Graeme Swain and his wife and business partner, Christine Mara Swain, got into the restaurant world almost by accident. They’d recently moved back to their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, and a struggling restaurant owner approached them about buying him out. Christine told Graeme he should make an offer.
“The next thing I knew, we owned a restaurant,” Graeme says. “As owner, I figured I should taste all the food on the menu. There was this guy at the bar, so I asked him if he wanted to come taste food with me, on one condition: He had to be brutally honest.”
Eventually, Graeme and Christine moved back to Jackson. They continued to operate the Omaha restaurant from afar but sold it once the opportunity to open Gather in Jackson became a reality. The duo opened Gather in 2014 and started a series of weekly tastings that have become the restaurant’s signature. Every Tuesday, they invite a group of people to come try out whatever the chef is cooking. The tastings are easy on the wallet — $15 per person — and the only obligation is that, as with that random guy at the restaurant in Omaha, everyone participating has to tell it like it is.
“The chef brings out the food and then disappears,” Graeme says. “It’s important they aren’t there, because people won’t be honest. They don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Once he’s gone, we taste and rate the food. Anything less than an eight on a one-to-ten scale doesn’t go on the menu.”
Gather’s tastings are booked months in advance.
Graeme thrives on this kind of interaction. He wants to know his customers. He wants to hear what they think, even when they are critical. He loves engaging with people and responds to every internet review. Even Gather’s name is intentional: The couple wanted their restaurant to be a place where people can celebrate, share food, and be with others.
“I encourage servers to sit down and chat with guests,” Graeme says. “I want fine dining, but not a fine dining atmosphere. We want a fun environment. Gather is a sexy, hip restaurant. We play fun music. Our servers wear T-shirts.”
A couple years after Gather opened, the National Museum of Wildlife Art asked for proposals from businesses interested in taking over the museum’s restaurant space and event planning arm. Graeme and Christine won the contract and opened Gather’s sister restaurant, Palate, in 2016. Now, Graeme says, they are expanding even further.
“We are looking everywhere,” Graeme says. “You are going to see Gathers popping up all over the place.”
The first of these new Gather restaurants is set to open its doors back in Omaha — and this location will feature a vertical garden. “The chefs will be able to cut greens right there for use in the restaurant,” Graeme says. “We will also sell produce through farmers markets, wholesale, and CSAs.”
Graeme isn’t sure if all future Gather restaurants will be associated with an indoor, urban farm, but he does know each location will be a gathering spot that offers a wide variety of food options.
“We don’t want to be labeled,” Graeme says. “We give our chefs complete autonomy to cook any style they want without any borders so we can accommodate all palates in one place.”