5 local women restaurateurs talk about business ownership and a shared determination
By Scott Nishimura and Tori Couch
Photos by Olaf Growald
It took just a few minutes after the start of 360West’s roundtable interview in October with five restaurateurs — all women, founders and principal operators — for us to realize we needn’t have worried about prepping a lot of questions.
Our participants — Sarah Castillo (Taco Heads, Tinies, Sidesaddle Saloon, La Pulga tequila); Gigi Howell (JD’s Hamburgers, West Side Cafe, Margie’s Italian Garden); Amy McNutt (Spiral Diner, Maiden Fine Plants & Spirits, Dreamboat Vegan Donuts & Scoops); Beth Newman (Mason & Dixie); and Kari Crowe Seher (MELT Ice Creams) — took our lead and ran with it during the interview at The Woman’s Club of Fort Worth. They bantered, asked questions of each other, drew inspiration from the longevity (at least nine years of ownership for all but Howell) in the room, commiserated about staffing, talked of organized visits to their places and even offered to help one owner find a manager. We edited our transcript for brevity and clarity.
Tell us how you got into this industry. Who or what inspired you?
McNutt: My inspiration was wanting to open a place where people can go and have an animalfree meal. I did have a mentor, a lady who owned a vegan restaurant in Westwood, California. And she let me watch and pick her brain and her manager’s brain.
Crowe Seher: I did something really similar.
McNutt: Oh, yeah? Tell us.
Crowe Seher: I know, but I have more questions. How did you decide (to do vegan) in a meat-andpotatoes town like Fort Worth? It’s still swimming against the grain, right?
McNutt: I guess that’s kind of the point — to show people even in a place like Cowtown that there’s options other than cow.
Amy McNutt Spiral Diner, Maiden Fine Plants & Spirits, Dreamboat Donuts & Scoops
Launch: Founded vegan Spiral Diner in 2002, as a downtown lunch counter. Moved to West Magnolia Avenue, then opened the Denton location. This year, opened the vegan Maiden fine dining concept and the vegan Dreamboat donuts and “ice cream” joint off of West Magnolia. Working on retiring from day-to-day operation of Spiral Diner to focus on being executive chef of Maiden.
Sarah Castillo Taco Heads, Tinies, Sidesaddle Saloon, La Pulga
Launch: Founded Taco Heads out of a food trailer in 2010 while working two jobs. Subsequently opened three brick-and-mortar Taco Heads (closed one of them), Tinies in Fort Worth’s South Main Village and Sidesaddle Saloon in Fort Worth Stockyards. This year, launched La Pulga, a producer of tequila and other spirits. Focusing on buildup of La Pulga to include national distribution. “No more restaurants.”
Kari Crowe Seher MELT Ice Creams
Launch: Founded MELT in a $900-a-month West Rosedale Street space in 2014, moved to West Magnolia Avenue, has four stores and is outfitting a new 10,000-square-foot production kitchen, with a goal of 10-15 craft ice cream shops.
Gigi Howell JD’s Hamburgers, West Side Cafe, Margie’s Italian Garden
Launch: Longtime Reata employee — with restaurateur Bourke Harvey and others — is revitalizing historic Westland along Highway 80 on Fort Worth’s far west side. Opened JD’s Hamburgers a year ago. Bought Margie’s and is gutting it and working on reopening in December or January. Nearby, plans a bar called Fuel Stop 80 in an old gas station and a Mexican restaurant called La Iglesia in an old church. This year, purchased West Side Cafe with the Harvey group and cafe’s longtime managers.
Beth Newman Mason & Dixie
Launch: Entered catering and interior design after a divorce. Started in an antique market in Grapevine where she served lunch and moved into her current spot on downtown Grapevine’s popular Main Street more than six years ago. She expanded into the neighboring storefront and celebrates 10 years on Nov. 1. “And it’s all been out of necessity,” she says.
Crowe Seher: I was a photographer and had my own business, and I had started shooting food for a small magazine here in Fort Worth. And I got to know chefs and restaurateurs, and I fell in love with the culture of food and hospitality. But also, I remember the day that I photographed Sarah [Castillo’s] trailer, and I remember thinking this is the hardest job in the world. Why would anybody choose this? But I also still felt very much like this is my next career. And loved the creativity of ice cream. I was an art major in college and just loved how ice cream is this palette for creativity. So, I drove around the country. I would talk to anybody who would let me interview their employees. I came back [to Fort Worth] and didn’t have a clue, was planning on just doing events like popping up at farmers markets and things like that. And then this little building was available and I went, ‘Why not?’ And my husband was like, ‘There’s a million reasons why not.’
Howell: That’s the place on Rosedale?
Crowe Seher: That was the place on Rosedale, yeah. It was $900 a month.
Howell: Whoa. Is that place still available?
Crowe Seher: Five parking spots. Howell (moving on): I grew up in a family where every Wednesday, we all went to my grandmother’s house and had lunch; she cooked unbelievable food. My grandmother told us all the time that the best good manner you can have is making people feel comfortable no matter the situation. I’ve always tried to be that way. And then for my first job, I worked at Celebration Restaurant. And I met Ed Lowe, the owner, who was unbelievable at hospitality. And I lit up; that was it for me. My dad, I’ll never forget, took me to Hoffbrau on University and said, ‘You will go to college. You are not working in a restaurant until you get out of college and figure out what you want to do.’ He just thought I was damning my life. And so I did what I was supposed to do and I got a job.
Crowe Seher: What did you get your degree in?
Howell: Nutrition, which means nothing if y’all know me. Donuts and Dr Pepper every morning. So, I went to get a job at Reata because Celebration was closing. And I got to the point where I was the guest service manager, which meant I got to walk around and talk to all the tables. I loved what I was doing. Then I started hearing, ‘Why are you doing this? Why don’t you open your own place?’ Because I always wanted to. Bourke Harvey, who is my business partner, we said 30 years ago when we met the first time, ‘We are going to do something together one day.’ So, when I started having these thoughts, I went to Bourke, and he was able to come up with things in Westland, which is where JD’s is, and he was like, ‘What do you think?’ And I was like, ‘Well, my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my great aunts and uncles built their own homes on this street, the same street where we would have family Wednesday lunches, the same street where my grandmother forced on us to always make sure that people felt comfortable.’ And I was like, ‘Well, yes, this is it.’ It was a dump. But it was just the right spot.
Castillo: I didn’t think I was always going to be in the restaurant industry. Went to UT in Austin, then left, lived in Aspen for a year, in New York and then Spain, then came back home, and I thought I was going to be back to Austin. When I was living in New York, I worked for a boutique hotel. That’s the path I thought I was going to go into. [Back home in Fort Worth], I was working two jobs — Texas Rangers during the day and Eddie V’s at night — and getting to know the customers there and our managers. We were just a big old family. Someone invited us to go play golf at Mira Vista, so I told the guys, ‘Hey, I’m going to make breakfast tacos.’ So, that night, I had a dream that I had a food truck, and I started telling my mom about it. Then finally she was like, ‘You know you can do this.’ All the money I was saving to move to Austin, I decided to build a little food trailer. I’m a very social butterfly, so I like to go out and party and then go get some food, and we just didn’t have that here. And so that’s kind of the reason why that popped up.
McNutt: How long did you have the trailer before brick-and-mortar?
Castillo: Six years.
Howell: That’s pretty quick.
Castillo: It seemed like forever, because people started [having me cater] events and I closed down late-night, so I wouldn’t get home until 4 or 5 a.m. and then turn around, do a catering event and be there serving by 11:30, and then take a nap and then do it again. But it was fun. People would bring us shots. I didn’t feel like I was missing out. My dad, whenever I moved back, he was like, ‘Go work at Lockheed Martin.’ My friends said I was crazy.
Howell: Yeah, but it’s not like work. Because it’s fun.
McNutt: What do your friends think now? I bet they’re buying your tequila, aren’t they?
Castillo: They sure are.
Crowe Seher: My parents might have talked me out of the ice cream shop. They were just so confused by it.
Howell: I think working in a restaurant a long time ago was way different than being in a restaurant now. It was viewed differently. You didn’t have the Food Network, you didn’t have all that stuff where people can see that it’s actually really cool and really fun and it’s worthwhile to you and other people who work there and people who come in. It’s a community.
Howell (to Castillo): What’s up with the tequila? How did you get into that, and when did that start?
Castillo: I fell in love with tequila, one, just going to visit distilleries. I just fell in love with the process. And then also once we opened Tinies, really getting into additive-free tequilas, I started nerding out on tequila. My current business partner, Andrew De La Torre, ran the flea market at University and Jacksboro Highway. He came up to me one weekend, and said, ‘Hey, I have this property I’d be up to preserve. Would you meet me to just bounce ideas about saving the property?’ So, I met him out there. We just bounced ideas and finally he was throwing out ideas like event space, more restaurants. And this was right during COVID, and I was like, ‘Absolutely not.’
Howell: You lost your damn mind.
Castillo: Yeah. I was like, ‘No more restaurants.’ You all have been through it; it was so hard. Then [De La Torre] was like, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ And I was like, ‘Actually, my endgame is tequila.’ So, he was asking more questions. ‘Have you ever heard of sotol [distillate]?’
Howell: So you’ll do sotol and tequila?
Castillo: Right now we just have blanco, reposado and anejo tequilas. Eventually, we’ll have a sotol distillery on the property.
Crowe Seher: That’s so awesome.
Castillo: Thank you. I wish I brought some.
Crowe Seher: Me too. Get it, Sarah. Newman: I got into catering and interior design after my divorce … all the kids and no money. I started in the Grapevine antique market and cooked at home for three-and-a-half years and brought food up there every day and ran the lunch spot. And then went into my current space on Main Street, was there for a year, then the sweet ladies next door went out of business my second year and I took that over. Third year was beer and wine. Fourth year was Chick & Biscuit [a stall at Grapevine’s downtown Harvest Hall that didn’t take off as Newman hoped]. I never worked in a restaurant, really never dreamed of having a restaurant. I’ve always had a passion for food. I love the communal part of food. But to be very transparent, I don’t love the restaurant industry. I’m super burned out. I don’t have a manager. It’s just me doing (everything). And closing Chick & Biscuit was a big, big deal. That was supposed to be my moneymaker. Mason & Dixie, passion. Chick & Biscuit made money. (But staffing issues were too difficult.) Which is really sad, because I was really proud of the menu.
McNutt: Yeah. Staffing has been so hard since COVID. Everybody got paid to stay home, and it’s been hard to get back to normal. You all alluded to different challenges with operating a restaurant. Staffing, COVID. How have you adjusted?
Crowe Seher: I treat every lease differently now. I will find people who have that same landlord and ask them about the experience that they had during COVID. I interview everybody I can. I’m not going to partner with a landlord or developer that is not going to treat me with respect.
Howell: I would say on staffing I decided that I wasn’t going to start hiring or keep hiring people with experience. You get people who think they did it better at a different place, or ‘I can show you how to do this’ or whatever the case may be. I’m open to suggestions, and some of them are great, but what I’ve decided to start doing is just hire people because they’re kind.
Crowe Seher: Turnover’s actually good for my business. We’re so seasonal, we have to turn over our staff going into the fall. My leaders are who I need to stay, who the business relies on. The other positions, my goal is to train them up to have skills they can take into another job, and we have to cut down on the time that training takes. Being women in this industry, are there situations in which you were treated differently than men?
Crowe Seher: Hell, yes.
McNutt: Absolutely. If my husband’s with me, they address him. And I’m like, ‘He doesn’t even work here.’ Crowe Seher: I think people will downplay our intelligence as a female in the industry.
McNutt: Construction is a whole other nightmare.
Crowe Seher: And then you add on the city of Fort Worth permitting. I don’t think this should be a secret anymore, but Fort Worth is not friendly to business owners.
Another participant: Oh God, don’t start.
Crowe Seher: I feel like we haven’t given good examples of how men have treated us. Does anybody else have good examples?
McNutt: I’ll say when I was starting out, I was so young that I kind of had the opposite experience. I choose to surround myself with incredible men, because I was 22 when I started. I felt like they all treated me like a daughter.
Crowe Seher: The guys in the Fort Worth food scene have been absolutely supportive.
Castillo: There has been a group of men who have been so supportive. Where I parked my trailer was at 7th Haven
Howell: My partner [Bourke Harvey] is absolutely incredible. Things that I don’t understand, he wants to make sure that I understand and then move on. And he understands that by teaching me, I become a better partner. How did you all finance what you do?
McNutt: Well, my very first spot at the market downtown, my mom took out a second mortgage and gave me $50,000 to start that place. Then the move from downtown to Magnolia was financed by micro loans that I took out from customers. We did a 10% annual return, and there are people who would put in $500, $1,000 dollars. I think our biggest one was $5,000, which to me at the time might as well have been a million dollars. And we paid them all back over a little less than five years. Because we couldn’t get a loan.
Newman: I’ve always self-funded, but not in a rich way. I got money from my grandmother in an inheritance. I bought a Jeep when I was married and could show in the divorce that cash was paid for that Jeep. That enabled me to sell and put a down payment on a house. And then when that [restaurant expansion] space became available, I did a cashback refinance from that house.
Castillo: I built my trailer. It took a year and a half, and I just worked two jobs. At Eddie V’s on Valentine’s night, I made $700. I was so excited, and I turned around and bought a deli prep thing. It was $600, and I was like, ‘Yes, I paid for that. I can put gas in my car, too.’ So, the trailer was all me. And then I met a gentleman named Jacob Watson in an Uber ride, which was really random, and he was my first business partner to open up Taco Heads on Montgomery Street. Then after that, it’s been partners and investors and whatnot.
Howell: And I’m lucky enough that I’ve partnered with Bourke, and he’s an incredible partner, incredible teacher, sounding board, mentor.
Castillo: So he funds the projects?
Howell: We both do. It’s us, and then there’s another little group of people who don’t put in very much money, but maybe it’s a contractor and a Realtor and an AC guy. People who believe in you, that’s what you need.
McNutt: We have a dude who has been our partner ever since we opened Denton. He financed it, and we call him Bank of Bob. He doesn’t take ownership or anything. He just lends us the money like a bank, because we couldn’t get an SBA loan.
Newman: That’s amazing.
Crowe Seher: We self-funded everything; I couldn’t get a loan to save my life. At the beginning, I took a business plan to I don’t know how many banks, and I had a female president of a bank tell me that it wasn’t going to work and that if I had a cosigner for the full amount, she would give me a loan. I did get an SBA line of credit for the first location.
Howell: How did you manage that?
Crowe Seher: $20,000. A banker who just was like, ‘I’ll figure it out.’ She helped me. That was the only money I got. And I knew nothing. We didn’t have a POS [point of sale] system when we opened. We had a calculator and a cash box. I would buy my neighbors beer and pizza and ask them to come and help me paint. So one last question. What’s next for you all?
McNutt: I’ve been very clear with my intentions that I am ready to retire (from day-today operations of Spiral Diner) in the next year. I already have people whom I can trust with Spiral. I’m pretty much 90% retired from Spiral. I’d like to probably forever still be the executive chef at Maiden and do all the beverage director stuff. The creative stuff. I’m trying to wind out of the day-today. I feel like 21, 22 years is a good, good goal.
Newman: I can’t even imagine.
McNutt: But yeah, talk about having good partners and good managers. I wouldn’t be able to even say that if I didn’t have everybody. Crowe Seher: I’m on the growth train. We’ve grown out of our production space, so we’re in the process of designing out a 10,000-square-foot kitchen that will allow us to open more stores. We just bought and retrofitted a horse trailer to be an ice cream truck. Our goal is to have 10 to 15 stores in DFW, and that is the path we’re on.
Newman: Still revisiting Chick & Biscuit, looking for places with a drive-through, doing an upscale drive-through.
Howell: I want to do whatever it takes to rebuild that area where we are on the west side of Fort Worth. JD’s is 9901 Camp Bowie West and Margie’s is 9805, and then there’s an old gas station in between the two, and that’s going to be a little bar called Fuel Stop 80. And then around the corner’s an old church, and that’s going to be La Iglesia. I know it’s a real stretch on the name, but it’s going to be our little Mexican restaurant.
Castillo: It’s mainly just in the spirit side. Which I’m excited about, because we are launching Austin and we’re launching other states. We do have a five-year plan to be nationwide and also launch in Mexico.