The eclectic cafe has survived two fires and a pandemic to stay among the top restaurants in Tallahassee. The motto: ‘eat, drink and talk loud — You’re among friends.’
On June 4, it will be 25 years since Keith Baxter opened the doors to Kool Beanz Cafe on a stretch of Thomasville Road that would later become the heart of Midtown.
When my husband and I moved to Tallahassee nine years ago, my co-workers took me to Kool Beanz where I was immediately hooked on the food, with favorites like mojo chicken with shrimp and chorizo, linguine tasso ham, pecan-floured trout and black bean cakes. For dessert, I couldn’t resist Baked Alaska.
Kool Beanz is a go-to place for its delicious cuisine, the friendly service and the artsy, funky quality that remains to this day. It’s easy to feel comfortable in a restaurant with the motto: “eat, drink and talk loud You’re among friends.”
There’s a vibe of familiarity at Kool Beanz but even a newcomer feels welcome.
In a fickle hospitality world, Kool Beanz has not only managed to survive for more than two decades. The eclectic restaurant has kept its place among the most beloved dining destinations in the city, overcoming two fires and the pandemic along the way.
“In 1996, I was hoping just to make it to the next week, never imagining what 25 years into the future would look like,” said Keith.
What it looks like is a longtime success. It’s an achievement shared by few establishments in Tallahassee. How does that happen?
Talk to customers and employees and you’ll gain some insight: ”
“The main thing was obviously the cooking,” said longtime customer Jim O’Neill.
“Having a great leader,” said Susannah Frick, who has been working at Kool Beanz since opening day.
“A natural energy,” said customer Ken Tyrell.
“I’ve been going there since they opened,” said Ken, who owns and develops car washes. “It’s been great ever since. One of the things I think is so impressive is the continuous variety.
“You go every day and the menu changes,” he said. “There may be salmon or grouper or pork tenderloin but the setups change. Grouper might have a Southwestern influence one day and Asian the next or Korean or Indian. When Keith came to Tallahassee, nobody was doing food like that. He brought a new standard to cuisine.”
Jim, another 25-year customer, said “Kool Beanz had a great product on Day One and it’s just as good now. Service has also stood out. His employees are very professional.”
One of those employees is Susannah, who met Baxter through her brother. “When I heard Keith was going to open a restaurant, I walked right up to him and said ‘If you hire me I will be the best employee you ever had… Who knew I would still be at Kool Beanz 25 years later.”
Susannah attended Florida State University and graduated while being employed at the cafe. She’s now a full time talent recruitment specialist for a local firm while still working as a server at Kool Beanz three nights a week.
“I have gained lifelong friends who are coworkers and customers,” said Susannah. “We are looking at generations of customers.”
Her coworker, pastry chef Sylvia Gould, a James Beard semifinalist in 2020, started working as a hostess five months after Kool Benz opened and later became a server. “I was in college at the time. It was a small, intimate restaurant and there was a very good energy. Keith let everyone be themselves and was very understanding.”
Sylvia, who has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at FSU, experienced that quality when she decided she wanted to become a pastry chef when the opening came up.
“She came to me and said ‘I’m going to do this,’ “ said Keith, who added that giving her the chance was “the best decision I ever made.”
“Everyone has a creative input at Kool Beanz. They feel like they’re being heard,” said Sylvia, whose dreamy pasty creations draw from her Vietnamese and German American heritage and passion for discovering new techniques and flavor. Read more about Sylvia and her nomination at: tallahasseetable.com/kool-beanz-pastry-chef-a-james-beard-semi-finalist/
That openness stems from Keith’s own backstory.
He was born in London where his mother was a nurse and his father was in the military so he traveled a lot. Keith didn’t want to attend college so he worked odd jobs and continued to travel, once driving across the Sahara “to the middle of the desert and back again.”
He went to work as a clerk sitting behind a desk “and I felt like I was dying internally. I had to find something else to do.”
In the 1970s, there weren’t any fast food places in the United Kingdom until the first McDonald’s opened in 1974. Other fast food places then began to pop up. Keith saw a newspaper ad from a company that offered employment opportunities and decided to check it out. “What appealed to me was training in exotic locations overseas. My exotic location was Louisville, Kentucky working for a company called Burger Queen.”
Keith returned to London after the training period was over but knew he wanted to go back to the United States. He returned to Eastern Kentucky and worked for a restaurant owner who “taught me so much about the restaurant business while at the same time imparting wisdom that my 22-year-old self did not understand or appreciate until many birthdays later.
“He taught me humility and to be connected to the community but most of all he preached that restaurants are a people business first. The people who come and sit at your table and the people who make it happen.”
It was advice that Keith took to heart in his future journeys.
He eventually moved to Florida and eventually landed in Tallahassee, where he became a chef for various restaurants.
“With the generosity and faith of a dear friend, together with a small group of people who were prepared to work very hard, on a wing and a prayer 25 years ago on June 4, 1996 I opened Kool Beanz Cafe. Success or fail, this was to be my last stop on my personal restaurant business journey,” Baxter wrote in a note thanking his employees and customers for their support and loyalty.
“Much has happened in 25 years,” Keith states in his note. “We have transcended obstacles and barriers along the way but have been able to celebrate many more successes. Kool Beanz has moved through several incarnations evolving to where we are today which I believe is the best we have been. While I have never had a partner, growing from a 42 seat “hole in the wall” that was my professional dream, to 132 seats, 2 kitchens, a private dining room and outside seating would not have been possible without the generosity and support of a few people to whom I will be eternally grateful. ..”
“The people who have helped me make it happen are some amazingly talented folks who have been a part of all or most of the 25 years, are among the finest I have had the pleasure to work with in my 43 years in the business. They bought into my dream and made it theirs with their tireless effort. They have had a deep sense of caring about doing the right thing each day with a loyalty as if KBC were their own. Today we proudly call that group our Kool Beanz family. I cannot thank enough my family of Susannah, Lindsay, Sylvia, Frank, Chris, Harry, Nate, Trey and many others. They are brothers and sisters to me. It is they who have been the heartbeat and life blood of Kool Beanz over the 25 years.”
As for the origin of the name, Kool Beanz, “I wish I had a cute story,” said Keith, who said it probably came from his artist brother, whose work has decorated the restaurant, along with local artists like Pattie Maney.
A few years ago, Keith made a lot of renovations, with new flooring, new counter, lighting, a private room and more subtle hues. Kool Beanz gallery of vibrant local art still brightens the walls, but there’s not quite as much of it, and some pieces are larger.
Despite obstacles that arise in the restaurant biz, the last 14 months have been the most challenging,” said Keith.
“We were closed for almost three months,” he said. “A PPE loan kept key people around. Our staff came back, cooking great food and providing great service.”
I ordered takeout during that time and the food was still top-notch although we did miss the staff and atmosphere.
Now that Kool Beanz is busy again, with a packed parking lot, the staff shortages that have plagued the industry nationwide have also hit Kool Beanz. Keith put up hiring notices on Facebook recently, and in one post wrote: “The labor shortage in the hospitality (industry) is very real. Kool Beanz will be closed on Tuesdays until further notice. It’s that real.”
Turns out that “Marco Rubio shared my post and it stirred up the trolls,” said Baxter, who received dozens of nasty messages, many about restaurants not paying employees high enough wages.
“I think our wages are probably some of the best in town,” Baxter said. “Our kitchen guys stay with me,” some as long as 17 years.
And there’s Susannah, who was there at the beginning.
”Giving back to the community,” “teamwork” and “building relationships with customers,” are among the qualities that have helped Kool Beanz thrive, she said. Those qualities have been valuable lessons for her as well.
“When the going gets tough, the tough keep going,” Susannah said. “This has been a huge lesson from Kool Beanz, which goes deeper than the restaurant — Keith’s strength to persevere provides me with this mentality as well.”
Moved to write about all that she has learned at Kool Beanz, Susannah noted that “through the pandemic, Keith closed the restaurant ahead of government closures. He had his staff and his customers weighing on his shoulders and he wanted to keep all of us safe.”
Baxter isn’t above helping out his staff either. During a phone conversation I had with him last week, he was in the restaurant washing dishes.
“You do what you have to do,” he said, noting washing dishes is not something he has to do very often. When staff hiring increases, the restaurant will reopen on Tuesdays, he said.
“Restaurant hospitality is much like conducting an orchestra,” said Keith. “You don’t have to master each instrument but only how to make music with all of the instruments together.”
“It’s physically challenging at 63 but I still enjoy it,” he said. “Kool Beanz has been an unbelievable and magical journey so far. It’s a labor of love.”
Here’s an excerpt from Keith’s thank you note to customers and staff,:
If you go …
Kool Beanz, 921 Thomasville Rd.; 850-224-2466
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday and Wednesday to Saturday. Sunday brunch 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.