Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

All in the Family

While the parents and grand parents clear grilled cheese sandwiches and homemade cinnamon rolls, I’m left with a trio of beaming children.

“When I grow up, I want to be a chef! The oldest!” Gracie exclaims.

“I want to be either a policeman or a fireman,” chimes in Carter.

“I’m Liam,” says the two-year old.

Around the tables in the now-quiet Skillet dining room, are founding generation Kevin and Angela Caskey, along with next gen Patrick and Christine Caskey, son and daughter-in-law, as well as parents to three children scampering around. Warm, open and charming, this iconic Columbus restaurant family speaks with ease and passion.

Stock & Barrel: How did the Skillet origins/concept start?

Patrick Caskey: It started with our Dad, who’s been in the food industry all our life. I guess it would be best to let Dad give the back story.

Kevin Caskey: The entree into the Columbus market, as far as Skillet was concerned, was plans to break into the food truck business. As it happened the brick and mortar was born much sooner than was planned for… What our personal philosophy is regarding food had not been done before in the Columbus market, but we felt that attitudes were changing, and the threshold was right to, I guess, stake the success of a restaurant solely on being seasonally driven.

S&B: You’re right, at the time, there really wasn’t much a scene for that in Columbus at that time. When you were out of things, you were out. That’s it. It was very true to your philosophy. If there was a complaint, it’s that many mention that you are always too busy.

Patrick: People constantly ask when we’re going to expand, but that’s not Skillet, that’s not us. And the idea of a high end “when we’re out, we’re out,” it’s with quality ingredients, we source from local farms, and those family farms can only produce a limited supply. We don’t have a freezer bin full of back stock, so it’s not any sort of marketing ploy, it’s literally how it works.

S&B: I love your passion as you talk about this …

Patrick: This is our life, this is it for us, it’s definitely a passion – it’s what we put our all into every single day. I think, in speaking with some people, they look at a restaurant as a good financial decision, and it CAN be, but for us, it’s not just about the money. What we’re doing today is something we can see ourselves doing 10 years from now, and the only way we can do that is to do to the best of our abilities, and put our entire focus into it, and incorporating the whole family, it’s all of us.

S&B: I’m curious as to how a family business works, through the generations. You all work so smoothly together. It’s amazing.

Patrick: (laughing) A lifetime of practice.

S&B: Patrick, did you always want to work in restaurants when you were younger? Angela mentioned that you didn’t like to get dirty when you were younger.

Patrick: I didn’t like to get dirty, and that characteristic was born of the cleanliness that you have to preserve to work in a kitchen. You watch your dad, who’s always been a superhero to me, and you see the things he can accomplish. As a child, they were just ingredients, they were blocks, but they weren’t a castle yet. And watching him put these things together, and that final taste when the plate was put in front of me just blew my mind that he was able to take an actual chicken, and manipulate into this dish that was absolutely delicious. And that’s what my life was, looking up to him and seeing him being able to do that, and then mom, on the other hand, being able making it all able to be possible – the bills, being able to stay legal, the actual logistics of running a restaurant – it’s not just the cooking, by any means, not just the service. There’s a lot of financial aspects that she has had to teach herself. She’shad to put her head into a book or stare at computer screens for weeks, months, years, in order to make this possible and be able to stay open. I have them as examples.

S&B: It’s a small kitchen here. How does working together affect your dynamic?

Patrick: Um…

As Patrick tries to find his words, the whole family laughs and the room goes from quiet to everyone chiming in with grins on their faces.

Kevin: Within families there’s always…

More laughter and eyerolls.

S&B:  It’s realistic.

Patrick: No, we definitely want you to paint the real picture, but ah…

Kevin: It’s not at the point where we’re going to fracture relationships.

Patrick: It’s more like a new boot that you have to break in.

Kevin: Have we been angry? Have we been angry with each other, all of us, all together? Absolutely.

Patrick: We’re Scotch-Irish, of course we do. (laughs and grins)

S&B: Generations of restaurant people are really interesting. Sometimes the first generation is the only generation, because their children watch their parents work so hard, or spend less time spent as a family. You spend a lot of time together as a family.

Patrick: The likelihood of a business failing second generation is kind of scary. Third generation it’s statistically doomed. It’s scary. But my father’s teaching method is very counteractive to that. I was never asked to participate in kitchen duties. If anything, it’s quite the opposite. My dad can do it all. He doesn’t need help. He doesn’t need my help. I had to claw at him for information, for jobs. ‘Let Me DO something, PLEASE!’ So with that being the case, and me wanting to be an active participant, and especially with Skillet, wanting to hold my own, I consider it a table at this point: we each are a post that holds this table up, if one of were to leave, it would fall over.

S&B:  Was that something you did on purpose so that he would learn by trial and error?

Kevin: It was probably subconscious. That was the way my parents would indoctrinate ideas with me, was allowing me to see the advantages or the benefits of something on my own initially, and then as that appreciation develops, you want to open yourself up to that as well rather than being it being forced into,  to the point where you may some misgivings about it, and turn away from it. I think the family dynamic of working together is such that there’s more at stake; therefore, the investment is greater. It’s much easier if you have an employee who has done something unsatisfactory to emotionally cut ties to the point where you terminate them. Within a family dynamic, not only are you less willing to do that, you’re more patient in allowing everybody to grow. It creates an environment where it’s okay to make mistakes, it really is, because we all do, myself included, daily.

Patrick: Dad and I had a talk a few months ago to take a step back to look at the bigger picture. And one of the things that was said, was that within our family, within our restaurant, this life that we’re all living together…it’s not the same as going to job, giving it your all so you aren’t terminated. None of us live in fear that the other will cut the other out. It’s not an option: we’re family. We don’t come in to work for fear of losing our job. We go into work, we come into Skillet, we do a good job, we give it our all because we want to be happy in what we are doing.

S&B: The line between work and family is not there.

Patrick: No, it’s not.

S&B: When I while I was talking to the kids, I asked what they wanted to be when they grow up, and your daughter was the first one to answer, and she said “I want to be a chef.”

Christine: This kid’s palette is amazing.

S&B:  She was drinking a soda and immediately said “This is too sweet.”

Christine: She is our eater. She loves everything.

Patrick: She loves sour, bitter, spicy, which is exactly what my dad likes.

S&B: Christine, did you have a restaurant background?

Christine: My very first job was working on a farm, my second job was working in a restaurant, and I worked in corporate restaurants from there. When we met, I had no idea he was a part of Skillet. I could relate, and eventually, Patrick brought me in, and I’ve been here ever since.

Patrick: She fit right in.

Angela: Yes! Christine is the front of the house manager, over the waitstaff, and the three of us are in the kitchen.

S&B: Where did the name Skillet come from?

Patrick: Skillet: cast. iron. straight.

Kevin: That, and it supports the concept because long had farm-to-table dining been the environment of white tablecloth restaurants, and we wanted to make it approachable. I think the name plays into that. There’s no pretense. We didn’t want it to be complicated when you came in- warm and approachable. We wanted the food to be somewhat identifiable therefore the rustic urban food.

S&B: Do you make all the clothes/ design/ the brand for all the gear?

Patrick: Yeah, if I’m not able to get my hands on the screen printing, I make friends with local companies. It’s working with friends that have similar passions that work together. And Iron Treadle is our growth in that it allows us to do something more. It keeps us going, it keeps that excitement going, but it overlaps with the food industry.

S&B: So I’m wearing a scarf that was given to me as a gift.

Patrick: So the idea behind that is scarves can be a great or a nuisance. Dad brought the idea of making them from bandanas – I love bandanas, he loves them, and we collaborated and out of that came the Snap Back. The paisley bandana represents our style – almost every chef has one hanging out of their back pocket. We have all our lives.

S&B:  I grew up in a family with Harleys, so that what is comes to mind when I saw them.

Patrick: Ha, there you go! Yes, dad and I are both bikers, we are on two wheels as much as possible. That whole biker lifestyle kind of correlates to kitchen life. The camaraderie that takes place there is very in step with that type of lifestyle.

S&B: Yes, the bandanas gave me an idea that you like bikes. I’m looking around at the metal and leather.

Patrick: Yes, the similar mindset of bikers and restaurant industry alike is often… you know, we can be the biggest teddy bears you’ve ever met, but if you mess with ours…I give everybody the benefit of the doubt. But you surround yourself with strength, and you need to do that in order to stay strong.

Angela: Both generations seem have this in common, to embrace the idea of it being a team and equality.

S&B: You guys are a like a large, family table … a picnic table, and then you make room for others, which is nice to see.

Patrick: Absolutely- if you want to be part of the family-

S&B:  Yes. Be ready to be adopted.