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To say that Tiger Express Wash has been successful in expanding to multiple locations would be an understatement. Since Rollie Bartels opened his first car wash on Nebraska Avenue in Columbia in 2006, he has opened two more locations in Columbia and seven locations south of St. Louis with three more on the way.
Bartels’ secret to success is pretty straightforward: Go where the competition isn’t. Opening car washes in smaller markets like Troy, Missouri, ensures he’s the only tunnel-style car wash around.
“Many [of our markets] don’t have a tunnel car wash for many miles,” Bartels says. “Troy has a population of 13,500, and we’re the only car wash in that town. It’s our No. 2 store in revenue behind the Grindstone location [in Columbia].”
Bartels has focused his business expansion on the area south of St. Louis, where he says any existing competition predominantly offers touchless car washes that use high-pressured water to do the cleaning rather than the series of brushes that Tiger Express uses. Washes, which range from $10 to $20, also include a pre-soak applied manually by an employee and additional towel-drying at some locations. Offering a service that differs from the competition is key, and Bartels asserts that his system gets cars cleaner than touchless systems.
While opening car washes in smaller towns ensures little competition, it nevertheless has presented challenges. While Columbia’s water and sewer system accommodates the three Tiger Express Wash locations — making the business the seventh largest sewer user in Columbia — smaller municipalities aren’t always able to meet the demand. To solve this problem, Bartels got innovative by employing mechanisms that recycle the water used during the wash to keep the tunnel clean.
“A car wash is like a cruise ship. You’re cleaning it nonstop because it’s a wet environment,” Bartels explains. “With the new ones we’re building, we’re doing things to try to curb some of that water use.”
With so many car washes, Bartels focuses his time on new locations to oversee building and development. His three grown children, who all live in Columbia, are also involved. His daughter, Emeri, manages marketing, while sons Collin and Maxwell handle operations, manage the business’s 130 employees, and ensure consistency in service across all locations.
Looking ahead, Bartels sees potential in expanding Tiger Express Wash to other states. Looking back, he remembers the time and labor that went in to opening that first car wash 12 years ago and to developing the business into the successful chain that it is today.
“Starting out, it’s pretty much seven days a week for the first five years,” he says. “You have to commit your life to it.”
When Nikki Reynolds started working part-time at End of the Rainbow Child Care Center as a college student, she never imagined that she’d be the owner of the preschool.
Satisfied with the business and enjoying working with the nearly 160 children the facility serves, expansion was not on her mind.
“I said: ‘No way. I’m happy where I am,’” Nikki remembers. But Jared Reynolds, Nikki’s husband, thought the idea of expanding to a second location was an idea worth exploring.
“I thought it was a great opportunity and we should definitely look at it,” Jared says. The growth of south Columbia, the lack of competition in the area, and the opening of Beulah Ralph Elementary School seemed like a winning combination for a second location. In 2017, they bought a plot on Scott Boulevard, directly across from the elementary school.
Nikki agrees that the location is ideal and the need for child care is rising. “The demand for school-aged children really isn’t there anymore, but every day I have to turn away infants and toddlers because that’s the highest demand,” she says.
With the new location set to open this month, Nikki and Jared are excited but say they’ve learned a lot along the way. Meeting building codes, state and county requirements for child care centers, and even details like getting approval for playground fence materials required patience, time, and a lot of paperwork.
“It was very eye-opening going to all the meetings with the fire department, the light department, the sewer department — it was a process getting through the city,” Nikki says. As Nikki has continued managing the original location, Jared has tackled a lot of the construction details at the new location.
“It’s been quite a learning experience,” Jared says. “As far as designing a building from scratch goes, the biggest thing I’ve learned is that you have to double-check everything and ask what options there are when working with the architect. [The original design] had windows that were rated for a 65-story skyscraper for a single-story building. So we started going through every single detail to find ways to save money without cutting quality.”
While the Reynolds’ plan is to eventually sell the new location to the person who will be managing it, Nikki says she’ll be actively involved in the management of the new preschool to ensure quality services for the children and a positive work environment for staff.
“I will divide my time between the new location and our main location,” Nikki says. “The centers are at completely different stages, and therefore will require different tasks on a day-to-day basis. Our staff is the heartbeat of the center, and at our main location, a lot of our teachers have been able to call End of the Rainbow their home away from home. That will be our goal at the new location as well.”
The costumed heroes on the mural at I’m Sushi Burrito crane their necks for a glimpse of the fresh ingredients filling seaweed wraps behind the counter. As patrons select from toppings including marinated pork belly, spicy tuna, pineapple mango salsa, and zesty Thai chili sauce, an adjacent TV shows the Hulk smashing an intergalactic eel on the hood of a taxi.
Like the colorful comic book characters that theme his eatery, Kwang “Kory” Yoo has a mild-mannered side. But his culinary alter ego usually runs the show.
“Our presentation is always focused on fun,” says Yoo, also the head chef and owner of Geisha Sushi Bar. “I don’t like simple.”
Perhaps there is no better example of the restaurateur’s flair for the dramatic than Geisha’s signature sushi boats that billow fog from dry ice, an idea Yoo says is unique to his restaurant. When it opened in 2008, Geisha’s atmosphere and menu made it an immediate hit among Columbia’s student population, but its location on Broadway put it just far enough from campus to deter the grab-and-go lunch crowd. That led him to open I’m Sushi Burrito.
“I visited my friend in California, and he showed me a place serving sushi burritos,” Yoo says. “I thought, ‘I bet the kids in Missouri will love them.’ They’re cheap, they cost about $10, and they’re a good size.”
With his third restaurant — I Am Sushi & Grill, which opened last month on Columbia’s south side — Yoo aims to carve out another niche. It is the most upscale location of the trio, featuring top-shelf ingredients such as uni (sea urchin) and toro (a premium cut of tuna). Yoo’s latest muse is yakitori, a flavorful Japanese kabob served with pipettes of soy sauce and a 400-degree stone on which customers can sear various meats to any desired temperature.
“Most Asians learn to cook at home when they’re young,” says Yoo. He was born in South Korea, moved with his parents to the U.S. in the late ’90s, and got his first cooking gig at the St. Louis chain Wasabi Sushi Bar.
“I’m always thinking about what I can be doing next, checking Google and Pinterest, and thinking about Japanese and Korean food,” Yoo says.
Overseeing three establishments — in addition to parenting 1-year-old twin boys and a 3-year-old daughter with his wife, Seungah — leaves Yoo little time for much else. Even so, he is concocting a fourth menu for yet another sequel, or perhaps prequel: a Korean barbecue restaurant that will return him to his culinary roots. The date and location have not been determined, but fans of the original trilogy are sure to marvel.
“Columbia is a small town, but it’s growing really fast,” Yoo says. “A lot of students from big cities come here and they still want the food from the big city. I want to bring something new every time, from other cultures.”
Many who venture into Mark Sulltrop’s pub on the south side of Columbia wonder where the name, 44 Stone, came from. “Stone” is a unit of weight in the United Kingdom, and 44 stone was the combined weight of Sulltrop and original business partner Dave Faron, both burly gentlemen, when they opened the restaurant in 2011.
The British theme runs throughout the establishment; Faron was born in England and his mother contributed much of the art in the restaurant that features Scotland, London, and Ireland. But Sultrop likes to stress that 44 Stone is an Americanized take on the traditional English “gastropub.”
“I like to have a point of reference for people,” says Sulltrop, who has since bought out Faron’s portion of the restaurant. “For example, I have a roasted lamb dip sandwich on the menu. Some people aren’t as familiar with lamb, but if you put it in a French dip, they have context and might be willing to try it.”
That thinking translated to Sulltrop’s second restaurant, 44 Canteen, located downtown on Ninth Street. The new restaurant opened in 2015 next to The Blue Note, where short wait times and quick bites are the order of the day. The menu includes fare like the Philly-style taco with steak marinated in Boulevard’s Heavy Lifting IPA and a Korean burger featuring house-pickled cucumber kimchi.
“We didn’t want to cannibalize ourselves with the second location, or have customers thinking, ‘We don’t need to go downtown because we can just go to 44 Stone,’” Sulltrop says. “It’s a different experience, and it’s definitely a different demographic downtown.”
Sulltrop had always loved 44 Canteen’s location. The building was home to Trattoria Strada Nova from 1990 to 2007. It’s certainly a more elegant home than a food truck, a direction Sulltrop once thought he might go.
“Our taco features were always popular when we would do them for tap takeovers at 44 Stone,” says Sulltrop, who has witnessed Columbia’s craft-beer revolution up close. “At 44 Canteen, people come in, get drinks, eat, and they’re out. They don’t course-eat.”
Sulltrop and his wife, Marsha, have two children — their son, Ely, and daughter, Maris — so a third restaurant doesn’t appear to be in the future. For now.
“I have plenty on my plate with two places,” Sulltrop says. “But I always have ideas — which is dangerous.”
Aucky El-Tayash is a social dynamo with the gift of gab and enthusiasm for new challenges. He knew from a young age that he needed to be his own boss to fully harness his entrepreneurial energy. And that was before he tried coffee for the first time.
“I was pretty old for a first-time coffee drinker,” says El-Tayash, who had his first taste at age 25. “My brother let me try a special coffee drink that he makes. Of course, I put like seven sugars in it.”
That recipe eventually became “The Aucky,” the signature coffee drink at El-Tayash’s south side coffee shop, The Grind. He describes it as the perfect drink — not a latte and not a cappuccino — with the right amount of milk and sugar served three-quarters full in a 12-ounce cup.
“We’ve perfected a technique of steaming [milk] so you get that thickness but not the foaminess,” El-Tayash says. “And it’s made with breve milk to give it richness.”
That first sip took place at It’s A Grind, a coffee shop once located in the same space under different ownership. When El-Tayash learned that the space was going to be available, he took it over in 2016.
“In Columbia, you can feel old pretty quick — everyone stays the same age,” jokes El-Tayash. “I found myself hanging out at coffee shops a lot with friends. So, I wanted a big place where you can hang out.”
Comfortable chairs, fireplace seating, study stations, and a patio — The Grind has cozy covered. Add a menu of creative beverages and you have a quintessential neighborhood coffee shop.
In July, El-Tayash opened a second shop next door to Wilson’s Fitness on the north side of town. This location offers scoops of protein powder as additions to smoothies as well as “protein dots,” no-bake confections packed with protein powder.
“Since I opened the first place, I never forgot about the north,” El-Tayash says. “There are a lot of people up there and still a lot of things missing. I want The Grind to be that area’s neighborhood coffee shop, too.”
El-Tayash knows about the neighborhood-shop feel thanks to his father, Youssef, who opened Campus Eastern Food on Locust Street in 1986. A Libyan immigrant, Youssef brought Aucky into the business in 2008 and changed the store name to A&Y Global Market, now on Fourth Street. But Aucky eventually sold back his portion to venture out alone.
“There’s a unique style of conducting business in Columbia,” says Aucky, a Rock Bridge High School and MU alumnus. “For example, if you open up a business and you expect everything to be the same in the summer when you lose 50,000 people, that’s a problem. Being born and raised here gives me a unique advantage. It’s the best place for me.”