Tucked away inside a Tempe strip mall, The Crêpe Bar sizzles with a familiar yet unexpected ambiance.
Bathed in cool grays and blues — with a streak of neon green zipping across the right-hand wall — the restaurant brims with natural light from its floor-to-ceiling windows and the line of small, overhead lamps that radiate golden hues. The walls are adorned with an eclectic mix of artwork: a whimsical cast of oblique smiling faces, created for the restaurant by local artist Andy Brown.
Scurrying behind the counter while managing to hold his poise, barista Shelby Moore greets customers with a warm grin and a steaming cup of Joe. He recommends the one-of-a-kind “Papa K” crepe, with a taste he describes as both “hearty” and “earthy.” Its flavorful, thick-cut ham comes from The Meat Shop in Phoenix and is accompanied by sautéed mushrooms and spinach, creamy, Sonoma goat cheese and smattered with olive oil and spicy seasonings. New flavors are discovered with each and every bite; it’s an edible exploration one can only dream will never end.
A lean, scruffy figure donning a chocolate-colored tee and a pinstripe apron waltzes over to the table, bearing his latest decadent creation. Sweet caramel mixed with a spongy, chocolate mousse and vanilla ice cream: a frothy gift, courtesy of owner Jeff Kraus.
On an invitation to join him outside, I sat with Jeff and his colleague (lovingly referred to as “The Hawk” for his wild haircut), munching on sweet strawberries and fluffy crepes adorned with custard. At first glance, Jeff may appear aloof: unable to speak on one subject for long before expressing how badly he wants to see Tim Burton’s latest flick, “Frankenweenie,” or engaging in witty banter with his wife, Erin, who sits nearby.
“Make sure to include that he’s ADHD, bold the ‘H,’” Jason “The Hawk” Lessing chirps with a laugh. Jason has been working alongside Jeff since the food truck days, which are a mere blip on Jeff’s extensive culinary radar.
Jeff has been cooking since he was 4 years old, when his mother gave him the option to “either cook or clean.” He chose to peel potatoes and husk corn in their Midwest home, even after his mother’s death when he was still very young. Cooking kept him in a “spiritual happy place,” he said, which drove him to attend culinary school before realizing that his hippie, vegetarian ways simply didn’t fit in in that environment.
“All of what I do is based on food memories,” Jeff said. “When I create a dish, it’s all based on things that I’ve had, things that I enjoy and things that I want to accomplish. It kind of represents past, present, future, so every one of my dishes is always based on that thought.”
He soon began a series of odd jobs across the country as he tried to “reconnect with something (he) lost at an early age,” whether that meant cooking fried chicken in a Tennessee gas station or serving up grub in a bowling alley restaurant.
It wasn’t until years later as he came back from a ski trip in Lake Tahoe that he first became smitten with Phoenix as he stared out the windows of the Sky Harbor airport. Although he had recently enjoyed successful tenures at both The Indianapolis Star and Monster.com in ad sales, Jeff dropped everything to pursue a new direction.
Inspired primarily by a trip to France, where he indulged in the street food and crepes of Paris, Jeff fired up the griddles and in three months, had started Truckin’ Good Food truck in January 2010. With a menu that consisted of only three items, the truck went on to win multiple awards and was named one of the “Top 10 Most Influential Food Trucks” in the nation by The Huffington Post.
It wasn’t until this past summer that Jeff decided to “take the street and bring it to the inside,” he said, attracting a customer base that is not just hipsters or ladies that brunch, but families and college students as well.
Jeff describes his staff’s approach to their food as scientific: focusing on each individual ingredient and experimenting with various combinations of flavors. Aside from assembling a team of passionate, dedicated employees that yearn to go the extra mile, Jeff’s biggest challenge has been learning to be patient with a restaurant atmosphere that is not always bustling.
“What fulfills me is entertaining people so when I’m not able to feed people, I have no patience,” he said.
As he chats, a chaotic bang of falling dishes can be heard clanging from inside.
“Ugh, I hate that noise,” Jeff emotes, cringing. “If there was anything I wish I could take away it’d be that noise, that shatter. It drives me nuts, dude.”
When it comes to the “stark” atmosphere of the restaurant, Jeff said that he approached it much like the very dishes that The Crêpe Bar serves.
“My food, I try to make it thought-provoking,” Jeff said. “The ambiance, I try to make it thought-provoking. I tried to create something approachable. You’ve seen something similar and think you’ve seen it before, but when you get into it, it’s completely different.”
Pushing away the soft, azure plate that beckons with a last piece of custard-drenched crepe, Jeff wipes his beard and stares off into the sparsely populated parking lot.
“You know, you’ll never see me eat a full crepe,” Jeff said.
“Why is that?” The Hawk perks up as he drops the last strawberry into his mouth.
“…I don’t know why.”Crepe Bar is at 7520 S. Rural Road, Suite A12, Tempe. For information, call (480) 247-8012 or visit Crepe-bar.com.