Perfect Pairings: Love’s the main course for these noted restaurateur couples

As Valentine’s Day approaches, thoughts turn to romance. Delicious food at a fine eatery can certainly be the way to our epicureal hearts, but what happens when you’re the owner of the restaurant….. and you’re married to your business partner?

Does the couple that cooks together stay together? For two of St. Petersburg’s most successful restaurateur couples, the answer is definitely yes. [And for ideas on Valentine’s dining, scroll down to read what they’re thinking about for the Big Day, and also check out our list of romantic restaurants.]

STEVE & NANCY WESTPHAL: 400 Beach, Parkshore Grill, The Annex, The Hangar, Cafe Gala

Steve & Nancy Westphal at their 400 Beach condo. Photo: Cindy Stovall

The Westphals have built what can only be described as a culinary empire. Their restaurants line Beach Drive and the southern downtown waterfront: Parkshore Grill, 400 Beach, The Annex, The Hangar at Albert Whitted Airport, Cafe Gala at the Dalì Museum. Any of these places would be appropriate for romantic Valentine’s dining.

But let’s talk about the Westphals’ love story first.

I sat down with Nancy & Steve at 400 Beach Seafood & Taphouse, a mecca of fresh seafood with elegant yet approachable style. Following Nancy on social media, it is no secret that this couple is happy and in love. The chemistry between these two is immediately palpable — proof that some people don’t fib on Facebook.

“I grew up in this neighborhood,” relates Nancy, who came to St. Pete as a child from Wisconsin. “I had walked down Beach Drive a million times. Then, about 13 years ago, when this place [400 Beach] was no more than a construction zone, I walked past with my ‘entourage’ — my mother Kitty, my boyfriend at the time and some friends.”

Steve, a New Orleans native and well-traveled army brat, picks up the story. “I had a bunch of blueprints in my hand and I saw her walking by. I remember thinking, ‘If I could ever meet a girl like that, I’d marry her,’” eliciting an “awww” and a kiss from his still smitten wife. “All I could think to say was ‘How do you like my restaurant?’ It would be a year before they met again.

Fast forward. The restaurant is opened and Nancy is now single. This time, Steve was ready for the next walk-by. “I found a way to ask Kitty [who resides at Bayfront Tower] if Nancy was available,” says Steve. “Her answer was all I needed [was to] ask for a date.”

“On our first date,” explains Nancy, “we boated to Egmont Key, and though so many things went wrong [mechanical issues, etc.], we still had a great time and really connected. We’ve been together ever since.” At this point, Steve had essentially been a lifelong bachelor. Nancy had ended a 17-year marriage some years before and had two children. “I knew she was special,” says Steve.

When asked how they fell in love, Steve starts, “I know that anything I want to do — hiking, boating, camping, whatever — she’ll be up for it. She’s comfortable in flip-flops or a ball gown. I was at a place in my life where success didn’t mean much without someone to share it with.” He has a catch in his voice.

Nancy, moved by Steve’s emotion, says, “It meant so much to me that he cared about how I felt… about everything. We just made each other happy, and still do.” They’ve been married for nine years.

The couple on their wedding day nine years ago.

So how does a couple manage the overlap of business partnership and marriage, especially in the high-stress restaurant business?

“I learned to say I’m sorry as soon as possible,” Steve laughs. (Shoulder nudge from Nancy.) “It’s not just about me anymore. Gratitude and appreciation keeps you working it out.”

Nancy adds, “Be flexible and agreeable. And give each other space if it’s needed. I still have my Realtor’s license and continue to list homes with Smith & Associates. It can be a nice change of pace. And I love spending time with my children [who are now grown]. Steve and I love to travel and we love to share great food. You have to make time to have fun.”

Another thing that is important to these life partners: community service and charitable giving. The Westphals work closely with The Kind Mouse and Feeding America. They have food drives in the restaurants. They sponsor many events and not-for-profit organizations. “We’ve been so fortunate,” says Steve. “It means everything to us to give back.”

Looking forward, the Westphals shared some exciting news: They’re going to be grandparents. They were both visibly excited at the prospect. “We can’t wait to take our grandchild traveling with us,” beams Steve. “We are always excited to see what’s around the next corner.”

Also in the works — the opening this year of its mobile Sunshine City Kitchen, the newest jewel in the crown. “We couldn’t do any of it without a great team and great chefs [like Tyson Grant, part of it all from the start]. We love our people.”

“We’re incredibly lucky,” says Nancy as she hugs her husband.

Valentine’s Special

The “Loving Couple” (foreground) with coconut shrimp and salmon dishes at 400 Beach. Photo: Cindy Stovall

Put together a custom gourmet gift basket at the Annex and follow it with dinner at Parkshore or 400 Beach, where they’ll be offering a special called “The Loving Couple” — a surf & turf of petite filet and king crab legs). The next morning, continue the romantic mood with brunch at the Hangar while watching the planes at Whitted — or visit the Dalì and get some specialty pastries and gourmet coffees at Cafe Gala.

JASON RUHE & HOPE MONTGOMERY: Brick & Mortar, In Bloom Catering, Sea Worthy

Hope Montgomery and Jason Ruhe in front of Brick & Mortar with their sons Quintan, 21, and Maxwell, 6. Photo: Eve Edelheit.

The owners and founders of Brick & Mortar and In Bloom Catering have come a long way to get to the level of success they currently enjoy after opening almost five years ago. The rustic new American cuisine prepared by Chef Jason is award-winning and consistently acclaimed. His team of sous chefs and line cooks, for the most part, has been there from the start.

The front of the house, managed by Hope, runs like clockwork and boasts similar longevity. That’s a true unicorn in the restaurant business. “Great teams in front and back mean everything to a restaurant’s success,” says Jason.“We’ve been so lucky,” says Hope. “They’re like family. And a huge shout-out to our patrons as well. They are incredible.”

Jason & Hope met at a South Tampa tapas restaurant called Sangria’s. It was 2002 and both were in other relationships at the time. Jason had a young son.

“We became friends,” says Hope. “I knew other family members of Jason’s and we hung out.”

“We both had a love of food, wine and boating,” adds Jason. “We had done every kind of job in the restaurant business since we were teens. There was a lot of common ground.” During this time, both were bartenders but hoped to break into the food business in a bigger way.

“Eventually, both of our relationships ended and the friendship continued,” recalls Hope. “Jason was someone I trusted and knew he understood who I was.”

“Then, one day, “ Jason shares, “it just dawned on both of us, almost at the same time, that we should be to-gether.” They have been — ever since.

In the first year, In Bloom Catering was born. Neither had attended culinary school, but their love of cooking and wine, “and the school of hard knocks,” he adds, helped Jason and Hope grow a lucrative boutique business.

Soon the couple was doing weekend pop-ups at MacDinton’s Tampa location, where they eventually took over the kitchen. They were living in Seminole Heights and married in 2005.

“Catering can be very labor-intensive,” they both agree. Hope and Jason started to think a restaurant might actually be less work. “At least everything you need can stay in one place,” says Jason. “And we wanted to think about what would be best for raising afamily.”

Hope continues, “We decided it was time to look for a ‘brick and mortar’ space [hence the name]. We loved what we were seeing in St. Pete’s arts and culinary community,” she continues. “We just couldn’t afford the space vacated by the St. Pete Brasserie” on the 500 block of increasingly thriving Central Avenue. Then, by some sort of divine real estate intervention, the space was broken up, making it attainable for the hopeful restaurateurs. The doors opened in 2015 and the couple settled in St. Pete. Oh, and somewhere in there, they managed to have a baby boy.

How do you balance marriage, two sons (Quintan, 21, and Maxwell, now 6) and a busy restaurant? How do you keep love and great food from getting cold?

“We had our power struggles at first,” Hope shares. “Once we figured out a division of responsibility that played to our strengths, Jason being executive chef and me managing, things fell into place. I have input in curating the menu and we share all big decisions. Of course, there is still stress that needs to be managed.” Jason shares, “We sense when the other might need space and that is encouraged. We know the value of compromise.”

Hope says, “Patience, lots of it, in business and at home.”

Jason adds, “Before a disagreement or bad mood gets out of hand, we’ll just shut it down and hop on the boat, or we open a bottle of wine and start cooking. We know where we want to be — together. 

Looking into an ever-brightening future, Jason and Hope told me they intend to open a second restaurant, this one in Tierra Verde (announced following our interview as Sea Worthy Fish + Bar). It’s slated to open later this year. The menu will focus on Gulf seafood with the same commitment to handmade foods and pastas as B&M. 

Valentine’s Special

Jason Ruhe loves developing holiday menus. “For Valentine’s Day, I’m thinking about a special tasting featuring lobster or scallops with some fresh pasta made in-house. Oysters might make an appearance, too,” he adds.“It’ll be romantic, for sure.”