Kirsten Steele

Kirsten Steele

Chestnut at the vintage

4418 E. Osborn Road  •

For someone who started out with minimal background in the culinary industry, Kirsten Steele has a magic touch as the owner and creative mastermind behind Chestnut, a café located inside The Vintage on Osborn Road. Her love of cooking, family and community has allowed her to become a neighborhood staple in the heart of Arcadia. 

You’re from Illinois, yes?

Yes! I used to live in DeKalb and went to school in Champaign. Sixteen years ago, after I graduated with a degree in communications and sociology, I moved to Arizona. 

Any reason for choosing Arizona?

Not really [laughs]. I’d never been to Arizona, but my sister was living here at the time, and I thought, ‘well, I’ll go out there and see what it’s like and probably end up back in Chicago,’ and then I never left. Arizona is like a magnet.

Where did the inspiration to open Chestnut come from?

Chestnut Lane was opened by a woman named Polly Levine back in 2009-ish. It was this cute little café (where Buck and Rider is now), and my sister and I frequented that location all the time for salads and pastries and stuff. When she closed, we approached her about buying and taking over the brand for her. We reopened as Chestnut in 2013 on 44th St. and Camelback. 

Since then, my sister has been a massive supporter of the business, but I’m now the sole owner. What’s interesting is that we don’t retain much of the original concept – there are a few recipes, but other than that, it’s been modified over the years. 

Do you have a background in baking?

[laughs] I don’t have a background in restaurants at all, actually. I was a cocktail waitress in college, and that’s pretty much it. I like to cook, and growing up in an Asian household – I’m half-Chinese – I was raised with that heritage and my grandmother and mother cooked with me a lot. 

The beginning factor was a love of cooking, but I didn’t have a culinary degree or experience in dining or restaurants before we opened. Typically, restaurants don’t usually survive when that happens, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Did you know you wanted to own your own business?

No. I worked for a medical office doing administration work before this. I just fell into this with my sister, thinking it would be a side gig and run itself on its own. I thought it would just be a small café, but then we moved to 44th and Camelback across from The Henry, and then Flower Child went in, and Buck and Rider and I was like, ‘well, we’re in the thick of it now.’ We had to transition and become what we are.

What’s the toughest part of being a business owner?

Everything is hard. Dealing with the numbers, the fluctuating cost of goods, and dealing with people – but honestly, every part of it is something I enjoy. If you switch your mindset to caring for your community, team and caring for something you love, then you don’t have to dread going to work. 

What does a day in the life of Kirsten Steele look like?

Depends on the day. If I’m not needed on-site, I stay active and get rid of the anxious energy. I walk, spin, swim, lift, and try to squeeze in what I can. I have two kids, too, so I get them up and get them ready for school, take them to school, head to Chestnut, see what the team needs, grab a coffee, etc. 

I also spend a lot of time at Costco [laughs]. These days, with all of the delivery issues, when we run out of stuff, that’s where I am. 

When we’re really busy, I’m working alongside my team; we’re always working at events – on and offsite on the weekends. I’m at those usually from sun up to sundown.  

What does Chestnut offer?

We’re really a one-stop neighborhood shop – we like to serve everything anyone might need or want. We do breakfast, lunch, dinner, bar. We have baked goods and coffee and cocktails. 

What about the recipes?

Some of the recipes came from Polly’s original café, but many of them are inspired by travel. My sister travels a lot, and I used to travel a lot, so recipes are inspired by world travel and dishes around the country or by other chefs and their dishes. We basically toy around and create things that we think people will enjoy. 

My pastry chef comes up with our new pastries – she’s amazing – and our original bar manager came up with the drink recipes. You have to find people who are really good at what they do and give them creative freedom.

What are some popular menu items?

We have people that come in and always order the same thing – I’m the same way. I order the Morning Bibimbap Bowl probably four times a week. It has sautéed quinoa and kale with Sriracha, two poached eggs and green onions. So good!

Also, the breakfast burrito and Phoenix chopped salad are popular. The salad is a take on the Stetson chopped from Cowboy Ciao and what I love about it is it’s like a staple for the city – a signature salad. My friend – who’s not originally from Arizona – asked me to put it on the menu, and she calls it the Phoenix chopped. You can get a rendition of the salad from places across the city, and it’s like a staple menu item. I love that.

How did you end up inside The Vintage?

We knew that they were planning on tearing down the complex at 44th and Camelback to make room for the new boutique hotel, so we had already been working on a new location. Within six months, they got everyone out of that complex, so we moved in February 2020. 

The Vintage really works for us. It’s not too far from our original location, and it serves the community at the level we wanted to have from the beginning – it’s walkable, close, you can ride your bike. It also played a role in our brand recognition. Everything happens for a reason!

Advice for people looking to open their own spot?

Be prepared. Don’t go into it thinking that you can open it and then step away. It’s a hands-on business. You have to have a passion for it – if you don’t love every single second, there’s no sense in doing it. There’s a lot of time, money and energy dedicated to owning a business, so don’t take the risk if you don’t find value in it. 

What’s next for Kirsten Steele and Chestnut?

We are hoping to expand to another location, but there aren’t any details for that just yet. I’m working on some new concepts and a potential partnership, so growth. Lots of growth!