By Donalevan Maines
Photo by John Nagy
It takes a track star to keep pace with busy Steve Kalbaugh. If you can catch up with the popular Galveston bar owner, he’ll tell you that, yes, he raced on teams that won back-to-back NCAA national track and field championships when he was at Louisiana State University (LSU). In fact, he went on to coach track at three colleges in New Orleans, instilling in his students a winning discipline and commitment to teamwork that helped make them champions, too.
Those younger athletes got to pay back Kalbaugh when he came out at age 30, welcoming him to Bourbon Street and embracing him as one of the gays. By then, Kalbaugh had changed careers and was quickly emerging as a leader in the world of hospitality and service.
Moving to Texas following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Kalbaugh’s reputation preceded him. “When you’re managing a hotel or a bar or a restaurant, you’re leading a team, too,” explains the owner of Galveston’s trifecta: Splash Bar Galveston, KRaVe Galveston, and M&M Restaurant & Bar.
On any given day, it’s likely he will greet you at one of his island sites—and when he does, you will know that chivalry lives. His graceful good manners are Southern-bred. “It started with my parents,” Kalbaugh says, with a sexy Southern drawl that hearkens back to his native New Orleans. “[They taught me] to treat others the way you would want to be treated, try to be a good person, and volunteer and take care of others, which is what they did.”
Legendary coach Pat Henry took things from there. The current track-and-field coach at Texas A&M University—and a five-time NCAA Coach of the Year—honed his leadership skills with teams at LSU that included young Kalbaugh.
“I had several coaches I learned from, but the top coach was Pat Henry,” explains Kalbaugh. “To be a good member of a team, whether it’s athletics or in a job, means that people are able to rely on you,” he says. “It means being on time, being there to help out when it’s busy, and having each other’s back.
“A good leader is like a good general,” he adds. “Be able to motivate and get in the trenches, too. Don’t ask employees to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself. Bus tables if they need it, move chairs and tables, or get in the kitchen and clean dishes or pick up trash. You gain respect by being a great team player.”
Kalbaugh and his younger brother grew up in a nurturing Catholic family in Metairie, Louisiana. “My dad’s side is German, Hungarian, and Irish; my mother’s family is French and Spanish. We’re a true melting pot,” says the man with a Hungarian surname.
At Grace King High School in Jefferson Parish, Kalbaugh enjoyed “being in everything”—football, track and field, band, student council. The school—with its mascot, Lucky the (Fighting Irish) Leprechaun—counts Kalbaugh among its favorite sons and daughters, along with Ellen DeGeneres, Donna Brazile, and a number of professional athletes and musicians.
At LSU, Kalbaugh ran cross-country and distances both short and long (from 800 to 5,000 meters). He became Coach Henry’s lucky charm by contributing speed to Henry’s first national title in men’s indoor track and field (1989) as well as his second title the following year. (The LSU women also won national titles in 1989 and 1990; Henry’s athletes accomplished that doubly historic feat three more times at Texas A&M in 2009, 2010, and 2011.)
Kalbaugh slowed down the pace just long enough to pick up his bachelor’s degree in economics (with a minor in political science) at LSU in 1990.
For the next 13 years, he coached at three different colleges in The Big Easy: Tulane University, Loyola University New Orleans, and Xavier University of Louisiana. “In college athletics,” says Kalbaugh, “I was also putting on special events and being responsible for concessions,” which is how he discovered his love for giving friendly service and creating an environment for fun to happen. So it seemed like no big surprise when he became general manager of a full-service luxury hotel with a restaurant and bar in New Orleans.
Kalbaugh did get a big surprise, however, while he was out one night with a group of a dozen or so friends in the hospitality field. “I had never gone to a gay bar,” he explains. “The majority [of this group] was straight, but a couple of guys were gay, and when we were on Bourbon Street they said, ‘Let’s go to Oz.’ It was one of the gay bars. We said, ‘There’s no way we’re going to a gay bar.’ But the girls said, ‘We hear it’s a lot of fun,’ and eventually they talked us into it. I didn’t know what to expect. I had a whole different picture of what it would be like, but I liked being there. I felt comfortable. I had such a great time that I went back.”
He adds, “Growing up, I would see a guy and think, ‘That’s a good-looking guy,’ but I never thought in terms of going out with a guy.”
Kalbaugh can tell you what happened next if you run in to him at one of his tourist retreats on Galveston Island. “I’m there almost every day,” he says of the city’s historic M&M Restaurant & Bar, where the service is so inviting that diners half-expect the steak and seafood plates and silverware to bust out in a chorus line of “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast.
“In late afternoon,” says Kalbaugh, “I go to Splash for the early crowd, then back to M&M for the dinner crowd. Then I go back to Splash, and get to KRaVe about 11:30 when it starts getting crowded. Even on a day off, I stop in, unless I’m out of town.” Frequent forays into Houston are also part of his routine.
“I’m not dating anybody seriously,” allows Kalbaugh, who lives in a house on Galveston’s East End. “I enjoy going out with friends. I like fishing and sports and going to concerts. I love seeing people happy and relaxed and enjoying themselves.”
Donalevan Maines also writes aboout Stefan Eade-Hill in this issue of OutSmart magazine.