• Kevin Heinonen

Why we love Chef Mike.


In honor of Chef Mike releasing his Valentine's Day Menu, we'd like to take a moment to describe why we love this guy.

What makes this person a rising star in the restaurant industry? At the end of the month, Chef Mike Schmitz will celebrate nearly two and a half years doing the impossible. Which is not something he would have expected of himself many years ago. It was about twelve years ago that Schmitz traded his lab coat for a pair of crocks and entered the culinary world, having wandered his way into his life's passion via a route many of us can relate to and akin to the adage "one never knows where life will take one." As the Culinary Director for THAT Place Projects - the restaurant development group behind the most celebrated restaurants in Flagstaff Arizona: Tourist Home, Annex Cocktail Lounge, and Tinderbox Kitchen, Schmitz has helmed one of the most impressive turnarounds in Arizona restaurant history. Starting with the struggling Tinderbox restaurant, that in 2017 was limping along because of a widespread perception that it was a stuffy, special occasion restaurant, more suitable for blue hairs from Arcadia and Scottsdale than hipsters hungry for culinary experiences from Phoenix and other parts. At that time, it was being carried by sister concept, Tourist Home had skyrocketed to become the flagship of the three restaurants owned by Kevin Heinonen, a real estate attorney turned restaurant mogul and the CEO of THAT Place Projects. Annex, an extension of Tinderbox for overflow was still trying to find its voice. Schmitz leveraged his chemical engineering background, 12 years of advancing culinary responsibility from gourmet sandwich shops to four-star restaurants along with his salt of the earth, thoughtful, quiet persona to wrangle the kitchen operations of all three restaurants. In particular, Tinderbox was not only suffering from a perception problem but an internal self-confidence problem and an aching need for a new identity. Working with the marketing and branding team and owner Heinonen, Tinderbox was re-conceived as a fast-casual, every day fine dining experience. A hip stag became the iconic self-effacing, New Yorker Cartoon-Esque voice of the brand, resplendent with hipster glasses, a bow tie, and suspenders. The food Schmitz devised followed along the same trajectory—intelligent, thoughtful, well-composed, and with a sense of humor. Reservations began to immediately reflect the change. Every morning, Chef would come in and touch everything and ensure that all equipment was in order, all produce and provisions of the quality and organization necessary for a night of service. Out of respect for what Heinonen built, he heralded in no weird or fussy changes. Instead, he drew upon his work ethic and humble approach to living translated into dishes that honored the restaurant's origins. He worked diligently with the front of the house to maximize communication behind the scenes ensuring all wait staff understood and appreciate every ingredient lovingly chosen by him to represent the brand. Sales skyrocketed. He next turned his attention to Annex, moving restaurant operations from Tinderbox's tiny kitchen to the more fast-paced kitchen out of Tourist Home. While many of the dishes play homage to their fancier counterparts, menu items on the Annex menu more accurately reflected it's distinct brand. Heavier on Arizona flavor profiles, the recipes are often rustic with unexpected ingredient combinations making the food rival the best fast-casual restaurants in the Valley. At Tourist Home, he worked with the management team to implement technology to speed operations to satisfy a growing fan base, the throngs of which would stretch from the counter 50 feet back to the door on most weekends. Once speed was addressed, changes were made to the interior space, and the menu was tightened up to include items that could be made early for grab and go later, like breakfast burritos and sandwiches. He is the chief architect of all three restaurant menus. He is the leader of three Chef's du Cuisines and an army of kitchen staff who turn out consistently delicious, well-composed, and profoundly memorable dishes seven days a week. You won't find a temper tantrum, fear wielding impresario in Schmitz. Instead, you'll find a steady, quiet demeanor accompanied by a brilliant and almost poetic persona. While many highly visible Chef's rise and fall with great fanfare, Schmitz endures from a steady, consistent leadership style. That style outlasts many others because the spotlight is not on him but firmly directed on the point of all of it: the food. Schmitz's culinary point of view is to "give people what they want, create something for everyone and never alienate people, or make them feel confused or stupid." He designs dishes that are approachable but refined. His greatest passion is teaching and growing other chefs, and his proudest accomplishments are building all three brands into the profitable, successful, well-reviewed restaurants they are today. In 2017 Sunset Magazine named Annex one if its "Travel Stars," and all three restaurants have consistently made the "best of" lists from media sources across Arizona. At this writing, all three restaurants have posted record profits year over year since 2017. This year, new brands will be introduced. Corn & Flour a high-concept causal restaurant along with the District - scheduled to break ground sometime in late 2020 in downtown Prescott. It will house seven restaurants under one roof along with outdoor seating and entertainment. But for now, we look upon history. Schmitz was given the daunting task of expressing three individual brands, reigning in staff and costs all while maintaining consistency across the restaurants and supporting the THAT Place Projects culture—where thoughtfulness meets a passion for excellence in food and in guest experience. The tag line for the company is "We create the places you love," and it's been Schmitz's job to ensure that is evident in every bite. In that, he has succeeded well beyond his own humble dreams.

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#bestchefsinaz #bestchefsinarizona #risingculinarystars #bestrestaurantsinflagstaff

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Everyone is welcome at Tinderbox Kitchen.