Big-time taste. Small-town nice. Kevin Reading’s mantra pays off
Anyone who has followed RehobothFoodie.com over the last 15 years or so will recognize the name Kevin Reading. This entrepreneur, chef and owner created two of Rehoboth’s most memorable fine-dining spots - one of which is still going strong. But there’s a back story (I hope so - or this page would be blank). Reading landed his first restaurant job bussing tables and serving - all at the tender age of 14.
He quickly moved up the ranks to be general manager of a West Palm Beach eatery where he found himself faced with the difficult task of confronting the head chef about how long customers were waiting for their food. Seasoned GMs know that some chefs hide their insecurities and lack of confidence by making themselves intimidating and unapproachable. Kevin’s clash over ticket times (which he won, by the way) was a defining moment, and he realized that to be successful he had to be able to do every job in the place - including the chef’s. So in 1994 he enrolled in the Culinary Arts program at The Philadelphia Restaurant School (now The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College).
Formal culinary training includes an externship where the student earns credits out in the real world in a real kitchen. Reading took it a step further: he actually opened his very own restaurant, Fox Point Grill in Wilmington. In an even more daring move, his concept was unusual cuisine presented in an upscale style. Friends warned that upstate diners wouldn’t tolerate anything weird, but he ignored their advice and opened the doors to a menu that included wild game, terrine of eel, cactus salads and elk. Lo & behold! Food critics loved his anything-but-conservative fare, and the place took off. In fact, his first five-star review was published after being open just a few months.
After fire damaged the restaurant in 2001, Reading brought his concept to Rehoboth Beach. And thus was born Espuma. But Wilmington’s taste for his progressive menu apparently didn’t exist in Rehoboth Beach - at least not for the first year. He had to do something to distinguish his tiny upscale spot, so when his staff suggested that he stay open in the off-season, he bought a snow shovel, reined in the menu, turned on the heat, and bingo! Espuma’s numbers skyrocketed. Fine-dining icons Blue Moon and Back Porch were closed for the season, so Espuma became the perfect landing pad for locals and adventurous visitors to warm up on the ocean block.
Shortly thereafter, Kevin and pastry chef Andrew Hooven opened Sweet Dreams Bakery on Coastal Highway, immediately garnering Delaware Today’s Best Bakery award. But Hooven suffered a brain aneurysm and was Medevac’d directly to the hospital. Luckily, he recovered. In the meantime, Kevin unlocked the bakery every day at 4:30 a.m., worked until mid-morning, then opened Espuma, finally leaving around 1 a.m. Every day. For the entire summer. Something had to give. (A fully recovered Hooven is still working with Kevin to this day.)
Kevin sold Espuma, and moved out onto the highway to open Nage in the space where the bakery had been. Partner and former classmate Josh Grapski was on the scene, keeping the business end up and running. Grapski quickly caught on and was handling every aspect of the popular eatery, so he and Kevin ventured northward to open Abbott’s Grill in Milford. They eventually parted ways (amicably, of course). Shortly thereafter, Reading opened Abbott’s on Broad Creek in Laurel with longtime partner Laura Burton.
Having already teamed up with Mispillion River Brewing to open Brick Works in Smyrna, Kevin chose not to renew the Milford lease. The brewpub concept was catching on, and he partnered with Milford High School graduate and brewmaster Ryan Maloney to not only open a second Brick Works in Long Neck, but to outfit both restaurants with on-site brewing systems. Their core beers travel just a few dozen feet from the tanks to your pint glass.
Maloney’s extensive knowledge of the brewing process brings a lot to the table. He tells me, “Sometimes the beer influences the food, and sometimes the food influences the beer, like our Chocolate-Covered Pretzel Stout, and our Key Lime Beer; Kevin’s key lime pie - in a pint.”
Abbott’s on Broad Creek continues to do well, capitalizing on a tightly knit staff, a strong local following and a beautiful water view. Reading stands behind his promise of “Big-time taste, small-town nice” by continuing his tradition of innovative, locally sourced dishes.
When I first interviewed Kevin over 10 years ago, he told me that he was most proud of a customer comment card left on a table after a particularly hectic dinner rush. It read, “We felt as if we were the only table in the restaurant.” Words like that go a long way to define the bottom line in this relentless business of eating.