Near-stabbings, the birth of a local burger chain and more tales from the two-year sprint to open the new eatery from Catie Randazzo and Matthew Heaggans

It's roughly 30 hours before Ambrose and Eve — the new Brewery District restaurant from chefs Catie Randazzo and Matthew Heaggans — officially opens its doors on Tuesday, Nov. 27, but work in the kitchen is currently at a standstill. The building's water meter is being replaced somewhat unexpectedly, and with the water to the restaurant turned off, all of the prep work that was supposed to begin at 8 a.m. is on hold as crews finish the job.

Randazzo and Heaggans take the added delay in stride, though. If there's anything the last two years have taught the pair, it's that slowdowns and mishaps are inevitable when opening a restaurant. In the last 18 months alone, the two have navigated numerous construction and permit delays, a hospitalization, a near-stabbing and a family death, among other less-challenging issues. What is a few hours without water?

Of course, these types of mishaps weren't even a consideration during a June 2017 meeting at Woodlands Tavern where the two discussed early plans for Ambrose and Eve, which takes its name from Randazzo's grandparents. At the time, the two had just landed on the Brewery District location — a former antique shop at 716 S. High St. located next door to a planned sour beer brewery from the Seventh Son Brewing team, Antiques on High, which opened in mid-November — and optimism was running high.

“Everything has been going almost disconcertingly well,” said Randazzo, who had previously explored opening her restaurant in a house on South Washington Avenue adjacent to Downtown, as well as in the Victorian Village space that formerly housed Till Dynamic Fare (a contractor warned the chef off the latter following an inspection).

Initial construction of the High Street location, which required heavy rehab, including the complete teardown and rebuild of the rear building wall, was first scheduled to be completed on Jan. 15, 2018, and the chefs envisioned a two-month turnaround after receiving keys, with Ambrose and Eve opening its doors sometime in mid-March.

To bide the time, and help develop dishes for the menu, Randazzo and Heaggans planned a series of pop-up dinners, including a July 2017 junk food pop-up at Three Sheets in the Brewery District, which featured updated takes on fast-food classics and was intended to help shape the bar snack menu, as well as form the basis for a separate restaurant concept. (That concept, now known as Preston's: A Burger Joint, after Heaggans' paternal grandfather, has expanded to four locations, including a food truck and kitchen takeovers at Woodlands Tavern and Woodland's Backyard in Grandview and Eugene's Canteen in the Short North.)

At Three Sheets that July, the pair finished last-minute prep, with Randazzo instructing an employee on the proper technique for rolling out fresh tortillas to fry up for the gorditas. “You want to put so much flour down [on the prep counter] that it looks like you're hanging out at Pablo Escobar's breakfast table,” Randazzo said, rolling out a tortilla with a malt vinegar bottle.

Following a kick-off shot — bourbon for Heaggans and chilled tequila for Randazzo — the pair braced for the first order.

“You have any last words?” Randazzo asked Heaggans.

“Don't die?” Heaggans cracked. “Why'd we decide to do this? This is a horrible idea.”

***

Randazzo and Heaggans first met around 2013, with Randazzo, who operated Challah food truck until it rebranded as Preston's in May, reaching out to Heaggans because she'd received glowing word-of-mouth reviews about his Swoop food truck. “I heard his food truck was the shit, and I was like, ‘Well, if his food is the shit, I want to know the guy,'” Randazzo said. “So I went and introduced myself.”

Less than a year later, the two engaged in their first knife fight.

OK, it was actually a July 2014 cooking competition billed as Columbus Knife Fights, with the two creating rival dishes using the same anchor ingredients (rabbit, dried ancho chilies and blueberries). Following the contest, which Randazzo won in sudden death, the pair served as de facto hosts for a series of Knife Fights, shopping together for ingredients to be utilized by other competing local chefs, leisurely trips during which their friendship started to blossom.

“That was honestly the most fun part about that. There were a couple times she couldn't go shopping, and I was walking around Market District like, ‘This isn't fun anymore,'” Heaggans said. “We would kind of talk about ingredients and our restaurants. And that turned into talking about our families and what we wanted to do.”

Along the way, the two learned they had similar approaches to food, celebrating high-quality ingredients without being overly precious about it (Randazzo is an avowed Taco Bell fan and Heaggans has been known to sing the praises of McDonald's fresh-beef Quarter Pounder).

“We have so much respect for food — and not only the food, but the product, and the time and energy that people put into the product,” Randazzo said. “Like [farmer] Mark [Van Fleet's] carrots. Mark's carrots are fucking beautiful. … He put so much time and care into growing these beautiful, sweet, delicious carrots. When we get them, we want to do the same, and put all our time, energy, respect, thoughtfulness and integrity into what he created.”

So when the space that housed Till Dynamic Fare went up for sale, and Ambrose and Eve started to shift from concept to reality, Randazzo approached Heaggans and asked him to join her in the venture. Though that initial location fell through, the two stayed in touch, finally joining forces after Seventh Son co-founder Collin Castore recommended the Antiques on High-adjacent space to Randazzo, who has a long history with the brewery (her Challah truck served on-site the day Seventh Son opened to the public in Italian Village).

During an August 2017 tour of the location, Randazzo and Heaggans painted a vivid picture far removed from its current reality. Words like “warmth” and “light” abounded, but the space, at that time, felt dark and heavy, with multiple brick walls guarding the interior from the late-afternoon sun.

Starting on High Street and walking toward the rear of the building, the two described a two-tiered outdoor patio with wide, telescoping doors that in warmer months could be opened into an interior dining space, which would feature a long, wooden bar on the right. There would also be cut-outs in the interior brick walls, allowing light from the front of the house to reach the rear of the main dining area.

At the back of the building, down a half-flight of stairs, would be the eatery's cozy kitchen, which will be even smaller than it appears on this day. The back wall of the building is scheduled to be torn down in the coming months and moved in roughly 20 feet to create space for a retail shop in the rear alley, shrinking the overall kitchen footprint significantly.

Randazzo and Heaggans hired Flat Black, a commercial visuals firm, to handle design, but they remained engaged on every aspect of the finished restaurant, down to the types of serving ware used. “At this point I've looked at, no joke, 4,000 chairs,” Heaggans said. Early returns on the collaboration were promising. Utilizing handwriting samples from recipe cards kept by Randazzo's grandmother, Eve, the Flat Black team created a logo that speaks to the modern spin on family cuisine the restaurant hopes to adopt, spelling out “Ambrose” in crisp block letters next to “and Eve” in the familiar handwriting of Randazzo's grandmother.

Finances are a concern, of course. The two estimated it would cost in excess of $500,000 to open the restaurant, which proved accurate, and they're financing the amount through a combination of loans, a crowdfunding campaign and contributions from an unnamed financier. But the hard reality of those numbers didn't really hit home until a late February 2018 meeting with their landlords, where, seated at Stauf's Coffee Roasters in German Village, Heaggans and Randazzo were presented with a printout breaking down the initial construction costs — the elements that will merely create a blank canvas on which they will then build Ambrose and Eve.

Heaggans turned to the final page and scanned for the bottom-line number, which fell just north of $230,000. “That's not an amount anyone has ever asked me for,” he said.

“Our best estimate wasn't very far off, but when you see it in writing, it's a whole different thing,” Heaggans said in an interview the next month. “It's like, ‘Wow, I owe someone a lot of money.' … Up until then everything was super conceptual.”

At the same meeting, another construction delay was discussed. With the January deadline already passed, it was estimated initial construction would now wrap in mid-May, with the restaurant opening sometime in July. It's not the last time this deadline will be pushed.

Going into the process, Heaggans, at least, envisioned building a restaurant from the ground up as a series of milestones. For months, he viewed receiving the keys to the building from the landlords as a massive, looming stepping stone. Plans were made for Alive to document the event, complete with a photographer in tow. Then one day Heaggans arrived at the restaurant space and the keys were sitting unceremoniously on a stainless steel table.

“I feel like we've been cheated out of so many firsts,” Heaggans said in mid-November. “It's just been a string of, ‘Oh, that thing happened.'”

***

At times, these strings of circumstances have been challenging in the best ways.

Heather Witt, who the pair hired as their first General Manager, joined the two chefs on a reconnaissance trip to Washington, D.C. in March 2018, where the trio dined at restaurants like Rose's Luxury, which served as key inspiration for Ambrose and Eve. On the trip, Witt hit it off with one of Heaggans' friends.

“Matt said, ‘Hey, I see you making eyes at each other. I see what's going on … but you can't catch feelings for one another because she works for us in Columbus,” Randazzo said. “And then she started getting a little more distant, a little more distant, and then Matt's friend called one day and was like, ‘Hey, I gotta talk to you. Heather and I are in love.'”

Shortly thereafter, Witt moved to D.C. and Ambrose and Eve was back on the GM search. (Randazzo planned to handle the duties for a time, but, with the rapid growth of Preston's, the pair brought in Vince Cameron, who previously handled the management role at spots like CBC Restaurant.)

Others were more bittersweet, such as the last day Randazzo operated her celebrated Challah food truck at Seventh Son this past August.

“I'm really grateful for all the things that Challah has been able to do for me, and the connections I've been able to make, and the friends, so it's kind of weird to let it go,” Randazzo said prior to opening the truck that final day. “But, also, my goal with opening Challah was to have a restaurant within five years. It's been five years and I'm in the middle of opening a restaurant. In a way, it's served its purpose.”

There was also Randazzo's brief hospitalization for pneumonia, which she developed after attempting to blow out a kitchen fire on the Challah truck, which led to her ingesting chemicals from the carbon cleaner. “It was pretty gnarly,” she said. “I went outside to get fresh air, threw up all over myself and passed out.”

Despite being told to take it easy during the hospital visit that followed in the immediate aftermath, Randazzo returned to work the next day. As a result, her fever spiked and she developed pneumonia that kept her bedridden for the better part of a week. On the plus side, however, the experience did finally lead her to quit smoking.

Still other occurrences arrived absent silver linings. In July 2018, Heaggans' mother, Lynne Virginia Mitchell-Heaggans, died following a brief hospitalization. Heaggans, who was on vacation at the time at the urging of friends and family (his mom had a long history of short hospital stays and was stable when he left), received the news while in North Carolina's Outer Banks and quickly boarded the first flight home.

“I was such a wreck on the plane that the lady next to me was like, ‘Do you want my cookies?'” Heaggans said, and then feigned his tearful reply. “I was like, ‘Yes, I'll take your cookies. Thank you for your cookies.' It was one of those things where someone was so unexpectedly nice to me and there was no way for me to tell them how much it meant to me.”

Later that night, out with Randazzo for a drink and a shoulder to lean on, Heaggans felt compelled to intervene during an attempted robbery at Studio 35 in Clintonville. “This guy tried to toss the change drawer, so I get in this wrestling match with him,” Heaggans said. The action spilled over into the street, at which point the would-be robber drew a knife. “He was pointing the knife at me saying, ‘I don't want to hurt you,' and I looked at him and was like, ‘I don't know, man. I'm having a very bad day!'”

Heaggans said he has yet to fully deal with his mom's death. Circumstances with opening the restaurant have forced him to bottle most of that grief, and it still hits in unexpected waves. “I pulled up here this morning and I was sitting in the car and lost my shit,” he said in October. Similar pangs tugged at him when he sampled Ambrose and Eve's macaroni and cheese, which is based on his mom's recipe, during a staff meal, and when Randazzo informed him that the restaurant's private dining area would be named the Virginia Room in her memory.

Amid all of this, construction continued at Ambrose and Eve, first slowly and then gradually picking up steam as the November opening neared. By May 2018, all of the walls were framed out. By September, the drywall was installed, carpenters were framing out the bar and the herringbone tile had been installed in both bathroom floors. In the kitchen, the ventilation hood was in place, while more than 3,000 pounds of kitchen equipment was stashed at locations around the city (all of it would be in place by mid-October, including a pair of top-of-the-line fryers and a massive stove with two ovens and four French flattops).

Around the same time, the front of the restaurant also started to blossom, with flowers popping up on the accent wallpaper in the private dining room, and more hand-painted bouquets gracing the wallpaper that runs the length of the north wall in the main dining area. The space, which also features a fireplace set off by a large, circular mirror, feels warm and comforting, like home.

Finally, in late November, following a final health inspection, which the restaurant passed, Randazzo and Heaggans were able to turn their attention more fully to the menu, kicking things off by slow-simmering a pot of beef stock. (A delivery truck actually circled the block as the health inspector made his rounds, pulling up with a produce shipment after the driver received the all-clear on the inspection.)

“I walked in and it smelled like food,” Heaggans said. “It's probably never smelled delicious in here.”

***

Though the food was the initial driving force behind the concept, there were times in the process of opening the restaurant when it was forced to take a backseat. Going in, the two anticipated menu testing every Saturday, but that fell by the wayside amid an avalanche of business demands (Preston's became an increasing time stressor with its growth as the year progressed) and family emergencies, which further raised their already-elevated stress levels.

“I'm terrified,” Randazzo said in November. “I'm terrified we're not going to live up to expectations that people have put on us, and that we've put on ourselves, if I'm being honest. I feel like a lot of people are expecting us to knock it out of the park, and I'm afraid we're going to let people down. … The food has got to be a priority, but you're pulled in so many directions that how much time can you really spend on fine-tuning?”

Some of these fears spilled over into the first soft-opening on Monday, Nov. 19, which doubled as a mass-training session, with a dozen line cooks packed into the tight kitchen and rotating in as dishes were called. Gaps in knowledge among the hires were evident. While some are experienced, having cooked in restaurants like G. Michael's Bistro & Bar in German Village and alongside Heaggans during his stint Downtown at Flatiron Bar & Diner, others are significantly less so. One gentleman was completely flummoxed when Heaggans asked him to grab an order of sweetbreads from the walk-in cooler. “Sweet? Breads?” he repeated uncertainly. “This isn't sweet or bread.”

As expected, early tickets took considerable time to assemble, and orders quickly backed up. Gradually, though, a few of the workers started to find some pacing, which recalled the first junk-food pop-up Randazzo and Heaggans hosted at Three Sheets, when, about an hour into service, the two started to lock into a groove. “Now we've got the rhythm,” Randazzo said at the time.

In the days since that first Ambrose and Eve soft-opening, the two have tweaked many of the dishes, refining presentations and making small correctives, always leaning on one another, working together to establish a rhythm.

Early on opening night, Tuesday, Nov. 27, the additional work appeared to have paid off. The four kitchen staffers flanking Randazzo and Heaggans worked efficiently to set their stations as Heaggans cut fresh herbs and prepped for his opening night address. “Fifteen minutes till you have to go to the front and get my ‘Any Given Sunday' speech,” he said.

Speaking to the entire staff, Randazzo and Heaggans kept it simple, thanking everyone for their work and reminding them that if they're having fun the customers will as well. They also went over the tasting notes for the draft cider brewed special for the restaurant by Brother's Drake Meadery, which includes Lodi apples, honey, ancho chili and rose. The cider is named Lynne Virginia in honor of Heaggans' mother.

Around 5:10 p.m., the first tickets rolled in: an order of cornbread followed five minutes later by a beef tartare. Within 15 minutes, both orders have left the kitchen, and business was off and running.

Though the days and weeks ahead will likely be filled with countless unseen challenges, there's at least some sense that the last couple of years have steeled the friends for what's to come.

“This has been a bigger thing than either of us, I think, thought it was going to be,” said Heaggans in October. “It's good to have Catie around to do it with. If you had asked me two years ago if I wanted to open a restaurant, I'd have been like, ‘Sure, I'll crush that.' Now I'm not so sure I could do those things without another person. … She has a strong thread of compassion and she's always thinking about other people.”

Randazzo expressed similar sentiments in November, describing Heaggans in almost brotherly terms — a role he gleefully embraces, at times, relishing in triggering her comically strong gag reflex with just two words: “rat jus.”

In a mid-November Facebook message, a week after one of our interviews, Randazzo followed-up. “I keep going over my answer to what I have learned about Matt and how our relationship has grown in the last year,” she wrote. “Matt is the most understanding, compassionate, humble, and strong-willed person I have ever met. This year he has overcome a personal loss that I have no idea how to deal with. He did it with grace, strength, integrity, while barely missing a day or work even when I insisted he stay home. … He pushes me to be better. I love him.”

This bond makes complete sense in light of the restaurant's numerous family ties, which surface in everything from its given name to the many menu items inspired by family memories from both chefs. In the days prior to opening, Randazzo's father could even be spotted in the dining area with a Shop-Vac, suctioning up dust from the tops of door frames and hidden corners still fresh with construction dust.

The idea of family also birthed the words that are central to Ambrose and Eve's existence, and which are typed in a 14-point font, framed and then set in the center of a photo feature wall in the main dining area. Surrounded by framed photographs of the Randazzo and Heaggans clans, along with those of staff members and close friends, it reads: “Welcome Home.”