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Northern Kentucky Man Quits Corporate World to Serve Up Comfort Food

For 16 years, Michael Smith worked in the corporate world as a salesmen. Now, he’s living out his dream of running a restaurant and serving up the comfort food he grew up cooking with his family at his 4th Street Café in Covington.

Smith, who attended high school in Newport, is a former serviceman in the United States Navy who spent four years traveling the world and experiencing different food. His passion for cooking, however, began at a much earlier age.

“I got my inspiration to cook from my aunts and uncles who were always hosting family dinners when I was younger. My aunt would make chicken and dumplings and homemade cornbread. My menu is inspired by their cooking. It’s more southern, comfort food.”

The restaurant, located in the former Twin Bistro space inside the Panorama Apartments on 4th Street, opened on July 1. Smith, who was working in sales when the space became available earlier this year, says the opportunity was too good to pass up so he quit his job to chase his dream.

“It was always a dream of mine when I got out of the military to start a restaurant,” said Smith. “I got a job right out of college in sales and I did that for 16 years. I loved it, but when this space became available it was the perfect opportunity so I jumped at it.”

While the restaurant may be a personal dream of Smith’s, it has quickly become a family affair. Smith’s wife Lisa, an accountant who has worked with Panorama Apartments for over eight years, was the one who first told Smith about the available restaurant space and helped him get his business plan together and set up his payroll system. In addition to his wife Lisa, Smith’s son, a sophomore at Covington Catholic High School, also helps out at the restaurant after school and his younger children – one boy and two girls – pitch in during summer breaks.

“My dad had his own construction business and I was his grunt labor. He taught me a lot about having a strong work ethic and I’m doing the same with my kids,” Smith said. “In the summer, you see all of them here and customers love seeing them. My oldest son is learning to work and make and save money.”

Before the restaurant opened, Smith says his vision was to create a place that had a bit of “a Cheers environment. A place where everyone knows your name.”

“I know all of my customers by name," Smith said. "I have an app on my phone that I use to view tickets when I am away from the restaurant and I can tell by just the ticket who placed the order.”

The restaurant, which is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.-6 p.m., serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and offers a variety of menu options, including a daily special, for under $8.

“We offer a traditional breakfast – Glier’s goetta, eggs, and biscuits & gravy – as well as a variety of appetizers, sandwiches, made-from-scratch soups and homemade pies. We also have daily specials that include everything from fried chicken to Kentucky Hot Brown to Cincinnati-style chili. Our signature dish is our special-seasoned fish sandwich but our most popular special is our meatloaf. It’s my mom’s recipe.”

Helping Smith in the kitchen is Executive Chef Michael Craig, previously of Knotty Pine on the Bayou and the Chart House.

“I’ve known my chef since we were 13. We went to school together. He’s been in food ever since he got out of high school.”

Despite the restaurant’s close proximity to several offices, including the IRS building, Smith says that the majority of his customers are residents or employees at Panorama Apartments. He is working harder to get the word out about his business.

“We’re on Yelp, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Every day, I take a picture of our special and post it to our social media sites. We can also provide boxed lunches with drinks for business meetings and while we only offer in-house delivery now, we’ve thought about branching out in the future. Eventually, we want to get into corporate catering and work our way slowly into bigger events.”

Smith says the company has also joined the Covington Business Council and hosted several meet-and-greets for candidates during last year’s campaign season to get more involved in the community.

Currently, one of Smith’s biggest supporters is Gary Warden, Executive Director at Panorama Apartments. Warden believes the restaurant not only provides a great product for the community but also for the building’s residents who have limited access to quality food.

“It’s true that the 4th Street Café plays an important role for our residents, many of whom struggle to make ends meet and/or have physical limitations. Many of our residents would be forced to rely on fast-food for their meals everyday if it weren’t for the café,” said Warden. “The best thing about 4th Street Café is how they can provide such quality and originality to their food while keeping their prices reasonable. It’s important and appreciated by the area and live-in community alike.”

As Smith continues to focus on growing the business, he says he is happy to be in Covington and excited for the city’s future.

“I’m excited about what the city is doing currently – bringing in new businesses, the luxury apartments, the plans for the hotel...I’m excited for all of the different changes that are coming," he said. "We want to put our roots here in Covington. We’re planning on staying here for a long time”

Photo & story by Jerod Theobald, managing editor/Photo: Owner Michael Smith (right) with Executive Chef Michael Craig