Company Cafe's Growing Pains

A rapidly expanding restaurant learns good hands are hard to find.

Fred Messick never intended to be a chef — at least not at first. He'd thought about cooking, sure, but culinary school seemed like a waste of money and time. So for five years he kept doing what he'd been doing since his high-school graduation: working construction with his old man. Windows, specifically. He was the guy with suction cup hands, hanging glass in store fronts all over Texas.

But in 2008, Messick was on a job in Corpus Christi when his cell phone rang. A friend had a job for him, and it (barely) beat hanging windows. Three days later he was banging out sandwiches and washing dishes at Kozy Kitchen on McKinney Avenue. And that's where he met Nick Pavageaux, who would become his mentor, and Jeff Wells, who worked as a manager and would eventually become the catalyst for a whole new restaurant.

Pavageaux was a classicist trained at Le Cordon Bleu. His parents owned Kozy. At first it was just another cafe, but then Wells was diagnosed with gluten intolerance. What started as an attempt to refine his own diet turned into a business play. More than two million people have celiac disease, and those diagnosed in Dallas didn't have many options for dining out. Wells worked with Pavageaux to develop recipes that met his dietary restrictions, and when word got out, those diners came to Kozy in droves.

Exposed duct-work: awesome. Exposed service flaws: less awesome.
Sara Kerens
Exposed duct-work: awesome. Exposed service flaws: less awesome.

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Company Cafe Smoked salmon $18 Chicken-fried steak $14 Burger $12 Smoked chicken $22 Rock shrimp tacos $12

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Over the course of three years, Messick proved himself an adequate cook, and when Pavageaux got married and eventually moved to Houston, Messick took over. But then the ownership changed in November 2010, and with it the culture. Messick and Wells got antsy, and after a couple of weeks they set out on their own. By the end of the year they found investors. Then they convinced three other Kozy Kitchen employees to join them.

The group cut the ribbon on their first Company Cafe on Greenville Avenue in April 2011, and the small restaurant, featuring gluten-free choices, organic ingredients and a slant toward healthier cooking, was an instant success. Loyal customers came over from the old place, and the media followed. The Observer gushed that June. D Magazine followed in July, and later included the cafe among its Best New Restaurants of 2011. The Dallas Morning News awarded three of five stars that year. All this on the back of a 26-year-old chef who'd been cooking for three years.

That first location was so successful, the group was compelled to open a second. One of the investors owned a CrossFit gym next to the bustling Katy Trail Ice House in Uptown, where condos were sprouting like bluebonnets in spring. They closed the gym, and the second Company Cafe opened in December — well before the group celebrated the first anniversary of the first location. But the new restaurant was huge compared to the original, and with it came the growing pains of an expanding restaurant business.

"It's the volume alone," Wells told me recently. "Four times the amount that Greenville ever saw." The new location seats 180 at a mix of indoor and outdoor tables — more when they're packed in tight, as they often are on Fridays and Saturday evenings and during weekend brunch. My first visit was on a Thursday night, and you could tell the staff felt pushed to the brink.

"You might have to wait a while," my hostess told me on that seemingly listless night, as she showed me my table on the patio. It was warm but not too warm, the last day of the year you could get away with wearing a sweater. Judging by her warning, the entire staff had spent the night in the weeds, so I scanned the patio looking for train wrecks.

A couple twiddled their thumbs and looked bored. A woman sat at her table at full attention, back arched, neck extended and eyes as wide as saucers. When a waiter finally noticed her posture, she shot up a hand. "Can I get my check, please?" she mouthed. She wanted out of there.

My service was only mildly inattentive, but it was past 8 p.m. The crush had waned. I waited a little too long to place my beer order, and then waited a little too long before I received my beer. My waiter ran off with silverware, then brought back the same utensils I'd sullied in an appetizer. None of these service errors were enough to ruin a meal — but they weren't enough to save it, either. And the kitchen, whose capacity was obviously being tested, could have used all the help it could get.

The burrata salad made use of a dry cheese and pale yellowish-green tomato slices with a subtle hint of rose that did little to seduce. A gluten-free chicken-fried steak was topped with a sweet herbed gravy, capped in a skin formed from sitting on the pass too long. Smoked salmon was better, but only a touch. A fatty vein ran down the side of the rectangular-shaped cut of fish; the filet was moist and rich, but the non-fatty side was dry, chalky and ashen. Looking at just these dishes, I wondered: Was this the same Company Cafe that was flourishing on Greenville?

Some plates fare better. Sweet potato fries loaded with cheddar, bacon, green onion and fresh jalapeño usher slightly less guilt than the version at Snuffers. Messick fries the spuds in a refined olive oil with a high smoke point, a treatment that takes even better to regular shoestring Idahos. They're paired with a respectable burger that turns out to be one of Company Cafe's better menu choices.

Sides are decent, too, as long as Messick's cooks don't over-do them. Broccoli rabe and string beans were oxidized and over-browned one visit and a vibrant green another; a cauliflower puree retained the finest hint of texture and an acid I never traced; potato purees were decent — even good, if you remembered you were in one of those healthy spots. But garlic was heavy in many of the sides.

Other dishes blurred into that fuzzy mediocrity that drags down dishes you'll never hate but never crave again. Risotto cakes were dry disks partnered with a lively coulis. Smoked chicken shrouded succulent, smoky poultry in a leathery, fatty skin. Cakes for dessert tasted healthy: sweet and dark with chocolate, but tough and bone-dry.

They're the mistakes of an overextended, inexperienced chef, and they stand out more when you wait too long for your plate to be taken away. Good service can save a meal, and excellent service can shift perception. The flagship location was known for its sharp and knowledgeable staff who knew gluten from the chaff and the smoke point of refined olive oil by heart. If the waiters working the new location were as passionate about local-sustainable-organic-what's-it-called as the owners were when they thought up the place, dining here might be interesting. As it stands, you're liable to be left waiting around for something not worth waiting for.

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