By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"What did you do to her?" I ask, assuming this led to a story.
"Nothing," he responds quickly. "I didn't do anything. She was just crazy."
Sometime in 2002, after the Samba Room lost popular appeal and before Nikita opened (this is how bartenders express chronology) Zielke and Matthew Giese, a friend and then-Samba Room bartender, began thinking about opening their own bar and decided to look into a vacant space. Giese brought along Jeffers who knew a lot about the business and helped them decide the empty barroom wouldn't work.
Jeffers had grown up in San Angelo. He finished high school and enrolled in the University of North Texas but didn't graduate. "I loved school," he claims, "but I ended up coming to Dallas." He did a stint at Uncle Julio's as a waiter and eventually hooked up with Royce Ring and his E Brands, the restaurant management division of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide responsible for several Uptown venues, and helped open Samba Room, Mignon and Nikita before ending up at ZaZa where he worked with Zielke.
Whereas Zielke would take off for extended trips to Turkey and Eastern Europe, Jeffers was more firmly rooted. He married and had a daughter ("she learned to walk using a mop bucket as a walker," he says), waited tables, managed bar staff and stepped into the bartender role.
"I wanted to be a writer, which means I make a great gin and tonic," he says. Comedy was his forte. But, he adds, "now that I'm sober, I don't think I'm that funny."
Yes, there was that.
Jeffers has recently graduated from a rehab program but when living a life punctuated by stress and very close to alcohol, it wasn't easy cleaning up.
I met Jeffers for the first time when he opened Nikita in the West Village. He tried everything possible to turn the subterranean nightclub into a restaurant, but the bar, staffed by the likes of Zielke, Salazar and others, served as the real attraction. Its generous bartenders, outfitted with more than 60 brands of vodka, and the club's dark confines made it one of the best places to go in Dallas if you were looking to get laid. Yet in that time, I never saw Jeffers take a drink, though he did on a regular basis.
"It's very fucking hard [to stay away from alcohol]," Marc Cassel says from experience. Adrenaline is still rushing at the end of a shift, and bars are a natural gathering spot for staff needing to debrief or calm down. According to U.S. Department of Labor data, 17 percent of those employed in the hotel and food service industry report regular illicit drug use, compared to 8 percent in all types of work. About one in six declare themselves alcohol-dependent, and 12 percent slam down five drinks an hour in frequent binges. Others likely don't talk about their activities, at least to those tabulating such information.
"We've all been wounded by this industry," Cassel continues. "Eventually you crater and disappear or learn how to balance things."
Perhaps out of respect to his partner, Zielke rarely drinks these days. Even as a bartender, he could step back and indulge in long periods of sobriety every two or three years. He earned his marketing degree not because of any fascination with the field. Instead, he realized having a degree would allow him to apply to graduate school if nothing else panned out. I used to chat with him, starting at Buddha Bar, about books or movies while around us swirled nighttime crowds. Although he had his moments—the Drano incident, for example—he says "in the end you have to be strong enough to divide your personal and professional life." Over 12 years in the industry, you see train wrecks and unsung geniuses, smart owners and those who run their establishments into the ground. "It's a job that teaches you to leave everything at the door," he adds. "That can be hard, but you have to have a firewall."
Despite bouts with the dark side, the urge that causes people to guzzle a bottle of vodka every night or party until dawn, both men always maintained a keen sense of purpose. Each one, at different times, explained to me that if someone spends a decade in the industry, they either should think about owning or managing a place—or get out entirely.
All along, they recognized that bartending—even managing a bar—was a young person's gig. The money is good when you work the hot clubs, sometimes peaking at $1,500 a week in cash, but you have to bounce from place to place and stay on top of trends to maintain that level of income. The pair believed that they should set a 10-year cutoff date and then look for permanence—a place they could call their own.
In February of 2007, Zielke spotted a vacant building on Davis Street in Oak Cliff, one with a parking lot. He and Jeffers decided on a concept, which evolved from a café-slash-market for local produce (hence the name Bolsa—Spanish for bag). Years working behind the bar and in dining rooms had made them privy to all manner of conversation, from bad pickup lines to more substantive ideas. York St. and the other restaurants engaged in "slow foods"—the general name for a movement favoring locally grown, seasonal ingredients—were ahead of the curve, at least in Dallas. The popular mood was now following like the beginnings of a flood, and they wanted to catch what would become a full-scale unstoppable fad.