She's Gotta Serve It

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

With little hands-on experience (McDaniel worked as a hostess for three months at a Steak & Ale in Austin; Parker had no experience) and some personal resources and loans, they opened The Grape by leasing the fully furnished restaurant Pietro's for $345 a month. "I don't know if we were smart enough to know it at the time," McDaniel admits, "but that was really, really perfect for us."

More than 30 years later, The Grape is still going strong, garnering critical acclaim and "best of" awards in various Dallas publications on a regular basis. Yet over their three-plus decades in business, McDaniel and Parker have witnessed few women attempt a similar course. "A lot of women are not risk takers," McDaniel says. "And I think that the restaurant business is a pretty high-risk business. Women are more security-conscious, and that is a factor."

"When they're making a decision about what they want to do for a career, it's not going to be the highest-risk business there is," Parker adds. "It's a very hard job for what you get back out of it...It's ego-driven, and men are more likely to choose a career for that."

Some Dallas restaurant boys doubt Marie Grove can pull off her restaurant Stolik: "Don't listen to what I say. Watch what I do," she fires back.
Mark Graham
Some Dallas restaurant boys doubt Marie Grove can pull off her restaurant Stolik: "Don't listen to what I say. Watch what I do," she fires back.
Perry's creator Amie Bergus loves being underestimated: "That's a great place to be. Let other people get comfortable."
Mark Graham
Perry's creator Amie Bergus loves being underestimated: "That's a great place to be. Let other people get comfortable."

Yet Parker believes women make far more skillful restaurant owners than men because they're naturally more in tune with the crucial details that make successful restaurants work. More formal in demeanor, men generally have to expend enormous effort to cultivate a sincere nurturing disposition, she says, a trait that goes a long way toward attracting and retaining customers and employees alike. In a sense, Parker concurs with Miller, in that she believes women in general may have a passion deficit when it comes to the restaurant business. Says Parker: "Men have to try harder, so maybe it looks like they're more passionate."

Perry's founder Amie Bergus, 32, has ground in her heels in that most male of all restaurant domains: steak.

"Most steak houses don't do it right," insists Bill Esping, whose investment firm EFO Holdings is a partner in Perry's. "They might have good steaks and from there on it kind of falls off the cliff."

Though she divides ownership equally among herself, Esping and chef Travis Henderson, formerly of Café Pacific and Newport's, Bergus sprung and nurtured the idea for Perry's. "I'm driving the bus," she insists. And her driving experience comes from nearly a decade in the restaurant business.

Bergus cut her food-service teeth at T.G.I. Friday's in Lewisville, where she worked as a server and bartender to put herself through college. From there she linked up with Jack Baum and Sam's Café in the Crescent, where she worked her way into management. When Baum sought to expand the audience for Sam's Southwestern cuisine into the South and Midwest with his Canyon Café concept, Bergus took a leadership role, opening new restaurants and training management to staff them.

But Bergus soured on the business after Avado Brands Inc. acquired the 13-unit Canyon Café for some $36 million in 1997 (the company has since closed or sold off all but two Canyon Café restaurants, including the shuttered flagship restaurant on the North Dallas Tollway). So she followed Baum to his venture capital firm Sagebrook Technology Partners. But she soon discovered the venture capital universe didn't stoke her passions. She dabbled in restaurant consulting, taking on the defunct FoodStar Restaurant Group and Pizza Hut parent Tri-Con as clients before dropping out for a few months in 1999 to plot her next move.

She sketched out a steak house concept on paper and researched it doggedly. "I wanted to be smart," she says. "This is such a tough business. So many people throw these things up and they fail."

While her steak house/seafood concept isn't groundbreaking, especially in Dallas, Bergus thought she could give it a revitalizing tune-up. "I'd always wanted to do the best of everything," she says. "From the little bit of homework I'd done about prime beef and some of the steak houses in the area, I felt I could tweak it. I could actually serve 100 percent prime cuts. A lot of people don't do that."

Another thing a lot of steak houses don't do, Bergus and Henderson observed, was apply the prime benchmark of quality to everything on the menu, from appetizers to seafood to side dishes. "[Henderson] is a Hitler of a chef when it comes to the product," Bergus says.

After securing investment capital from Esping, she and Henderson injected personal funds and began shopping for a location. They found it in the old Ruggeri's spot on Cedar Springs and Routh Street, just down the street from where Grove's Stolik will be installed.

Build-out on the location was extensive and expensive. The roof was shorn off, and the walls were torn out, leaving just a brick perimeter. They essentially installed a new building inside the footprint of an old one. By September 2001 the building was basically finished and furnished. The only hurdle that remained before opening was the hiring and training of the staff. It was then that Henderson and Bergus decided to take a quick day trip to San Francisco to research the city's restaurants.

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