A BRIEF HISTORY OF TFB
Texas French Bread was founded by Judy and Paul Willcott, back 1981 out of their kitchen on 33rd St. For a number of years we were the hippest kids on the block. Judy’s sturdy, peasant style French bread was an overnight sensation. In just a few short months, we went from an exclusive wholesale operation, baking French bread for restaurants and stores like Jeffrey’s, the Common Market, and Basil’s – to producing a large number of baguettes for resale at the fledgling Whole Foods Market, then one store at 10th and Lamar – to opening our own retail bakery at 34th and Guadalupe where folks lined up on the weekends for our fresh croissants, brioche and coffee cake.
Texas French Bread grew rapidly. In 1986 Judy acquired the property at 2900 Rio Grande, once the home of the Rome Inn, and in 1986 a used book store. It opened for business as our dessert bakery and retail café in 1987. It was the company’s 4th store, after the original at 3400 Guadalupe, Red River and 32nd (once the primary bread bakery, and still operating as of June 2009 as a retail café), and downtown at 5th and Congress.
Meanwhile, our product line grew from its primary focus on bread and pastries, to include a substantial lunch menu (hungry bakers often working since 4am needed to eat – so it was a short step to selling sandwiches to our customers). And more stores looked like a good idea. Most of our overhead seemed to be in production – rent was cheap, so was labor – and Austinites’ appetite for our products appeared to be inexhaustible. More stores meant more dollars. Soon, no doubt we’d whiling away our summers in the South of France.
Not so fast. In our peak year in 1995 with 11 stores operating, Texas French Bread turned a handsome profit. But that same year, Starbuck’s found its way to Austin. Around that same time, Central Market opened, and it, along with Whole Foods, opened much more competitive in-house bakery operations. And just about everyone who could write a business plan realized that opening a coffee shop or a small bakery might just be a quick ticket out of their day job.
Let’s just say that by the late 1990s, TFB found itself face to face with some rather challenging business issues – falling same store sales, and a market that was progressively partitioned among niches players whose brand marketing tended to be a good bit more sophisticated that ours – especially considering we’d never actually done any marketing to speak of.
Fast forward to 2006 – Texas French Bread, after experiencing some rough years, reorganizes and begins to regroup. After several years of involvement helping the company work through some of its tougher issues, Murph and Ben Willcott (that’s me and my brother) craft a deal that gives us ownership of the company’s operating pieces, and allows Judy to take a reduced role. Now we faced a hard question – what were we thinking? And what exactly did we plan to do next? OK, you’re right – that’s 2 questions. Being as the first was not strictly speaking relevant, we decide to focus on the latter.
Answer – we wanted to do more than sell food – we wanted to reinvent the company from the ground up. We wanted to have the kind of impact on our community that Texas French Bread had on our town back in 1981. History is awfully subjective, but I think it’s fair to argue that Texas French Bread (along, obviously, with a number of other folks, like Jeffrey’s and WFM) helped changed peoples’ conceptions about food and the “good life” in Austin as our collective pallet expanded to include more than just tortillas and chicken fried steak.
And while both Ben & I inherited Judy’s passion for bread baking, neither of us was overly fond of bakers’ early morning hours. They tended to run afoul of some other things we really liked doing – like staying up late, cooking, and entertaining. Rock star and/or Hollywood movie mogul seemed a stretch, so we agreed that opening our own restaurant was an appropriate challenge.
We loved (ok, liked) (ok, we’re behind the mule already) the idea of doing this together in conjunction with our family’s business, Texas French Bread, where fresh backed artisan breads might provide the business with the honesty, soul, and backbone needed to keep us grounded to the planet (you know, after all the money started rolling in).
Anyway – we had the space and opportunity, she was aknockin’. We also had fairly clear idea of the approach we wanted to take (we’d been running a semi-monthly underground supper club for a year or so), and some lofty goals. All we needed was the funding to do all the annoying stuff the city wanted us to do our old building on 29th St. prior to issuing us license to sell adult beverages. At that point, we planned to open our doors for dinner and get this party started.
Well – things have a way of being a bit more complicated than they at first appear. As we waited for the perfect window, words like “sub-prime mortgage” began to appearing in the newspaper. Increasingly the media began to locate the country’s economic situation on a scale that fell somewhere between the fall of the Roman Empire, and the bubonic plague of the middle-ages. So, we figured – what the hell. No time like the present to jump in with both feet and see what happened.
In August of 2008, we began serving dinner several nights a week at our 29th St. Cafe. We had no budget to speak of, and not even a beer and wine license to hang our hats on. What we did have was a fairly rudimentary and challenging kitchen space and dining room set up, and an existing clientele who were somewhat confused by the idea of “dinner at Texas French Bread”. “It’s a bakery, right? That’s where we go for sandwiches… and coffee…, right?”
We were undaunted. Figuring we had little to loose, we emailed everyone we knew – probably about 50 people that first weekend – and told them to come on over for diner. We were open for business.
THE FARM TO TABLE DINNER
Currently we are open Monday through Saturday evenings. We serve a casual bistro menu that combines many of our culinary interests—in particular, our interest in the techniques of traditional French country and Mediterranean cooking. We are committed to placing great emphasis on Alice Waters’ dictate to go forth and find fresh, simple, nutritious foods that that are produced locally using responsible, sustainable methods.
This has proved no simple task. We have developed many wonderful relationships with the farmers at the Austin Farmers’ Market where we sell our artisan breads on Wednesday afternoons at the Triangle, and on Saturday mornings downtown. Ben shops Boggy Creek, Austin’s premier urban farm, (along with Angel Valley and several others) to bring the best products he can find to our dinner service.
There are several basic criteria for the foods we serve. Ideally, we like to use local products. They tend to be fresher and healthier that something that has traveled a great distance, with more opportunity to ripen naturally on the plant. In general this is going to result in a lower carbon footprint. Likewise, we want to use foods that are cultivated in accordance with sustainable, responsible methodologies using a minimum of fossil fuel derived fertilizers, chemical pesticides, etc. And per Alice – we want to serve these foods in the seasons in which they were meant to be eaten.
Central Texas is sometimes thought of as having 5 separate growing seasons that tend to blur into each other. But what we don’t have is a long season for lettuces, or spinach or broccoli, or many of the other vegetables that people think of as essential to country French and/or California cooking. What, we do have is a whopper long season for squash, eggplant, okra, peppers and the like.
Many restaurants in Austin advertise their use of local products, but they not to hold themselves to particularly high standards about their menu, and procurement process. Truly operating within a local farm-to-table paradigm means changing menu frequently, and often operating within some fairly narrow parameters. We often liken it to the Danish filmmakers of the nineties who operated under the auspices of a movement they called Dogma 95. These guys refused all manner of film trickery, avoiding non-natural light sources, artificial music soundtracks, etc. The results were uneven, but often highly creative (see “The Celebration” as a great example of the form).
In short – we believe that eating foods produced locally and in season is not just a logical aesthetic or political choice. It’s healthier for you and healthier for the planet.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
To date, we give ourselves reasonably good marks for our efforts. We’re making really good food. To our grateful surprise, we built it and people have come. We’ve had a few truly busy nights where we’ve been “weeded out” (kitchen slang for running out of mis en place, getting buried with orders, and having food go out late – ick) but for the most part we’ve steadily grown a charming and loyal clientele that seem to genuinely appreciate what we are doing.
As we look to the future, we are fascinated by the casual but deeply felt authenticity of the gastro-pubs that have become prominent in London over the past few years. We are united in our contention that the single greatest contribution of the English to world culture is the public house. We love the idea of stopping in your “local” for a cold beer and a wholesome, but inspired meal – and we feel an inherent connection between the community inspired by bread baking and that inspired by beer.
So in that spirit, we really want to add beer & wine to our menu as soon as we can manage it, and we want to build a bar where, with a little bit of timing, people can sit and watch bread being made. More than anything, we are excited about creating a space for dialogue–with our city, our sources, and our customers.
We hope you’ll join us for dinner soon. And look for more changes at TFB soon as we work to reinvent our business with food that is fresher, more local, more responsible in it’s production, and altogether more creative.
Murph and Ben Willcott