Reflections of a Restaurateur

Niki Puto of Bogart’s Smokehouse

An exclusive eskca interview with Niki Puto (co-owner) of Bogart’s Smokehouse, which was honored in our:
Tell us your origin story. How did you come to be involved with Bogart’s Smokehouse?

I have worked in the restaurant industry on and off since I was 16. I graduated from college with a degree in psychology and a minor in HR management and found myself in the corporate world. I stayed there for two years and realized it wasn’t for me. I decided that I wanted to open my own restaurant, so I set out to learn as much as I could from the industry. I worked at a mom-and-pop restaurant, then moved onto the bar industry, and then finished at the Ritz Carlton. In 2008, my good friends Mike Emerson and John Matthews approached me about running their catering for a new BBQ joint called Pappy’s Smokehouse. I agreed and started working for them in April of 2008. I established the catering and quickly found myself an integral part of the whole restaurant, which I enjoyed immensely.

Then in 2009, my co-workers and I started talking about opening a small BBQ joint that would be slightly elevated BBQ (smoked meats that you didn’t normally see, like pastrami and tri tip, as well as high quality sides and breads). So, we approached the owners of Pappy’s, and they said, “Do it!”.

We opened Bogart’s in Feb. of 2011 and are celebrating our tenth anniversary this year.

What were the biggest hurdles you encountered in your journey?

My biggest hurdle was myself. I had many doubt about whether I would be able to even raise the funds to open a restaurant, and whether I would be successful.

What does the future hold for you and Bogart’s Smokehouse?

We are going to continue the tradition that we started ten years ago: high quality meats and sides, excellent service, and a passion for BBQ.

What are your thoughts on the food scene in St. Louis?

The food scene in St. Louis is alive and thriving. One of things I love the most is that we are all friends. Last year, during the pandemic, there was a lot of texting, emailing, and phone calls from other restaurant owners just checking in and seeing if we needed anything, and vice versa. That was an amazing feeling to know that you weren’t alone when we were making all of those hard decisions.

What’s your best advice for aspiring restaurateurs?

You must surround yourself with good people who know your expectations and then trust them to carry out those expectations. You also need a strong network of other restaurant owners who you can call with questions. Finally, build strong relationships with your vendors. When you have rough times, they will be the first to help you out. They want you to succeed just as much as you do.

Our readers love recommendations! What’s your favorite item at Bogart’s Smokehouse?

My favorite meal at Bogart’s Smokehouse is our ½ slab of ribs with a side of baked beans and deviled egg potato salad. In the words of a former business partner, “It will change your life”.


For more exclusive interviews, see our full Reflections of a Restaurateur series