Out with the old, in with the … old
By Scott Nishimura
Photography by Jill Johnson
West Side Cafe’s customers, thrilled by the restaurant’s familiar new owners, want no changes. Fine, the owners say
The West Side Cafe, a Fort Worth institution for more than 20 years, was quickly reminded of customers’ adoration when news broke this summer that a familiar group of managers and local entrepreneurs had banded together to buy the restaurant and keep its “Country Cookin’” going.
But the effort to reach the deal was complicated and raised the possibility the restaurant might end up closing.
“There were about six months when I thought West Side Cafe was closing,” said Joel Hancock, the cafe’s longtime general manager and now one of the new owners, in an interview. “Those were a lot of sleepless nights.”
Hancock; his son Brian; Stacy Phillips, another of the restaurant’s longtime managers; and the Westland Restaurant Group (headed by popular Fort Worth restaurateurs Gigi Howell and Bourke Harvey) announced in August they had purchased the cafe.
The group bought the cafe from a family member who inherited it from prior owner Tracey Sanford. Sanford bought the restaurant in 1996, when it had been open for only three months, and owned it until he died in 2021 — cultivating a reputation for comfort food and community along the way.
Hancock was interested in buying the restaurant but first had to determine a valuation. For that, he got help from Harvey, a West Side Cafe regular whose restaurant portfolio includes a number of Jason’s Deli franchises, Curly’s Frozen Custard, Rogers Roundhouse and — most recently — two deals he’s done with Howell: JD’s Hamburgers and Margie’s Italian Gardens, both in far west Fort Worth.
Harvey helped determine an appropriate valuation for the business and put together the deal to buy it, Hancock said. Howell — also a longtime regular customer of the cafe — dove into marketing and has taken over the restaurant’s social media, Hancock said.
“I was supposed to retire in January” of this year, Hancock said. “I’m 65. But now, that’s not going to happen. We’re blessed.”
If Hancock had left the restaurant, it would have had a big impact on the cafe’s longtime employees, Phillips said.
“If he’d have left, most of us would have gone with him,” she said.
The news of the restaurant’s sale generated an outpouring of social media comments — mostly from the camp of customers who don’t want to see any changes. The new owners have no problem with that.
“The main message we want to get out is, nothing changes,” Hancock said. “Same cooks, same recipes. We’re not changing.”
The cafe is open for breakfast and lunch, drawing a lot of customers from the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics plant and a lot of retirees. “A lot of them, it’s their social event of the day,” Hancock says of the retirees. “People ask what we’re like. It’s ‘Cheers’ without alcohol.”
While some social media commenters want the cafe open for dinner, that has not worked in the past. The cafe lost money doing it, Hancock said.
“We don’t have alcohol, we don’t have TVs, we’re not a destination for dinner,” he said. “It costs us money to stay open.”
The restaurant wants to expand its catering business. It has sold breakfast through ezCater, DoorDash and Uber Eats since the pandemic began, and Phillips added menu options like fruit trays to broaden the appeal.
“We’re hoping on expanding [catering] into lunch,” Hancock said. “But we don’t want to interfere with the inhouse business.”
One challenge: A staple of the restaurant — its chicken-fried steak — doesn’t travel well as a catering choice.
The cafe came back quickly after COVID, Hancock said. The restaurant converted to 100 percent to-go orders for up to four months after COVID surfaced.
“We didn’t think we were going to make it through,” he said. “Thanks to our loyal customers, we rebounded quickly.”
The cafe has more than 60 employees today, many of whom have been there for two decades or more. The owners determined their cooks have an average tenure of 19 years; three of them have been with the cafe for more than 25 years.
“We try to be more than a restaurant,” said Hancock, whose son worked in distribution and construction before joining the restaurant’s owner group. “We get that from Tracey. It’s a family.”