Eleven Eleven Mississippi, the fine-dining establishment in Lafayette Square, is one of the six food and hospitality businesses husband-and-wife team Paul and Wendy Hamilton own and operate together, including PW Pizza and Vin de Set. For Eleven Eleven, their first restaurant, they surveyed the neighborhoods of St. Louis and eventually decided on Lafayette Square, struck by its elegant beauty and character. They found an old, beat-up building just north of the Lafayette Park Conservancy, and along with the rotting walls and decomposing floorboards, they saw potential. They had a house and 7 acres of property in South County, all of which they put up as collateral in order to secure the building, which eventually became Eleven Eleven. Their mentality was, “It’s either going to work or we won’t have a house,” Paul remembers. “If we didn’t finish this project, it would take us under.”
Wendy, equally driven, explains further. “We said, ‘Worst-case scenario, we’re going to put up the house and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll move in my with my mom and dad in their basement with our dog,” she says, thinking back to 2003 when Eleven Eleven opened. “I think it was motivating,” says Paul, briefly cutting in as the initial adrenaline comes back. “It was like a do-or-die situation.” Today, they’re both flushed from a recent vacation in Mexico and carefully styled: she in a turquoise blazer with matching pants and he in a gray sweater, jeans, glasses and slick hair. Paul’s phone has a habit of going off and sprinkling fairy noises across the table in the small upstairs loft space above the restaurant, where they’re seated today. In the background, phones ring off the hook, servers run amuck, liquor flows freely from the bar and the restaurant atmosphere is well under-way, even in the supposed lull of the afternoon.
Earlier in their relationship, they began having conversations about starting their own restaurant. Why not? With Paul’s long resume of experience in the hospitality world and Wendy’s ease and comfort with people, they knew they could come up with a solid business plan. But then Paul wound up being laid off and Wendy was working in marketing at South Side National Bank, which was going through a merger. “I didn’t go with the merger, so at that point I was unemployed,” she says. While the Hamiltons were motivated by that kind of urgency, they both agree it isn’t for everyone. “His confidence maybe wore off on me. I thought we had a great concept and the space was super cool. Not cockiness, because I’m definitely not that person at all, but definitely confident that we were going to be successful. I have no idea why. We’ve always said that we‘ve had a guardian angel watching over us with this space,” says Wendy.
“I also think it has something to do with your frame of mind at those given moments. There was a certain degree of naiveté to this too … and it worked. I was never concerned about running multiple operations, because that’s what I’ve always done,” says Paul. “But understanding what it meant from a financial point of view, we were very naïve.” Neither of them enjoy the necessary evil of finances when it comes to business. “We both hate banking, and we both hate dealing with insurance–” says Wendy, as Paul chimes in. “But I do the banking and I do the insurance.”
“In the beginning I used to do the insurance- but that was when it was only Eleven Eleven.”
“So much fun,” Paul deadpans.
“I’ve been in this business pretty much my whole life,” Paul continues. He has a low, melodious voice and a tendency to talk with quick pragmatism, as though running against a timer. Originally from Pennsylvania, Paul came from a family of attempted restaurateurs, but his family’s restaurants had failed throughout the years. “I don’t want to speak for you, but I think that was in the back of your mind … ” Wendy says. “They had three restaurants before I was born, and with each and every one of them, there were issues,” he agrees. “I felt like I was sort of doomed.” Nonetheless, he pursued restaurant work anyway. He attended Penn State University to study hotel and restaurant management, and his other professional forays include working for Disney World at Epcot, managing a few other St. Louis-area restaurants to gather experience (Blue Order Grill and Big Sky Cafe), and a cruise line called Clipper Cruise Line where he worked for almost 10 years. “That’s where Wendy and I met–on the cruise ship.”
Wendy grew up in restaurants, and remembers helping with responsibilities and hosting as early as 13. Her mother worked as a server, raising Wendy and her 5 other siblings alone. As she approached the end of high school, Wendy was determined to attend college. She went to Southwest Missouri State and paid her way herself, but ran out of money in her second year. “I needed to do something. I was going to come home and move back in with my mom and my dad, make some money,” she says. Wendy had a few friends who worked on Clipper Cruise Lines, and thought she could maybe get some class credit while working on the ship to earn money for school. “I could maybe be away for a whole year and save some money, which was pretty darn scary at the time. I was maybe 20, 21, I guess.” She accepted the position and moved away for the full year, during which she was able to save up enough money to return to school.
Paul is similarly determined, sometimes to his own detriment. “I’m probably worse,” he says. To open Eleven Eleven, Paul rehabbed a sizeable chunk of the building himself as well as the much larger space housing Vin de Set, the latter of which was projected to be a $3.5 million-dollar investment and wound up costing $6 million. “A whole corner had to come down, then the back wall had to be torn down and redone …” Wendy recalls. “I just remember sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my God … what did we just do?’” “Once you’re in it, you’re in it,” Paul says. “Oh, yeah. You’ve got to keep going,” Wendy says.
She met Paul in her last few weeks working on the cruise ship when he also began working onboard. It was enough time to get acquainted before he got transferred to the company’s corporate office in St. Louis while Wendy was finishing up school. “I was his one connection, and that’s how we met,” Wendy says, casually. “That’s the story and we’re sticking to it,” Paul agrees. “My mom and my sisters just thought he was the greatest. I’m like, ‘I’m not even dating him; it’s just some guy,’” says Wendy, laughing with a tone of comfortable nostalgia. “You never told me that. They don’t think that anymore,” says Paul.
Wendy would come home on the weekends or he would drive down to visit her. “I traveled a lot–she got that, where a lot of girlfriends wouldn’t have. I mean, I was gone a lot. Even though I worked at the corporate office, I was gone at least half the time.” He’d call her from wherever he was, all over the country and the world. Once, he called from Alaska after he’d drug tested his crew and had to fire 6 people in one day. “That’s a quarter of the crew. I’m waiting tables and cleaning rooms … There’s a million stories. The things that people do,” he says, laughing and shaking his head.
“When I first moved to St. Louis I wasn’t necessarily taken by the city,” says Paul. “I was like, ‘Why do people live here? It’s hotter than Florida, it’s as cold as Pennsylvania, there’s no skiing here–” “There’s no skiing, there’s no ocean–” Wendy interjects, laughing. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m dating this guy? Really?’” “Then it started to grow on me,” Paul continues. “I just think it’s this awesome city. You hear a lot of stories about City Hall and different things like that … but as far as I’m concerned, their assistance and the fact that I was able to work through a lot of the things is really the reason why we’re in business. They helped a lot Downtown. There’s a lot that St. Louis offers that most people don’t realize.”
“I think just having mutual respect,” he continues. “Respect them for what they’re doing, and don’t ever assume anything.” The Hamiltons believe this principle is the most effective way to navigate relationships with anyone. “I learned that a long time ago,” Paul continues. “You assume something and that’s not really what that person was intending to do. Nobody comes to work saying, ‘I want to do a bad job today.’ But sometimes you feel like someone did do a bad job, and so really the key is to determine, why was that? Did something happen at home? Did something happen at work? We’re not the type of people that sit down and yell at people or anything, but we are going to sit down with them.”
When making decisions together, they’ll go back and forth, playing out pros and cons. Having a string of successful restaurants has come with its own pressures. “That becomes a little crippling because I don’t want to make a mistake, even though I could afford to do it now,” says Paul. Admittedly, he will push for what he wants a little more than she will, yet it’s a mutual understanding of one another, of the necessity of risk, and an earned love of their city that has them thoroughly grounded. With everything from joint businesses to joint businesses cards, property, and a home, they’re as joined as any two people can possibly be. “I’m more the aggressor, and she’s more about pulling in the reigns a little bit. Which is good because if I was able to do every single thing I wanted, I’d look back and say, that wasn’t a good thing.”
“But we would never make the other person do something that they didn’t want to,” says Wendy, looking at her husband. “I would keep convincing her until she changed her mind, but if she said, ‘No, I’m not doing it,’ I wouldn’t say, ‘Well, we’re going to do it.’”