Alex Hall at St. Kilda’s3/31/2021
Alex Hall is a London-born, Melbourne-raised kid who opened five restaurants in New York City before moving to Des Moines. Another five restaurants later, and he is only 47 years old. We asked him to lunch recently, and he met us at St. Kilda’s Collective in Valley Junction. The restaurant is what Hall describes as his dream place, and for good reasons. It is a gorgeously restored building from the 19th century that was most famously a Ford dealership.
“Tim Rypma (landlord) is a genius. I am so thankful that he believed enough in my vision that he helped realize it. This reconstruction cost a hell of a lot.”
So how did a guy with five cafés in Brooklyn end up in Des Moines? Alex’s answer is a familiar one.
“Love is all you need. I met my wife in New York, and she talked about this ideal small city. As soon as she got me here, I realized what was possible compared to in New York. I used to spend a whole day going to all five restaurants there. I do not miss New York. Maybe I miss London, but not New York at all,” he said.
If Alex misses London, his accent misses Melbourne.
“OK, maybe, but I am truly attached now to Des Moines. I love it here.”
What about St. Kilda’s in Valley Junction makes it his dream café?
“Look at it. It’s gorgeous. I have a wood-fired grill. I have a state-of-the-art espresso machine. The private space in the back has the potential to pay the rent for the whole place. We opened with COVID, so that has not happened yet, but I still think it will,” he said.
What does Alex like about Valley Junction?
“Everything. So many people told me not to come here. That made me want to come here all the more, and what a great decision that was for me. Matt Hauge (Historic Valley Junction Foundation executive director) is brilliant at bringing events in that work for brick and mortar businesses. In Valley Junction, the snow not only gets shoveled, it gets carried away. In East Village, the snow piles up till late spring if your business is on the south side of the street. Matt is a fabulous promoter, and Valley Junction promotions complement the local brick and mortar businesses, unlike downtown and East Village. Nights like Art Walk, Farmers Market and Bike Nights are fabulous for us. They have one-way streets here. And they don’t make my customers pay to park anytime. Downtown, they enforce parking meters.
“Events downtown do not help brick and mortar businesses; they hurt us. The parking meters are covered five days before events start, so people just drive by to somewhere else. Even without special events, parking meters are enforced on nights and weekends in Des Moines. Here, parking is free for customers,” he said.
What else is different between the inner city and the suburbs?
“There is more diversity here. It’s not just restaurants. We have a barber shop still. One of my goals is to bring an ice cream shop here. Another is to bring back an old-fashioned butcher shop,” Hall said.
How is business in the year of the pandemic?
“We are finally back to making our bills on schedule here in Valley Junction. Breakfast and brunch have so much to do with that. I don’t understand why most places are closed on Sundays, holidays and mornings. We produce 50 percent of our revenue on brunch. We are open seven days a week. We need to be, for stock and staffing purposes. I love waking up at 4:30 excited to go to work at 6. It energizes me,” he said.
What Aussie influences has Alex brought to Iowa?
“Australia is so diversified, and Des Moines people are well traveled. They want to have things here that they discover on the road. We put a tandoori chicken sandwich on our menu here, and it stayed on and is now a best seller. Bahn mis is popular here, too. I would like to cook more fish on our wood-fired grill, but so far Des Moines only seems to want salmon. That might change, though,” he said.
“Mainly, Australia is more casual than America, and so am I. I don’t believe in fine dining. I don’t even drink wine. Aussies treat coffee as a cultural event. For many Americans, it’s just a jump start to the day. I want this place to be a cultural center, a place to come and mingle. I love my customers, and I think they love the casual atmosphere. In a pandemic, people will still go out for a meal that costs less than $20. That’s where I want to be,” he said.
Anything else different in the suburbs than the inner city?
“Suburban people look more for values. They aren’t interested in individual-sized pizza; they want one pie to feed them all. They prefer to order exactly what they want to eat, not orders that come with side dishes and salads, et cetera,” he said.
What about America bugs him?
“I doubt it’s just America anymore, but negative social media drives me so crazy I cannot read it. My wife does and tries to respond to everyone. She just showed me a review that compared our food to vomit that no one should eat. I wish people would just tell us about issues in person so we can fix them. But so many now would rather walk out mad and write a negative review. I spend too much time encouraging staff to address problems and make people happy. Now they don’t get a chance because too many people want to walk out and write about their anger on Yelp or many other places,” he said.
What is next for Alex?
“I hope to open several new places soon, mostly in the suburbs.” ♦