Smile Politely

Anne Clark Skuse talks past, present, and future of Seven Saints

Seven Saints has been a fixture of downtown Champaign for over a decade with a wide-ranging menu of comfort food standards, an extensive beer list, and, of course, creative cocktails. I spoke with General Manager Anne Clark Skuse about what brought her to Champaign-Urbana, what she loves about Seven Saints, and how the restaurant has adapted to life in a pandemic. (Our conversation has been edited for clarity.)

 Anne Clark Skuse, general manager of Seven Saints. Photo courtesy Anne Clark Skuse.

Anne Clark Skuse. Photo courtesy Anne Clark Skuse.

Smile Politely: First of all, how are you?

Anne Clark Skuse: I’m doing well. Just made it through another week and looking forward to the weekend, to see what we have in store at Seven Saints.

SP: I guess that it’s one week at a time these days, isn’t it?

Clark Skuse: It really is. Every week is a little different.

Archway decorated for New Years Eve. Photo courtesy Anne Clark Skuse.

Photo courtesy Anne Clark Skuse.

SP: Let’s start with the background of Seven Saints itself. What’s the history and how you might describe it to someone who’s never been there?

Clark Skuse: Seven Saints is a part of CMT Ventures and was opened in 2007. It was the seventh of the restaurants that was opened, and so the name played off that a little bit. As they were building out this space and some of the chandeliers and the arch in the main dining room were recovered, the Seven Saints name came to fruition as a result.

But the history of the menu also came to pass with some of the chefs that were involved. And then Andy Borbely, who was the general manager before me, created the iconic back bar and selection that we have now. So it was really the name Seven Saints and the way that the menu evolved and came to be what we have now. It was a good mix of different minds putting together something that would work well for the community that was distinctive. And here we are now. We just celebrated our 13th anniversary. Lucky 13.

SP: Congratulations!

Clark Skuse: It wasn’t quite — the 10th anniversary, we had a couple months with a series of events leading up to the big day. But this year, as you can imagine, was a little less under wraps for us.

SP: Did you get to celebrate in any way at all?

Clark Skuse: The owners and I mentioned it, that it was the anniversary. We were all proud to have another successful year behind us and encouraged to see what the next one holds.

SP: How did you come to be the general manager at Seven Saints?

Clark Skuse: I was hired as a bartender by Andy Borbely, who actually hired me at Crane Alley before Seven Saints was open. So we worked together before Seven Saints even existed, and then once he was a part of the initial team at Seven Saints, we stayed in touch. I was in grad school at the time and working part time as a bartender and server at Seven Saints, eventually becoming Andy’s assistant manager. As he decided to pursue other interests, I was also completing my coursework in grad school, so it was good timing. It was also a good fit because I had been in the industry for some years, but Seven Saints always held this distinctive importance to me. There was a deeper value that we wanted to bring to the community and to our guests especially, that Seven Saints would always be a welcoming place where there would be something for everybody. We wanted people to feel comfortable, that they could celebrate with us, that they could come in on a casual lunch, that they could grieve with us, that they could live their life and make Seven Saints a part of it any day, any time of year.

So I became GM of Seven Saints because we created this environment that worked well within the service industry, but with a bigger connection to what the world’s about, trying to make every day a little bit better, a little bit at a time.

Annex at Seven Saints. Photo courtesy Anne Clark Skuse.

Photo courtesy Anne Clark Skuse.

SP: Did you move from out of the area to come here for grad school?

Clark Skuse: Yes, I’m actually from Miami, Florida. I got my bachelor’s degree in cello performance at Indiana University. So I hadn’t lived in the Midwest for some time. I was living back in Miami before grad school, but I decided to come to the University of Illinois for ethnomusicology which was a really great fit for me because it’s the study of music as a cultural practice. It examined the way that people’s value systems inform their cultural practices — so music as social life, in a way, and so there’s a lot of anthropological study as well. 

SP: Does what you’ve studied in your degree program in ethnomusicology translate to the work that you do as GM?

Clark Skuse: I think I’ve become more aware of how my graduate studies in particular have informed the way that Seven Saints operates under my leadership because it really means a lot to me to consider each individual and what is meaningful to them. And food, just like music, is a way that people shape their every day. There’s a reason why in a wedding or different rites of passage, there’s food involved, and there’s music involved. These are the things that create a deeper meaning for people without any strict linguistic formality.

It’s not like I’m using philosophy or some of the more deeper scholarship to inform how I make decisions at Seven Saints, but the concept that individual values are important and that when it comes to any little issues that come up, or when we’re asked to make big decisions, or when there’s challenges that we’re faced with, I remember that each person is just living every day the best they can and how can we make the decisions that we make meaningful.

In that way, ethnomusicology, where the research was about ethnography and asking people what is meaningful to them, helped me consider the same things for how we design our menu, for how we staff on different types of shifts. In that way, it certainly has informed how I think of Seven Saints and informed the decisions that I make.

SP: Besides Seven Saints, what attracted you to come and stay in Champaign–Urbana once you were done with your schooling?

Clark Skuse: That’s a great question because my family still lives in Florida, and it is hard sometimes. My husband’s family is from the Peoria area, and his sister and family still live there, so we’re close to relatives still, but it’s really Seven Saints in particular that has created a reason to stay. My husband and I have a comfortable life here. We’re members at the Stephens Family YMCA, and so there’s a sense of community there as well.

There’s enough multicultural influence because of the university. People are forward thinking and interested in making each day better and progressing as a community, and those are values that are important to me. So it’s an easy lifestyle because it’s a smaller town as compared to a city. Like I said, I’m from Miami. I would never move back there. It’s very stressful every day. You can’t go to the grocery store without some conflict. It’s nice to feel like Schnucks is your pantry, but you can go see the Moscow Symphony at Krannert. It’s a good space. It’s the college town influence, and that’s been a good fit for me.

SP: The sense of community seems to come across in both your personal and professional life, it seems.

Clark Skuse: I’ve met so many amazing people in this town, some of whom are from here and some were, just like me, from other places. That’s what you get from a college town. And we can make it more. That’s what I really enjoy, that it’s not fixated. Champaign-Urbana is not fixated on an identity; it’s interested in moving forward. I think sometimes cities get shackled to their identity, and so it’s hard to progress outside of being super interesting. Sometimes that’s a façade that is really quite stagnant.

SP: In a place like C-U there are fewer people, so you can have a bigger impact on what happens, right?

Clark Skuse: Yeah.

SP: What’s a day like as a general manager?

Clark Skuse: That’s one of my favorite questions. One of my favorite parts of my role is that I am most interested in working with individuals, but with that comes an unexpected, unplannable type of day. So I really have to have a larger plan set. There’s always bigger projects that we’re working on for the near future and for the longer-term future. Those are projects that are always ready to spend some time on, but there are also things that come up each day that require different levels of challenge and thought.

I have a seven-month-old son, so for me the day starts at around 6 a.m. and I’m with him in the morning. I try to get a workout in before I come to work, and then at work, I usually try to manage any messages that I get in the morning first. Then I have the day set. Some days, I spend a lot of time on orders. We have between 30 and 40 different vendors that we work with on a regular basis from bar items and food items to things you don’t think about like little smallwares and the gas that pours the beer that we drink. There’s a lot of planning with that and making sure that each vendor has been contacted in the right time frame.

And then my favorite part: getting to work with the staff and see how their day is going. I rely on them all and uniquely because it’s really the staff that can bring the message of Seven Saints to everyday interaction with the guests. It’s really meaningful to me to get to work with them on what their day-to-day is like and how I can offer any assistance to make it better, whether it’s helping them get a shift coverage so they can study for finals, or lending them an ear for 15 minutes to talk about their puppy who hurt his ankle, or whatever. Every day is a little bit different, just like everyone else’s, but it’s a lot of different things, I guess.

Seven Saints staff. Photo courtesy Anne Clark Skuse.

Seven Saints staff. Photo courtesy Anne Clark Skuse.

SP: So when I’ve gone to eat at Seven Saints in the past, I’ve flipped right to the slider menu because that’s what I know the restaurant for, and I think that’s maybe what a lot of people know the restaurant for. But what should we be on the lookout for on the regular menu that people don’t normally order?

Clark Skuse: I think we’re very fortunate that most items are somebody’s favorite. It’s made it challenging to slim down the menu, I’ll tell you that much! But Seven Saints is very fortunate to have a very loyal following. And so even the thing that doesn’t seem to sell well is somebody’s favorite. But I would say the item to lookout for, which is a newer item and it was a special for about a year, is the Four-Grain Power Bowl. It has brown rice, barley, quinoa, and we serve it with steamed broccoli and tomatoes with a choice of grilled chicken or salmon. The greatest thing about that item is that it is also one that is easy to modify and make the flavors that you want it to be.

So recently we posted on Facebook and Instagram, one of my favorite combinations of this, which includes the black bean and corn salsa, avocado, and a little shredded cheese as well. So it turns it into a Southwestern style bowl. Some of the servers get creative and even add things like goat cheese and mango salsa, so it’s something that with a little bit of guidance from the servers can become exactly the dish that somebody wants. It’s also more health forward. It really takes advantage of all the fresh items that Seven Saints has.

Most of our menu includes a lot of fresh produce and while each item on the menu uses some portion of that, the Power Bowl really gives each of those ingredients a chance to shine. So it’s not like a single sauce that holds the dish together but rather ingredients that a person would want to highlight their day. So I would say that’s probably a VIP choice for me.

SP: Tell me a little bit about the cocktail menu. What goes into creating the them?

Clark Skuse: There are so many iterations of what the cocktail menu has looked like in the time that I’ve been at Seven Saints, so it’s a challenging question. But the cocktail menu includes some classics. Right now we have the New York Sour on our cocktail menu, but it also includes some cocktails like The Heart Gets Lonely which was created by one of our bartenders and then featured at an Elsinore Show and was such a great drink that it stuck. So it’s a variety, just like the food menu, something for everybody. We’re never shy to create a cocktail for the guests the moment that they want it.

I had a friend who used to come in and challenge me to never make the same cocktail twice. I had a couple years running where I never did. I think all the bartenders take pride in that approach. We had a cocktail showcase a couple of years ago where we did all distinctive cocktails with food pairings, with just little bites and each bartender got to showcase a theme or an ingredient, and then use that as a way to create a framework for their showcase. So the menu that’s printed in our liquor book right now is a reflection of this year. It has some cocktails that we created this past year that have personal meaning for some people, but it also has some of the classics with a little twist. It’s hard to put into one corner, but we try to have something for everybody and then also be flexible with making sure that everybody can find what they want.

SP: Could you talk about how Seven Saints has responded to the Illinois stay-at-home order?

Clark Skuse: Our first concern, or our first responsibility, was to make sure that we were able to follow the state orders and suggestions as closely as we could. Once it became clear that the threat of COVID-19 was something that could impact anybody, we really wanted to make sure that we would serve food safely. In early March, when it became clear that COVID-19 was not something just limited overseas, we started taking precautions within the restaurant. Menus were wiped down after each use. We used disinfectant on surfaces much more frequently. So it slowed down the operations a little bit, but we just made sure we were following things to help keep the environment as safe as possible. And then ultimately, March 16th, we decided that we would close. The foundation was we wanted to make sure we could serve our guests as safely as possible, and then eventually that meant closing.

We chose not to do carry out at the time to help support the stay-at-home order as much as possible. I think that being able to have carry-out service is something that nobody takes for granted, and everybody is doing their best to ensure safe practices. But initially, I was firm in the thought that the best way to support everybody getting healthy faster was to encourage saying at home, and that meant for our staff too.

SP: You were closed during the initial period until May 1st. What went into the decision to open back up for carry out?

Clark Skuse: I think a couple things did. The first was seeing that the carry-out model was something that we could do safely. We never took it for granted that we wanted everybody to stay home and stay safe and help flatten the curve. But I think people got better at being safe while out, like with the mandate of wearing masks. Everybody’s much more aware now of what we have to do to stay safe and healthy.

But also the Payroll Protection Program [PPP] was something that we wanted to be able to utilize as a way to support some employees who were interested in work. Because the carry out model has been successful for us so far. It’s nothing compared to the busy times at Seven Saints that we saw a couple months ago where it was a struggle to walk in the front door because we were so full.

Now when you think about that, it’s like, “Oh gosh, six feet people, come on!” It’s weird — I don’t even want to see those times anymore. But the staff is the foundation of Seven Saints. Each individual puts in their time and their energy and their care for what we do. For the staff members that were interested in working, the PPP was a way for us to take a little edge off of the predicted lower sales and provide a way to support the financial difficulties that many people were facing in our staff.

Seven Saints staff in masks prepare to go orders. Photo from Seven Saints Facebook.

Photo from Seven Saints Facebook page.

SP: Now that we’re in this takeout world for some undetermined amount of time, what would you say the best things are to order off the carry-out menu?

Clark Skuse: I think we can stick to the old Seven Saints plan of anything. Order the thing that’s going to make you the most happy. The food always tastes better right out of the kitchen. That’s always true. So I certainly won’t say those cheese curds that you’ve been dreaming of will taste the exact same in that corner booth as they do at your kitchen table, but I think everything holds up pretty well and everything is made with care. That’s the most important ingredient, right? I really do stand behind the menu though, in seriousness. We re-opened Seven Saints for the staff to be able to have a place to support themselves a little bit more, again, but also because we were excited to have those things that everybody craves back and available for them again.

SP: At some point we’ll be beyond sheltering in place. How is the restaurant adapting to that eventuality?

Clark Skuse: We’re trying to stay informed as much as we can with safe practices. I think the Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department will have good information for us as far as what we will do once we’re able to resume dining service in house. For now, we are continuing to build good habits of keeping the space clean and continuing the things that we always did to manage that, such as making hand washing a regular practice of service. I think I can confidently say that any employee at Seven Saints knows what it feels like to wash the skin off of your hands because we all wash our hands so frequently.

But as we move forward, to just know that we’ll have to bring the service and attention that we did in the past in a much different model that might be with less volume in terms of how many guests we have at once. That might be with maybe different hours or different restrictions on how we operate day to day. But as long as we have that goal in mind of helping our guests the best that we can, I think that we’re eager to impart any additional practices to make sure we serve food as safely as possible.

SP: How can diners order from Seven Saints?

Clark Skuse: Right now we are doing call-in orders, so they can call the Seven Saints main line at 217-351-7775. On busier nights we have two or three people answering phones. We have had some busy signal issues, but I think we’ve resolved all that at this point. Our menu is available online. We have limited it slightly, but most items are still available and that will continue to grow as time goes on.

We will also have online ordering available as soon as the next couple of weeks, so that’s something to look forward to. Plus with a little more time and practice, we’re also going to be featuring some things from the Seven Saints bar. So right now, we just have the food menu, but we are quickly working towards having different beer packaging options available and several cocktail kits as well. We’re doing as much as we can to give people the Seven Saints experience even with limited interaction.

Seven Saints
32 E. Chester St.
Su-Sa 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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