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Hand-dipped milkshakes and Hatch chiles, specialties of the house immortalized on glass by Southwest Diner veteran waiter and chalk artist Johnny Shulz.
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Shulz stands outside of Southwest Diner next to his sign for the Carlyle Lake – a shot of Jameson and a Ski soda
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The huge mirror on the north wall of the diner receded a bit when Shulz painted on his Southwest-style custom mural.
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A fried egg rests against a blue cactus.
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The little pig says ‘wee . wee . wee . Put a little bacon in your bloody Mary.’
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Sister Cities' JJ Johnson stands next to the chalkboard wall
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Johnson draws his alligators with attitude. He and Melton come up with the talk bubbles together.
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This message needs no explanation.
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"Who are you calling shrimp?" ... Possibly a Cajun version of "you talkin' to me?
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An overview of extensive menu shows the attention to detail. The boards list ingredients and highlight specials in frames the Worn Vintage team supplied. The board changes monthly.
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One special ice cream, German chocolate cake, spotlighted in a silver oval frame.
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Oh My, Jilly’s! in a restrained black, white and hot pink palette.
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Debbie Mendica begins each morning in her back yard with her chickens and her garden.
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Each week Mendica hand-letters a menu in color. Kitchen Kulture posts these mini-menus on Facebook early in the week for market folks to plan their buys.
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Mendica’s sketch of the big burger KK grilled looks like the burgers that came off the grill.
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Kitchen Kulture grilled All-American hamburgers for Thursday lunch at Sump over the Fourth of July. Mendica got in all the information and more for the event.
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Chris Meyer sells classic Banh Mi sandwiches at Sump with the aid of Mendica’s sign.
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Chef Laura Borghardt finds creative freedom from the kitchen when she chalks the boards inside Stacked Burger Bar.
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Borghardt turned the Stacked cow on its head for her EAT! Signs.
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Old windows salvaged from Perhat Lumber on South Broadway became chalkboards with a slap of the brush and chalkboard paint over the glass. Wise and funny sayings, drink specials and useful information cover the boards, which are a focal point of the restaurant’s design.
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We don't disagree with Ben Franklin...
Chalkboards aren’t just for schoolrooms and driveway hopscotch anymore. They crop up in farmers markets and shill from sidewalks for corner cafes. Boards elegant, boards cheeky, boards colorful and boards sleekly selling daily specials in bistros and bars speak volumes. They deliver a restaurant’s message with aplomb.
Who are the chalk artists behind these creations? We’ll introduce you to a few masters of the skill.
Southwest Diner - Johnny Shulz
At Southwest Diner, veteran waiter Johnny Shulz often wields the chalk sticks, markers and paintbrushes. He holds a BFA in painting. He’s a printmaking enthusiast and a student of mokulito, a Japanese wood lithography process. The humorous images he chalks loose and fast pulse with a liveliness you’d expect at the edgy diner that puts fire in the grits and cornmeal in the pancakes.
Shulz appropriated the huge mirror on the north wall for a canvas as well as the board signs. A fried egg lounges lazy against a blue cactus, a big ol’ car va-rooms through the dessert, jalapenos frolic, shakes shimmy, round oranges dance with tall triangular pies and the customers see themselves reflected in the Southwest scene. Glass paints make the magic on the mirror, but plain colored chalk covers the sidewalk signs and regular dry-erase markers on board greet and help seat you inside.
“The signs change when we’ve got new items. How elaborate they get depends on the time,” he says. “Everybody kind of pitches in on the boards, but I do a lot of them.”
Sister Cities - JJ Johnson and Pam Melton
Javion Johnson, nicknamed JJ, washed dishes, bussed, and now works as back bar man at Sister Cities BBQ and Cajun restaurant on far South Grand. He’s worked his way up over the past seven months and he likes his job, but he loves art.
When Sister Cities’ owner Pamela Melton told him she was putting in a chalkboard wall, the self-taught artist put himself forward. He wanted to draw. JJ excelled in his high school art classes at Imagine Academy College Preparatory School. “It was like a calling,” Johnson says.
He’s self-taught, tutored by British chalkboard artist John Neal via You Tube and a series of tutorials to learn techniques. His animated drawings of shrimp and crabs, chickens and hot peppers crackle with attitude. He admits he’s not good at lettering, but Melton has a creative streak, too. She handles the printing. Together, they make the chalk wall come alive. The sly bubble captions crack JJ up. “I’m thinking crab cakes for the crab and Pam came up with ‘Eat a taco!’ That’s funny.”
JJ had planned to study art at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park, but his plans were put on hold when his mother was critically injured in a car accident. Although he was just a teen at the time, JJ began studies to become a certified nursing assistant.
He’d take high school classes in the morning and nursing classes in the afternoon. Today, at age 22, he cares for his paraplegic mother before he heads to work. He often works a split shift, checking on his mom between shifts. “My mom tells me every day she’s proud of me.”
Johnson makes art when he can. “Pam buys all the supplies here, and I’ve learned a lot,” he says. “I can’t afford much, but I find canvasses in the alleys, sometimes in frames, and I’ll paint over the pictures to make my own art.”
Jilly’s Ice Cream and Worn Vintage
The boards at Jilly’s Ice Cream Bar look so perfectly chalked they seem almost machine-generated. Not so. Jen May and Tiffany Unger of Worn Vintage in St. Charles perform the legerdemain monthly, changing specials and adding flavors with a wave of the hand.
“We’ve done so many boards for weddings, parties and special events in the last four-and-a-half years we’ve learned a few things,” Jen May says. “We developed a secret process to get the letters straight and even on the boards, but the work is done by hand. We’ve even got a process now to watermark the boards with a very light image in the background. We did a Marine wedding recently with the Marine emblem as the background.”
The talented duo designed and installed the clever displays of ice cream scoops and spoons and the colorful ice cream bowls mini to maxi that collage one narrow wall. The letters ‘Sweet’ and ‘Bar’ in the space come from these gentle ladies whose chalkboards, rentals and props have made many special events sparkle.
“Restaurants are new for us,” May says. “We’ve grown into our businesses gradually and we’d like to do more. The best part for us was working with the people at Jilly’s. It was fun. When the perks of the job include tasting ice cream flavors? That’s wonderful.”
Kitchen Kulture and Debbie Mendica
If you’ve shopped Tower Grove Farmers Market you’ve probably seen the extraordinary sandwich chalkboards by artist Debbie Mendica at the Kitchen Kulture market stand and at the Kitchen Kart ready-to-eat food stand. The densely lettered signs manage to convey a plethora of information in a clear, readable style. Mendica sketches beautiful borders and accents each week, showcasing ingredients, foods or seasonal motifs in the drawings.
Mendica began her foodie chalkboard career at Straub’s where she hand-lettered signs for many years. When a cutback at Straub’s eliminated her job, Mendica found others willing to pay her to create signs.
“Marcia Schecter from Grandma’s Nuts worked with me to make signs that explained her nut mixes and how they could be used,” Mendica said. “Chris Meyer saw the signs at market and contacted me. Chris and I have another connection through my daughter, Jessica Mendica, who is the executive sous chef at Annie Gunn’s.
The spontaneity and freshness of chalked signs revs her creative engine. “We’ve gone to chalk markers for the market signs because people brushed up against the signboards and got colored chalk on their clothes. What I love best is the simplest – white chalk, real chalk, on a black board. Color draws the eye, though, in a busy market, so I’ll use black and white for one-day pop up events like the Kitchen Kart Thursday lunch at Sump.”
Mendica likes the breezy medium for another reason as well. “Chalkboards are so forgiving,” she says. “I’m an artist who learned to draw my letters rather than write because I’m dyslexic. If I make a mistake, I erase it and go on.”
Stacked Burger Bar and Laura Borghardt
Chef Laura Borghardt at Stacked Burger Bar expends plenty of creative energy in the kitchen at Stacked. When she picks up the paintbrush and chalk sticks in the restaurant her stylish doodles and wry boards match the fun, informal tone of Stacked.
“I wouldn’t say I’m an artist, but I like to doodle,” Borghardt says. “I studied interior design for two years in college. When we got together with the women from Flipt to change our concept and interiors, we all pitched in, closed the restaurant and did the re-branding in a week.
“We bought old windows from Perhat Lumber on South Broadway. We made our own chalkboard paint by adding plaster of Paris to black paint – you can use any color – and we painted right on the glass to make the chalkboards over the bar.”
A cow silhouette appears on server’s t-shirts, tabletops, menus, window signs and on the chalkboard that reads ‘Eat . . . Mmmm . . . Beefy!’ Borghardt cut stencils to paint the cows on tabletops she intentionally distressed. The big cow at the back of the bar’s alcove seating is a vinyl applique burnished onto the wall.
Old signs appear throughout the restaurant. A Payment Drop Box sign hangs next to the cash register. The bathroom walls and ceilings make up the biggest chalkboard. Baskets of colored chalk sit at the ready for folks who want to make their own art.
“The women are a little more tasteful in their graffiti,” Borghardt says.
Chalk art abounds at restaurants and bars around town. No longer old school, signs and menus get new life when a talented soul takes up the chalks.