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St. Louis Kolache embarks on 4 strategies to expand, build brand

The owners have begun franchising, with restaurants outside St. Louis called American Kolache
Credit: SLBJ
From left to right: Bart Mantia (co-owner), Russ Clark (co-owner) and Scott Walker (operations manager).

ST. LOUIS — Russ Clark and Bart Mantia were waiters for 10 years at Morton’s The Steakhouse in St. Louis with dreams of opening their own restaurant.

Clark also had worked at Al Baker’s, so a steakhouse was their original idea, but it didn’t work out. They ended up opening a Cecil Whittaker’s Pizza franchise in St. Ann in 2001.

They eventually ended up owning two other Cecil Whittaker’s stores and a catering company specializing in smoked meats.

Then they heard about places in Texas that were going gangbusters selling something called kolaches.

“I had never heard of a kolache,” Clark said. “Then one day I was watching the ‘Today’ show, and they were doing hot trends of 2015. One was kolaches. A lightbulb went on for me. With imagination, it could be a gold mine.”

Kolaches are pastries of Czech origin, usually filled with fruit filling, meats or cheeses.

They launched St. Louis Kolache in October 2015 with a $120,000 investment. Their first location, in Creve Coeur near Monsanto and the Jewish Community Center, was a former AT&T store that Clark often drove past. “I just liked the location. I always had,” he said.

Clark, 52, and Mantia, 65, are engaged in four business strategies simultaneously: Adding locations of their own, franchising to others, two-pronged branding, and partnering with other local vendors, such as Pappy’s Smokehouse and Gioia’s Deli for kolache stuffing. 

With annual sales of $500,000 to $700,000 per store, Clark and Mantia now own three St. Louis Kolache stores, in Creve Coeur, Ballwin and O’Fallon, Missouri, with a fourth under construction at Hampton and Southwest avenues. All of the recipes are the work of Scott Walker, head of operations.

What’s more, they have begun franchising, with restaurants outside St. Louis called American Kolache. The first, in Edwardsville, Illinois, is scheduled to open soon.

Clark and Mantia also have a franchise deal with someone who wants to do four stores in St. Louis, and they are trying to expand to Chicago, Nashville, Columbia, Missouri, and the East Coast. “We don’t want to spread out too far,” Clark said. “You want to be able to visit your stores with some frequency.” 

The initial investment for a franchise is $180,000 to $250,000. “We wanted it to be small enough that, say, a couple of waiters could afford it. Bart and I had $109,000 when we built our first pizza joint.”

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