Food News

A Year Ago, Small Brewpub Parted Ways With Its High-Profile Chef and Started Over. Did It Work?

A year ago, no one at Small Brewpub anticipated that the Oak Cliff restaurant, formerly known for its avant-garde bar food, would serve a burger. Today, it's one of the city's best.
A year ago, no one at Small Brewpub anticipated that the Oak Cliff restaurant, formerly known for its avant-garde bar food, would serve a burger. Today, it's one of the city's best. Courtney Bradford
Today, Small Brewpub is finding its stride with a popular menu and increasing revenue, but it wasn’t long ago that the owners were working second jobs just to keep their Jefferson Boulevard restaurant afloat and make ends meet.

“We were looking at the numbers and thinking, ‘We’re not going to be able to keep doing this. This whole thing is going to fall apart,’” food and beverage manager Benj Pocta says of last summer. “We had four salaries in the kitchen, and Josh [Dawn] and I and Aaron [Garcia] were not taking paychecks at this point. As much as we could, we were here, and then we were at our other jobs making money to pay our bills.”

Up to that point, Small had received reviews praising its beer and the work of its former chef Misti Norris, but that praise didn’t provide the success the owners expected.

“We got a lot of notoriety, and the foodie crowd was definitely into it, and they were here a lot,” Pocta says. “The neighborhood, on the other hand, was not. There was sort of a cognitive dissonance as far as our own identity as Small.”

click to enlarge Alex Henderson is Small Brewpub's executive chef. - PHOTO BY KELSEY WILSON, COURTESY OF SMALL BREWPUB
Alex Henderson is Small Brewpub's executive chef.
Photo by Kelsey Wilson, courtesy of Small Brewpub
Through the changes in the last year, part of that identity remained constant with the beer, which had been included in previous pop-ups that eventually led to the brick-and-mortar Small. The other part of that identity has been finding definition through the new chef, Alex Henderson, who was only 23 when Small brought him on. But parting ways with Norris, at the time considered one of Dallas' most boundary-pushing, rock-star chefs, was a hard decision.

“We had conversations with Misti about making the menu more accessible, and we kind of came to a mutual understanding that what we wanted to do and what Misti wanted to do was very different,” Pocta says. “I don’t fault her for that at all.”

The food was good, general manager Joshua Dawn says, just not approachable. Customers were frequently making that obvious to him, and the numbers reflected it.

An earlier review of the restaurant notes, “It takes time to decide whether you like the plates on offer at Small — and they're further hampered when the execution falters.”

But now headlines make new assertions, like the idea that Small has the best burger in Oak Cliff, which really means something to the team behind it.

“We were a little stubborn, I think, reluctant to put something like a burger on the menu,” Pocta says. “We were kind of trying to find our identity as a food spot. Alex was pushing harder for a burger than we were, and we were like, “'Eh, we’ll talk about that later.’ He won that big time.”

That led to more changes, which now include wings and fish and chips.

click to enlarge Loaded fries on Small's new menu. - BETH RANKIN
Loaded fries on Small's new menu.
Beth Rankin
“The menu now, well, most people don’t have a lot of questions about what the ingredients are; they’re more familiar with [them], and people seem to be a lot more comfortable in here,” Pocta says. “It feels like it’s more like a backyard pop-up scenario. … We’re getting to get to know our guests better. It becomes more about the guest than what’s on the table. The table’s a vehicle to get to know our guests.”

In June, the restaurant (not including beer distribution) saw a 21 percent increase over June 2016, Pocta says. With a less expensive menu (originally $22 to $27 and now $12 to $15), that means more people are coming through the doors.

click to enlarge Boiled peanut hummus with crudites. - BETH RANKIN
Boiled peanut hummus with crudites.
Beth Rankin
“We track the number of people who come through the door pretty well, and the number of people we have seen night to night is way up over last year,” Pocta says. “Guest count is up at least 30 percent over the past three months.”

The team is even talking about opening for lunch later this month.

Although the menu has changed, Henderson says he’s still playing around with foods for future menus, and he's still using local ingredients

“Before, with the menu being on the more serious side, we were doing a lot of local farms, produce, and this is pretty much the exact same thing,” Henderson says. “Now we’re busier, we’re buying more food from them. … It’s been a lot more fun.”

Small Brewpub, 333 W. Jefferson Blvd.
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Taylor Adams has written about the restaurant industry for the Dallas Observer since 2016. Now the Observer's food editor, she attended Southern Methodist University before covering local news at The Dallas Morning News.