Anyone who's followed Food Network's Opening Soon, a program documenting the furious ups and downs of bringing a restaurant to life, expects to see chaos. Fixtures break, code inspection reveals hidden flaws, contractors fail to show—and if they do, it's with the wrong materials.
Park opened on Henderson Avenue this July and a month later, the kitchen was still working out menu kinks. In the run-up to its opening, Hibiscus, a five-year veteran on the same street, had a sewage pipe burst, the muddy sludge draining into Hector's, the establishment next door. From the start of construction, frustrating delays and pesky problems are a constant.
That's what it was like a year ago when a couple of unknowns—guys with long bartending résumés who latched onto the local food movement sweeping Dallas—unlocked the doors to Bolsa. Their Friday opening was flat-out frantic: Chris Jeffers had been drinking heavily for weeks; Chris Zielke was stressed out, dropping 25 pounds from his not-too-sturdy frame. Five minutes before patrons arrived, they realized they had no table centerpieces; Jeffers' wife found a set of light boxes in the attic, which would have to do. There were plenty of customers—maybe too many—crowding into the tiny Oak Cliff café, and one irate caller on the phone—the cable guy demanding they make good on the $800 check they had written him for TV installation. It had bounced at the bank, and he was thoroughly pissed off. The rookie restaurateurs had counted on weekend receipts to cover the amount, which they planned to deposit first thing on Monday.
"We didn't think he'd try to cash [the check] on a Friday afternoon," Zielke says.
Although Bolsa almost crashed within its first few months, largely due to such cash flow problems, the restaurant has become one of the city's top venues. Its one-page menu not only changes seasonally, but half the listings also change daily. Chef Graham Dodds takes what farmers bring in and develops entrees and other items based on the freshest ingredients. There's also a small shop, a beer garden-style patio and people—lots of people. "It's more fate than intelligence," Jeffers says of Bolsa's popularity. "It was the right time," Zielke agrees. "People are getting away from the 'big show' restaurants, moving to neighborhoods and what's real—whatever that means."
This kind of runaway success has put even more pressure on the two former nightclub drink-slingers, who have tempted fate once again by opening a second and much different establishment. Only this time, public expectations are off the chart. Smoke is one of the most talked-about venues of 2009, approaching the orchestrated promotional blitz of Wolfgang Puck's Five-Sixty, though with only a portion of that celebrity's budget. Media types jabbered incessantly when Jeffers and Zielke hired chef Tim Byres away from the legendary Stephan Pyles, and again when word of the restaurant's name and concept—a gourmet barbecue restaurant—leaked out. Suddenly, they have reputations to defend.
And this time around, something else is different. When I stopped by two weeks before their September 11 grand opening, worn wooden planks lay across the concrete entrance, and the main dining room was cluttered with unpacked boxes, stacks of plates and other debris. Yet Jeffers and Zielke seemed remarkably serene. Rather than fiercely debate every minor detail, like many restaurateurs would during such frenetic times—the partners are engaged in a civil discourse over wine glasses: Jeffers wants tables set with four glasses so guests can catch a glint from the polished stemware; Zielke says that's too much formality—and inconsistent with the image of comfort and ease they want Smoke to project.
"I'm fine with that," Jeffers says with a shrug. End of discussion.
These guys look strangely like suburban dads in a quiet backyard conversation, albeit suburban dads with an abnormal interest in stemware. And their nonchalance seems to be rubbing off on others in the dining room. Byres, who is a partner as well as chef, and once cooked for the U.S. embassy in Brussels, slumps quietly over a table, informally dressed in mangy brown shorts and a T-shirt. Opposite him sits dapper interior designer Mike Thompson, propped forward but also calm. There is a constant clanging from the kitchen as the line cooks perfect their salmon presentation. And behind me, contractors haul equipment in and out the front door. Whatever heavy reconstruction was necessary, however, ended days ago.
Maybe that's why Jeffers and Zielke seem so relaxed as they ponder the wineglass question. Even the previous week, when I stopped by to speak with Jeffers amidst the final hammering and annoying razz of power tools, there were no bags under his eyes, no damp patches of sweat. He looked as if he'd spent the day thumbing through vacation brochures. A few days later I caught up with Zielke as he sat at Bolsa, casually drinking coffee and perusing the Sunday New York Times, the very picture of composure.
This seemed destined to be the most boring restaurant opening ever. Had the bad boys of Bolsa outgrown their wild ways? Had fame and good fortune granted them a level of normalcy they had never before known? I'd known these guys for nearly a decade. Or at least I thought I did.
Many of those who make a profession out of food service and nightlife are not what you would call normal, but that may be what it takes to make it in this business. They relish odd hours and the vagaries of a salary paid in cash, flirt constantly with temptations such as alcohol or drugs, and thrive in the frenzy of the dinner rush. In the heat of passion, or something, the owner of a Dallas pizza joint once fired his pistol through the wall, much to the dismay of those in the shop next door. Another—this time the owner of a club—was exposed (literally) in a chat room video. They aren't all this crazy, but risk-taking personalities in a high stakes, adrenaline-pumping atmosphere are enough to nudge anyone a little off kilter.
"I can understand why mercenaries are the way they are," claims Marc Cassel, the celebrated chef at the hot Henderson Avenue venue, Park. "It's addictive—being in the kitchen is like being in a three-hour car wreck." The ones who stick it out grow accustomed to the craziness, going from place to place, rent to rent. Yet they eventually seek some form of permanence.
It's not surprising Jeffers and Zielke were lured into such a lifestyle.
Zielke was born in Madrid to missionary parents. His family moved to South America when he was still an infant, and he spent childhood bouncing around the Southern Hemisphere. At the age of 15, the rootless youth headed to New York with one older sibling. At 17 he was in El Paso with another sibling, hunting for work.
"We looked for the city with the biggest employment section [in its local newspaper]," he recalls. It happened to be The Dallas Morning News. By 1998 he was living in Garland, working at a Bennigan's. A year later he took a job bartending at Patrizio—and was promptly fired. He lasted a total of three weeks at Ben's Half Yard House. Over the years, while working the bar, he's dabbled in fashion (trying to peddle a line of denim in South America), real estate and contracting, never able to sit still, taking eight years to earn a bachelor's degree in marketing from University of Texas at Dallas. Zielke's big break, such as it was, came when he took a job bartending at Buddha Bar on Lovers Lane, the space now occupied by Nick Badovinus' Neighborhood Services restaurant.
That's when I first met him, in the fall of 2001, his hair pulled back in a ponytail, slinging drinks for the fickle 500—that amorphous crowd descending on newly opened clubs, then disappearing when the lure of another hot spot beckons. Despite all the Prada and BMW keychains and pretty people calling for brand-name drinks, he seemed rather down to earth. He joked about the crowd rather than being part of it and brightened at the hint of real conversation.
Buddha Bar was briefly popular though hardly reputable. When patrons ordered french fries, kitchen staff would sometimes phone up a nearby Jack in the Box, plating the fries as their own. Zielke was behind the bar one night when the entire waitstaff walked out, tired of management's shenanigans. But this brief foray into upscale bartending led him to Nikita the following year, in its time one of the city's hippest clubs, and Hotel ZaZa, still one of the city's cool spaces. For him these places were as much a curse as a blessing. A friend of Zielke's who bartended at several of the city's upscale nightclubs, once bragged to me about snorting cocaine from a stripper's chest. Sometimes Zielke would work with Adam Salazar, often touted as Dallas' best bartender and a man seemingly immune to the sting of alcohol. After close to 15 years working a succession of the hot clubs, Salazar has developed a regular following. His friends are not shy about buying him shots, and he's more than happy to return the favor, many times over.
These were Zielke's colleagues and friends as he became experienced in the trade. He even cites Salazar as one of the people he respects most, for bartending skill and rock-and-roll lifestyle. "If you're [working] at a nightclub, it's almost impossible to get through the night sober," Zielke says. "People always want to buy you a drink. If you don't accept, they feel spurned."
Recently Zielke's girlfriend chided him for those misspent years. You didn't have to keep up, she told him. You could have cut down from 12 drinks to four.
"She doesn't understand," he says with a laugh. "Working with Adam it would have been cutting down to 12."
We're sitting at Hula Hotties, an Oak Cliff diner down the road from Bolsa. Zielke now drives a safe and secure Volvo, drab, gray and underpowered. Back in the Nikita-ZaZa days, he bought a 1975 Mercedes, which, he claims, "got me a lot of pussy." He recounts nights barging the car over curbs, through bushes and against signposts while driving, heavily under the influence. Clearly impressed with German engineering, he tells how the thing kept running despite hard driving and no oil changes. The only thing that stalled the stout vehicle—momentarily—was the time a stripper poured Drano in its gas tank.
"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.
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.
For Zielke, Oak Cliff is an attitude as much as a community, home to a subsector of Dallas that is interested in food, aware of environmental impact and loyal to their part of town. "We couldn't have done this in Uptown," he says.
David Pedack, owner of Blue Collar Bar and Urbino Pizza e Pasta, observes that the pair strongly complement each other. Where Zielke sees the long-term sweep of a concept, for instance, Jeffers is able to focus on the details. Trust between business partners is critical, Pedack says, "but the dynamics of a relationship—the yin-yang thing—is just as important."
Zielke admits that it's difficult, still, to be around normal people and show a concerned side. When we dined at Hula Hotties, one of the café's owners recognized him and brought out a flyer listing specials and events. He took several, promising to display them at Bolsa. "I'm still not used to that," he later says.
With their success came property owners who approached them, wanting the pair to replicate Bolsa in this or that neighborhood. But they refused all suitors until Bunkhouse Management called them in July. The Austin hotel management firm had been concerned with the lagging performance of the Cliff Café, the restaurant attached to Belmont Hotel.
Both men were drawn to the opportunity to create something new in an existing restaurant space. After thinking it over and raiding the life savings of Jeffers' wife to fund the project, they convinced chef Tim Byres to jump from Stephan Pyles. Then they approached Bunkhouse with the idea of replacing the café with an upscale barbecue joint based on old-fashioned techniques of wood fire and smoke.
The Bunkhouse folks laughed...then nodded their approval.
In comparison to Bolsa, Smoke was a cakewalk. They gutted the interior and then rebuilt in less than two months. Their largest expense was the installation of a wood-burning barbecue built by the A. N. Bowley Company for a restaurant being developed by former Cowboy Emmitt Smith—only the deal fell apart. Byres fixed up an old Volkswagen bus and cruised the American South, from the Mississippi delta to the hills of North Carolina, picking up wood-fired cooking tips along the way.
Jeffers and Zielke have been through the aimlessness, been through the suffering, battled personal demons and come out on top. Now the only thing troubling the hottest restaurateurs in Dallas is that nagging matter of success.
At the moment, however, it's difficult to imagine anything putting the damper on these two. Gray skies and intermittent downpours hardly spoiled the grand opening hoopla at Smoke on September 11—although conditions did force scheduled performances by Slobberbone, Sarah Jaffe and others indoors from stages originally set on the restaurant's back patio and by the hotel pool. More than 800 people sent RSVPs for the bash, and most seem to have kept the date. A little more than a year since their check-bouncing Bolsa opening, a line of would-be partyers with rain-soaked hair huddled near Smoke's front door. Jeffers had already ditched the snakeskin sport coat, which he wore in honor of Kinky Friedman, author and gubernatorial candidate who served as ceremonial host. Jeffers is not the sort who can pull off a wild python pattern, and the Kinkster probably didn't notice as he busied himself hawking cigars.
Where a week earlier there had been an empty space, now there was a mass of people swirling around the place, some in cowboy hats—probably Kinky's influence—others dressed for a more fashionable scene. A rectangular bar, fully stocked, juts toward the main entry, creating a dividing line between the dining room, lit by the flicker of a faux-flame fireplace, and a less formal lounge area. Once in awhile guests would brave the rain and dive onto the back patio and its less attended bar (the main one was sometimes stacked three or four deep). From there they might run into the hotel itself—spillover territory for the crowd. In front of the open kitchen, a display case set up in the last few days before the shindig held whole cured hams, along with links of homemade sausages. Not really the thing you expect to see at an upscale party.
But this is indeed what people had crowded into Smoke's main dining room to see: meat, the very smell of it—sweet, tart and heavily smoky—wafting through the room, being absorbed into Levi's and Prada alike. It smelled like the old South, and crowds descended on every plate of ribs brought from the kitchen. Never have I witnessed such fanaticism at an opening event. To hell with Southern manners: Men practically dove over their women to grab a bone from the pile, while women in nightclub whites gnawed at sauce-slathered barbecue. Strangers kept coming up to me, yelling over the din: "Have you tried the food?" or even more often "Where is the food?"
Such is the spectacle caused by the former bartenders, a circus not only of hungry well-wishers, but of media: four other reporters, including one from The Dallas Morning News showed up. At least five photographers roamed the area and a few TV cameras, as well. Yet through all the tumult, Zielke and Jeffers moved about calmly—though with purpose, directing the operation by walkie-talkie, solving little dilemmas that cropped up. I tried to ask them how things were going, but a waitress stepped in. Kinky wanted one thing or another; a few minutes later, it was a band member demanding a four-top set-up near the improvised stage.
Yet the two appeared very much in control. They had come a long way in a short time since opening Bolsa—and an even greater distance since their wild days in the Dallas bar scene.
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In the run-up to the grand opening, Jeffers and Zielke staged a series of mock service nights that seemed to have paid off. During one of them, though, the waiter working Zielke's table approached, visibly trembling. "Why is he so nervous around you?" the owner's girlfriend wondered.
"Hey," Zielke interrupted, shushing her. "Don't let him know I'm just a regular guy."
Somewhere along the line, they'd become normal, tied to a community, responsible for the well-being of staff, respected by people inside the food service industry and out. "I'm beginning to make friends who aren't in the industry," Jeffers says. "I'm beginning to be normal—that's loosely used. I have to try real hard. Flip a switch, I can go back to making drinks."
As Marc Cassel says of the industry, "Everybody goes in normal. It's how you escape that matters."