Skip Wahl worked for Chili's for 17 years, rising through the ranks to become a general manager and trainer. He learned plenty about the business, schooled hundreds of others and eventually had one of those bosses that made him ponder his future.
"I looked where I would be in 10 years and I didn't like where that was," Wahl said one recent weekday morning.
So he left the corporate restaurant world, found a suitable location two miles from home in Carmichael and opened for business nine months ago.
Skip's Kitchen is his baby. He works 14 hours a day, six days a week. Wahl manages to slip away to coach under-12 boys soccer three days a week, is a father of two and a husband, and even finds time to play drums in a pop-rock cover band they rehearse after hours in the restaurant.
When I learned Wahl was a longtime chain restaurant guy, I was curious. Chains thrive for a reason. They market-test everything. Their concept is precise. Their employees are well-trained and make sure the customer's dining experience is very consistent, even if that experience doesn't have much soul.
How, I wondered, would Wahl take the best of what the chains do and still do his own thing? Could he be precise without being formulaic, clever without being contrived?
The concept at Skip's Kitchen is simple: sandwiches, salads and burgers, but with top-notch ingredients and the occasional gourmet flourish to keep things interesting.
Wahl calls it "gourmet casual dining." That would explain why you'll find mini beef Wellingtons on the menu or macaroni and cheese taken to the next level by making them bite-sized and hush puppy-like, with a three-cheese blend and a panko coating that is perfectly crunchy and golden brown.
It may be a family place and it's not hard to imagine that the former tenant was a Dairy Queen but nothing about Skip's is dumbed down. Parents can enjoy a pretty fair glass of wine, like Kendall Jackson chardonnay, or a very good beer, like Stella Artois or Anderson Valley Oatmeal Stout, while the little ones chow down on a special kids menu: one entrée, a side and a 12-ounce drink for $4.99.
To beat the chains at their own game, you need to do something they can't. At Skip's Kitchen, the answer is easy: Be Skip.
He does everything but sing "My Sharona."
He's back in the kitchen when the place gets slammed. He's at the counter saying hello when customers place their orders. He's delivering the wine and beer to tables. And he's often making the rounds of this small, over-achieving little piece of magic that is his restaurant.
After he stopped by our table to thank us for coming in, I watched him take a quick breather, taking a seat and chatting with a couple of youngsters who happened to be his son and daughter, ages 11 and 9 respectively.
Even his own kids know that if you want to see Skip, you stop in at Skip's Kitchen. One day, when Skip had a charity event to attend, his wife, Beth, a fifth-grade teacher at nearby Del Dayo Elementary School, filled in. She, too, is warm and engaging.
Our visits to this casual, family-friendly joint began with something fun. After we ordered, the cashier fanned out a deck of cards and asked me to pick one. Grab the joker, eat for free. Customers pick the joker about twice a day. The most in one day is seven.
While I was unlucky with the cards, I was pretty darn fortunate with the food. The mushroom and Swiss cheese burger ($9.49) is gourmet quality big and tender and loaded with flavor. Wahl tells me the meat is 100 percent ground chuck, certified Hereford. The sauce is housemade. The mushrooms are sautéed just right, and the aged cheese is melted all over them. For one order, we opted for the sweet potato fries and were impressed by the flavor and crispness, as well as the portion size enough to feed at least two.
There are four other burgers on the menu the no-nonsense original, the bacon and cheddar, the western (with apple-wood smoked bacon and an onion ring) and the three-cheese burger (blue, brie and provolone). Add extras like pastrami or avocado for 79 cents.
Skip's is more than a burger joint. Those "mac puppies" ($6.29) deep-fried macaroni and cheese are pretty amazing. So crispy and delicious you'll be hard-pressed to let them cool enough so they don't scorch the roof of your mouth. Don't ask how we know this.
Same goes for the mini beef Wellingtons ($8.49) small pieces of marinated skirt steak cooked inside a puff pastry, with a red wine and mushroom reduction sauce. Just a great little appetizer to share.
The grilled chicken sandwich ($8.99) also was impressive, and not as bland as it sounds, thanks to a healthy dose of chipotle pesto that gave it a bit of smoky sweetness. This time, we had the plump and tasty waffle fries. The turkey sandwich ($6.99) features turkey that is brined and roasted in-house with cracked pepper and rosemary. This menu item changes with the seasons. Right now, it's a cold sandwich with sun-dried tomato aioli. Come fall, it becomes a hot sandwich with a cranberry compote.
You know what makes all this food taste better? Customer service.
Skip's Kitchen out-points chain restaurants by making you feel like you're at your favorite uncle's house. It's a simple formula that always works. Treat people nicely, give them good food at an affordable price, let them know you appreciate their business. You do that often enough and you get tons of regulars filling all the seats.
That's what we saw during our visits to Skip's so many folks enjoying the food and soaking up the special attention.
Now I think I know what Skip Wahl sees when he looks 10 years into the future.
4717 El Camino Ave., Carmichael
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday.
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Vegetarian friendly: Somewhat
Noise level: moderate to loud
Overall: 3 stars (good)
If you're looking for a casual, earnest place that has touches of gourmet cooking, is family-friendly, affordable and a little bit adorable, this is the place.
Food: 3 stars (good)
Big burgers showcase quality beef, a variety of cheeses and nice extras like avocado, mushrooms, even pastrami. Sandwiches are big and delicious. We loved the fried macaroni bites, the mini beef Wellingtons and huge serving of sweet potato fries. A nice little wine list and impressive selection of beers for a small place.
Service: 3 stars (good)
Skip Wahl and his staff get it: How you treat people is the most important component of a successful restaurant. You order at the counter, so don't expect pampering. But you'll feel appreciated enough that you'll want to be a regular.
Ambience: 2 stars (fair)
This isn't the place you go to pop the question unless it's "When's the next soccer practice?" Casual, friendly, low-key, with two big TVs that show sports.
Value: 3 1/2 stars (very good)
Large burgers on a brioche bun range from $7.99 to $9.49, sandwiches $5.49 to $10.49, salads $5.99 to $8.99. A nice glass of wine costs $5 to $7. Kids menu meals are $4.99.