Stories Behind the Booze: Commonwealth Bistro’s Tess Burns
Meandering along Main Street in Covington is like taking a step back in time. Colorful homes, quaint storefronts, and tall street lamps harken back to a simpler time when neighbors stopped to chat on the sidewalk and business owners knew all of their customers by first name. Commonwealth Bistro, tucked away in a gorgeous historical building, is bringing that feeling back. Built on the community of Covington and the rich history of Kentucky, Commonwealth Bistro encourages you to pull up a seat, dig into some Kentucky Fried Rabbit, and make new connections. We met up with co-owner Tess Burns to hear about the origins of Commonwealth Bistro, how to make new girlfriends, and reconnecting with nature.
Can you tell me the story of how Commonwealth Bistro came to be?
I have a bachelor's in entrepreneurship. I did not know what I was going to open, but I knew I wanted to open something, and I can really trace that back to childhood. If I look back, I was always opening imaginary businesses. Actually, my sister and I did have an imaginary restaurant called Starlight Cafe, which is just a horrible name. But, I still have the menu and the only thing on it was Perrier, spelled wrong. I don't think I even knew what Perrier was.
I had an associate degree in graphic design, so I was doing design work. My husband worked for Jean-Robert’s at JeanRo for seven years as the executive chef. He came home one day and he was like, “I think I want to open my own restaurant.”
And in all my naivety with this booksmart degree I was like, “That sounds amazing! Yes, we’re gonna do this!” Then we went and tried to pitch to investors. As you know, restaurants have very high failure rates in the first year, so a lot of people don’t want to invest in restaurants. Fortunately, we found people who were willing to invest in us and really believed in us and our work ethic and our values. We then bought this building, which was owned by the Shinkle family. Mary Jane Shinkle had a dry cleaner in this building and I actually would pick up my dad’s dry cleaning a couple of times – he lives down the street from her – and I remember her little dog and the gumball machine in the corner. So it’s really neat to be here where she was.
I was in a space where people were like, “You're an overachiever and you're doing too much.” And I was like, “Wow, that's not the right group of people for me.”
William Hock, the longest running barber featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not, operated out of this building, as well. Chris and I are honored that if there's two entrepreneurs that ran that long, we have a pretty good vibe in here. That construction took us three years. This entire restaurant was a seven-year process. It was grueling. It was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done – mentally, physically, emotionally, relationship wise with friends, and marriage and all of that. We got open and we've been open past a year! Which is great. We have 20 employees and we're loving it. The community's been so supportive. We made it!
Are you from Covington originally, and is that why you wanted to open the restaurant in this neighborhood specifically?
Yeah, I am. Chris is from Anderson and he was working downtown, and originally, he wanted to open downtown. I really saw a need in Covington for more farm-to-table. We have a great restaurant down the street called Bouquet with [founder] Stephen and his wife Jessica, and he is so talented and does farm-to-table, as well. I thought there was still room for that. We love to work with them and collaborate.
What is the inspiration behind the menu?
Chris could probably speak better to this than I can. I am partial, but I will tell you he is so incredibly talented. To watch him create food and come up with concepts, I mean, it's beautiful to watch. The food is Appalachian inspired. It’s through the lens of our experiences – just a lot of what's available from local farmers in the region. The whole restaurant in the beginning was based off a cookbook that Chris found from his grandmother called “Out of Kentucky Kitchens,” and it's by Marion Flexner. Kentucky cuisine is so pigeonholed by some people; you think it's just like a Hot Brown and bourbon only. You won't find a Hot Brown on our menu. But really, if you look at all of the influences in travel and the waterways, there's so much. You can find pot de crème, which is a French dessert, in a cookbook from “way back when” in Kentucky. We use the Project Gutenberg, which is this great archival thing that my dad turned me on to, and it's an archival website for free books of old, old stuff. We looked through all these old cookbooks and stories, and that's where the rabbit came from. One of the books said that rabbit was a prized possession to a family in Kentucky. It had this great symbolism to it.
You mentioned earlier that you offer branding classes for women. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and how you got that started?
All during Commonwealth’s [beginning], I was working. I worked in higher education and I worked in marketing and I loved it. But I did want Commonwealth to open and I was very passionate about it, so I left higher ed and did Commonwealth [full-time]. I had done branding and had a marketing company for a little bit and did one-on-ones. I met with this woman, Sarah Jackson. She's an amazing force. I met with her and she said, “Have you ever thought about doing branding in a class environment?” and something really clicked for me. From teaching, because I had taught some classes at the college outside of my job at night, I knew learning really happens within a cohort. I could immediately see the connection.
I put this class together. It flew out of me; it was bizarre. You know when you do something and it just kind of flows? I'm really excited because it's co-creating brands. At the end of this, women will understand their brand from top to bottom. It’s a paid class, four sessions. At the end of it, you get an entire brand package.
Already, what has happened is these women have made these cross connections with each other. Part of that, also, is that they get to help market each other. They already made a pact to say, “Okay, when you run, I'm going to go like this and share this.” It's already unfolding on Day One.
Has there been an influential woman in your life who has inspired you to be the woman you are today?
I would say it is not one woman. It's a community of women that have shaped me from my mom, my sister, my grandmothers… I see my grandmothers in me so much. And then in my career? Oh my gosh, I was so fortunate. I had so many women in my career saying, “I'm going to teach you to lead. I'm going to teach you to do this. I’m going to give you an opportunity. I'm going to step out of the way. I'm going to bring you with me.” I was gracious and grateful, but I don't think I ever realized that until I came out of it. I didn't realize that not everyone had that, right? I had amazing female bosses. I have a great tribe of women around me now.
I would encourage anyone: Find women that won’t let you play small. You know what I mean? I had sometimes in my life where I was in a space where people were like, “You're an overachiever and you're doing too much.” And I was like, “Wow, that's not the right group of people for me.” Instead, I needed this community of women that was like, “Do you need help getting clarity on that? How do you do all those things? You can do whatever you want!” That would be advice, too. If you're a woman entrepreneur, go find other women entrepreneurs, because they get it.
In terms of advice, how would you advise someone that, maybe in the past, has been burned by female relationships? How can they find that tribe?
I think you just have to be vulnerable and do it. I mean, you have to take that risk to do it again. But, maybe being intentional about it. Last year, one of my goals this year was to start something called 12 Women. I was like, “Oh, a dozen women sounds like a good goal.” And then I was like, “Oh, that's a woman a month. Okay, well, what if I ask one woman a month to have coffee with me?” I sent an email to my friends and I just kind of found these women.
Actually, Kiersten was one of them because I loved what Women of Cincy was doing. I went on the website and I was like, “Who’s behind this?” and then she popped up first. She was on my list. I did get to meet with her, which is fantastic.
At first I freaked out like, “I don’t know what I'm doing.” But then I was like, “Okay, this is a good thing. What’s the positive lens?” It's good because now I'm really reaching out beyond the six degrees. I'm on my fifth meeting and it's amazing. I had to write in the email, “I'm not selling anything, I swear.” Almost all of them said yes. I was just so moved by the responses. They were all like, “Sure, yeah!”
It was really interesting, too: I picked a lot of diverse backgrounds. Some are entrepreneurs; some aren’t. Actually, one person said, “Oh, I think you've got the wrong person. I homeschool,” and I was like, “Oh my gosh, you have the hardest job in the world. Of course I want to meet you!” It was very intentional.
How do you like to relax when you’re not working?
It's funny, I’m probably better at that than I've ever been. I worked for Great Parks of Hamilton County for a year. I intentionally wanted to work in nature. I take runs in the park or I love paddle boarding. I learned how to paddle board when I was at the parks. I'm actually going to take my certification in June in Cleveland, so I'm pretty excited. I have a little online vintage shop called Wife of the Chef. That is a little passion project for me and that's another steward of stories. I take stories from people’s items and give them to the next person. I actually just sold a painting that had an obituary taped to the back, of a woman named Doris from Nashville, and connected it to a Toronto woman named Morgan.
If you could have dinner with any famous woman or group of women, living or deceased, who would you pick and why?
It could be a million people, right? I will pick someone whose story isn't always told. I'm going to pick someone that I read about, which is Emma Gatewood. Emma Gatewood just floors me because she hiked the Appalachian Trail. She was the first woman to do it. She hiked it completely, 2,050 miles, in one season, which is very difficult, with a pair of Converse, a raincoat, and a denim satchel. She was 67 years old when she did it! She did it three times. Isn't this amazing? They call her Grandma Gatewood.
Emma Gatewood read about this Appalachian Trail in National Geographic, and it says no woman has ever done it. These men have done it. She thought, “Well if men can do it, I can do it.” She has like 11 children, I believe, farmer, really hard worker. She loves to walk and she loves nature, so she decides she's going to go do this. She didn't tell her family because she knew they would tell her that she shouldn't do it. I connect with that because women in nature can sometimes be a hard thing – hiking alone, doing those things. It’s so innate in us to connect with nature; that disconnect can be hard. But she went out by herself and did this.
We’re following in the footsteps of Emma Gatewood and heading outdoors for this month’s Boozy Hour! We are partnering with Fuel the Sole to do an optional 3 mile run around Covington before heading to Commonwealth Bistro for delicious drinks and grub. You don’t want to miss out on Commonwealth’s Kentucky Fried Rabbit, buttermilk biscuits, and craft cocktails.