Pictured: (left to right) Johnny B's John Finlayson, Wildwood Grill's Dave Garner, Feedstore BBQ's Bill Lafavers. Photo courtesy of Bludoor Studios.
Take a drive up and down Southlake Boulevard on any given Sunday and you’re bound to see evidence of the constant changes happening in our growing city from new buildings going up to the new restaurant names that come and go along the way. With most Americans eating out an average four to five times a week, it’s no secret that all of us spend a fair amount of cash dining in restaurants. However, in the face of the local competition and the current economy running a successful restaurant in this city is not a task for those with a weak stomach.. Picture Southlake’s burger scene where there are no less than seven sit down restaurants actively vying for the right to grill us their signature all-beef patty. From burgers to prime rib and beyond it takes more than money to make it in this day and age.
We’ve seen it time and again, restaurants come and restaurants go- some before we even get the chance to give them a fair shake. As is the process in most areas the names change, but save for new signage, the building’s faces remain the same. Restaurants replace themselves in the very location where predecessors fell under hard times. New themes, new menus and new management come but far too often they fall prey to the same old results. Locally owned independents, and national and regional chains all take part in an endless cycle of restaurant roulette. Ohio State University, Professor H.G. Parsa, tracked new restaurant data and found that in the first year, 26% closed, 19% in the second, and 14% the year after. In all six out of ten new restaurants closed within the first three years of opening their doors.
Despite a substantial list of successful restaurants in our growing suburb, Southlake does offer its own set of challenges to both new and established names in dining.
So what does it really take to win the battle for our bellies?
Flying in the face of convention, location isn’t always an advantage. History has proven that high rent and substantial foot traffic doesn’t bring immunity in this business. On the contrary, away from the heart of downtown commerce restaurants like Cristina’s and Wildwood Grill seemingly thrive within the same confines of failed concepts and a mere traffic signal away from countless others whose names remain on the door long after the utilities have been cut off.
We found that in addition to capital today’s successful eateries require knowledge, experience but most importantly dedication and hard work (and maybe even a dash of luck). Fortunately there are still a few “Mom and Pop” restaurants in town, operated by local families who not only know the lay of the land but also that the way to our hearts is truly through our stomachs. They’ve obviously got the chops and over the years our loyalty- but getting there wasn’t that easy.
Papa Bill Lafavers and his son Mike have been cooking up their famous brisket BBQ in the old Southlake Feed and Tack Store since 2001. After leaving a successful career in corporate America with Jack Daniels, Bill bought the old Southlake Feed and Tack store that sat in front of his own land. The Lafavers watched as the building changed hands from the original Baileys market to a feed and tack store, often sitting empty for years at a time.
Bill is the first to admit the location isn’t perfect saying, “This is a horrible location, terrible visibility, if you come here, you meant to come here.” When he first purchased the property he operated it as a feed and tack store but as Southlake grew the rural economy waned and the need for the feed business slowed and Bill starting thinking about changing tactics. “It was Rick Stacy who gave us the BBQ idea,” said Bill. “He said we could use a good BBQ place in town and he knew I’d been judging BBQ contests for years when I was with Jack Daniels.” Back then one of Bill’s sons made a joke saying, “We used to feed ‘em, now we eat ‘em,” but the saying changed into the logo that still graces the door today, “Feedstore BBQ a great place to meat!”
At The Feedstore it truly is all about the meat. Ever since The Feedstore opened, Bill and his family have been cooking up the highest quality beef available and Bill believes that using only the best, freshest products gives the Feedstore an edge. “We use only premier Angus beef, center cuts ribs, it costs a little more but really makes a difference,” he said. Today the restaurant has grown to about 28 employees; most of them long term people. “The consistency of our food and service, and our friendliness keeps people coming back,” Bill emphasized.
As the business grew, catering became a big factor in the growth of the restaurant, which Bill credits to his ongoing relationship with the Carroll school district. “Working with the schools brought us lots of banquets,” explained Bill. Building on his relationship with the school district Bill started selling Feedstore BBQ sandwiches at Carroll Dragon Stadium, which then led to contracts to provide the same service to other area school districts. The catering side of the business is now a huge factor in the continuing success of Feedstore. “With all of the CEO’s that live around here,” Bill told us, “they do a lot of catering. Recently, we’ve catered for companies like Sony, Classic Chevrolet, Enterprise Car Rentals, Fidelity, and Verizon.”
Since the doors opened, the Lafavers have kept their “Commitment to Our Customers” prominently displayed on the wall for all to see promising them the best BBQ experience around. As Bill simply states, “It’s the right thing to do.”
John Finlayson, better known as “Johnny B” came by his fascination with the perfect cheeseburger honestly growing up in the business at his Dad’s family eatery in Missouri. “I literally grew up in the restaurant,” John said. Today, even though John’s Dad isn’t the guy behind the grill the same business is still in place after 75 years. That says something about how much we all love our cheeseburgers.
After college John met and married Sandy and she joined him in pursuit of perfection on a bun as they relocated numerous times around the country with John’s career. Sandy told us that as they landed in each new city or town, “The first thing we would do is look for a great burger place. If we found one we’d play a game thinking what we would do if it were our place.”
It became a family adventure after the Finlayson’s moved to Southlake in 1997. “We couldn’t find a good burger place,” Sandy said, “It was a treat to make it a family thing to go out with the kids on weekends having fun looking for a great place.” John agreed, “My Dad’s place was just an old-fashioned cheeseburger and milkshakes kind of place, he was a real pioneer,” declared John.
When they first decided to open their own burger joint the Finlaysons had trouble finding the perfect location. They viewed their current space before it was finished and left unimpressed continuing the search for the right spot, but when they saw the completed spot they fell in love and in 2004 Johnny B’s was born. “We didn’t have great visibility,” admitted John, “but we didn’t get into this with the idea of making a lot of money, we did it for the fun.” It was time for a change in the busy working life for John and Sandy kept the restaurant going for the first five years as John juggled his corporate job until he left to be at Johnny B’s full time. From working behind the counter to ordering supplies, visiting with the customers and cooking Sandy handled much of the day to day operations of the restaurant “I couldn’t have done it without Sandy,” John smiled, giving credit to his wife.
“There’s nothing better than a great cheeseburger,” declared Sandy and at Johnny B’s that means all the ingredients are fresh, never frozen. Using a just in time inventory purchase plan to keep everything as fresh as possible John pointed out, “We don’t even have a freezer.” With fresh burgers, hand-cut fries, and milkshakes made the old-fashioned way, just like his Dad did, John has started his own tradition here in Southlake. He even honored the Dragon tradition with his special creation, the “Dragon Burger,” a fire-breathing jalapeno laden burger that packs a punch.
The real credit for their success, according to John and Sandy, goes to the “fun factor” at their restaurant giving them continued staying power despite the ups and downs of the economy. “This is our place and we want nothing more than to be here. It’s all about the food, having the best quality, and the fun,” John said. One of the most enjoyable parts about the restaurant business for the Finlaysons is the kids, both the customer’s children and their employees. “We see babies have their first French fry here. There is nothing like seeing a 7 or 8 year old taste one of our burgers after they’ve been used to the fast food industry,” John declared. Sandy chimed in, “Our favorite part of the year is summer when all the kids come back to work.”
Competition doesn’t bother John, he welcomes it with complete faith that after people try a burger elsewhere they’ll be back. “We have a really loyal clientele, no partners so we have less pressure, we’re in a very good niche,” John said. He pointed out that even when consumers are cutting back on fine dining Johnny B’s has a good price point that keeps them in the game.
With more than thirty years in the restaurant business, Dave Garner left corporate America behind to open his own Southlake restaurant with his wife, Mary. Since Wildwood Grill opened in late 2009 the restaurant has truly become quite the family affair. Mary works alongside Dave, as does their son Evan, a Carroll grad and son Alec, who will be graduating from Carroll in spring of next year.
After studying the culinary arts at college in Kansas, Dave went to work for W.R. Grace in their restaurant division working on the franchise and global development side of the business, opening restaurant units throughout the country and around the world. On one of those trips in 1986 Dave met his wife-to-be while opening a restaurant in St. Louis and he and Mary spent the first few years of their marriage moving about with Dave’s career.
Moving the family to Southlake in 1993, Dave worked with Brinkers for the next 12 years opening restaurants around the world including the first Macaroni Grill in Asia that kept him away from the family for an entire month. After all the years or corporate moves and business travel it was time for Dave to put the suitcase on the shelf and put his expertise to work in his own restaurant. Choosing the location wasn’t a problem; the family had eaten in the earlier incarnations of the Wildwood building as a Southlake family. Dave said, “We always thought it was a great location. It had great parking and more visibility than some other locations we considered. Besides, the location was in our own community, the place we live and where we go to church.”
Success in the restaurant business isn’t an easy task and for an owner-operated operation there is no large corporation behind the scenes to fall back on. But Dave thrives on the independence of having a single location, “I’ve been in this business my whole life, I have good instincts as to what works,” Dave commented. At Wildwood Dave and Mary believe it’s a mix of things that set them apart from the “chain” restaurants. “We have true chefs with culinary talent and the freedom to create their own, unique menu items,” Dave said. “We use a wood-fired grill, most places use gas to power their grills.” Dave also pointed out, “We listen to what people want. People told us they wanted more salads for summer, we now have 6 entrée salads on our menu this summer.”
Finding and retaining good employees has never been a problem for Wildwood either. Dave mentioned that they have several bartenders, wait staff, kitchen staff, and chefs who have been with them from the very beginning and retaining good employees helps maintain continuity and consistency. “When you actually live where you work,” Dave said, “you have kind of an up on the owners that don’t. You can utilize all the right vehicles; you know your customers and they are the folks you see around town, the people you go to church with. The local kids work for you.”
At Wildwood they truly are part of the community, working with many charitable organizations, doing food for events like being at CEF every year and cooking for Metroport Meals on Wheels. The future looks bright for Dave and, Mary and the Wildwood family. Dave summed it up, “Southlake has its own niche market and I expect it to continue to do so. The massive construction in the area surrounding us has made things a challenge for everyone but we see even more success down the road.”
These Southlake restaurateurs are proof that consumers still appreciate the personal touch that comes with dining at a “Mom and Pop” shop. Add in quality food at a reasonable price, friendly staff, and a place where they call you by your name and you’ve got a recipe for success. Restaurants come and go but these three very special places will be with us long after the others leave. In the never-ending restaurant wars Feedstore BBQ, Johnny B’s, and Wildwood Grill are winning all the battles.