When Mariel Street opened Liberty Burger on Forest Lane last November, she took a different approach to building burgers -- specifically different from the burgers served at her brother's spot Snookies. Street is a hippie at heart and instead of traditional greasy burgers and fries, she wanted a burger with a principles. Her restaurant's ethos includes, "food quality, social contribution and environmental responsibility."
Her brothers Gene Jr. and Dace Street soon got on board with their little sister's concept, as did long-time family friend George Holwerda, who was the first employee at the Black Eyed Pea, one of her father's, Gene Street's, many restaurants (other spots include Good Eats, Cantina Laredo, Cool River and III Forks.)
Now they're putting the final touches on a second Liberty Burger at what used to be Snookies on Keller Springs Road, which will be a larger, full-service version replete with a bar and infused spirits.
Before Mariel decided to open her own restaurant, she studied linguistics and business at UT Austin (she's fluent in at least five languages), then did 27 months with the Peace Corps. Here's our chat about the quite interesting first 27-years of Mariel Street's life:
Where did you live for your 27-month stint in the Peace Corps? A tiny island in the south pacific in the Republic of Vanuatu, it's on the edge of the map. It takes 24 hours to fly to the country, then you jump on a six-seater plane, then take a two-day boat ride. Once you land on Mystery Island, there's one more boat ride over to the main island.
[Type "Mystery Island, Republic of Vanuatu" into Google maps and you'll see the edge of the world.]
What are the amenities like on Mystery Island? No roads, electricity or running water. They spoke their own island language. I trained at the main island for the first three months with the Peace Corps where they helped me learn the native language and the lingua franca, and how to start a fire to cook food. They also gave me medical supplies, and then they sent me on my own.
Are the indigenous people there self-sufficient? Absolutely. They could live without a paper economy forever. Most everything was done in trade. If a single white man never went back there, they would be fine.
What was your specific mission there? Education.
What was the goal of providing a self-sufficient indigenous tribe an education? That was a question I had going there. Of the 500 people on the island, only 8 had ever left the island. But, they requested a Peace Corps volunteer because the elders began to realize that they needed to understand their government more. For example, they didn't have the ability to read and understand what they were doing when they sold their land for commercial development. So, not being able to read your own laws that your government is making and understand the impact of decisions that are made is really important.
They would get a national newspaper delivered every few months, but they used it as toilet paper because they couldn't read it.
How long did it take you to adjust to life there? There's a honeymoon phase for the first few months where everything is really cool; you love sleeping in the sand, starting a fire everyday and going fishing at 5 a.m. Then, after three months everything kicks in. You're sick of being hot, you want some chocolate, you're over having to have to go hunt for wood especially after it's been raining for 50 days straight, and you're sick of sand. To this day I still have a hard time going to the beach. But, then you just get over it and you accept it. The three- to six-month period is when most people [in the Peace Corps] go home. If you can make it to six months, and start to form relationships, it starts to feel normal.
Do they have any alcohol over there? They drank cava, which isn't alcohol at all, but more of a sedative and only men were allowed to drink it. But, we use to make moonshine. We'd ferment pineapple, yeast and sugar.
They had yeast out there? We'd have to pull it in from the capital.
Who taught them how to do make moonshine? I don't know. Missionaries have been there a long time...
Maybe Peace Corps volunteers? I wouldn't doubt it.
While gone, what did you miss the most? Burgers, beer and Blue Bell. Your brothers Dace and Gene Jr. are partners with you at Liberty Burger. When you first explained your concept to them, were they supportive? They all found themselves retired and itching for something new. And I came back from the Peace Corps determined to do a restaurant with or without them. We started talking about it, and I think we sort of ignited something in each other. I think their experience was really attractive, and my energy and hard-headedness was attractive to them.
Did you provide a new perspective to their veteran ways? Absolutely. They wanted to keep doing what they knew, and I wanted to carefully choose where we get our bread, where we get out meat, cleaning products and so on.
How did they initially respond? Gene and I were on the same page. He likes the whole idea of build-your-own burger that's fresh and organic. He was easy to sway. George, who is an operations guy, knew it was a lot harder to find quality products and that it's so much easier and cheaper to get a non-quality product. From an operations perspective, that was hard at first, but now we're all in the same boat.
Was it hard to assert your authority over your concept with all their experience? If I had it my way, we'd probably have a garden on the roof and solar panels. We had to meet in the middle. I'm one of six kids, all my siblings are boys and I'm meaner then any of them. Just because I was the only girl, they always beat me up, so I had to learn to stand up for myself. They still win sometimes, but I just let it go.
What have you learned in your first year? How much we have to work to not let the concept get away from us. Learning how to manage the system and explain to people how the system works. At first we had a couple customers get in a fight about tables, so we had to get a hostess to meet people and set up their tables. We learned to manage the crowds. Managing things like that is important. How do you run the kitchen? Every single burger that goes out has to be ready for a magazine. I'm diligent about it. Customers are paying top dollar for their burger and it can't be just slapped together.
Where did you find your cook? He's been with my brother for 12 or 14 years and training him was a bit of a process. They've been in the business so long they want to bring in a lot of people from the past, but that also brings a lot of habits from the past. We had to brainwash and retrain everyone. "There's no precooking, don't put it on the grill until it's ordered, yes, the onion rings take five minutes to cook, but you can't precook them." We're constantly learning and training.
Some people would say that after growing up in the restaurant business, you should have known better than to get in it yourself. I remember growing up, after my parents divorced, we'd see our dad on Wednesdays and every other weekend, and it was always us driving around to all these different restaurants. It wasn't a job, it was his life. Seven days a week, 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.
And you still wanted to make a career of it? I don't like being bored. And I've never had a boring day here. The only thing I worry about is staying in one place. When I was in college I moved every six months, my time in the Peace Corps was the longest I'd stayed anywhere and that was because I was trapped.
Were your brothers worried about that when going into business with you? Yeah, there was a bet on how long I'd stay. [She smiles because she won that bet.]
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What time does your typical day begin and end at the restaurant? I get here at 7 in the morning and work until 7:30 at night. Then, my dad reads about 15 newspapers a day and he cuts article for about 10 of us and so we all get about fifty articles a day to read...
He clips articles from a paper? Oh yes. We can't convince him to get on the Internet. I go home and read all these articles he's left for me and then we have email chains and we all chat about them. We call it Gene-Mail.
Where does he leave the articles? He leaves them on my windshield. He wants my brothers and me to be the cutting-edge on everything. It's like a three-hour job every night. Sweet corn ice cream is a new one that's going around. He reads every newspaper and magazine out there. It's everything from trying to get my brother to quit smoking, to the danger of eggs and overheating mayonnaise; trends and what's going on locally.
Does your dad come around much? He meets me here every morning at 8 a.m. and comes in every day for a burger at 3 p.m.