lessons that have led to his success at Black Bean. “I wanted to see how a company (Bojangles’) could run four hundred restaurants, and then how another company (Taco Bell) could run seven thousand restaurants.” Grossman is clearly in a position to disregard his fast food past, but instead of speaking as if they are the enemy, he openly acknowledges that fast food provided him with some of his most valuable teaching moments. It is why he is able to serve healthy food to people by way of a drive-thru in less than two minutes. It has also informed the way that he crafts his menu.
Grossman was able to carry that same idea with him to Black Bean, even with a menu item like his Southwest Wrap, which has over a half-dozen ingredients. In fact the menu of Black Bean (which was crafted over a three day period via pen and paper) is loaded with wraps and salads that are complete meals. This is because Ellis does not see meals as the plastic tray modeled in school cafeterias, plainly cut into three sections, but as a culmination of nutrient-rich ingredients. “For me, food is all nutritionally-based. My menu is based on portion sizing and what your body needs to fuel you for the rest of the day…which is why people eat a half salad with chicken on it and are full.” It was also during his time in fast food, at Bojangles’, when Grossman started to learn about how to best manage people. He tells the story of two employees, one a cashier and the other an order taker who worked at the same Bojangles’ for over fifteen years. “They were the highest paid cashiers I’d ever seen.” When he asked why he was simply told, “They’re here every day, they never call out, and people love them.” It was around that same time when the owner gave Ellis an audio tape of Seven Habits of Highly Successful People and Grossman transitioned from being a twenty-one year old “jamming out” on his commute to work to a self-diagnosed, “leadership nerd.” It is an absence of leadership and devotion to best practices that Grossman speculates is why 99% of new restaurants fail—a statistic that he is fascinated by. Grossman believes that Black Bean is able to stay in the 1% because, “I take care of my people and we provide a quality product…The customers will come as long as the food is good and the people are great.”
The success rate of new restaurants (or lack thereof) is only one of the many facts Ellis recites during our conversation. Not only does he know the menu, down to the dailyshredded cheeses and selected house vinaigrettes, but he also knows the average age of a farmer is 59 and that small business owners create 96% of America’s jobs. It is this knowledge, paired with his own self-awareness, which allowed Grossman to open up about what might be in store for Black Bean. “Franchise is a scary word, but do I want the Black Bean to be everywhere? Absolutely. I see it everywhere.” Ellis projects that in about six months, Black Bean will be in a position to have conversations about expansion—not in only Charleston or even state-wide, but nationally. “The fact is, we’re just not there yet,” he concedes, but when he talks about it his eyes get a little bigger. The way he speaks about the future of Black Bean is like most things with Ellis: you get the impression that he is in control of the system that he is creating. It is the kind of confidence that says, we aren’t there yet, but we will be. Ellis Grossman’s enthusiasm is not constrained to his restaurants alone, but is rather an overflow from his own, tightly held ideals. “To truly be successful you have to see the one side just as much as you see your side. Even if you are right, you have to understand their point of view.” And in essence that is exactly what Black Bean is doing. It has seen the other side the greasy, salty, fatty other side—and is showing the culinary world that it can be done the right way.