(Editor's note: This question-and-answer piece was published in The Californian in 2010.)
Terry Maxwell was a chemist for Upjohn Pharmaceuticals who had a love of food and wine that turned into a weekend second job and eventually a career. Now the Bakersfield native and BHS grad is celebrating his 10th year at his downtown restaurant, T.L. Maxwell’s Restaurant & Bar. His first restaurant on the east side opened in 1995, and he moved downtown in late 1999. He’s survived economic turmoil, opening a second restaurant in Montana and numerous ghosts in his historic old building and plans to keep going as long as he has the energy and drive to keep serving people.
Question: How did you get into the restaurant business?
Answer: I met Meir Brown when he was cooking and manage the old Café Med on the east side. I worked there on the weekends for almost a year cooking and then he asked me to take it over after he moved into his current restaurant. He wanted it named Maxwell’s so there wasn’t any confusion. I had spent 18 years with Upjohn, but I wasn’t really comfortable playing the corporate game. When someone asked me my opinion I gave it to them, and that wasn’t always the best. I went back into general sales after attaining the highest level I could at corporate, and it was time to make a change.
After three months I bought Meir out. It’s hard to have partners in this business, really difficult, because people have different views. And I was a good cook, but that’s not a criteria for owning a restaurant. I had to learn restaurant cooking, which is a whole different thing.
The first few years we didn’t set the world on fire, but we stuck to our guns and surrounded ourselves with key servers like Howard Adams, the best waiter I ever met. I learned something from all the people who worked for us.
Q: How old were you when you knew you were destined for the kitchen?
A: When I was 8 years old, I devised a plan to cook on the weekends, Friday and Saturday, and charge my brothers and sisters and mom and dad. That went along one to two weekends; I didn’t pay for the food or expense.
Like I said, cooking’s only part of it. People come in, say I’m a great cook and one day we want to open our own restaurant. They can talk to me. It’s a tough business. Some days I wanted to sell the place for a buck, some days I wouldn’t take a million for it. And do they want to put the kind of hours in that are necessary? One out of 10 restaurants make it out of the first few years.
In a tough economy, one of the first things people cut out is restaurant visits, especially expensive restaurants. I’m insulated somewhat because our clientele has been able to afford it. The first three years I learned how to keep restaurant open without revenue: pay everything COD (cash on delivery). I don’t want a bill coming up out of nowhere. I used to have 14 people staff; now I have 8. You do what you have to do. Nothing is below me. If I need a dishwasher, I’ll do. Bartender, I’ll do it. You gotta be humble.
Q: What is the secret of success for your restaurant?
A: We have modest tastes, my wife and I. We’re not into it to become rich. I appreciate every customer who walks in door, I don’t treat one person better than another. They’re gonna spend good money in my restaurant; I’m gonna give them the best food and service I can. But partly, it’s luck. Every industry has three key things. Ours is atmosphere, service and food. How many do all three well? The food is as good as I can make it.
Q: Above all, you seem to work constantly to expand the conventional uses of wines in sauces? How do you get your ideas?
A: With wines, you have to know what flavor you’re after, and what each wine can provide. Alcohol gives you a certain flavor you can’t get with anything else. The alcohol burns off in the cooking process, but the flavor stays there better and is more diverse with an alcohol base. For example, you can a sweet almond syrup, but it won’t work as well as a hazelnut frangelica.
And I’m not a trained chef, but my chemistry degree helps in the kitchen. People say we’re out of something and I can tell them mix this with that and it’ll be the same thing.
Q: What about the desserts? How did you put those together?
A: My basic personality is I’m a people pleaser. So, what’s the last thing people experience as they leave? Dessert. It has to be special. I read recipes, and we’ve been doing wine lovers dinners for 14 years, and those force me to learn new ways of cooking. I have themes, new styles, and I have to come up with new desserts. I have about 30 to 40 desserts now, but I can’t make them all in the restaurant, and how can I drop the old ones?
Q: Why did you move downtown?
A: At that time there was a nice circle of restaurants here: City Lights, Uricchio's, Bill Lee’s, Rice Bowl. And for the most part we’ve all been geared to be successful for the long haul. People get into this business for a lot of reasons, and one thing I’ve noticed is that overnight successes usually become eventual failures.
I divide restaurant customers into different groups: innovators, early adapters, medium adapters and people who are going to places they’ve been going to since high school. The innovators are there right when you open and they move on. Medium adapters, it takes two years to get them to be regulars, but those are the ones you want to attract. They’ll be loyal. You need to slowly build that clientele.
And I always tell people if there’s anything we’ve ever made for you before but it’s not on the menu, just ask. I’ll go in the kitchen and make it myself if I have to. There was a customer who, after 9/11, had to cancel a planned trip to Italy. She called me about it and I designed a traditional six-course Italian dinner to make her feel better. She must have hugged me and kissed me about 10 times. She said, “Who else in Bakersfield would’ve done this for me?”
Q: Tell us about the Montana restaurant.
A: That place is a business for us. I don’t have to be there all the time. It’s on the southern tip of Flathead Lake, about 60 miles south of Calispell in Polson, and it’s called Maxwell’s On Main Street. We opened a year ago, and now we know what a year looks like, what we need to do by the end of the summer, what we have to accomplish by next May to keep it a viable restaurant. I’m 100 percent confident we’ll be OK. The first summer is usually the worst but we got a lot of commerce through there, cars driving through in the summer, and we need the locals in winter to be successful.
Q: Are you planning on moving there permanently and selling the Bakersfield restaurant?
A: I’ve got six grandchildren here now — we’re not leaving. I can’t miss Sundays with my wife and family. Our plans were when business is slow in the summer in Bakersfield, work up there, and once fall arrives and we’re swamped here, come back. But my wife Paula is really the one that lets this happen. She’s a fantastic hostess, a great personality, and if I have to go up to Montana she can completely take this over. I get on my knees and thank God for her everyday.
Q: What other restaurants in town do you like?
A: We like breakfast with friends at JM’s, dinner at El Sombrero, Uricchio's, takeout from Bill Lee’s. When you practically live in a restaurant, going out doesn’t excite you.
Q: Of everything on the current T.L. Maxwell menu, what do you think is your best dish?
A: The gorgonzola filet. It’s phenomenal. Everyone has had a filet before, but until you’ve had it that way, it’ll knock socks off. I’m also very partial to our rack of lamb. The keys to success in a restaurant, you depend on the new stuff creatively and staying cutting edge, but the standard fare has got to be consistent. Customers want it the exact same way every time they come in.
Q: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Bakersfield as a restaurant town?
A: The weakness is that it’s a chain town. Restaurants like Café Med, Valentien, Uricchio’s, Maxwell’s — we should all be packed every night. But we’re not. We’re not yet like Visalia, which has a phenomenal number of locally owned fine dining restaurants. But Famous Dave’s served 1,500 dinners its first night. When we were working with the county health department on the restaurant rating signs we calculated that over 200 millions meals are served in Bakersfield restaurants in a year. I’m sure it’s bigger than that now. But for some reason people think the chains are a better value than the locally owned restaurants, and I don’t think that’s true.
Q: How long do you think you’ll stick in this very demanding profession?
A: All things considered, I’d like to go another 15 years, and it’s only because I have the greatest kitchen staff in the world. In East Bakersfield Rotary, I nominated my head cook for employee of the year, Gabriel Gonzalez. He’s amazing, so kind and considerate to others. When things aren’t going well and we have to cut hours, he volunteers if he knows other employees can’t afford it.
Q: Are there ghosts in your restaurant?
A: Several. A few years ago, I was talking to people at a middle table at one of our wine lovers dinners. I had my back to the southeast corner, and suddenly I hear this woman behind me going, “Terry, Terry, TERRY!” I turn around and there’s no one there. I’ve been downstairs late at night, and we don’t have a lot of light switches there, just circuit breakers, and I hear click and suddenly all the lights are out.
My wife was in on a Saturday morning doing payroll at the bar, and we have a system where bells ding when the food is ready. There’s no one else there, but the bells go off. These are friendly ghosts.
I had one cook who was part Mayan Indian and it was very difficult for her to work there. Her mom had the gift of clairvoyance, and she was always seeing old men. Sometimes they’d disappear on her. She’d see them walking to my office. She has seen old men at the bottom of the stairs, about to go up, just looking at her.