Craig and Mowgli Rivard had a thriving culinary career in Brooklyn, New York, where they also had a vibrant social life in a bustling, walkable neighborhood filled with restaurants, bars, markets and shops – all the trappings of a fulfilling community. Yet, every time the pair would come to St. Louis to spend time with Craig’s family, they could not shake the feeling that they were meant to be more than just visitors.
“We would often travel back, visit family and keep an eye on the food scene here and what was going on,” Craig says. “We were genuinely just really excited about what was going on in St. Louis and with the food scene here, and eventually we wanted to be a part of that. I think it was seeing people willing to come to the city to dine, people caring about the city itself and seeing people with a finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the rest of the United States – seeing what’s going on in larger cities, and doing something cool here.”
The Rivards made good on that desire by opening their debut restaurant, Little Fox, in December 2019. Located in the heart of South St. Louis’ Fox Park neighborhood, the eatery has quickly become one of the region’s essential dining spots, garnering critical acclaim and national recognition, including a spot on the New York Times’ list of the 50 restaurants they were most excited about for 2021. To say that the Rivards have been pleased with their decision to relocate to St. Louis is an understatement; in many ways, the pair believe that their success is intimately tied to the community that has embraced them with open arms.
For Craig, Little Fox is the completion of a circle which began when he was a teenager. A Chesterfield native who grew up in west St. Louis County, Craig knew he wanted to be a chef and have his own restaurant as soon as he got a taste of the industry when he was just 16 years old. His first cooking job was at an area restaurant, and he parlayed that experience into a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management from Southwest Missouri State University and eventually to culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. He fell in love with New York City while doing his externship at Gotham Bar and Grill, and he continued to work in the city after graduation, eventually leaving fine-dining and Manhattan behind for the more casual, neighborhood restaurant-focused Brooklyn.
Mowgli, an equally accomplished culinarian, shared Craig’s passion for food and hospitality, and the two bonded while experiencing New York’s hospitality scene and traveling through Europe. It was clear to them that they shared a similar vision for what they’d want in a restaurant, should they have the chance to open one someday. It became even clearer over the course of their many visits to Craig’s hometown that St. Louis just might be the right place to bring that dream to life. They decided to make the move, settled on a place in Fox Park to make their home, and relocated in 2017 with plans to recreate some of what they loved in Brooklyn in the Midwest. They admit that moving on from successful jobs and uprooting their lives was a risk, but they quickly found out that St. Louis would embrace them with open arms.
“While opening a restaurant is absolutely one of the scariest things you can do, and just the biggest risk, people here will support it,” Mowgli says. “It’s pretty amazing how we keep on getting more and more restaurants, but it seems like there’s enough to go around and people just really love to spend money at restaurants, and so that makes you feel good about the future of the restaurants here.”
After spending their first year or so in St. Louis sketching out their ideas for Little Fox, working on the buildout of the space and getting to know their community and restaurant industry colleagues, the Rivards opened the doors to the restaurant in December of 2019. The restaurant was an instant success, anchored by Craig’s elevated, yet approachable cooking, thoughtful beverage program, stylish atmosphere and inviting hospitality. Craig and Mowgli refer to what they’ve created as a modern neighborhood restaurant – the sort of place less defined by a particular cuisine or style of dining and more by the fact that it serves as a community gathering place and source of comfort and social interaction for those in the area.
“I think what’s been most rewarding is we were scared, wondering, ‘Are people going to get this?’ because we said we’re a modern neighborhood restaurant,” Mowgli says. “People said, ‘What’s that?’ and I said, ‘Just come.’ What for me has been the most rewarding is when people have left, they’re like, ‘I totally get that. That makes sense to me,’ and they just enjoy themselves. They still can make it for celebrations – that’s really special – but then we have people that come here two to three times a week sometimes. I’m excited that people have gotten it, everything, what we’ve been trying to create here.”
The Rivards were thrilled by the reception Little Fox was receiving and were eager to keep building on the momentum they’d created in those opening months. However, they saw those plans come to a screeching halt in March of 2020, a time characterized by chaos, uncertainty and insecurity, and it forced the Rivards to change course and get creative in order to survive – something they credit with making them the restaurant they are today.
“It was kind of devastating to get that taste of opening and seeing so much hard work and dreams come to fruition and then quickly shut down again,” Craig says. “But overall, I’d say we’re better for it, and it gave us a chance to get things open, see where we wanted to go and give us pause to be able to recalibrate. I think we’re even closer to our goal now.”
That goal is to share with St. Louis an approachable dining experience built around the abundance of quality ingredients grown in the region. Since moving back, the Rivards have been impressed by the quality of meat and produce available in the surrounding area and the dedication of the farmers and producers who go out of their way to ensure local restaurants are getting the best of what is available. When diners come into the restaurant, Craig has a single word to describe the experience he wants them to have:
“Comfort,” he says. “I want people to experience things that they didn’t know that they wanted. Come in to have great food and a nice atmosphere and drink amazing wine with it – an entire package of a dining experience.”
“This is simple food done well,” says Mowgli. “It doesn’t hit you over the head, but it can really blow your mind. Flavors, the best ingredients and really simple techniques – you don’t have to over complicate things.”
Undoubtedly, Little Fox is a team effort. Craig credits Mowgli for working closely with the architects to restore the space and bring it to life as a restaurant; Mowgli credits Craig for his thoughtful attention to detail in executing the menu that they develop together, while she does the front-of-house duties a few nights a week and as she says, helps keep Little Fox true to itself.
“I think the menu is really thoughtful in that really everything can go together. I think it’s very cohesive, and Craig definitely is in charge of pulling that off, cooking all the food, but going back to me loving menu planning growing up, that’s the part I take pride in — having it all make sense together.”
With Mowgli having done her family’s menu planning and grocery shopping since the age of 12 and Craig having dreamed of opening his own restaurant since the age of 16, Little Fox is a vision realized for the couple. And they have their eye on what’s next: adding brunch service at Little Fox and hopefully opening another restaurant concept in the future.
“I always was so excited to be able to open a restaurant with him because his food’s so phenomenal,” says Mowgli. “Craig’s very understated, but he doesn’t let anything go out of his kitchen that he doesn’t feel a hundred percent about. I’m really proud to see people love it so much.”
As much as they love what goes on inside the four walls of Little Fox, Craig and Mowgli are even more thrilled by the life they have been able to create since arriving in St. Louis nearly six years ago. The husband and wife live within walking distance of the restaurant, so they frequently run into their regulars who are out and about with their families, tending to community gardens or just basking in good weather on their front porches. Those experiences make them feel as if they are a part of something larger than running a restaurant – they are helping to foster and grow a community.
“It’s about walking our dog and seeing our customer base and recognizing people from being in the night before and just having a relationship with people we work with,” Craig says. “Both our architect and one of our lawyers live in the neighborhood, so we get to run into them here and there, and that kind of thing is super cool.
“Community is just so much part of what we want to do here with the restaurant and personally.”