By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
But their pitch failed to excite much interest. When questioned by investors, they were forced to admit their dream location was a tire shop beyond sight of the renovated Bishop Arts District. And few investors, they were learning, want to put their trust in a couple of unknown bartenders.
Parts of Oak Cliff have been gentrifying for a decade now. In culinary terms, however, it remained a haven for taquerias and the quirky neighborhood joints. Besides Hattie's, destination restaurants found it difficult to hang on. Grill 400 expired quietly. Kavala hangs constantly on the edge.
The failure rate of restaurants in their first year of operation hits one in four. According to a study by Ohio State University researchers, that figure jumps to 60 percent after three years. Over that period, owners and managers may have to drastically reduce their financial expectations. When Barry Tate, owner of The Londoner, moved from his first narrow location in Addison to a larger space, fitting out the room cost far more than he expected. He ended up selling his only car to pay the final cost of construction. Years ago, Mattito's owner Jeffrey Frankel cornered me to complain that critics never take into account the personal sacrifices people make to open their dream restaurant. At the time I responded with a flip "nobody cares." Diners are concerned more with their experience than the suffering of those behind the scenes—but Frankel was right: Sacrifice is a reality for all entrepreneurs.
Opening Bolsa pushed Jeffers into dangerous territory. "When I don't have anyone to answer to, it's hard to manage," he says of his stress-related binges.
The partners had some early financial support from Royce Ring; the final blocks of needed cash came from Jeffers' in-laws "who'd never been to Oak Cliff," he points out, and some old buddies equally unfamiliar with the area. Still, they began on a threadbare shoestring. "We tried to be cautious, but it took longer and cost more than we expected." Zielke says. "Cash reserve goes out the window. It becomes 'let's just get open so we can start paying this debt.'" Neither owner took a salary for the first nine months, instead keeping bartending jobs on weekends. Zielke worked at Suite, Jeffers at ZaZa. "I would come in my uniform from working poolside at ZaZa and get to work," he recalls. "Then I'd look at my watch—'Oh, shit, it's 3:30'...It sounds more fun than it was."
On a few occasions Jeffers and Zielke handed chef Graham Dodds rolls of quarters in lieu of a check. Sometimes their moonlighting income helped pay waitstaff.
Yet even after the restaurant finally opened in July 2009, the owners suffered through more than the usual growing pains. Service problems, in particular, caused a raft of negative commentary—enough so that three months after its opening, Zielke notified then-Dallas Morning News dining critic Bill Addison that Bolsa still wasn't ready to be reviewed.
"We almost closed several times," Jeffers admits. "Just that nobody knew."
It's not that business was slow. Bolsa was slammed from the beginning. The initial menu of flatbreads and bruschetta expanded to include some of Dodds' daily specials, then more of Dodds' daily specials. Very quickly they were building menus around whatever the farmers brought in that day.
Dallas responded by crowding into the place. On some nights people waited more than an hour for tables. But, as Zielke explains, "you owe a bunch of money to a bunch of people"—it cost some $500,000 to open the restaurant, and they had been racking up debt on the building for two years. The pressure of running a suddenly popular yet cash-poor restaurant worried Zielke to the extent that he began losing weight rapidly. Meanwhile Jeffers took personally all the comments he read on blogs lambasting the restaurant for its service problems. Increasingly he sought solace in the bottle. This time last year, Jeffers needed help desperately.
Bolsa, on the other hand, gave Zielke some much needed stability. Yes, there was a moment before friends rescued them with some last-minute cash that he panicked, taking the LSAT and applying to law school, but their little restaurant hit at just the right time. "I always knew the problems we had beat the alternative [bartending]," he says. "But that doesn't mean there's not self-doubt."
Jeffers, who had always been the quiet, self-assured type, managed to salvage his life with rehab before it became too late. "Other people can stop on their own," he says. "I needed professional help."
Meanwhile, the tight-knit Oak Cliff community rallied around Bolsa. I was sitting on the patio with Bill Addison last fall when a white SUV pulled up at the corner. The driver, a blondish woman, rolled down her window and began waving frantically at one of the restaurant's waitstaff. Turns out the SUV driver, an Oak Cliff resident, finally picked up her cell phone and warned them of a critic in their midst.
Being part of the community—that's Jeffers' influence. He lives in the area and participates in the charity drives and neighborhood associations.