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At only 29, Michael Steffy ’00, co-owner and co-chef of Bistro 614, is contributing to the revitalization of West Reading.
Soon after graduating from Albright, Michael Steffy ’00 arrived. In a cubicle that is, working for American Express.
“I stayed three days,” says Steffy, laughing. “It was awful!”
Too creative and free spirited to live his days inside four very small portable walls, Steffy quit and went back to work in the environment he loves, restaurants.
“I started working in restaurants when I
was 14,” says Steffy. “I started as a dishwasher,
worked my way up to food prep and then
Gardening and gourmet cooking were family traditions for Steffy, who grew up in Berks County. He learned to cook from his mother and grandparents, and from every chef he worked under. Three years ago, when an opportunity arose to purchase what is now Bistro 614 in West Reading, Steffy and his stepfather Rolin Sugg went for it.
“I decided to pursue what I enjoy,” says Steffy, who was working in a restaurant when he met his fiancé, Krista Bortree. “My vision was to combine a restaurant and a gallery, to celebrate the creative fusion between art and food. We want each plate to be a piece of art, as beautiful as the surroundings.”
Shown: Tuna Sashimi. photo: Bryan Mull
For example, the bright pink Tuna Sashimi topped with brilliantly-colored wasabi microgreens and seaweed salad and garnished with a purple and white orchid bloom is a feast for the eyes before one bite is taken.
A tight-knit group of artist friends helped Steffy achieve his vision, which includes exhibiting modern artwork on the walls and on built-in shelves near the wooden tables set with red vases, dark purple napkins and colorful dishes. The art rotates every month or two and can be purchased.
“My friends helped me paint, including painting the ceiling five different colors,” says Steffy, as he admires the shades of apricot, light and thyme green, burgundy and deep pink. “We were playing with how the light enters the room.”
As diners relax, natural light pours in through clear and brightly colored stained glass windows. Fresh flowers adorn eachtable. Even the various colored mosaiclike tiles on the walls were handmade by an artist friend of Steffy’s.
“It just keeps getting better and better,” says Steffy, who now employs 11 people. “We use the freshest local ingredients and always focus on seasonal vegetables, fruits and herbs. About 90 percent of our business is repeat customers and we keep them coming back by changing our menu, our wine list and our artwork.”
After spending the first two years talking to customers and managing the front of the house, Steffy felt his passion for cooking pulling him back into the kitchen. Now he focuses on creating great food with co-head chef David Tretter, and trusts the front of the house to daily manager Gene Fox. His mother, Juanita (Steffy) Sugg, bakes all the desserts, including key lime pie with blackberries and iced coconut mousse drizzled with fresh passion fruit. His stepfather and partner, Rolin Sugg, handles the bookkeeping and other paperwork. “I am really lucky to have such great staff,” says Steffy. Gourmet cooking starts in the garden, he says, and he is serious about his commitment to serving only the freshest foods.
“Between all of us we grow 15 different types of tomatoes and five or six different types of basil,” says Steffy. “We use all these different types of tomatoes and basil to make our tomato caprese salad with mozzarella and olive oil. We want a lot of flavors to explode at once.”
Michael Steffy ’00, committed to using the freshest ingredients, picks herbs from his garden. photo: Dave Markowski.
Steffy and other staff also grow their own thyme, rosemary, sage and tarragon.
“We like to garnish with plants we grow, that we use in the dish,” he says. “That is the way we design the taste and the look of each dish. We have no walk-in freezer and no walk-in fridge. We use a stand-up fridge and a stand-up freezer, similar to what you use at home. Deliveries arrive here every day.”
While he learned gourmet cooking from his family, Steffy, a business administration and marketing major, credits Albright with teaching him to become a successful businessman. Richard P. Schott, instructor of economics and business, was his favorite teacher and now visits Bistro 614 as a customer.
“He brings real world situations into his classroom, so his students learn by working on actual business and marketing projects,” says Steffy, who was a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. “And he is so personable toward his students. He really wanted to see us learn and he was always available to help.”
When Steffy was a student of Schott’s, he helped create a marketing plan for a local non profit organization. In fall 2005, Steffy served as a client to Schott’s marketing students by representing the West Reading Main Street Program (WRMSP), an organization dedicated to promoting the community and strengthening its business environment.
Four student teams created seasonal marketing plans for the shops along Penn Avenue in West Reading. Steffy visited the class and students visited Bistro 614. They toured Penn Avenue together, and Steffy was available throughout the project to answer students’ questions and give advice.
For Schott, teaching Steffy was a pleasure. “Michael is that rare business student who combines a creative temperament with a keen business sense,” says Schott. “In Bistro 614, he has created a well nurtured, classy business that is unique to this area. His business is part of the Renaissance taking place in West Reading. The food is excellent, and the atmosphere is relaxed and inviting due to his attention to every detail.”
Steffy and Schott agree that Berks County is ripe for new businesses.
“I think West Reading definitely has the
potential to become a mini Manayunk,” says
Steffy, referring to that mecca of shopping
and dining just west of Center City Philadelphia. “This sounds funny, but I hope two or
three more restaurants open in West Reading.
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