Speakeasy Ramen’s Clayton Horrighs followed a winding road to deliver top-notch cuisine

Speakeasy Ramen is thriving despite Ohio’s pandemic restrictions on in-house dining. While many restaurants in Springfield and across the country struggle to meet their bottom lines, Speakeasy Ramen is out of the red. Executive Chef Clayton Horrighs, 34, says although he and his staff were unfamiliar with carry out and delivery until very recently, they have adapted quickly.

“We set up online ordering, launched our new website. We hired some of our staff as drivers. My whole kitchen staff stayed on except for my dishwashers – we just don’t have any plates!” laughs Horrighs.

While it is still a fairly new dining establishment and is located off the beaten path in a residential neighborhood, the Pan-Asian sit-down style restaurant already boasts a very loyal clientele.

“They have been so supportive. I mean, some of them are buying gift certificates that they’re not even gonna use, or they’re buying for friends. They’re eating here two or three times a week. They’re buying merchandise from us,” says Horrighs.

Horrighs attributes the continued patronage – in spite of current circumstances – not only to Speakeasy’s dedication to fine cuisine, but also to the restaurant’s consistent focus on outstanding customer service.

When Horrighs first came to Springfield from Charleston, South Carolina, he was disenchanted with some of his culinary experiences around town – not because of the food, but because of the mediocre service. He’d come from a tourism-centered culinary hub packed with very competitive restaurants featuring formally trained chefs and professional servers.

“Whenever I ate at restaurants around town, I’d feel that they were almost bothered that I was in there,” he says. “I realized customer service was going to be one of our ways to get people back in. They’re like our brothers and sisters. We treat them with respect ... They told friends. They came back. They became regulars.”

A small town boy from Illinois, future chef Horrighs didn’t have much ambition when he was young, and he certainly didn’t come from a family of “foodies.”

“My mother was very picky. She didn’t like fish in the house. She didn’t like mushrooms. She’d hold back on onions and peppers. My whole family was like that, not really open to trying new foods,” says Horrighs. “I had not much of an idea what I wanted to do with my life. When I got into high school I started working at a local restaurant called Uncle John’s.”

Owner John Rupnik saw young Horrighs’ potential and took him under his wing.

“He kinda taught me the ropes on proper techniques and proteins and mother sauces and all that,” he recalls. Horrighs stayed on for 10 years until Rupnik retired and the restaurant closed.

After that, he meandered around the central Illinois scene working at local restaurants and educating himself, on and off the clock, about the one topic that actually held his interest – cooking. He aspired to perfection and longed to create his own menu.

He heard from friends about a new steakhouse opening locally and applied. The new employees were tested and assigned positions based on their particular abilities.

“The cream rises to the top,” says Horrighs. “I was an obvious pick for head chef.” There, at Chris’s Steakhouse in Taylorville, Illinois, Horrighs was able to develop a menu and come up with his own recipes and specials.

Horrighs seemed to be on the verge of achieving his dreams, but, as so often happens on the precipice of glory, nightmares took hold.

“I was kind of in a rough spot,” admits Horrighs. “I wasn’t really making any decent money, and I had some substance abuse problems.”

Horrighs grandmother could see that he was having a hard time and suggested he come to live with her. He settled in with his grandparents in Charleston, South Carolina, and got his life back on track. He was hired at Aya Cookhouse and immediately found love, twice.

“That’s where I fell in love with Asian food. I was trained by these Asian chefs, and I realized the techniques were beautiful – the artistry, how precise the cooking was, how beautiful the dishes were, and the flavor. I thought, ‘Yeah, there’s no looking back for me now.’ After two months of working there, I knew I was going to cook Asian food for the rest of my life. I also met my fiancée there. We worked together.”

Horrighs was taken aback watching Brittany Waters work. Her poise, approachability and professionalism set her apart from other servers and made an impression on him. The couple began dating and got a place of their own.

Horrighs loved life in Charleston and stayed for eight years, until tragedy struck, and he and Waters lost their young son, Lincoln James. Distraught and reminded of their loss by everything around them, they looked to start a new life.

Waters’ aunt, Kim Frazier, offered to help. Frazier lived in Springfield. She had visited Waters and Horrighs on a number of occasions and had always touted their talents, encouraging them to open a restaurant of their own. A food and beverage connoisseur, Frazier insisted the two bring their unique brand of fine cuisine and front-of-the-house flair to her locale and start anew. To that end, about three years ago, Frazier bought a Springfield dive bar known as Nifty Fifties.

Many horrors ensued as the three worked toward transforming the establishment.

“Out of all the places we checked out, this was probably my last pick,” recalls Horrighs. “It needed a lot of maintenance. I did not care for the neighborhood, only because there’s not a lot of traffic. And it had no kitchen. It just didn’t sound like the best choice to me.”

“We had some day drinkers and really late-nighters – no in between, really rough crowd,” Horrighs continues. “We had a lot of fist fights, drug deals and a lot of trouble. We were open til 2:30 in the morning. Some of the other bars would close down at 1 a.m., and they would flood our place, already intoxicated.“

Horrighs began closing the establishment at 9:30 p.m., which deterred the riffraff, but also lost the bar some nice regulars. Horrighs hoped they would return when he finally opened the kitchen, but the surrounding neighborhood crowd was not enthused by the newly renamed Speakeasy Ramen’s Asian fare.

Well-connected Frazier stepped in and hosted a soft opening for the fledgling restaurant, inviting many of her Springfield acquaintances. Afterward, the “speakeasy” caught fire on social media. The secret was out and business boomed overnight. People came from far and wide.

“They’re in town from Columbus on business trips, or they’re coming from Dayton 30 minutes away. People were in disbelief that this was in Springfield, Ohio. It got shared so much. It blew up online. Every week we were breaking numbers from the previous week,” says Horrighs.

Horrighs is extremely grateful for his business and its continued support from Springfield and beyond. He admits his view of the town has changed drastically since he first arrived and says it was initially skewed by his circumstances.

“We had a late night bar, and I was just seeing the worst of the worst. Then I got to see some of the houses and the beautiful scenery and the rolling hills. We got all these people in the restaurant, and I started to see the whole town isn’t like this. I fell in love with the town. It’s got a cool history and a lot of creative, open-minded people,” says Horrighs, who sees a revitalized culinary scene on Springfield’s horizon.

"We’re not the only mom and pop in town that’s creating beautiful dishes – there’s Guerra’s Krazy Taco, there’s Seasons Bistro, there’s Stella Bleu, the Salato Deli. Restaurateurs are starting to take notice – there’s enough people here to have a good artisanal scene,” asserts Horrighs.

For the time being, Horrighs keeps things cooking at Speakeasy Ramen and waits for a return to normalcy for the restaurant. He also sees to the needs of his staff, providing them free meals and ordering extra restaurant supplies, like meat and toilet paper, to shore up their home stockpiles.

“I wanted to try and keep them out of grocery stores,” says Horrighs. “We love our staff. They’re the best. They’re the reason we’re successful.”

Signup for Email Alerts