Chef Susan Goss is the quintessential independent restaurateur—community-minded, cool under pressure, and anything but cookie cutter.
As co-owner of Chicago’s West Town Tavern, Goss works in the neighborhood where she lives. Clearly she has a love affair going with the locale, which she shares with her business partner, husband, and confidant of almost 40 years, Drew Goss.
“I have total trust in my partner and that lets me concentrate on what is happening in the kitchen,” says Goss, who met Drew in 1973 while both were still in high school.
Goss has a contagious enthusiasm, low-key manner, and passionate fascination with all things food, an outlook she developed as a child. Today, in addition to cooking at the restaurant five days a week, she is a food blogger, cookbook author, and teacher.
“Susan is one of the most solid, talented chefs and restaurateurs I've had the pleasure of working with,” says a Chicago-based foodservice marketing consultant and publicist, Brent Frei. “She's not only one of my favorite chefs in the nation, she's one of my favorite people. She gives to a fault, sharing her wisdom and elevating the careers of others.”
Before coming to the Second City, the Gosses owned Something Different: Carryout Cuisine, Something Different Restaurant, and Snax, a Global Tapas Bar, in Indianapolis. Since the beginning, Susan Goss ran the kitchen and Drew did everything else, including front-of-the-house duties.
“We both just fell in love with this business. We loved being in the center of things and really appreciate that it is different every night.”
The duo enjoyed the independence of running their own business, just like their parents before them. “My parents taught me how to be self-sufficient, and my in-laws taught me that I could do anything that I put my mind to,” says Goss, who is 55.
After selling their Indiana businesses, the couple headed to neighboring Illinois and a larger culinary stage. “In my hometown of Indianapolis there was a bit of a mistrust of an independent restaurant,” Goss says. “Luckily Chicago is not like that.”
After moving to Chicago in 1993, the Gosses captured the public’s attention in a big way when they opened Zinfandel Restaurant in the city’s River North area. The restaurant celebrated America’s regional cooking with such diverse offerings as Cajun, California Mission, Low Country, and Pennsylvania Dutch. “Every month we presented a new menu from a different region,” Goss says. “The styles of food really went with the seasons. In the dead of summer we did food from warmer climates.”
By the time West Town Tavern was opened in May of 2002, Goss thought they would own multiple restaurants. “Zinfandel stayed open till 2002, but it was kind of a victim of 9/11. We just decided that aspect of dining had changed, and by then Tavern had opened,” Goss says.
Carolyn Walkup, a Chicago-based food writer, says the Windy City is a good fit for Goss. “I’ve known Susan since she and her husband/restaurant partner Drew Goss owned Something Different in Indianapolis ages ago.
“Chicago is a bigger and better market for her considerable talents. West Town Tavern is a warm, consistent contemporary American comfort food gathering place that reflects Susan's hospitable personality and Midwestern work ethic.”
West Town Tavern, known for contemporary comfort food, is housed in an 1880s building that retains the original tin ceiling, exposed brick walls, and hardwood floors. The restaurant seats 65 with room for an additional 15 at the bar.
“The restaurant is really warm and cozy,” Goss says. “We have really worked hard to capture that nurturing feeling. I love the fact that our guests feel so comfortable here.”
The restaurant’s menu features such crowd pleasers as grilled pork tenderloin with creamy cheese grits, caramelized Brussels sprouts, pear cranberry relish, and bourbon brown butter; fried chicken dinner with garlicky mashed potatoes, sautéed chard, and Chef Susan’s Great-Grandmother’s Buttermilk Biscuit with wild mushroom gravy; and pan-roasted Lake Huron Fillet of whitefish with zucchini, fingerling potatoes, tomatoes, house-cured bacon, olives, and rosemary. Goss’ cooking has earned kudos from numerous Chicago publications as well as national attention from Wine Spectator, Better Homes and Gardens magazine, Esquire, and Gourmet.
Frei says the media attention is well-deserved. “In the 17 years that I've known her, I've always been in awe of her intelligence, business savvy, and spirit. Not to mention that she's simply a darn good cook who understands which buttons to press with the majority of diners.”
Goss, who has a degree in anthropology from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, also attended the New York Restaurant School along with Drew. Her love of cooking, however, started much earlier.
“The cooking badge was my first Girl Scout Badge,” she says. “When I was about 9, my dad got a subscription to Gourmet magazine, and it really seemed like a travel magazine through your stomach.”
A latchkey kid, young Susan Dawson would more often that not prepare the family’s evening meal when she got home from school. “I was brought up with a great love of sharing food. Cooking together and eating together is the way my family showed love.
“My parents would dress up for dinner, and my brother and sister and I would light candles. We dined. It was a big deal,” she remembers.
“My husband, Drew, still teases me about my perfect childhood.”
That perfect childhood included creating such dishes as Mongolian lamb stew with curry and cinnamon served over rice or noodles. “I must have made that supper more than 50 times.”
Perhaps it was that early independence that makes the life of business owner, chef, and restaurateur seem so suitable for Goss.
“I really enjoy being able to call my own shots. I don’t have to get 12 people together to taste new menu items, and I don’t have to have a lot of meetings to make a change. We don’t need votes,” she says.
But, as she is quick to point out, the life of the independent restaurateur can likewise be challenging. “If I don’t have the answer, I have to figure it out for myself, whereas if I were part of a bigger entity I could have the information at my fingertips,” she says.
Goss says that the disadvantages of being an independent restaurateur include the high costs of marketing and insurance, but that the advantages outnumber the negatives.
Through the years the Gosses have made money selling their restaurants and learning that owning the property is better than leasing. In their present location, where West Town Tavern is located, they own the first floor and basement of the building, which houses several floors of condominiums above.
“One thing we were determined to do was find a space that we could purchase. Our business is a corporation, and we pay ourselves the rent. It gives us a real safety net. If the restaurant were to go out, we would have something to sell,” Goss says.
But it was because they previously leased property that the Gosses were hellbent on owning. “And 10 years ago was a really good time to buy. We got the space for a great price,” she says.
Goss says that in several instances it was mistakes that have taught her the most.
“There really is a pride in having done it our way. It truly comes down to our mistakes and our successes,” she says.
Business at West Town Tavern is steady, but the trick is “being as busy on Tuesday night as you are on Saturday night,” Goss says. She keeps food costs just above 30 percent and pays close attention to the return on investment for each dish. “Every penny is important. You have to know what everything costs.”
Since the “Great Recession” spawned tough economic times, Goss says the check averages may have dipped, but “people will always go out to dinner. They may not pay $100 a person, but they will pay $40.”
Nancy Holland, a resident of West Town and frequent visitor to the restaurant, says she keeps coming back to her favorite neighborhood haunt.
“I can always count on an interesting crowd, a warm hum of voices, and of course some of my favorite comfort foods. The pot roast is amazing. This is comfort food in an upscale, warm, and friendly environment.”
For Goss the biggest disappointment of the prickly economy is not being able to offer large bonuses and raises to her staff. “We have a great team, and I want them to know how much they are appreciated. I really wish there was more to share,” she says.
Generous with her time, Goss is well-known for her involvement in the local community and Chicago at large. She serves on the board of directors for The Greater Chicago Food Depository, and West Town Tavern hosts the Annual Girl Food Dinner each spring.
“Susan really believes in giving back and always does what she can for hunger causes,” Walkup says.
Usually in May, this year’s Annual Girl Food Dinner will be held April 22. The event, which is always on a Sunday when the restaurant is closed, will feature five chefs, all women, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting The Greater Chicago Food Depository. “This is always a fun dinner to do. It’s our way of giving back.
“There are no men allowed in the kitchen. If you want to bring someone along to help, it’s got to be a girl,” Goss says.
And that’s just fine with her. “I don’t want to be stereotypical, but I honestly think because of their temperaments, women are better for the kitchen. They are calmer. I much prefer working with women.”
Goss, who teaches class at Kendall College, says she is seeing more women in culinary schools. “I also see more women in kitchens these days, but a lot of women still feel that tug between work and family.”
For Goss, who doesn’t have children, work/life balance comes easier than most would expect. She says working with her husband is the primary reason.
“Drew and I don’t have to talk about work when we get home. We know exactly how our day has been. Because we support each other in our daily lives at work, we don’t have to console each other when we are home. “When we’re not at work, we are totally off.”
But that doesn’t mean that the Gosses don’t mingle with other restaurateurs on their “off” days. “One of the nice things about cooking in Chicago is that you can afford to be friends with the competition. That’s not true in Indianapolis,” Goss says.
One of the couple’s favorite activities is entertaining in their home during football season. “I love football because it is an excuse for people to come over and watch the game.” She’s partial to the Indianapolis Colts but also roots for the New Orleans Saints (where the Gosses own a condo), and this year she was also pulling for the New York Giants, who went on to become Super Bowl champions. She says she can speak intelligently about the Chicago Bears but is not a big fan, “Unless I am at a party and need to be.”
Because the Gosses have developed a loyal staff with several employees on board for “15 or 16” years, they are able to travel. “About every eight weeks we go to New Orleans for about five days,” she says, adding they also spend the last two weeks of the year in The Big Easy.
She enjoys travel to Montreal and other great food cities but says that Chicago can compete with the best. “The really great thing about New York and Chicago is that you can get terrific food at all different price points. You can get great food for $500 a person or for $40. There is such diversity.”
“I love talking about food and it is a great way to share love. There are so many stories that grow out of people eating together.”
Goss says the blog gives her the opportunity to keep her cookbook, West Town Tavern: Contemporary Comfort Food, current and is a good way to market the restaurant.
“I really try and get my name out there as best as I can because we don’t have a lot of money for marketing,” she says.
As an advocate for local food production and sustainability, Goss says it is all part of giving back. “I can’t spread my reach very wide, but I can plant my feet really deep,” Goss says.
Walkup says Goss’ commitment is solid. “She was a leader in the local/sustainable movement, but does not get involved in passing fads. I expect her to be a solid part of the Chicago restaurant scene for many years to come.”