Someday we’ll find it, the kolache connection. The Texans, the East Enders, and you.
Photo by cemaxx.
THE NEXT FRONTIER
Chris Davis knows his way around fire. The 6th generation Texan and owner of Alamo BBQ was cooking over an open flame long before he smoked his first rack of ribs at his Church Hill restaurant.
He really got started thanks to a heated pool.
Davis tells the story of his brother, “Scott from Texas,” aka “Rooster,” aka “Full Throttle”–“a nut,” according to Chris–who found a particularly inventive way to run up an enormous gas bill: “It gets cold in East Texas in the winter. He put a heater on his swimming pool and ran it around the clock. He had steam coming off his pool in January and February.”
“He basically tried to extort money from us–me, and Clarence and Curt–for the bill,” Chris laughs. “But we said no, and the gas got shut off.” So “Scott from Texas” installed an electric hot water heater, gas be damned! But the stove ran on gas, so from then on, the boys cooked their food over a fire pit instead. Chris quickly realized that cooking over fire was something he was born to do.
Fast forward ten years, and Davis has moved to Richmond and is working in a cubicle doing a tech support job. He’s less than thrilled. He decides to take the leap to pursue what he really wants to do, smoke meat all day, thanks in part to the encouragement of his brother and friends.
“I was giving enough brisket away and getting enough feedback to know we had a marketable product. I was thinking about it all the time. There were hunks of hickory and mesquite on my desk.” His brother Scott pays him a visit and, after a drive over to Church Hill, he tells Davis he’s found the perfect spot–a crumbling former taco shop on the corner of Jefferson Avenue. Shortly thereafter, Davis signs the lease and starts work on what will become Alamo BBQ.
He made the place his life, secretly living in a shed behind the building for months as construction was being completed. “Back then I thought if we did $300 to $500 a day in sales, we had ‘made it,'” he remembers. “Everyone I knew thought I was crazy.” For the next seven years, Chris built his brand, watching praise pour in for Alamo’s Texas-style brisket, ribs, and signature sides like cowboy beans and jalapeño mac and cheese. Alamo had become a shrine of Texas barbecue.
But as its following grew, Alamo stayed the same size. The building, which didn’t start out in the best shape back in 2009, desperately needed repairs. Landlord Tom Brickman agreed to meet Davis halfway with any necessary renovations, but there just wasn’t enough potential in that tiny corner of real estate for the kind of business Alamo could generate, not to mention the fact that Davis would have to shut down the operation entirely to complete the project he envisioned. He needed to find a completely separate kitchen, one that could take some of the pressure off the restaurant.
When Sarahfran’s went out of business in 2013, Davis thought the location at 412 N. 25th Street would be a great fit, but the deal slipped through his fingers until this year when he was finally able to buy the building. The location comes with more than just an auxillary kitchen. It also provides a 45-person dining area on a street that’s becoming established as a true RVAdine hotspot. It’s a great opportunity.
Davis’s partner Juliette Highland explains, “Originally, the idea was a diner with a Cajun flair, and the name ‘Boudreaux’s’ was a good fit. It also happens to be the name of our much-loved Doberman. Now the central theme of the restaurant is specialty meats, especially grilled and rotisserie, so we wanted to develop a name that has more of a connection to Alamo. ‘Frontier’ seemed more fitting.”
Davis has big plans for the space–opening the bricked-up facade and installing huge sliding windows. “It still needs a ton of work. I really understand what ‘a can of worms’ means now.” Davis says he plans to knock out a wall separating the two sides of the space to expand seating. He’ll focus the restaurant around an exclusively wood-burning rotisserie grill, which will constantly be cooking whole animals and large cuts of specialty meats. Meat will be the main attraction at Frontier.
The new venture will be a chance for Davis to show another side of the food he loves, says Highland: “Alamo is nationally acclaimed and loved locally, but it is a fast casual place. Frontier will be a little more upscale (but still with a modest price point) as a sit-down restaurant. Also, the building and kitchen are much bigger, so it’s possible to have a more expansive and creative menu.”
You can expect ribs and brisket of course, plus rotisserie chicken. While the menu is still in the planning phase, Chris and Juliette say they’re inspired by dishes like the roasted goat tacos at Cadillac Bar in Houston. It’s that kind of bold flavor with simple, straightforward ingredients that Frontier’s menu will gravitate toward. But no matter what ends up on the menu, the concept will be all Texas: “Texas is just so big, you have so many influences of food,” says Davis. “East Texas is bayou country…It’s a border state, so TexMex is huge. There’s lot of German and Czech. There’s so much seafood,” says Chris. “A road trip across texas can really be a culinary extravaganza.”
Davis and Highland were recently awarded a $25,000 SEED grant (Supporting East End Entrepreneurship Development) from Bon Secours, Capital One, and the Virginia Local Initiatives Support Corporation. Davis says the money will allow them to speed up their timeline considerably. “We may actually be able to open in 2016,” he laughs.
When Heather Horak came to Richmond on a six-month contract as a home care physical therapist, she found a lot to love–a great team of coworkers; plenty of fun food festivals, restaurants, and markets; and good old romance. But she didn’t find one very important thing–kolache.
Growing up in San Antonio and later moving to Houston, Horak says the Czech-Texan (henceforth “Czechan”) pastry was everywhere. “It’s been a part of my life always,” says Horak. As soon as she got settled in Richmond, locating the nearest kolache was a priority: “I said, OK, surely somebody has kolaches here. Everywhere I went, I said, ‘This would be a perfect place.’ But nobody has kolaches!”
There was a kolache-sized hole in Horak’s heart that she decided she would just have to fill herself. That’s when she came up with the idea to start her own business. “It really was because I just love to eat them. I grew up with kolaches…They really have a cult following.”
A kolache can draw comparisons with a doughnut or even a bialy. It’s basically a yeasted pastry with a filling/topping of both sweet and savory varieties. “I like any ones with jalapeños in them, any spicy ones,” says Horak. “They’re not a gourmet food. They’re a really basic food. I hope to put a gourmet kind of spin on it, but sausage and jalapeño is my favorite because it’s what I grew up with.”
Horak explains how she makes the kolache, starting with a yeast sponge and then adding flour and sugar, plus cream cheese in the case of the the fat and fluffy sweet kolache. After a first rise, she adds the fillings–anything from caramelized red onion and goat cheese with thyme to chorizo and sweet potato–and then they rise a second time before baking.
Horak plans to offer breakfast kolache as well, with flavors like bacon and egg and sausage gravy, plus a few sweet options, like the roasted grape kolache she came up with on a whim. She’ll also be enlisting the help of her friend, pastry chef Rose McAdoo of Luckybird Bakery and Nine Cakes in Brooklyn, to help her standardize and perfect her recipes.
They’re the ideal walking breakfast/snack/lunch, and Horak sees a natural place for them at the farmers markets, where she hopes to be able to offer them for between $2.00 and $5.00 each, depending on bells and whistles. From there, she plans to sell her kolache wholesale at coffee shops and grocery stores in the area.
But before she can do any of that, she’ll need to find a production kitchen. Thanks to a $5,000 SEED grant, she’ll be able to purchase kitchen equipment, a heated display, a generator, and a tow-hitch for her Honda Fit. For Horak, the money is nice, necessary in fact, but there’s something even more important.
“I’m such a new business owner. It’s the partnerships [that are so important],” she explains. “When Candice [Streett, Executive Director of Virginia LISC] was up there saying, ‘We have this legal team and Capital One, and these people are going to help with the business plan…’–That’s what I need. The money is wonderful, and I need the money…it’s hard being a small business owner. Banks don’t give money to new business owners, so the money is very helpful, but it’s really the partnerships and the guidance.”
But back to that kitchen. Finding viable kitchen space is the biggest barrier to starting a food-based business in Richmond, and Horak is set on staying in the East End, narrowing her options even further; but there’s a potential partnership very close to home that just might work.
Remember Chris Davis at Frontier? (I hope so because it was mere moments ago when we were talking about him). When Chris delivered his SEED pitch, he mentioned off-hand that he might serve kolache at what he was then still calling Boudreaux’s. “Have you ever heard of them?” Davis asked the roomful of SEED grant panelists. The room erupted with laughter. They had just met Heather Horak seconds before when she introduced the panel to kolache during her own SEED grant pitch.
When Davis and Horak finally met at last week’s SEED grant announcement ceremony at Union Market (a three-time SEED grantee!), they immediately connected over a love of Texas, great food, and of course, Kolache. Horak needs a kitchen, and soon Davis will have an ample one at his disposal. He says he’s hopeful that the two of them can work together, either by sharing the kitchen space or, at least by selling Horak’s kolache out of the Frontier location: “I would love to be able to offer kolaches in the restaurant. Anybody from that part of the country knows it. You don’t really see it outside of Texas. That was pretty neat.”
“It’s so funny because part of my business proposal was that I was going to go door-to-door and give kolaches to my neighbors to get the word out on what kolaches were,” says Horak. “People were like,
‘No one’s gonna know what kolaches are. How are you going to get the word out?’ and I was like, ‘I’m just going to give free samples,'” but fortunately, Horak says, thanks to press surrounding the SEED grant ceremony and the partnerships she’s begun to make through Virginia LISC, “It hasn’t been that hard to get the word out.”
— ∮∮∮ —
Learn more about the other 2015 SEED grantees here! We love SEED grant season!