Backstory: The Hungry Pigeon

How one of Philly’s best restaurants came to be

By Maeve Pascoe

The owner of the Hungry Pigeon restaurant in Philadelphia, Scott Schroeder, has mastered the art of cooking, running a business, and being sarcastic after many years in the food industry.

The Hungry Pigeon is the creation of two friends: Schroeder and Pat O’Malley. It was their dream project for 13 years, and now it is a well-run dinner and brunch spot that serves American food and pastries – critical praise.

Schroeder, who lived in Detroit until age 20, dreamt of becoming a rock star. “When I graduated high school I kind of fucked off for a summer and didn’t really do much of anything. I was playing music in, like, punk rock bands and stuff.”

Schroeder had never really thought about what he would do if his career in rock didn’t work out. But when his dad got him a job working for a highly celebrated Detroit chef, Brian Polson, Schroeder took it. “It was kind of the first time I ever saw what actually happened in real kitchens.”

After Schroeder worked for Polson for around three years, he still felt lost. “It was not love at first sight. I didn’t feel like it was something I was going to do,” he recalled.

Schroeder was directionless, so when his friends in Philly were looking for another roommate, he decided to move in with them. “I said ‘Sure, why not?’ I had just broken up with my girlfriend and a weird thing happened with my roommates so I had to move back in with my parents.”

When he got to Philadelphia, Schroeder had about $300 and a job interview. “I had to figure everything out. And so, my first job was working for Jack McDavid at Jack’s Firehouse.”

Chefs Scott Schroeder & Pat O’Malley of the Hungry Pigeon

After working there for about a month, Schroeder was fired, so he found another job at Caribou Café under a chef who had worked for McDavid. “She said don’t worry, he fires everybody. You just lost your cooking virginity in Philadelphia,” said Schroeder.

Schroeder liked working at the Caribou Café but didn’t find it exciting. After about a year and a half he went to work at Jake’s, a prestigious restaurant in Manayunk. “That was kind of where I fell in love with cooking,” said Schroeder.

The environment at Jake’s was highly competitive. “No one was over the age of 30,” said Schroeder. For him, it was the first time the creativity of food replaced the creativity of music. “I started really getting into it and taking it seriously,” he said.

Schroeder met his first wife at Jake’s, and the two got married and moved back out to Detroit. Schroeder worked as a baker at a catering company, but felt that Detroit didn’t have the same career options as Philly.

So, after just three years, Schroeder moved to Philly again. He worked for several chefs before becoming a sous chef for Georges Perrier and as Chef de Cuisine at a restaurant called Passio, where he met Pat O’Malley. “I wasn’t a very good sous chef,” said Schroeder. “I had trouble being like, half a boss versus being like the whole boss. I kind of have an authority problem I developed earlier in life.”

Schroeder and O’Malley talked about opening up a restaurant themselves, but they were young and had no money and no idea how to actually do it. Eventually, O’Malley moved to New York, but the two kept in touch. “We still hung out and I would see him in New York and he would come to visit Philly,” Schroeder said, “and we would always go spend a lot of time eating and drinking and talking about still opening a restaurant.”

In the meantime, Schroeder got his first job as a chef working at a restaurant called Juice. Eventually though, he got fired. “I got fired a lot, I guess,” said Schroeder.

He then went on to work at several different Philadelphia restaurants, such as the World Tavern, Madison, and Southwark. “I kind of like bopped around and helped my friends in their kitchens,” said Schroeder.

Schroeder feels that a job he had at the South Philly Tap was a big turning point in his career. It was a newer restaurant at the time, and Schroeder had great success working there.

“No one knew what it was but it was really trying to be a good beer bar,” he said. “The owner let me fully take over the kitchen and do whatever I wanted. He gave me no restrictions.”

After 10 years of working at the taproom, they opened a sardine bar. Schroeder got to design the menu, picking what was on it and what it looked like. “It gave me the confidence to realize I could open my own place,” said Schroeder.

O’Malley and Schroeder began to take the idea of opening their own restaurant more seriously. “We still didn’t have much money,” said Schroeder, “but we felt a little more resourceful, a little more equipped.”

The two found a place on South Fourth Street with a landlord who was willing to work with them. “So then we just did it,” said Schroeder.

O’Malley is a pastry chef baker and handles money, and Schroeder deals with savory foods and service. “But we kind of cross paths in those and neither of us are solely responsible for too much,” says Schroeder.

The Hungry Pigeon

Since the restaurant opened, Schroeder’s job has switched from being a line cook chef to behind the scenes orchestrating. He cooks less but is still very involved with the food. “I have two sous chefs and I direct things to them,” he said, “but I certainly try to stay out of the kitchen because one, I’m older and, two, it kind of puts the blinders on. If I’m in the kitchen that’s the only thing I’m doing.”

Schroeder has also become in charge of public relations at the Hungry Pigeon. “I do that stupid Instagram stuff,” he said. In addition, he runs events and communicates with employees and customers. “If we have an event, probably nine times out of ten I thought of it, promoted it, organized it, staffed it, prepped for it, and then ran it and went home afterwards.”

“And that’s where we’re at now,” said Schroeder. “It’s been a pretty successful endeavor. We’ve gotten many accolades and maintained business pretty well for four years.”

The two business partners are also working on expanding into a bakery and Schroeder is working on a separate bar project in Center City.

Although he has ultimate say in what goes on the menu, Schroeder leaves a lot of the planning to his employees as a way of encouraging them to do what they want.

“I think that’s a good way to train people and also get them to realize how to get an idea in your head into something that actually tastes good,” Schroeder said.

The menu at the Hungry Pigeon changes based on the time of year and what foods are available. In addition, the food at the Hungry Pigeon is all locally sourced except for citrus and herbs. “What is available is what is on the menu,” Schroeder said.

The wintertime can be difficult because food options are more limited. “You’re planning a menu and all of a sudden they’re just out of brussels sprouts and you’re not really left with anything but turnips, some beans and kale,” Schroeder said.

This time of year, the Hungry Pigeon sees a lot of potatoes, dried legumes, rice, and pickled things. Sometimes, they have to get creative and use what they have saved from other seasons. They keep containers of dried peppers and spices stacked on top of each other in the basement.

A lot of the foods in the walk-in refrigerator are also saved from previous seasons. Large jars of various pickled foods sit next to bottles of wine.

After an order is taken, a server will put it into an order screen located on the wall in the main dining area. The order will then immediately pop up in the kitchen where a printer system is located. Once the order is printed, the chefs will begin preparing the meal.

Schroeder believes that in order for the restaurant to run smoothly, every person has to work hard. “Everyone works hard or no one works hard. If one person doesn’t work hard then everyone is screwed,” he says.

Schroeder recalled the time he turned 21 and burned carrots working in a restaurant. “I couldn’t go out with the guys and drink beer that night. I was removed from the group,” he laughed.

The kitchen at the Hungry Pigeon is consistently busy. There are five workers and not much room to move around. One chef uses a flat top grill to flip brussels sprouts so they are cooked evenly. Another sautés onion slices in oil. “Everyone who works here is a worker bee and if you’re not then it won’t work out,” says Schroeder.

Schroeder’s job on a Thursday night consists mainly of picking up the slack and filling in where he needs to. He runs some orders out to their tables and stops to talk to a bartender, who is using a machine to crush ice for a mojito.

The bar, in the main dining area at the front of the house, has a wall lined with alcohol bottles and coffee mugs on wooden shelves.

The most popular dish that Schroeder runs that night is the Sweet Amalia oyster dish — $18 of eastern oysters from a New Jersey farm served with a ginger sauce. He describes it as “\the best oyster on planet earth.”

The twice-baked squash also seems to be a popular option, with breadcrumbs and Birchrun Hills Farm Red Cat, a mild, rich cheese.

Schroeder runs a tortilla Española out to another table. It’s shrimp and mayonnaise, butter, and potatoes.

“Holey smokes!” Schroeder exclaimed as he put the food down on the table. His old friend from a restaurant job was there and had ordered the food with his wife and parents.

The five of them had been talking for a while when Schroeder was asked about how they came up with the name for the Hungry Pigeon. “There are two stories,” he said. “One of them is gross and inappropriate. I’ll spare you the details, but it involves Urban Dictionary, breadcrumbs, and a sexual act.”

After talking with them, Schroeder gave a mini restaurant tour. There is just one dining area, with lots of tables for two or four people as well as one long, communal table in the back.

The walls are baby blue, except for behind the bar, which is brick. The communal table is surrounded by pigeon art. Schroeder commissioned various artists to create pigeon-themed art for the wall in exchange for a dinner and VIP status for life. “I don’t know what VIP status is,” he said. “I just made that up.”

Lightbulbs hang in bird cages above the communal table. Schroeder says they get many compliments on them, but the reason they chose the birdcages as light fixtures was actually to save money.

Schroeder’s wife and O’Malley’s girlfriend helped with the design of the space, although they get the final say as the owners. “I don’t have any taste whatsoever,” Schroeder laughed.

The business has lots of moving parts, but the Hungry Pigeon runs smoothly. And Schroeder likes being the boss. “There are times that it’s demanding, but there is a lot of freedom in it,” he said.

Schroeder doesn’t really see himself as ever retiring, although he wants to get to a point where he is more removed from the day-to-day operations at the Hungry Pigeon. In 10 years, he hopes to own a few more places but still be mentoring people.

“I would like to get to a point where I just walk in and taste a couple things and maybe have a glass of wine,” he said. “And you know, I don’t want to work 60-hour weeks forever.”

For now, the Hungry Pigeon is Schroeder’s success story and a dream come true that Schroeder runs with hard work and a sense of humor.

Maeve Pascoe covers food topics in Philadelphia.

 

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