Published June 20, 2006
Volume 14, Number 6

After 30 Years in the Restaurant Business, Jim Painter has Come Home to Pleasanton

By Jay Hipps
Network Editor

The first time a customer walks into the Red Smoke Grill, they may find a lot of things that they didn’t expect in a casual restaurant: delicious food prepared from scratch using fresh ingredients, the aroma of tri-tip cooked over red oak, and, as often as not, a line out the door at lunchtime. They’ll find one other thing that’s surprising behind the cash register: Jim Painter, one of Red Smoke’s owners and a former restaurant executive who once directed the operations of 36 restaurants in six states.

Painter is the first to admit that it seems incongruous for someone with his experience and expertise to be taking food orders, but his reasons for doing so are sound. “Our idea from the beginning was to get three locations open because then we can franchise it,” he says. “If not, we can make enough money to be able to sustain it, and we’re not answering to anybody else. That’s kind of where we’re at.”

Painter began his career in St. Louis in the early seventies, after earning a marketing degree at Missouri State and completing his military service. A company owned by Ralston-Purina called Paragon Steakhouse Restaurants was just ramping up and hired him. Painter proved himself quickly.

“From the time I started training to the time I became the assistant manager was a year and a half, and I became a general manager for another two and a half years, and all of a sudden I had four restaurants,” he says. “One was a seafood restaurant, one was a Mexican restaurant, a couple of nice steakhouses. I enjoyed it. I was with a company that had a lot of good people working for it.”

By 1985, he had earned a reputation in the company as someone who could turn around underperforming restaurants. “I got a call from the president of the company then and he said, ‘We have some problem restaurants in San Francisco. It’s the worst part of our company. What do you think about moving there with your family?’ I was living in Madison, Wisconsin, which is a great town, but five months of the year it’s awfully cold, so I decided, sure, I’ll give it a try.” Painter succeeded in turning around the restaurants in the region, eventually making it the most profitable division of the company and expanding the company’s restaurants, which included Hungry Hunter and Carlos Murphy’s, to new locations.

After Paragon was bought out in the late nineties, Painter was hired as director of operations for Oakville Grocery, the small gourmet grocery that was owned at the time by Joseph Phelps of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. Making the leap with him was Ken Hinshaw, who had been hired by Painter at Paragon and is now his business partner in Red Smoke Grill, who became the executive chef at the foodie haven. Painter became president of the company two years later.

“Joe basically started that little high-end grocery store up there so he could have fine wines and cheeses from Europe and charcuterie and that type of thing,” Painter says. “Oakville Grocery was developed by a group of people that were passionate about food, and their knowledge of food was incredibly high. The chefs in the stores all had culinary degrees and the degree of knowledge about how food was made was just incredible.”

Unfortunately, the stores’ sales were hurt dramatically by the falloff in tourism after the September 11th attacks and the Phelps family decided to sell them. Faced with an uncertain fate after the buyout, Painter and Hinshaw decided to strike out on their own and Red Smoke Grill was the result.

It may not seem that way when he’s taking orders and operating the cash register, but Red Smoke Grill is in many ways the culmination of Painter’s restaurant career, pulling on knowledge gained from every aspect of his experience.

“We just decided to do something on our own that we knew would work,” he says. “We both have 30 years in the business so in a way, it’s easy because we understand the cost end of it, how to build sales, how to market it, and it’s just a matter of us stepping out of our comfort zones in working for someone else and doing something on our own.”

Sometimes the expression of that prior experience is invisible to customers and sometimes it’s obvious. While they may not have the opportunity to observe the skill with which Painter negotiates contracts with his suppliers, they will certainly be aware of the tantalizing tastes of the restaurant’s food.

“The corn salad we use here is something that you used to see in the deli case at Oakville Grocery,” Painter says. “We make it on a daily basis—we take fresh corn on the cob and roast it off. We buy our bread from a little company, the Bread Workshops in Berkeley, who we worked with at Oakville Grocery. Everything else here we pretty much make from scratch ourselves.”

Painter is enjoying his independence in other ways as well. He and his wife live in one of Signature Properties’ developments in Hacienda, close enough to walk to work occasionally. He’s also enjoying being able to spend more time in the community.

“It’s fun to get to know your customers a bit more. We book a lot of catering through Foothill High School, just because my son went there. It’s kind of fun to be part of a community in a way I haven’t been able to do for probably 26 years, since I was a restaurant manager. I feel like I’ve retired from corporate life.”

His ambition to grow his business is anything but retiring, however. Painter and Hinshaw will be opening a second location in downtown Livermore, where Hacienda’s Red Bear is creating a new mixed-use development on First Street.

“In our new location, we’re using an architect from San Francisco, and we’re going to take the concept up a level as far as the look and feel of it. There’s going to be a 10-screen theater and a performing arts theater that seats 500 right next to us. We anticipate opening either in December or January.”

All in all, Painter is satisfied with the choices he’s made and the new directions that those decisions have taken him.

“It’s nice to come up with a concept that no one else is doing and building it, seeing it become successful. It’s very rewarding to do that,” he says. “I don’t want to stand back there behind a cash register for too many more years, but I needed to do it for a few years to get the concept running right and save costs so that we could make enough money to open our next place. Sometimes you have to take a few steps back to build something in the future.”

With the foundation that Painter has provided, the future is looking bright.


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