Restaurants have been a part of Steve Palmer’s life since he started work as a dishwasher at age 13. In 2009, when he began working with Oak Steakhouse, he formed the Charleston- based hospitality group The Indigo Road. From there he went on to open O-Ku, Cocktail Club, The Macintosh, The Oak Table (Columbia, South Carolina) and, most recently, Indaco, a modern Italian restaurant on bustling upper King Street.
We sat down to learn about this impressive restaurateur’s background and what gives him the energy and inspiration to continue to grow in the culinary industry.
What inspired you to get into the restaurant industry?
When I started as a dishwasher at the age of 13, the inspiration was to simply have a job. I have stayed in the industry my entire life because I love making people happy.
What do you love about the industry?
One of my mentors once told me, “People don’t go out just to eat, they go for the experience.” I love getting to be a part of that experience.
Why have you chosen to open restaurants in Charleston?
I have had a 25-year career in Charleston and have been a part of the dining scene here since the opening of Magnolias. Charleston has always shown me great support.
Why the name “The Indigo Road Restaurant Group”?
I moved to Charleston in 1989, and although I would move away, I kept returning— all roads kept bringing me back because this is my home. The name of the company needed to reflect that. Historically, indigo was one of the substantial crops for South Carolina and, as a Charleston-based company, it was important to me that our name represent the region.
While brainstorming a name for the restaurant group with a good friend, Bob Yearick, we discussed how intuition and spirituality are to so important to every decision in life. Bob explained that the color indigo represents intuition. The Indigo Road represents the spiritual journey that has brought me to my present position in life.
You’ve now opened an impressive 28 restaurants. Take us through your process of creating a restaurant concept.
It starts with a moment of inspiration, usually from a dining experience in another city. From there I go on research trips and do a lot of dining out. Then comes the technical side: I create storyboards, decide on the direction of the design aesthetic, locate the right building and, finally, start construction. This part can bring a lot of tension, frustration and stress, but that is a driving force for me.
How do you choose the next location of your restaurants and the concept?
It’s never a preconceived idea and usually comes to me in a moment of inspiration. I am only going to open a restaurant if it’s something I am really interested in. I look at what markets are hot and then look at what is missing in that market. Take, for example, Indaco. There were already great Italian restaurants in Charleston, but I saw the need for a modern approach to the cuisine.
What’s the most important part of the opening of a restaurant?
Putting the team together is a big part of the opening process and is crucial to a restaurant’s success. One of the most rewarding parts of the process is training the new team and seeing it click for them. I have always seen a new opening as a chance to promote from within my team. It creates a new opportunity and a chance for people who have worked hard to take the next step in their career. I want to continue to provide those chances for a team that has shown me so much support.
With so many Indigo Road team members, how do you keep them working well together?
I send them daily inspirations, host quarterly management retreats and take them on research and development trips. The most important thing, though, is as simple as saying thank you.
The philosophy of Danny Meyer, of Union Square Hospitality Group in New York, really resonates with me. He knows that, first, you have to take care of the people who take care of your guests—the staff, your team, they have to come first.
What do you think about the expansion of restaurants and the continuous growth of the culinary scene in Charleston? Do you think it’s sustainable?
For the most part, I think the expansion of the Charleston culinary scene is good for the city. Competition makes everyone work harder and raise their standards. Now, even the bars have seasonal menus and serve great food.
Where do you like to eat other than your own restaurants?
There are so many great restaurants in Charleston. Some of my favorites are FIG, Trattoria Lucca, The Ordinary, Husk, Two Boroughs Larder, Peninsula Grill and Charleston Grill.
What advice do you have for up-and coming restaurateurs?
Success in this industry depends on the team you surround yourself with you, so make sure to choose it wisely and spend your time with the right people. The best advice I ever received was “Put aside your ego and your previous successes. The only true measure of success in the hospitality industry is whether your guests are happy and if they’re coming back.” In other words, service is the technical execution of what we do, but hospitality is the way you make people feel. It’s as simple as that.