Restaurateur Marcus Paslay takes the Near Southside bait, opens Walloon’s to fill gap in seafood

By dani2011dhs@gmail.comSeptember 6, 2023No Comments

Restaurateur Marcus Paslay takes the Near Southside bait, opens Walloon’s to fill gap in seafood

By Natalie Lozano Trimble
Photography by Nancy Farrar

Opening weekend at Walloon’s Restaurant was busy but lacked the chaos often associated with a restaurant’s first few days. Servers greeted guests like old friends — many of them fans of Marcus Paslay’s other concepts and eager to see his new offering in Fort Worth’s historic Near Southside.

Paslay’s restaurant group, From Scratch Hospitality, launched the concept in late July at West Magnolia Avenue and Hemphill Street, less than three months after acquiring Mercado Juarez Cafes and its locations in Fort Worth and Arlington.

Also on From Scratch’s plate are Provender Hall in the Fort Worth Stockyards and Piattello Italian Kitchen in the Waterside development, which opened in 2020 and 2017, respectively. Both survived the COVID-19 pandemic. And in December, Paslay’s Clay Pigeon in west Fort Worth celebrates 10 years.

So what’s his secret?

“It is a demanding business, but the way we’re able to do it is a lot of really good people on the team,” Paslay says. “We have phenomenal managers and staff that really take a lot of pride in what they do.”

Paslay’s casual Italian concept in Fort Worth’s Waterside development, serves up a lot of favorites like tomato mozzarella pizza that Paslay’s family loves.

Creating a menu for a restaurant is a joint effort. From Scratch’s executive chef, Scott Lewis, plays a big part in the process.

The two “collaborate on big ideas, like theme, and start brainstorming,” Paslay says. “What if we do a raw bar, what if we do this or that. And through talking it out over the course of several months, we’ll whittle it down to a rough draft menu. Then he’ll go to work on recipes, costing it out; it’s a process. It takes us quite a while to hone in on what the final menu is.”

Walloon’s describes its fare as “Gulf Coast classics elevated to perfection.” A raw bar complements entrees such as seared redfish and Moules Marinières, plus a mix of sandwiches, including a lobster roll and an Italian beef sandwich served with au jus.

From Scratch’s emphasis on freshness means menus change seasonally, though Walloon’s will have some items available year-round. At opening, the tuna crudo featured chili oil and Pecos melons, a Texas specialty available for only a short window.

Although he’s often asked what his favorite dishes are, for Paslay, the fun is finding out what everyone else prefers. “Once a month goes by, when we go back and look at the sales reports … I’m excited to see what the public likes.”

Success isn’t measured by local enthusiasm for the latest venture, though. “What I’m most proud of is when we open a new restaurant, the quality of our other restaurants doesn’t take a dip,” Paslay says. “We don’t want to grow if that means our other ones suffer.”

It seems to help that From Scratch’s concepts are spread across Fort Worth, rather than being concentrated in a single neighborhood, an approach that’s different from similar restaurant groups. Paslay’s method is to start with the location and then determine what the area is missing.

Walloon’s is the group’s first Near Southside venture. “It’s definitely been on our radar for a while,” Paslay says. “I’ve always wanted to do a restaurant over here. The fact that this has a parking garage is a big plus. With that problem being solved, it freed us up to say yes and get creative.”

Walloon’s anchors the east end of West Magnolia Avenue’s lineup of restaurants and bars.

But initially, he wanted to pass. It had only been two years since Paslay opened Provender Hall mid-pandemic.

“The landlord called me after they purchased the building,” Paslay says, “and I kind of turned him down three or four times, and he said, ‘Come look at it. If you don’t like it, I’ll never call you again.’”

Seeing the former bank in person was all it took.

“It was a hair salon at the time, but the ceilings were here, the terrazzo floor was there, and immediately, I was coming up with ideas,” he says. “I called my wife and said, ‘I think we need to do another one.’ She was super supportive.”

Menu ideas came from the space. It “has kind of an old school New Orleans [or] Charleston vibe,” Paslay says. “Knowing that seafood is a void in the market, I thought it was a really good fit.” It wasn’t just the neighborhood he had in mind, though. Fort Worth has fried fish places and high-end seafood but not much in between, Paslay says.

While Gulf Coast is an apt description of the style of dishes, it’s not necessarily the source.

“We’ll call our fish broker, and he’s in touch with people all over the world,” Paslay says of bringing high-quality, fresh seafood to landlocked Fort Worth. “He’ll send us a price sheet, ‘This is what they’re catching over here and how much it is,’ and we’ll call and order 20 pounds of this, and the next morning we have it. It’s really impressive.”

Although Paslay didn’t grow up dreaming of being a restaurateur, he loves the adrenaline that comes with opening a new place.

“You never get it perfect, so there’s always something to learn,” he says. “Over the years, we’ve learned the importance of the vibe — the way you feel when you’re in a space. If you can create an atmosphere that people feel good and comfortable, and your food and service are consistently good, then you’re in a really good spot.”

From Scratch has shown that outstanding service isn’t impossible, even in an industry with high turnover.

“You have to pay well, but beyond that, we build restaurants that people can be proud of and excited to work in,” Paslay says.

It’s also important to “promote from within a lot, and that gives people a sense of future, which is good. And a lot of small, kind-of-independent restaurant groups don’t offer any benefits, but we do.”

Walloon’s is also distinctive in that Paslay’s wife, Emily, has become more hands-on. She is a physical therapist and works as a professor at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.

Emily and Marcus Paslay and their two children enjoy dinner at the new Walloon’s Restaurant on Fort Worth’s Near Southside.

“She’s good at all the things I’m not good at,” Paslay says. The couple met as juniors in high school and started at the University of Oklahoma together.

Reflecting on their relationship, Emily Paslay says, “I am surprised that we have taken risks, we have failed at both business and life, and by the grace of God we continue to grow.

“I think what made this restaurant different for me was being involved in the branding process,” she says. “We hired a branding company, General Public, who helped us thoughtfully and intentionally create the brand of Walloon’s.”

General Public suggested the mermaid that graces signage on the building’s corner at Hemphill and West Magnolia. “I was able to be a part of those meetings, which was exciting and enlightening, and our kids even attended a few meetings, too,” Emily Paslay says. “It was really special to make this a family investment, from creation of the brand all the way to hanging the sign.”

The name comes from Wallonia, a region in Belgium with a rich history, and from Walloon Lake, Michigan, where Emily’s family has a home. The menu’s Hemingway Daquiri pays homage to the writer’s childhood connection to the area.

Classic cocktails figure prominently on the drink menu, along with wine at various price points and a handful of beers.

“They really put a lot of effort into the bar program,” Paslay says of the effort led by From Scratch’s director of operations, Kellen Hamrah.

With so much success in executing original concepts, the acquisition of Mercado Juarez Cafes might seem unexpected. It started with a question over lunch.

Paslay was meeting with a real estate broker who asked what he was looking for next. The answer? Paslay wanted to own the real estate that housed his next venture.

“We do with Clay Pigeon but not with the other concepts — and (the broker) said, ‘I have something that’s not on the market yet, but it does include the real estate.’” He was referring to Mercado Juarez Cafes.

“The more we looked at it and dug into the books [we] realized the potential that was there,” Paslay says. From Scratch has no plans to change up the Mercado Juarez menu but instead aims “to add whatever we can from an operations standpoint.”

The first addition surprised some people in Fort Worth’s close-knit culinary community: hiring Reata’s Russell Kirkpatrick as the operations director.

Although the move was unexpected, it made perfect sense to those who know Paslay’s background. Twenty years earlier, as a student at OU, he realized his learning style didn’t match the classroom instruction. While dropping out meant moving back in with “amazing, supportive parents,” it also offered him time “trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.” He ended up being hired by Kirkpatrick as a cook at Johnny Carino’s in Mansfield.

The two stayed in touch over the years. When Kirkpatrick and Reata owner Mike Micallef cofounded the Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival, Paslay was an inaugural participant. At the time, he was preparing to open Clay Pigeon. Kirkpatrick suggested that Paslay partner with Rough Creek Lodge at the festival in case Clay Pigeon wasn’t open in time. Paslay’s restaurants have been a regular at the festival ever since.

When thinking through the Mercado Juarez opportunity, Kirkpatrick immediately came to mind. “I knew I needed a partner … with the chops to do it,” Paslay says, going so far as to add that it was “probably something I wouldn’t have done without him.”

The kitchen job at Johnny Carino’s impacted more than Kirkpatrick’s career; it also led Paslay to pursue additional education, this time at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

“It’s very hands-on,” Paslay says. “It’s a trade school, and I really thrived in that environment when I was able to put my hands on the work. I loved it, and school became something that was a success story for me.”

Not into seafood? The Walloon’s menu has everything from burgers to Italian beef sandwiches and steaks.

This realization inspired the launch of the Paslay Foundation in 2021, which partners with Fort Worth organizations and professionals who support children with learning differences. Paslay attributes his struggles in school to dyslexia.

Like many restaurant owners, Paslay has received numerous requests for donations to charities. “We say yes to a lot of it, and Emily and I were just looking at an annualized picture of it, thinking, ‘How can we be more intentional?’”

The Paslays knew they could “throw a really good fundraiser and it wouldn’t cost us that much to do, so that’s what we did.” Last year, the Paslay Foundation transformed Clay Pigeon into a casino for one evening. With a free venue and alcohol donated by local distributors, the foundation was able to give away much of the money raised from selling 150 tickets at $1,000 each.

Emily Paslay is one of the foundation’s three founding partners, along with her husband and his father, R. Clay Paslay. “We have learned that many of the wonderful people and organizations doing the work with Fort Worth kids with learning differences do not enjoy or do not know how to host a fundraiser,” she says. “We, likewise, do not know how to assess or tutor kids but are no less passionate about helping.”

Last year, the foundation gave money to the Hill School of Fort Worth and the Hope Center for Autism. This year, the foundation is again supporting the Hill School, as well as Literacy United.

Their second annual fundraiser in October will be another event at Clay Pigeon.

“It’s essentially going to be a cirque-style show,” Paslay explains, “something you would buy a ticket to anyway, and we’re gonna throw in dinner.”

“We hope to bring financial support and awareness to these organizations through hospitality,” Emily Paslay says. “Ideally, every Fort Worth kid between kinder and third grade gets access to resources they need to help them reach their reading potential.”

With so much on their plates, the Paslays still prioritize time as a family. That includes dining out at Piattello, because the kids “can play in the [Waterside] Grove, and we can have a glass of wine,” Paslay says. “[There’s] not many places you can take your kids and have a great meal.”

Is a restaurant opening outside Tarrant County in the works? “Never say never. We’re open to whatever makes sense,” Paslay says.