She's Gotta Serve It

Dallas dining is largely controlled by men. Seven women are trying to change that.

But unlike Sacco, Grove, 27, didn't cultivate her ambitions in the 'burbs. She slogged through adolescence in Europe and Japan, picking up languages and cultural acuity along the way. Also unlike Sacco, Grove's ambition is barely 8 months old, hatched while mulling her acceptance into the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, where she was poised to begin her junior year as a finance major.

Her letter of acceptance arrived the day she polished off the business plan for Stolik, a small European-style restaurant named for the Czech word that means "small table." Two months later, in a climate of high unemployment, an economy choking on telecom-industry wreckage, a looming war and restaurant venture capital driven to extinction, Grove had $750,000 in her pocket--not a penny of it hers--and was set to unleash her hastily drafted business plan. Three months after her funds were in place, she inked a lease on a stretch of Cedar Springs that's emerging as one of the hottest nightlife strips in the city. "It happened so fast," Grove says with an "aw shucks" smile. "It just went like that. I didn't think it was really going to come together."

Born Ruth Marie Grove in Minneapolis to a pair of teachers, Grove moved with her family to Tokyo at 6 years old after her father took a position teaching English to Japanese executives. Growing up in Japan was difficult. She remembers being chased around the playground by Japanese girls who frantically tried to pluck strands of her yellow hair to keep as souvenirs in their jewelry boxes. What most impressed her about Japanese culture was its intense emphasis on politeness, an attribute that gradually became an irritant. She remembers long enunciation sessions with people insisting she teach them to pronounce her name correctly, a near-futile exercise. She adopted her middle name out of frustration.

While Kathy McDaniel has seen her restaurant, The Grape, flourish over 30 years, she hasn't seen many women restaurateurs emerge. "Women are not risk takers," she says.
Mark Graham
While Kathy McDaniel has seen her restaurant, The Grape, flourish over 30 years, she hasn't seen many women restaurateurs emerge. "Women are not risk takers," she says.
Businessman Mike Chen likes backing women with bold restaurant ideas. But one has drawn him into an Enron-like scandal, complete with allegations of accounting shenanigans and paper-shredding.
Mark Graham
Businessman Mike Chen likes backing women with bold restaurant ideas. But one has drawn him into an Enron-like scandal, complete with allegations of accounting shenanigans and paper-shredding.

At 13, her parents divorced, and she moved with her mother to Spain. For the next four years Grove lived all over Europe with her mother, who worked as a tutor for the children of the well-to-do while she home-schooled her own children. Just as she was about to turn 17, her mother died suddenly of a liver ailment.

Devastated, Grove decided to move to Croatia to become a refugee volunteer, caring for orphans during a cease-fire in the Bosnian war, dodging land mines and heavily armed thugs. "There was some little kid with his arm blown off, still smiling, still playing," she remembers. "If this kid can go on with his life with no arm, I certainly can with all body parts working. It made me kind of slap my own self in the face."

She returned to the United States in 1995 and moved to Dallas in 1996, where she assumed a string of hospitality jobs, including posts at Humperdink's and the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Colinas before she was hired by Voltaire general manager Kent Ingram to work as a hostess and special-events manager while she attended college. The link with Ingram proved pivotal. After he was hired by former Voltaire managing partner Khanh Dao to fill the general manager post at her new restaurant Steel, Ingram, now a wine salesman, persuaded Grove to take a post as maître d' at the chic Japanese/Indochine restaurant.

Dao launched Steel in late 2000 at age 30--roughly the same age Grove is now. "I think watching her open up Steel gave me the inspiration," Grove says. "I was pretty impressed by the fact that she was so young and had gone out on a limb. I was impressed that here was a female in a man's world who had an idea and went out to put it together."

Grove worked Steel's door diligently--a Dallas version of Amy Sacco. As the soft, dusky and chic restaurant generated acclaim and buzz, Grove quietly forged relationships with some of the city's most powerful players. It's also where she met Dallas entrepreneur and Steel investor Mike Chen, who would back her restaurant idea and persuade other investors to come on board as well.

Burned out from working at Steel and attending school, both full time, for more than a year, Grove quit Steel and dropped out of community college to figure out her next move. She mulled selling derivatives and applied at SMU to finish her degree in finance. But she quickly shelved the idea after hashing out a restaurant concept with a friend over coffee in fall 2002. After throwing together a business plan, she paused for a sign from on high. "I sat and I prayed, and I said, 'You know what, God? If this is meant to be, then it needs to happen before spring semester. Otherwise I'm just going to take it as a sign that it's not meant to be,'" she says. She approached former Voltaire and Steel captain Michael Callahan and former Voltaire sous chef Francisco Mendonca with partnership slots. They accepted. Mendonca says he was just about to pack up his family and move back to his home in the Azores Islands off Portugal to open a restaurant when Grove called.

Grove's description of Stolik sounds like the boilerplate buzz words dished out by virtually every restaurateur confident he has a recipe to turn Dallas dining on its ear: chic environment; cutting-edge global cuisine; impeccable service; international sophistication. Voltaire was conceived and eventually choked to death on such nostrums. Granted, Mendonca applies a unique foundation, mincing his Asian forays with Portuguese staples and technique instead of exclusively French underpinnings. But it's difficult to ascertain what makes Stolik so special in the eyes of those who have rushed to unflinchingly embrace it.

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