We bought an old house in East Austin, 1406 Waller. It was a Victorian style, 1915, built in an area called “Swedes’ Hill” after all the Swedes who lived in the neighborhood and worked for the railroad. One Saturday afternoon, under pressure to make a business card, we toyed around with business names. Neuhaus & Bauer came first. But, this sounded too much like a funeral home. Joe suggested playing on the neighborhood name. We came up with “Sweetish Hill” and Joe painted a giant wooden sign with a pile of sugar on it. Corny. But fun.
The house had served as a dinner theater. All the walls in the front had been removed to make a cozy theater. The plaster and lathe had been replaced with sheetrock, and the spool and wire system was replaced with very expensive commercial wiring. The sheetrock walls had never been painted, but were covered with burlap in order to absorb sound and light.
The house at 1406 Waller sat on a corner lot. To one side was a blacktopped parking lot, shaded by 3 enormous live oaks.
My parents and sisters came that Christmas and donated time to remove the burlap, plaster the walls, and paint them. I don’t remember how long they stayed, but I’m sure the job was enormous. Knowing the energy levels of my parents, I’m sure they accomplished minor miracles.
Before we opened, I spent much of my time sanding the floors, which had been painted by the dinner theater. The entire house was constructed of yellow pine, a tree that termites break their teeth on and therefore eschew. Patricia and I spent many hours stripping the gorgeous front windows of their ancient, cracked varnish, replacing it with high quality, durable stuff. The windows were each made of dozens of very small, diamond-shaped panes, and the front door had a very beautiful, oval, beveled glass window.
In addition to prettifying the front, I cut out walls in the kitchen area, covering the walls with sheetrock and facilitating passage from one room to the next. In the back, we installed a large, commercial refrigerator that we had purchased for a song. In the corner, I cut a large hole in the floor, severing several major joists, and installing a circular staircase into the underneath space. In this space, I rebuilt the outside walls, and also poured concrete footers down to bedrock (only 1 foot down). I jacked up the house and reset it on massive used railroad ties. All of this foundation work was unnecessary, as we never installed anything all that heavy.
In the kitchen, we installed a small dishwasher that we rented for the price of detergent. I was determined to plumb it myself, so without consulting any sources, I cut copper line and used compression fittings. I then turned the water back on and found on entering the kitchen a veritable series of fountains gushing in all directions. I made several more attempts before calling a plumber who charged me time-and-a-half to fix the problems. While I was crawling underneath the house, running amateur electrical lines, I heard the plumber just feed above me cursing about “amateur plumbers.”
All the carpenter work earned me the sobriquet, “El Destructo.”
The day we opened for business, we were several hundred dollars overdrawn. However, a time passed, we gained a loyal following. We were close to the hospital and not all that far from the university, so we were a quiet lunch place. In the beginning, we offered soups and sandwiches. One was a hoagie, which Patricia, being a Philadelphian, designed. It of course had onions macerated in vinegar and oil with dried oregano. We bought Hormel Genoa salami, which was really good. We also did open-faced sandwiches in memory of our times in Austria, where these are popular. I remember doing a “Philadelphia Guacamole”, made with cream cheese and avocado.
We had two bakery cases in the front room, facing the front door. One bakery case I refrigerated by cutting a hole in the floor (more destruction) and paying a HVAC person to install a small air-conditioner; this set-up worked really well.
Every morning we made Viennoiserie (croissants, cinnamon-almond croissants, chocolate croissants, Schnecken, Bear Claws, and a variety of other Danishes.) I rolled all the doughs in the back room, using a large rolling pin. In those days, I could “benchpress” a hundred pound bag of flour.
We also made brownies and chocolate chip cookies, as we quickly learned to cater to the market’s demands. Products like obstkuchen, wildly popular in Austria, simply did not sell well. Americans (Texans) like big, gloppy things with lots of gushy fillings, extremely sweet and rich. Being of sound mind, we weren’t about to cave to the base instincts of those around us. At the same time, we didn’t do like Primo or Secundo of Big Night, stubbornly resist the prevailing wind, and ride our business into the sunset. Aren’t mixed metaphors fun?
I also developed a pastry/cake in honor of each of the partners, and being of dirty mind (nothing like a fallen Lutheran), I named them after certain body parts (excepting mine, of course). One was Sein Cecille, two disks of pie dough sandwiched around a frangipan cream, the top disk having a hole cut out in the center to allow the cream to upwell through it. Another was Pomme Patrice, an apple in French representing the same body part as melon in English. This was a baked apple stuffed with pecans, cinnamon, brown sugar, and raisins wrapped in pie dough to represent a whole apple. Then there was Zizi Joe, a zizi being, well, you know. It was made of a piece of puff pastry wrapped around frangipan cream. And last was Prinz Tom Torte, chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream garnished with toasted almonds. This has stood the test of time, and is still sold at Sweetish Hill Bakery.
The first two years, I lived on the second floor of the house. Before she moved to Austin, Cecille would come up for the weekend. I had a cute little alcove located directly over the dough-rolling room. I would arise at 4 AM and roll out the Viennoiserie and get it in the proof-box.
A couple little stories from that period…
I grew vegetables in the yard at one point—cherry tomatoes and watercress in the effluent from the air conditioner.
At one point, I put three hens and a rooster underneath the house. I cut yet another hole in the floor of the kitchen, closed it with a trapdoor. Whenever we finished extracting the meat off cooked chicken in order to make our fabulous French Chicken Salad (seasoned with homemade mayonnaise and fresh tarragon), I would dump the bones through the trapdoor. The chickens were ecstatic.
I also had a compost heap at the back of the parking lot. It started to smell and either the neighbor behind us (who bore a striking resemblance to Baba Yaga) or a customer persuaded us to get rid of the thing.