When a trained chef and a self-taught chef sauté unorthodox customer service ideals with comfort foods, you’re not going to taste an ordinary BLT or Reuben sandwich. Instead you’ll taste food that’s rocking restaurant competition in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
In a historic building overlooking Falls Park is the city-owned Falls Café, now managed by Utopia, a restaurant and catering business owned by chef brothers Tony and Josh Kellar. These brothers are cranking out a business in a kitchen that, according to Tony would be unthinkable to most professional chefs. “Our kitchen is a two-burner hot plate, small pizza oven, high-mileage convection oven, and chest freezers. That’s it.”
Utopia’s food is different but familiar. What the Kellars call “twisted” comfort food. Reading the menu is as exciting to read as the food is to try, like the “Slowhand” BBQ sandwich, which can be ordered “piled high on a ‘Keith Richards’ (very toasted) bun” or Utopia’s “Burgers Gone Wild,” each with catchy monikers like the “Jimi Hendrix,” the “Standard Issue Burger” or the “SOULCRATE BURGER: a juicy bacon-chili-cheeseburger topped with dirty fries, Sriracha Thai pepper sauce and sour cream…one extra sooth burger!! Live and Direct.” The wording distracts people from the traditional American favorites but the taste of Utopia’s twisted food does it better.
“Our kitchen is a two-burner hot plate, small pizza oven, high-mileage convection oven, and chest freezers. That’s it.”
Before Utopia created a fast-growing popularity with patrons’ taste buds, some soul searching, new experiences, and karma had to happen first. Forty-two year-old self-taught chef Tony Kellar had become fed up with run-of-the-mill menu choices and standard food preparation practices found at most restaurants. After a soul-searching year in Vietnam working with his brother Josh and Iron Chef cousin Jeff, Tony’s blood began to flow with cooking oil. The three men pumped out 400 meals a day at a Vietnamese school and worked at the Black Cat Restaurant preparing half Vietnamese, half western food. “The work was intense,” Tony recalls. Josh likened it to “pounding nails with our foreheads.”
Tony recalls how he could hardly keep up typing on his laptop everything he was learning from his cousin’s vast knowledge of Vietnamese culture and food and referred to his kin as a cooking genius. Tony even questioned his cousin’s reasons for bothering with cooking western food at all when he was such a master at cooking Vietnamese and denied his cousin’s answer, “Because you’d miss it.” Jeff understood the importance of comfort foods in our lives, which Tony eventually discovered on his own.
Tony believes comfort foods are established in the womb with the foods mother’s nurture their children with during pregnancy, nursing, and childrearing. Asia made him realize the importance of comfort food to the soul and how it gives energy and purpose to our lives.
His prized Vietnamese souvenir was a renewed inspiration for cooking. Wanting to define his goals as a chef and run things differently, he followed the advice of his younger brother: “find what you want to do, and do it your way.”
When Sioux Falls’ Landmark Aviation was desperate for a catering service to their high end customers Tony accepted the unique opportunity to cater to their customers. With his own kitchen rent free in exchange for his services and the freedom to develop his own menu and rates, he was a one-man show providing good food and service up until another opportunity came along. One that accommodated his renewed belief in street food, which is a staple in Vietnam.
Street food was becoming a trend in places like Omaha, Nebraska, and Tony knew it was bound to reach Sioux Falls so he took over a concessions trailer a friend offered to him and called his concessions business TK’s Greatest Hits. He amped up popular standard American favorites “the way classic songs get remixed and reintroduced,” added neon signs and a fog machine to his twisted food which all made his trailer hip and a big hit.
Currently, the Kellars have implemented everything they’ve gained from their shared and separate experiences to create an eclectic eating establishment. Professionalism is present but ultimately the brothers run their restaurant with a Cracker Jack philosophy: “Give people a little surprise.” Trinkets with ice cream, fortune cookies with meals, “table touches,” and encouraging kids to “share from the adult menu in an effort to expand their boundaries and try new things” are a few.
While in Vietnam a stranger showed compassion toward Tony during a dark time financially and the help he received changed him. Since the brothers’ tenure in Vietnam, karma has continued to ebb and flow in Tony’s life. The brothers pass on the kindness to their employees, customers, local artists, and charities. With an anorexic budget Tony and Josh have put their work ethic, humanitarian values, and twisted food in charge of their advertising and karma has rewarded them with steady business and attention.
Utopia’s humanitarian efforts starts with their staff. The brothers believe they have a “symbiotic relationship” with their employees. “We have the most loyal staff; they’re champions.” Utopia’s atmosphere is as comforting as the food, furnished with a hodgepodge of dishes purchased at the Salvation Army, which Tony liked because he contributed to others simultaneously. Karma also hangs on the walls with local artwork displayed rent free while adding interest and a homey feel. Because of the good karma he experienced stemming from his own hardship, Tony encourages the same kindness by suggesting a 10% donation as a commission on any artwork that sells which he’ll donate to a charity of the artist’s choice.
Their business name was derived from seeing the graffitied word “utopia,” encircled in black spray paint that Tony photographed while walking with friends in Laos but Tony says the name has a deeper meaning; “It leads our values.” Their approach is the “root of an enterprising business.”
Or maybe humanity–with a tasty twist.