Black Bear owners Jason Coffman and Matt Showalter opened the restaurant for the wrong reason.
At least, that’s what they tell me.
Three years before Black Bear founded its first location on Pleasant Street, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain published his New York Times bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential. Jason Coffman picked up a copy, and one of the parts that stuck out most to him was Bourdain’s list of bad reasons to get into the restaurant business. When I ask what he took away from it, Jason laughs and says, “You don’t get into it because you think it’s cooler than what you’re doing, I can tell you that right now.” Which is exactly what Jason and Matt would do.
The two had been roommates and friends at WVU. In those days, it was not uncommon for them to spend time talking about a hypothetical restaurant that would also integrate the art and music of their community. (They refer to these as “wouldn’t-it-be-cool” conversations.) While the dialogue was ongoing and enthusiastic, both eventually graduated and went their separate ways to pursue jobs with their respective degrees.
Unfortunately, neither found much excitement or fulfillment in the day-to-day roles they had been training for. “In a nutshell, we felt like we were sitting and staring at paperwork and computer screens,” Matt says. “We were young and motivated, and we wanted to do something greater than what we were currently doing.”
Gradually, the restaurant conversation that had been ongoing for years seemed less hypothetical. The two spent some time working in a North Carolina restaurant together, learning what they could about the business. In 2003 Jason and Matt finally made the leap, opening the downtown Black Bear location. Together, they had years of experience working for restaurants, but no experience running one. “When we opened the downtown location, I could barely manage myself, let alone other people,” Matt says.
The two were pulling long hours working a variety of positions, from the kitchen during the day to closing managers at night. At the same time, they were having to figure out parts of the industry that had been missing from their youthful wouldn’t-it-be-cool conversations: how to work on restaurant equipment, manage products, file business tax returns, work with brewers and food providers, and so on.
Morgantown responded to the food, service and atmosphere of Black Bear with enthusiasm. By 2008, lines were stretching out the door and they were literally being forced to turn people away. Finally, the success led Jason and Matt to expand the business. In 2012, their second location opened near WVU’s Evansdale campus.
This kind of volume forced the two to learn a new business strategy: delegation. As they began to focus more on administration, younger, trustworthy employees were given more and more control of the daily decision-making that had first drawn Jason and Matt to the restaurant business in the first place.
They had soon come full circle, eventually ending up in front of paperwork and computer screens again – an ironic twist in a success story about chasing your dreams. When I ask whether they feel a similar dissatisfaction with their jobs this time around, they assure me that they do not.
Matt concedes that they did not precisely envision the work Black Bear would eventually require of them. “We never sat around as college students and said, ‘Oh man, wouldn’t be awesome if we had to meet with an insurance agent and discuss insurance rates?’ We talk a lot about the old days, when we were completely worn out, having worked a million hours, standing in that office downtown trying to come up with a silly name for a special.”
Nevertheless, the administrative work they’re now doing now has a sense of purpose that was absent during the early days of Black Bear. “We’re doing this for each other,” Jason says. “We have children, homes, wives we’re doing it for. We’re doing it for 64 employees that are counting on jobs with us. We do it to make Black Bear a staple in Morgantown.”
There are few businesses in Morgantown that have integrated themselves into the community as completely as Black Bear. For more than a decade the owners have provided a place for local artists to hang out and sell their work, given local musicians a place to perform, and served up healthy food with ingredients from regional farms. They have continually contributed to groups like Cooper’s Rock Foundation, Friends of Deckers Creek, Friends of the Cheat, and the West Virginia Land Trust, to name a few.
Making the city a better place now seems to gives meaning to work that they once shunned in favor of naming specials and serving healthy food. “Some of the things that provided the joy have definitely changed, but the joy is still there,” Matt says. “You just learn to appreciate the bigger picture.”