To everyone lucky enough to have known him, Ed Bennett was a whirlwind of creative energy and a truly visionary entrepreneur. The founder and owner of Hendel’s Market Café in Old Town Florissant, he died suddenly in 2009 at the age of 58. But not before building an impressive legacy – a love letter to North County, really – that two years later continues to be nurtured and built upon by his family.
Ed opened Hendel’s in 1994, working with his sons Nathan and Josh to renovate the former rue St. Denis grocery store into a warm and welcoming restaurant. Built in 1873, the old brick building had housed a corner market for 120 years, 78 of those under the Hendel family. And when Ed heard that Henry and Marge Hendel were closing up shop, selling their prime location next to Sacred Heart Catholic Church, he immediately started dreaming of a café.
Of course, Hendel’s Market Café is now regarded as one of the finest restaurants in NoCo, winning frequent accolades for its delicious steak and crab cakes. It also has a cozy piano bar, an intriguing gourmet menu, and one of the most charming outdoor dining rooms in all of St. Louis.
Ed started that. He was the creative dynamo always pushing his vision forward, always aiming for a more vibrant, energized Old Town.
He inspired countless people during his life, mentoring hundreds of new entrepreneurs through the Small Business and Management Program at St. Louis Community College. He even founded (and eventually sold) another classic North County restaurant – the Barn Deli at the Myers House on Dunn Road, his first “historic café.”
No doubt about it, Ed was an amazing guy. I can vouch for that personally. But here’s a secret I know he would want me to share: he didn’t do it alone.
In fact, Hendel’s is thriving today because of the dedication of many people, led by the dynamic team of Ed’s son Nathan and Nathan’s wife, Christina, who managed to realize Ed’s dream of running a successful café with loads of personality, all before they were even 30 years old.
Childhood sweethearts who grew up in North County and now have two children of their own, Nathan, 31, and Christina, 29, both started working at Hendel’s in their teens, gradually moving up from bussers and kitchen help to servers and now owners. Today, Nathan is the head chef and kitchen manager while Christina oversees the front-of-house and handles everything from décor to marketing.
Like a lot of successful restaurant couples, he’s the quiet, focused one, passionate about the food. She’s the natural promoter with a glowing personality and a great sense of style. It’s a magical combo.
And then of course there’s family…
Besides Nathan’s siblings, Josh and Julie, who are behind-the-scenes partners, Hendel’s is enriched by the talents of several of Christina’s family members, who are also committed to Ed Bennett’s vision.
“This was Ed’s dream….he was the one who saw all of this,” says Christina’s mom, Linda Byrns, a gifted gardener who spends nearly every morning tending to the restaurant’s flower beds. “He started it and we just feel like we’re carrying it on.”
A longtime Bellefontaine Neighbors resident, Linda grew up in another family of local entrepreneurs – her parents founded Gamma Tree Company in 1954 – so she has a special appreciation for what Ed was trying to accomplish and what her daughter and son-in-law are working to preserve.
“Ed saw something that nobody else thought was possible, especially for North County,” she says. “An upscale restaurant that wasn’t a chain….no way. But he did it.”
“He had all of these grand ideas, and we all thought he was crazy at some point,” adds Christina. “But when he completed every single project, it was just magnificent! Like the piano bar…
“Ed hand-built that room with a contractor. He used salvaged bricks and old floors from St. Stanislaus Church downtown, and went over every inch of that space until it was exactly right.”
Melding seamlessly with the original 1873 building, the piano bar opened in 2009 and now features live music every Thursday through Saturday. It’s a cheerful, inviting room with a huge fireplace, and Linda keeps it fun and fresh with an ever-changing mix of themed accents and floral arrangements. This month’s theme is sunflowers.
“It’s also her job to paint the bike,” Christina jokes. But it’s true. Linda has adorned two of the restaurant’s gardens with neat old bicycles, and she frequently paints one of them to match her theme.
“We’re just having a good time,” she says, noting that her “workspace” is across the street – in one of the adorable sheds behind the historic Archambault house. Built around 1850, this National Register home located maybe 25 feet from Hendel’s is a gorgeous example of early federal-style architecture in St. Louis.
Ed had always hoped to convert it into a B&B, along with the six bedrooms above the restaurant. Instead, Christina’s grandma Norma recently purchased the property from her home in California and is now renting it to Christina’s sister Theresa and her new husband, Lucian Matoushek.
“Norma just thought it was important to keep things original….that it made sense for the restaurant,” Linda says. And it does. Conveniently, the property also offers ample storage space for Lucian, who just happens to be the butcher/manager/sausage maker for The Farmers’ Larder, a sustainable family farm and Washington, Missouri-based meat producer that’s all the rage at area farmers markets.
I love their kielbasa and English bacon, which I’ve purchased from Lucian himself at the Ferguson Farmers Market. You won’t find it on the Hendel’s menu (yet) but what you can enjoy is a culinary creation from another of Christina’s family members – absolutely divine lemon meringue cupcakes from her youngest sister, Lia Weber.
Still in college, Lia works as the restaurant’s pastry intern as well as a cake decorator at Wedding Wonderland in Florissant. Her dream is to one day open a bakery, but in the mean time she loves creating decadent new sweets for Hendel’s dessert menu. My husband is still talking about that lemon meringue cupcake, one of her signature recipes.
“We’re very lucky to have her,” Christina says of her sister. “Actually, I feel lucky to have all of my family around me…and that includes our employees. A lot of them have been here 8 to 10 years. They’ve grown up with us…
“You know, it was incredibly tragic when Ed died and we’re still sad about it, but at the same time it was a whole new direction. We kept focusing on what could we do to move forward, to continue his legacy, and that’s what we did….and what we’re still trying to do.”
A few months back, Christina and Nathan decided to change up the menu a bit, tweaking the one detail at Hendel’s that Ed never had a hand in: the food. A small number of regulars complained, so a few classic dishes were revived, but Nathan continues to blossom as a chef and is eager to put his own spin on things. He likes to cook simple, modern fare using local and seasonal ingredients whenever possible, but Christina insists he will always prepare a classic item if requested.
“We listen to our customers and we want to make them happy,” she says. “On the other hand, we’d love for St. Louis to know that this ‘historic’ restaurant is actually run by young people….that we’re a place with fresh ideas and a unique viewpoint.”
“I think most customers assumed that Ed was the chef at Hendel’s but the truth is he rarely stepped foot in the kitchen,” Linda adds, ever the proud mother-in-law. “Nathan has been in there since he was 16, and it’s about time he get some recognition for his food. It’s wonderful.”
As for Nathan, he’s just fine being the man behind the curtain, spending his time perfecting dishes like pomegranate chicken and dill-encrusted tilapia. Outside of work, he also claims to have the “most awesome dog in the world” – a little white fluff ball named Ruby.
I didn’t get to meet Ruby during my recent visit to Hendel’s, but I did enjoy a nice visit with most of Nathan’s immediate and extended family, including his wife, daughter, niece, mother-in-law, brother-in-law and two sisters-in-law, and I can tell you one thing: Ed Bennett would be very, very proud.
In the wake of tragedy, his loved ones have banded together and risen to the challenge, running a vibrant, successful restaurant that repeatedly brings positive attention to North County. And they’ve done it as a family, in their own innovative style.
“We miss Ed every day,” Christina says, “but the biggest blessing of his death has been coming together as a family. That was his gift to us….one of his many gifts to us….and we are so grateful.”
Hendel’s Market Cafe is located at 599 St. Denis, 63031. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 11-9 and Sunday 9-2.