Take It from Me: Zoë Robinson

Glamorous. Rock-Star Restaurateur. Problem-Solver.

photo by Justin Barr

When you list the top restaurateurs in St. Louis, Zoë Robinson’s name rises like a Grand Marnier soufflé. As owner of the acclaimed Clayton restaurants, I Fratellini, Bar Les Frères and Billie/Jean, she has imprinted her personal tastes on everything, from the food to the décor, in order to create intimate dining experiences.

Eschewing college, Robinson was a waitress and bartender, learning valuable lessons about running a successful establishment. An opportunity fell in her lap when she was managing the Empire Café in Lafayette Square and the owners abruptly ended their partnership. The landlords approached Robinson to take over, even lending her the money to make the leap. And so, at age 23, she gave birth to Café Zoë. Along the way, she also opened Zoë’s Pan-Asian Café and the Bobo Noodle House.

Her achievements are not surprising, given her childhood. Growing up in Crestwood with sisters Carrie Houk-Wilson, a producer and casting agent, and Belinda Lee, an artist, her family was shaped by their father’s death from cancer when she was just 5 years old. Her mother admonished Robinson and her sisters to “sustain themselves,” and not rely on marriage in order to live.

Robinson, the mother of two adult sons who work with her, is as glamorous as she is ambitious. She shares insights from her experiences where food is always at the intersection of love and livelihood.

My family felt like we were outcasts after my dad died.

I was 5 years old, and there were no single-parent homes on the block. It was rough to be square pegs in round holes. My mom had that whole “Doris Day thing” going on—beautiful and soft, yet tough. Other women saw her as a threat, and even I wouldn’t have wanted to be her neighbor.

Making money was empowering.

My mother taught us to be financially independent. My first real job was as a cocktail waitress, where they trained the heck out of us, from mixing cocktails to being discreet. I learned a lot. The money made me feel like a millionaire, while my friends were earning minimum wage. The job made me happy and I was really good at it, so I gave up on college.

Working at a restaurant is like swimming the English Channel every night.

It’s an intense, shared experience so you make immediate friends and become a family. After your shift, you all go out for drinks. It bonds you. Working with people of different ages and personalities is great because they bring new ideas. I hire career-minded people who hope to open their own places, and love that they look to me as a mentor.

My role models have always been strong women.

I really believe in women, from my mother to Oprah. One of my favorite movies is “Mildred Pierce,” where Joan Crawford is a determined single mom who goes from waiting tables to owning a successful restaurant chain. Sound familiar? When I started my first restaurant, I was too young and stupid to be scared. I just thought, “I could do this!”

I’m not book-smart but I’m a great problem-solver.

The dish-washer calls in sick, the electricity goes out, we run out of an entree. There are 10,000 questions. In a restaurant, all night long, you have to save the day. You strive for perfection even though you can’t reach it. But we can try. At the end of a stressful night, I reflect, “How can I make it better?”

To become a good employer, you have to work for difficult people.

I learned from the worst! It probably made me too empathic. I worry how I’m treating everyone. The hardest part of the job is that I don’t have control over everything. When we get a heart-wrenching review or an online slam, it’s terrible. I would do anything to fix it.

I’m not afraid any more – not even to die.

Turning 50 was scary, but my 50s have been transformative. It’s freeing because in the later years, you really start knowing yourself. You finally lose a lot of insecurities, have faith in yourself, and most important, don’t beat yourself up so much.

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