Certain items became signature products for us. There’s a song, “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” One of us (Patricia, I, or maybe an early employee) came up with the Heart in the Deep of Texas cookie. This is a butter cookie cut into Texas, and a bright red heart is glued over Austin. Sometimes it slipped and ended up over Dallas or San Antonio. But we did our best to be geographically careful.
A second signature item was gingerbread. We made a lot of it and to this day, Sweetish Hill sells large quantities of gingerbread. In the beginning, I made the dough with fresh ginger. And I went to the feed mill and got a 5 gallon of blackstrap straight out of the molasses tank. This was one-fifth the price of store-bought and just as good.
Just before Valentine’s Day, I would bake off dozens of hearts and write various messages on them. One day, I burned two batches—black. So, I wrote “I Hate You” on them and sold out within an hour. Another merchandising lesson.
After about two years in the old house, we had about maximized our use of the facility. Its location weighed heavily on us. The fact is, many whites weren’t about to drive into East Austin; they were too scared. Even though it was a quiet neighborhood and only a single block inside. We realized that if we only catered to the fearless, unprejudiced crowd, we’d never grow. One day, a smartly dressed woman walked into the business and informed us that she had purchased several properties in West Austin on 6th Street, to be called Pecan Square. She offered to build a restaurant for us.
We moved the restaurant to the Pecan Square location and continued to bake out of Waller Street. Sales plummeted there as people were a lot more reticent to make the trip just for a loaf of bread. The Pecan Square restaurant took off. It was beautiful: 12 foot high cedar doors with enormous windows, skylights, ceiling fans. The floor was made of brick. It had a very open feeling about it, and the restaurant was shaded by live oaks and Pecan trees. Outside, we built a Ramada so that customers could sit outside.
One Sunday after a particularly busy brunch, we were all sitting around feeling exhausted but happy (and happily stuffed with hollandaise sauce, etc.). A piece of dried bread fell on our table from the overhead rafters. An albino pigeon had set up shop there, stealing from bread baskets and hoarding up high. Not conducive to retaining customers. In a fit of pique, I lunged at the bird, which had descended to hunt more bread, caught it in my hands, and pulled its head off. The next day, I roasted it and ate the bird for lunch.
My employees were appalled at the savagery of my actions. I’ve thought about that incident several times since then. I still do not feel that guilty about it; maybe a little. But several of the employees started to cry. Our civilization tends to shield us from the unpleasant realities: we are all food. The pigeon was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We moved to the Pecan Square location in 1976. The following year, we started to rent the gas station on the corner, which we converted into a bakery. This gave us a lot more space. The little retail spot was perfect for displaying product.
Toward the end of my tenure as business owner, I started to get interested in the concept of vertical integration. I wasn’t content with developing arguably the best bakery in Texas or being part of an extremely innovative business. I wanted to control the quality of products we used. In the beginning, we used Falfurias butter, made by a dairy in the Galveston area. That must have folded, because after a while, we switched to Midwest Dairy, an enormous cooperative that made Land O’ Lakes.
I contracted with a local farmer to grow vegetables for the restaurant. He lived in South Austin and had an acre or two. I also started raising rabbits and quail. Two years before, I had employed a pied noir who taught me how to kill and skin rabbits. So, I put this knowledge to good use. The rabbits lived in cages sitting on bricks. Underneath the cages I kept dried hay, which produced a dry environment. Rabbits are very vulnerable to coccidiosis, a disease that becomes prevalent when they sit in their own feces and urine. So, cleaning the cages and maintaining a dry environment is critical. Also, one should never feed lettuce to rabbits as it causes diarrhea.
I learned a few useful tidbits of information about these critters. One, when you administer medicine, expect to run through a few eyedroppers, as they chew on them because they like the taste of the medicine. Two, female rabbits respond to dog barks by eating their young. If there are dogs in the vicinity that bark excessively, you will find half babies lying around in the cages. And three, rabbits are oblivious to death. I would pick a rabbit up by its hind legs and club it over the head right in front of the others, and they wouldn’t react a bit. Pigs, of course, can smell death and should not be slaughtered near the living ones. Otherwise, they develop problems with PSE pork (pale, soft, exudative) and the hams aren’t any good.
I raised quail in cages above the rabbits—along the walls of the back of the house. I raised two kinds: Bob Whites and Faro. Faros were easy to handle. If you inadvertently left the cage door open and they dropped out, they would bounce on the ground and were easy to catch. Bob Whites on the other hand flew straight away from the cage door, never to be seen again. Both were excellent and I served them in the restaurant.
At the same time that we opened the bakery in its new location, we needed to sell the Waller street house. We unloaded it for about the same price that we paid, so this wasn’t a drain on our resources. Unfortunately, the man who bought it elected to cover all its architectural charms with siding and extremely bon marche windows. And a few years later, it suffered a major fire, thanks to the quality of tenants. The trees are still there.
Some time during the winter of 1978, Patricia damaged her back when lifting a large container of food out of the refrigerator. She was forced to bed rest right at the beginning of the Christmas season. I was torn between the bakery and the restaurant. We had recently opened evenings at the restaurant, and we had achieved a certain degree of recognition. I left Lawrence, my assistant cook, in charge of the evening business. This turned out to be a mistake because he couldn’t keep up with demand and we soon developed a reputation for slow service. In fact, one of our waiters, “Michael”, peeved that his customers hadn’t tipped him but a couple coins, followed them outside the restaurant and threw the coins in their direction.
I was focusing all my energy on the bakery, as we were under-staffed and it was Christmas season. I worked 18 hour days, 7 days a week, in order to bake enough high-profit items such as Bûche de Nöel and gingerbread houses to generate enough cash to weather our financial crisis. At this time, because we had just opened the bakery in a delicate financial situation, we were bouncing paychecks. Insufficient funds. The situation became worse when one of the employees stole the weekend receipts, $3,000, after smashing up the office to get at it.
We were surviving by falling behind on our payments to the IRS and the State. One Monday, as I recall, the gas company stopped delivering. I had to pull cash out of something else and pay the arrears at the corporate offices. At the same time, I was meeting regularly with both the State and the IRS.
This was all a highly stressful time. My marriage was crumbling, as Cecille had started seeing someone else. Patricia was flat on her back for months, eventually having back surgery.
We managed to weather the financial storm but I was physically and spiritually exhausted. In late spring, Cecille and I went to New York City for a week’s vacation. We saw a good five Broadway shows and plays. While there, I decided to stay, to never go back.
It was a Draconian measure, and foolish on my part. But I was so exhausted and so discouraged. I felt that Cecille didn’t care for me anymore and I felt unappreciated by Patricia who, when she was at work, was extremely domineering. Instead of seeking professional help to get me through the situation, I cut and ran.
So, in a dramatic fashion, I brought my partnerships to a close. In the end, I got my initial monies back out, but I never realized a dime of profit from the businesses.