By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Marie Grove is an unlikely candidate to rule a corner of Dallas nightlife. She conducts day-to-day business in flip-flops and jeans; her long blond locks unravel in irascible strands. She never raises her voice, even when the pressure of an August 2 restaurant opening seems unbearable. Instead of barking contractors and vendors into submission, she gently massages them into doing her bidding.
Sometimes her grace slips. When she discovers construction workers have abandoned her restaurant taking shape in the former Martini Ranch location on Cedar Springs Road without locking the front door, she quickly dead-bolts it. "That'll teach 'em," she snaps. A second later, a change of heart tiptoes in and she's writing them a gentle note, which she slips between the door and the jam, urging the workers to buzz her cell phone when they return.
Beneath this sweetness rests a swagger. Grove says she plunged into restaurant ownership not only because she loves the social aspect of the business--a deadly romantic attraction that sinks many a budding restaurateur--but because she sees a gaping hole in the skill level among the Dallas ranks. She's determined to exploit it. "Imagine how many restaurateurs that opened [restaurants] who really have absolutely no idea what they're doing...they think in very simplistic terms," she says. "Me build restaurant, serve food, serve drinks. Me get money. But it doesn't work that way, especially on a high-end scale."
Restaurateurs consistently make two critical mistakes, Grove maintains. One is not cutting their chefs and top managers an ownership stake, which buys loyalty and locks in an incentive to produce. The second is underestimating the importance of forging steady relationships with customers, a process she says requires an unfailing presence in the restaurant, hour after hour, night after night, month after month. "Once the personality leaves, that's usually the beginning of the end for what was once a great restaurant," she insists.
The cornerstone of this process, she says, is a facility with personal details, a skill she mastered growing up abroad and acquiring a facility with languages (she speaks Japanese and Spanish and can bluff her way through German, French, Italian and Croatian). "When you're constantly around a different face or a different name that you have to learn and pronounce, from Japanese to Russian...you constantly make mental notes to yourself," she explains.
Grove is the latest in a tiny group of entrepreneurial women with bold visions who have bubbled up onto the Dallas dining landscape in the past few years, infiltrating the overwhelmingly male-dominated restaurant industry. Some, like Tracy Miller (Local) and Sharon Hage (York Street), are accomplished chefs who seek small, unassuming venues to showcase their potent culinary talents. Others, like Khanh Dao (Steel, Drálion) and Amie Bergus (Perry's), are fearless risk takers whose ambitions set or modify trends. And as is the case with their male counterparts, some are accused of being susceptible to greed and ego.
The extent to which women are absent from the control levers of the restaurant industry is staggering. According to the National Restaurant Association, 58 percent of all food-service employees in the United States are female, a far greater percentage than their presence in the general workforce. Yet they make up just 44 percent of the industry's managers and occupy a scant 4 percent of its highest corporate posts. Even more astounding: Fewer than one in four restaurants is owned and operated by women.
Sweeping "glass ceiling" generalizations and rampant chauvinism don't seem adequate to explain the discrepancies, especially in an era when women own close to half of all privately held U.S. businesses (with at least a 50 percent ownership stake) and public and private assistance programs to support female business formation have been in place for years. Women in the food-service trenches have their own explanations, many of them provocative. Tracey Evers, executive director of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association, believes few women are able to successfully navigate the general-manager ranks, a potent training ground for future owners. "There's a huge shortage of female GM's," she says. "And they don't seem to garner the respect their male counterparts do, so they kind of get cut off at the pass. In that world a strong male general manager is effective and good. A strong female general manager is a bitch."
But some women take these stereotypes and statistics and shrewdly twist them to their advantage. "It's good to be underestimated," Bergus insists. "I don't mind that. That's a great place to be. Let other people get comfortable. Let them assume you're not going to do well."
The similarities are striking. Like Sacco, Grove is tall, blond, wears size 10 shoes and comes from a big family (Sacco is one of eight siblings, Grove one of six). She also harbors ambitions to recast nocturnal dining fashion in a city that smears around glitz like relish on ballpark dogs. And like Sacco, she has assembled a powerful network from her posts as hostess and maître d' at two of Dallas' most prestigious restaurants: Voltaire and Steel.
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.
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.
Chen insists the answer is Grove. "She has a sweet personality," he says. "That is something you can use to attract a lot of people to your business. At Steel she had a lot of customers coming in just for her."
Yet others don't buy it. Grove says just after she dropped out of college and was raising money for her restaurant, scraping by on student loan tailings and credit cards, she ran into a prominent Dallas restaurateur who had once tried to woo her from Steel. She told him she was putting her own restaurant deal together. "He said, 'Marie, come on; you're a good-looking girl. Surely you've got someone taking care of you,'" she remembers him saying. "'You're just like every other fucking bimbo in Dallas.'"
Formulated in the late 19th century and sold over the counter until the early 1960s, Cardui was a 38-proof "medicine" that relieved everything from menstrual cramps to constipation ("...two bottles regulated me and made me feel lots better," reads one testimonial). "It was not appropriate for women to drink alcohol at the time," Miller says. "So they were able to get Cardui and live it up."
Cottrell and Miller savor this piece of irony in their restaurant, a tiny understated contemporary dining room tucked into a piece of brittle Dallas history. Among the oldest hotels still standing in Dallas, the Boyd is one of the few remaining cast iron-front buildings left in the city. Guests included Bonnie and Clyde and blues musicians Huddie Ledbetter and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Miller and Cottrell believe the hotel is haunted, citing the eerie sounds construction workers toiling at night have reported.
But perhaps these fragmented pieces of history are befitting a restaurant that was patiently pieced together not over eight months, but eight years. Though not formally trained as a chef, Miller cut her teeth working with Kent Rathbun and George Brown at Seventeen Seventeen. She also owned a restaurant called The Health Bar just above Star Canyon in the Centrum building. She met Cottrell, who has operated her own hotel design firm in Dallas since 1991, some 10 years ago during a spiritual seminar called "A Course in Miracles" conducted by best-selling author and lecturer Marianne Williamson.
Together they nursed the idea for Local, a tiny boutique restaurant serving fresh, creative but unfussy cuisine, which had been in Miller's back pocket for several years. It nearly came into being about seven years ago after the pair had raised some $300,000 from investors and loans secured through the Small Business Administration with plans to tuck Local in the space now occupied by Tin Star across the street from the Quadrangle.
But negotiations on the space bogged down, and the pair realized they would have to come up with a lot more money to bring the restaurant to fruition. It was then that they stumbled upon the Boyd Hotel space. They quickly shifted gears, returned all of the loans and investment capital and quietly set about to nurse their restaurant to life in Deep Ellum.
"We said, 'Let's just take $10,000 and open a catering company and do it all on our own,'" Miller says. "So that's what we've done. We don't owe anyone." For nearly six years they operated their catering company in the back portion of the ground floor of the hotel, gradually sloughing off profits to fit together the pieces of their tiny 50-seat restaurant in the front. It opened in February, and critical acclaim and word of mouth now mean the restaurant is booked 10 days out.
Plans for expansion are fraught with the same slow deliberateness that birthed the restaurant. As time and profits permit, they plan to expand into the space next door, transforming it into a wine lounge. "I'll know when it's time to do the next thing," Miller insists.
In the fast-paced, ephemeral glamour of the Dallas restaurant business, Local is an anomaly in the anomalous sliver of female operators. "There is always that element of the woman stereotype not being taken seriously," Miller says. "It happens still to me every day in some indirect way."
Miller thinks this has little to do with the fact there are so few female operators in an industry dominated by women. "I don't know if there are that many women that have the passion [for the business]," she explains. "They might have bumped up against a lot of obstacles as they go. Owning a restaurant and working in a restaurant are two totally different animals."
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."
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."
"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.
"Everybody has that 'oh shit' moment," Bergus says. "For me, that 'oh shit' was September 11." Aside from the shock and horror of the day, Bergus, who was grounded in San Francisco for a week, had to face the very real possibility that her upscale steak house might be doomed before it could begin. When they finally got back, they sifted through a rich supply of résumés, staffed the restaurant and quietly opened in early November. "When we first opened, you could hear crickets," she remembers. "Just not a lot of people going out to dinner, not a lot of people spending money. Coming from the mind-set we had before, and the really beefy times in this area right before that, to after was certainly a huge shift in your thinking."
Fearing the restaurant might go down the drain, Bergus hit the pavement, visiting law firms, local corporations and hotels, letting word of mouth fill the seats. By February 2002 she was working with light but steady business. Today Perry's is profitable, Esping says, with year-to-date revenues up 30 percent. "I have yet to exist in stable economic times," Bergus says. "So what that says to me is I'm doing something right."
When they finally did escape, Chen wondered at the time if it was worth it. "It was horrible," he says. "Five days and five nights on the ocean in this small rotten boat. There were 52 people on my boat. The first day everyone was seasick." There was no food, Chen says. But each passenger received a capful of water per day dispensed from a 5-gallon jug. Their boat was sacked three times by pirates.
After several days at sea, Chen and his family spent nine months in refugee camps before settling in the United States, where he worked in a factory earning $3.35 an hour while training in heating and air-conditioning repair in an adult training program. Twenty years later, Chen is a successful real estate investor and businessman. His company, TransAir Inc., installs heating, air conditioning and refrigeration systems in restaurants and other businesses.
When Chen met Khanh Dao, he says he was dazzled by her bold business imagination. He was also drawn to her because they shared similar struggles. Dao, who didn't return calls seeking comment for this article, was also a refugee from Vietnam, escaping with her family when she was 5 years old just as the South Vietnamese government collapsed and Saigon fell to communist forces. Her family's escape was fraught with urgency as her parents worked for the South Vietnamese government and were at risk of arrest and execution. They, too, made their way onto a boat, but it lost power on the high seas. They would have been doomed had they not drifted into the path of a U.S. naval vessel. Her family, too, sifted through refugee camps before making their way to the United States, where they eked out a living.
In an interview with the Dallas Observerin summer 2000, just before she opened Steel, Dao discussed the path she followed to launch one of the most successful Dallas restaurants in recent memory. At an early age, Dao says, she discovered she had a knack for buying and selling cars with prestigious nameplates. "Myself being a woman, I always found myself in male businesses," she said. "It was really tough how guys gang up on you."
This knack eventually landed her a position at Park Place Motorcars selling Porsches. It was there that she met Dallas media mogul Scott Ginsburg. She became involved with Ginsburg and in August 1997 moved in with him. Over the next two years, Dao claims, she played a crucial role in the development of Ginsburg's businesses and investment portfolio, including the Porsche store, his investments in Broadcast.com and Coolcast.com (which reaped him millions, according to her claims in court documents) and his high-end restaurant Voltaire. "It was my concept, my project," she said of the restaurant.
By April 1999, Dao's relationship with Ginsburg had soured, and by June of that year, Dao says in court documents, she agreed to exit the Porsche store and Voltaire in exchange for economic support for her and her family, plus start-up capital for her new venture totaling $5 million.
But in December 1999, Ginsburg slapped Dao with a lawsuit, claiming that she made unauthorized charges on his credit cards and that he loaned her money, which she never repaid. Dao countersued, claiming she never was paid the $5 million Ginsburg promised her after she exited his businesses. Dao further claimed that she and Ginsburg had a common-law marriage, and she sued to dissolve the relationship, seeking $45 million in damages. Ginsburg denied Dao's claims they had a common-law marriage, and in December 2000, a judge threw out their claims after the two had settled their dispute under undisclosed terms.
When Chen met Dao in 2000, she already had signed a lease in the Centrum for Steel Restaurant & Lounge and was trying to raise sufficient capital to finish out the restaurant. Impressed with her vision and sophistication, Chen became a partner in the restaurant, purchasing a majority interest in the limited partnership in exchange for $100,000. He subsequently made unsecured loans to the partnership totaling more than $187,000.
The restaurant was an almost-instant hit. "It's going to have lots of great lighting," Dao said before it opened. "That's the key part, great lighting." Dao said she consciously structured her restaurant to resemble a stage, giving diners a subtle sense they were participating in a show. Steel was a favorite for visiting celebrities, including Elizabeth Hurley, Matthew Perry and Angie Harmon. Celebrity chef Stephan Pyles was a regular.
Dao insisted then that most restaurateurs fail because they're calcified in conventional thinking. "They're afraid of bending over backwards," she explained. "They're afraid of going the extra mile. People who think in the box, they go so far, and they stop. Status quo, and they'll stop."
But Dao's thinking went a little too far outside the box for Chen's comfort. Though he refused to comment on the details of the lawsuit for this article, Chen sued Dao in February, charging her with breach of contract. In the court documents, Chen alleges that while Steel had revenues of between $4 million and $6 million annually, he never received partnership disbursements or financial statements and has received very little in loan repayments. Instead, he alleges that Dao diverted Steel funds to make rent, mortgage and car payments for family, friends and employees; used the restaurant's corporate credit card for personal expenses; diverted Steel resources to open Drálion, the restaurant she launched with another investor last winter; and "utilized the restaurant's petty cash account like a cash machine for personal use." Dao denied all of Chen's charges.
A Dallas district court judge issued a mutual restraining order in the matter barring Chen from Steel and Drálion while forbidding Dao from diverting Steel resources to Drálion or for personal use and demanding she permit Chen to inspect Steel's financial records.
But in May, Chen filed a contempt motion claiming Dao violated the restraining order, alleging she failed to produce all the records for inspection and that she used Steel's checking account to cover her attorney's fees. Even more damning, based on a sworn affidavit from one of Drálion's managers, Chen alleges that Dao directed the shredding of Steel financial documents just hours before his attorney arrived to inspect them. Dao denies the charges and has produced affidavits of her own questioning the credibility of the Drálion manager who lodged the charges on which Chen bases the allegation.
But Chen has taken off the gloves. He is asking the court to throw Dao in jail until she fully complies with the restraining order. A special master has been appointed to resolve the case. The fate of her restaurants could be in question.
"I really don't like to do business with too many investors or too many partners," Chen says. "But if you have a good business, a good idea, I like to share with friends. So everybody makes a little money."
Just about everyone who has been exposed to Grove's concept believes she is onto something with her small restaurant with simple, chic appointments and strong European menu influences at modest price points.
"When they had finished with me in half an hour, I could actually get my teeth in it," says Jack Gosnell, a real estate broker who helped Grove secure the Martini Ranch space. "It just was there. What I liked about it was the European connection and having a real international-style menu...which, I think, has been missing broadly. If you look at the mix of restaurants, the only European restaurants [in Dallas] are dinosaurs. There's nothing on the cutting edge."
Still, there are those with reservations. "It's a great leap of faith," says one male industry professional familiar with Grove's concept. "I'm not sure that it's achievable. I'm not sure exactly where she fits in."
But to skeptics jaded to the buzz rhetoric spouted by hot shots positioning themselves to roll over Dallas' dining princes, Grove has one thing to say: "Don't listen to what I say. Watch what I do."