Attention vegans: Even though Detroit’s former vegan coney island restaurant has closed, Chili, Mustard, Onions has re-entered the chat.
CMO owner Pete LaCombe tells Metro Times his vegan gyro and tzatziki sauce will be on the menu at three National Coney Island locations: 1812 N. Main St. in Royal Oak, 19019 Mack Ave. in Grosse Pointe, and 15555 Hall Rd. in Macomb.
LaCombe has prepared a large batch of the sauce and vegan gyro for each location for each kitchen to assemble. It will be served until it hopefully sells out and he can make more, he says.
“Tom Giftos, the owner of National, and I had become friends over like five years and he was so gracious to let me use one of his restaurant kitchens to make all this gyro and tzatziki and put in three locations,” LaCombe says. “I’m so humbled and honored and I love the man.”
While the Chili, Mustard, Onions restaurant closed in December, LaCombe says the company lives on.
“CMO will never die unless I’m gone,” he says. “I’m gonna have my food everywhere, that’s my plan.”
The 53-year-old chef has no plan or desire to run another restaurant, however, and wants to manufacture his recipes for other restaurants instead.
Vegan and non-vegan CMO fans alike were disappointed when the restaurant closed but despite all the love, LaCombe says COVID-19 left him in “financial ruin” and skyrocketing food costs pushed him to the edge. So when his five-year lease ended at 3411 Brush St., he chose not to renew it even though the restaurant was often packed with customers.
“I had people promising, ‘I’m gonna bring in a ton of money and you’re gonna stay open,’ saying ‘How can you close when you’re busy?’ and everything in between,” he says. “It was like, I’m just trying to recover from the whole mess that happened with COVID. A lot of people, you tell them that the cost went up and you raise the prices $1 and they go nuts. But what they don’t realize is my oil, I use non-GMO sunflower oil, it went from $40 per container to $98. I went through five of those a week. Gloves went from $38 to $220 a case and we were going through cases of those. My gas and electric were over $1,000 a month. We were not making any money. Zero.”
That’s on top of the grueling work it takes to run a restaurant and be in the kitchen all day. At the time CMO closed, it was only open four days a week because LaCombe didn’t have enough staff and couldn’t afford to hire anyone else.
“I wasn’t taking a check,” LaCombe adds. “Everybody just wants you to stay open but they don’t realize that you get two hours of sleep at night or you’re there 17 hours making gyro and then working all day. I wanted CMOs to pop up everywhere but I didn’t want to shop and cook every morning, and then work on a line, and clean, and then do it all over again. It was so hard, on top of being the owner and the boss. I’m too old for that.”
He describes life since closing CMO as an “amazing, confusing, and frustrating” roller coaster ride,” he says.
“I went through an angry phase, I’m not gonna lie,” he tells us. “I was pretty pissed that we lost CMO because of COVID and we didn’t get any grants. I wasn’t gonna get a bank loan and go more into debt… After we closed it was like, let’s take a break, but you can’t really take a break because you’ve got to find something. I’m not rich, you know? What would I do? I would get sick thinking about sitting in an office or something because I’m so creative with food, so I needed to get back into this.”
Right now LaCombe is focusing solely on his National Coney Island partnership, but dreams of getting CMO recipes in other restaurants. He’s also open to CMO franchises.
“I would rather be the founder and let other people open them,” he says. “I’ve got a bunch of other things that I can manufacture that you wouldn’t believe, they are so good. If somebody said they wanna open a CMO, I would help them. They’d pay me and I would supply the food. That’s what I’d like to do because then it would be consistent with what I've created… I loved that people would come into CMO and say, ‘I’m not vegan but I loved it’ or people could come in and feel safe knowing that everything on the menu is vegan and they don’t have to ask to veganize anything. I miss it.”
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