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BB's Cafe Interview

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  •  AB:    Today is May 31, 2013, my name is Aimee Bachari and I’m interviewing the owner of BB’s café for the Gulf Coast Foodways Project and we are at his office in the Heights. Can you just start by introducing yourself and telling me your age and birthplace, that sort of thing. BB:    Sure. My name is Brooks Bassler. I was born February 11, 1979 in Rockdale, Texas.  AB:    And did you grow up there? BB:    I did grow up there. I was born and raised there. I lived in Rockdale until I was 18, graduated high school and as soon as I graduated high school, I came to the University of Houston and I’ve been in Houston ever since graduating college in May of 2002.  AB:     Can you tell me what are some of your earliest food memories? BB:     I was, I have no family that has been in the restaurant business before so, my earliest food memories are just around the dinner table. Any events we went to, just everything was centered around food. My mother’s side of the family is all from Morgan City, Louisiana, so I can remember as an early, I don’t remember how old I was, but I was very young, in Morgan City just around the big table with all my aunts and uncles and cousins around, you know, boiling up blue crabs is probably my earliest food memory. [laughs] But, you know, I have, all my food memories as a kid were all centered around family and you know family room dining and backyard boils and just festivities. AB:     So does your family identify as Cajun? BB:    Yeah, absolutely. My mother was born and raised in Morgan City and my mom’s side of the family is a lot bigger than my dad’s side and they all reside in south Louisiana from Lafayette to Morgan City. They are all mixed in there, so the Cajun roots were definitely there on my mother’s side. My dad is from, born in Somerville, Texas. So, he really can’t claim to be Cajun [laughs] but he is a really good cook though, but he’s not Cajun. He’s just more of a kind of a Texas boy.  AB:    And so did he primarily cook or did your mom primarily cook?  BB:    Both, both. Both of them were excellent cooks. My dad was kind of more of a, you know, meat and potatoes kind of guy. You know, barbeque and just kind of down home more southern stuff whereas my mom’s side of the family was more like, you know, gumbo, red beans, seafood, and stuff like that. AB:    I guess in your view, what does it mean to be Cajun and how is food related to Cajun identity? BB:    Wow. I think that they are almost one and the same, in my opinion. Everybody in south Louisiana is so passionate about food, you know, and it’s a tough audience to please because I have an old saying that no matter what ‘your grandma’s gumbo is better than mine.’ Meaning everyone just kind of has their own preference and their own style and there’s a million different ways of doing things down there, so I don’t see much separation really because that’s just kind of how I was raised on food and I think a lot of Cajuns in the south Louisiana, south of I-10 especially, were just it’s just part of their culture, part of who they are. The food aspect, it’s just like, you know, going to church almost [laughs], except there they go to church then they go to the Bayou and go eat and drink all day. [laughs] Did that answer that question? AB:    Yeah, yeah. My next question would be what influence do you see Cajun food having on the way we eat in Southeast Texas?  BB:    Yeah, you know it’s really prevalent here. What I’ve found, is that, you know, what I’ve done is I’ve kind of taken Cajun and some of my other histories and experiences with food and have kind of created a unique cuisine that’s a play on Cajun. I mean, if you look at my menu, it’s really not straight Cajun. But it’s as authentic as it gets in the city in terms of some of the offerings we have. So Cajun influenced my love for Tex-Mex and you know, if you really look at my menu there are small influences of Tex-Mex on there. But I think it’s just there, you know, the Vietnamese population, there is a lot of similarities and they’re really prevalent up and down the Gulf Coast. I think they’re influenced by Cajun food. You know, it’s just kind of tough to identify and pinpoint exact areas of where it’s influenced, but you know definitely in the seafood sector. You know, crawfish is just, I’m pretty sure the city of Houston alone consumes more crawfish than the state of Louisiana. [laughs] AB:    Really? BB:    I would put money on that, at least in the commercial side of things, I’m sure monetary purchases. It’s just, you know, crawfish is just huge in Houston. I mean, it’s an event. People go out and they want to spend the weekend sitting on patios, drinking a cold beer, and eating crawfish. And, you know, that’s, that’s brought from Louisiana, that’s from backyard crawfish boils, you know. But just being the powerhouse that Houston is, you know, I mean there are so many, you look around, and it’s just everybody’s trying to do crawfish. You know what I mean. I don’t care if it’s a sports bar, or a lounge, or a, you know, I mean, it’s just, I’m more and more surprised everyday, I’m like ‘really they’re doing crawfish?’ [laughs] But everyone wants to do crawfish because everyone’s buying them. You know, so I think that’s a pretty good example right there of, you know, the dominance of that market. I mean, our sales increase pretty substantially during crawfish season.  AB:    Do you think it has anything to do with maybe the movement of people from Louisiana? Do you think there’s a lot of people coming from Louisiana into the Houston area? BB:    Absolutely, absolutely. A lot of people, you know, I mean, here in the Heights, there’s just, I mean, there’s almost like a little, you know, kind of a second Louisiana right here, I mean, every other person’s from Louisiana in the Heights area. I know Kingwood has a huge population as well of Louisiana folks, but, you know, I think the the oil and gas business in Houston being the energy capital of the world has a lot to do with that because if you go up and down and south Louisiana, you know, New Orleans, I mean even Morgan City, you know, those are, you know, powerhouses for the energy business and so all those guys, most of the people there, are working in the energy business. And what happened is that, you know, the corporates are relocating here, so it’s just pulling families and more people that want to be in the energy business and that grew up in the energy business in south Louisiana or their uncles are in it. You know, there’s just a lot more opportunity in Houston than there is in Louisiana for that business, but Louisiana has a very strong energy sector. It’s energy driven, so I think that has a lot to do with it.  AB:    I was thinking, you know, maybe of hurricanes and things like that moving people. BB:    Yeah, I know Katrina moved a lot of people here, displaced people, but I think a lot of them were already coming here, it was just a matter of when. You know, that’s my opinion at least. There was a couple, of course there are examples of, you know, after Katrina, this company decided to move their headquarters to Houston, so you still have that, but in the big picture of things, I think it’s more energy driven, is my opinion.  AB:    So who taught you how to cook? BB:    [laughs] You know, I have I have to be honest, I am not a cook by trade.  Although I can cook and I’m really good at putting stuff together I was never really in the kitchen with my mom or dad like cooking, you know. I just grew up around it and I have a really good knack for knowing when something’s good and have a good knack for knowing what people want, but my grandmother definitely has the strongest influence on the recipes that we sell.  AB:    So you’re kind of like the taste-tester? BB:    I’m the best taste-tester in Houston! [laughs] I’m taste-tester and I just put things together. There are some really off combinations of things that, you know, I kind of see would work together, just from my experience of being around good food and people are like, ‘where did you come up with that?’ and I’m like, ‘I just dreamed it.’ [laughs] Literally.  AB:    My next question, I wanted to talk about U of H a little bit. What made you want to attend Bauer and UH specifically? BB:    You know, my father played football at U of H, so as a little kid, I, my mother went to LSU, but my father went to school at U of H and as a little kid, really young memories of just being around the program, you know, being around specifically football games. And so it was kind of already in my blood and then when I graduated, I was fortunate enough to be awarded a track scholarship and it, I had a really good junior year in high school and I had, you know, all kinds of schools coming after me. At that point, I was like ‘wow, I can go anywhere in the nation I want to go.’ And I was like, ‘you know, U of H is cool and all, but I want to go to a college town,’ you know, have more of a college experience. And, you know, my senior year, I was just plagued with injuries and so U of H was literally the only school that stuck with me. So, they offered me, they kept their offer that they offered me in my junior year on the table and everyone else dropped off. I was scared and so it just kind of fell, I literally just kind of fell into the program, but they were always, you know, my younger brother and sister both went to school there as well, so I’m really glad that I did go to school there because they might not have followed in my footsteps and gone. You know, so it was just one of those deals where it was just kind of like fate.  AB:    And so what made you want to go to business school?  BB:    I wanted to be self-employed since I was a kind. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but, you know, we grew up on a little small golf course in Rockdale and, you know, Mondays the course was closed so I was, you know, out there in the pond like getting golf balls out of the bottom of the pond, cleaning them, and reselling them. I was selling lemonade, or I was trading baseball cards. I mean, I just always wanted to be self-employed. So, I went to the school of business because of my desire to want to, you know, be self-employed. My father and my mother are both entrepreneurs. And then I found out about the Entrepreneurship Program and it was just a no brainer. AB:    Do you still maintain ties with U of H at all? BB:    I do, absolutely. I’m very involved. I’m very involved in the athletic program with giving back through Cougar Pride. You know, I still have, I was just awarded or honored at the annual Wolf Center of Entrepreneurship gala and you know, I’ll go in and speak to his classes, Ken Jones, a mentor of mine, from time to time as well. No, absolutely, I definitely plan on being involved for the rest of my life. AB:    That’s great. So are you excited about the new stadium or are you sad the old one is gone? BB:    No, I’m not excited about having to play in Reliant Center this year, Reliant Stadium. I think that’s going to be kind of a drag, but I’m very excited about the new stadium, absolutely.  AB:    It’s cool to watch it being built. It’s interesting.  BB:    I know, I need to go check it out. I was there for the groundbreaking, but, no it’s exciting.  AB:     You talked about the Entrepreneurship Program, how did that sort of prepare you for the realities of working in the food industry? BB:    A lot of way, but I think the first way is just really, you know, accounting fundamentals, of the flow of a balance sheet, on cash flow versus income statement versus balance sheet. And really understanding that was the first thing that it kind of drove home. So really giving me a good grasp of Entrepreneurship 101 and that was the first class I took and the professor, I just remember him like it was yesterday, he was intense, and really good and tough. His name was Tom Gillis. He was awesome. And then from there, what’s cool is a big focus of the program was verbal. So learning how to present your ideas and and get buy in from potential investors or just getting comfortable speaking in front of people. And then what, the really unique part was they connect you with a mentor and they connected me with an individual, young guy, who was in the business at the time and, you know, I went to work for him at a really unique time. It was a really bad time for him. It was Tosca Wine and Kitchen Bar, was the name of the place and it was downtown and it was right about the time they were planning all the Superbowl stuff and so the roads were all ripped up and you know, I was there waiting tables and I was there waiting tables the day the place closed down. So that was like a really, kind of like scary, wow, I really don’t want that to happen. It was just terrible seeing all the employees, you know, not being employed and just seeing the emotional toll it took on the owner, and, you know, all that stuff, but it was just kind of like a, you know, it was a good experience for me, seeing that because I kind, you know, I kind of saw some things and I was like wow, I really I want to avoid that, just a bad place to be, you know, it was really depressing.  You know, and then when I got out of the program and I was, about two years out of college was when I really started getting serious about my own concept and it took me two years to develop it. And during that time I was just bouncing business plans. The first business plan I had, you know, I went to Ken Jones, my mentor, who is the director of entrepreneurship there, I said, ‘hey, what do you think?’ He just ripped it up. He said, ‘this is terrible!’ I was like already, but I like the idea of getting just honest feedback, you know, because you don’t get that a lot of time. You know, people just say, ‘oh yeah, it looks good.’ Or ‘yeah, that will work.’ And you know, as a young, kind of wanting to be an entrepreneur state, you know, as much as it hurt, at the time, it was very valuable to have that because it made me really switch directions for the concept I was going for. You know, because I really thought about what he said and I’m like, ‘wow, you know, I think he’s right.’ [laughs] You know, so I switched directions, and and I came back to him and I said, ‘hey, what do you think about this? You know, I really don’t think there’s anywhere good to eat that’s open in Houston after 10 o’clock.’ And he said, ‘well, let’s stop right there. I like that idea.’ He said, ‘so come back to me with a business plan on that idea and let me look at it.’ And so that’s where BB’s started, yeah, was late night dining. We were going to be late night dining before we were Cajun.  AB:    That’s interesting.  BB:    Yeah, kind of went backwards. [laughs] AB:    So what was, I mean if you want to share, I was intrigued. What was the original business idea? BB:    No, of course. It was real bar driven and kind of a little higher end with this sort of catering component. My background is in catering. I catered a lot out of college and I was in the catering business and I’m really good at catering, so I kind of had this bar and catering thing going on and it just really wasn’t making sense. It was just kind of too glitzy and glamorous and probably short lived, you know. Probably could have came out real busy and then just you know, laid over after a couple years. AB:    I guess you sort of answered my next question, was how did you end up in catering and the restaurant business? BB:     I just, you know, out of college, I just went and worked. I was, you know, actually kept waiting tables and for Two Rows Restaurant and Brewery. And I was a waiter there and two years after, a year and a half after college, the owner came to me and said, ‘hey, you know, we are looking for someone to kick off our catering program and this is what it is, you know, you’re going to be doing a lot of outside sales, you’re going to be serving the catering.’ I said, ‘it sounds great. Let’s do it.’ And so that’s where it started. And then I catered for those guys for about 14 months and built it up and I was really successful doing it and then I went to work for a big Mexican food chain as the corporate of Berry Hill Baja Grill. And I was their director of catering for the corporate side of things. And I was with those guys for three and a half years. And, you know, so I had about five years of direct catering experience before before BB’s.  AB:    So was there anything that you had to sort of learn on the job with BB’s? BB:    Oh yeah!! You know, I mean everything. [laughs] I didn’t know, I was more, you know, my expertise was really marketing and selling catering. I didn’t know the first thing about kitchen operations and I really didn’t know much about managing a restaurant because I didn’t do it. So, I mean, I was like learning everything. You name it, it was a really rough experience getting it off the ground.  I mean, I was in the kitchen cooking, I was, you know, waiting tables, basically doing whatever I did to keep the doors open. And then about 14 months after we opened was when I could kind of start seeing a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. I was actually able to hire some people, and about the two year mark, I was like, you know, this is going to work. But it was really, you know, I really thought I made a bad decision the first 14 months. I just didn’t think it was going to work. It was pretty brutal. AB:    Well good thing you stuck with it! BB:    [Laughs] I know. Right!  AB:    I mean BB’s is known for having Tex-Orleans food. Can you sort of describe what that is a little bit for people who might not know? BB:    Yeah, absolutely. I’d love to. So we took, you know, we took a basis of Cajun food and then, you know, I think a big part of Texas is, in my opinion, is queso. That’s just like Tex-Mex at its finest, in my opinion. And everybody loves queso. So, you know, we had queso on our first menu and then we incorporate queso into a lot of our stuff, you know, a lot of our different sandwiches, you know, we have a sandwich called the South Texas Fire, which is like a fajita beef and queso and peppers and onions and avocado, and that’s Tex-Mex right there. That’s like a torta. You know, we added some fish tacos, for example. You know, we have a pecan-crusted chicken. We just have a lot of things on our menu that just really aren’t Cajun. For example, one of our hottest selling appetizers, I took a play on a shrimp brochette, and you know, I found that shrimp brochette are the best in Tex-Mex restaurants, and I took a play on shrimp brochette and instead I did it with chicken, and it worked out awesome. And it’s called a [Loaded] Pollo Bullets. It’s chicken and we stuff it with cream cheese and jalapeños and wrap it in bacon and then we grill it and people just go crazy about it. So, you know, I took a lot of elements from my love and my background in Tex-Mex and I just put some fusions into Cajun, into the traditional Cajun stuff. You know, especially the Po’ Boys and the appetizers and the entrees, and stuff like that. You know, but, my love is Cajun, but I did want to try to create more of a unique brand.  I also think some of my thought process behind the decision to be branded as Tex-Orleans was that a lot of times when people hear Cajun, a lot of the general public that’s not really familiar with Cajun and what that means, they think it’s just greasy, spoon fried food. And I wanted to be able to offer more and be a little more fresh, you know, than that, because my goal is to scale the brand and to be able to eventually take it out of state and, you know, when you get out of the south, a lot of people are like, they don’t know what Cajun is, you know. And so, an example, if I’m fortunate enough to go up to the Northeast one day with the concept, there’s not going to know what Cajun is. You know, so that was my, kind of, thought process around really not making the word “Cajun” part of the brand. [laughs] AB:    I actually read that you, I mean I saw on the website and everything that it’s definitely Tex-Orleans, but there was a bunch of different articles I read, you know, like Houston Press and I think an article by Alison Cook, and different people and they kept calling it Tex-Cajun. So I wonder what you think, sort of, even though you’ve tried so hard to make it Tex-Orleans, people keep saying Tex-Cajun. Does that bother you, or what do you think about that? BB:    You know, it doesn’t. I’m I’m I’m fine with it. It’s just, I think, when you think on a bigger scale, and I’m just kind of a big, I’m just a dreamer, so I’m a thinker, and I’m always kind of thinking further ahead than everybody is when it comes to BB’s. But New Orleans is a novelty city. And I don’t care where you’re at in the world, people have heard of New Orleans. And you can’t say the same about Cajun. You know, so that was kind of my thought process. Let’s roll with Orleans, New Orleans, let’s be more New Orleans. It’s just kind of branding. [laughs] AB:    It makes sense. And I guess it’s not, you know if they’re calling it Tex-Cajun here, we sort of know what that is so it’s not as big of a deal. BB:    Exactly. Exactly. AB:    Can you tell me some of your most popular dishes? What are the things ordered most? BB:    Yeah. Yes, absolutely. The Grillades and Grits has been an awesome item and it’s kind of a novelty item as well. A lot of people really, I feel we’ve really, I feel we introduced it to the Houston market. Really no one’s doing it. I’ve seen it, I haven’t seen it on menus for sure. Now, if you go to New Orleans, you’re going to find it randomly at higher end places that do Sunday brunch. So, it’s a Sunday brunch deal in New Orleans at [The] Court [of] Two Sisters or Brennan’s, places like that. It’s a dish that my grandma can just, I mean, the first time she made it for me, I was like oh man, I’m in love with it. And it’s, we take a big block of steak, and we trim it up and we cut it up into raw cubes, and then we make a really good, and then we marinate that for 24 hours and then it’s just a good dark, it’s made in a dark roux gravy deal with the trilogy, you know, peppers, onion, celery. It’s kind of a stewy deal with beef tips in in and we serve it over a bed of cheese grits with a buttermilk biscuit. It will knock your socks off. Our highest selling item is our shrimp Po’ Boy. It has been since the first day we opened. And it’s just a classic, you know, New Orleans staple and it’s just a shrim Po’ Boy. But, I mean, it kind of, Po’ Boys are cool because, you know, it’s kind of a, they started out, you know, the history of the Po’ Boy was, you know, feeding for free, workers that were on strike. They didn’t want to do the public transit and they were working in there and they refused to ride the public transit and so, the history of Po’ Boy was, they started off feeding poor boys. But when you go into the Po’ Boy shops in New Orleans, you know, you see CEO’s of energy companies, and you know, you see and artist. So, kind of reaches all people and that’s really cool. So that’s been our hot seller since day one. Our chicken and sausage gumbo is one of my personal favorites. And then, of course on the appetizer section, I mention the Loaded Pollo Bullets, which is a play on shrimp brochette, but with chicken. AB:    That all sounds good, except for the shrimp, I’m allergic to shellfish, which is awful living in Houston. AND I grew up in New England so ... BB:    Aw man! [laughs] AB:    I know, it’s terrible. BB:    That is terrible. [laughs] AB:    So why do you think this fusion of, sort of, Tex-Mex and Cajun food works so well in Houston? BB:    I think the consumers are always looking for something different and unique. So, I think, first of all, that its unique. And second of all, aside from the fusion aspect, but, you know, from a menu perspective, there is good value there. But the uniqueness is really the one that draws on it. You know, our Heights pop, we’ve really been able to reach out to a strong Hispanic demographic. And, I think that’s because they really, they might not know it’s there but they taste it, you know, and they’re like, ‘oh wow, this is good.’ I want to go back, you know. You know, so it just kind of relates to a lot of different demos. And it’s unique and people, people want something that’s different. Especially if you can stay consistent with it and put good value on the plate, you know, and if you have a unique product, they’re, people will come. It’s easier said than done. [laughs]  AB:    So you said that your grandmother is the biggest influence or her recipes have been the biggest influence so I wondered if you can explain whether she’s your biggest critic or your biggest fan? BB:    [laughs] Both! Both! She’s, she comes in a lot. She’s 81 and she comes in a lot and she’s always, and I ask her, ‘hey, what do you think? What do you think?’ So, I invite her being a critic, you know. Tell me what it is. You know, especially with the gumbo because it’s just tricky. And so she’s always tasting that and we’ve been tweaking it so, we’ve been doing it for six years now. And the tweakings are always according to her taste buds, on what she’s saying she’s not picking up on it. You know, I think we’re really close to getting it right. Hopefully we can stop tweaking it. [laughs] You know, but at the same time, I mean, she’s so proud and you know, she’s really proud and I go home to visit her in Morgan City and it’s just really awesome seeing the happiness in her eyes.  AB:    It must be cool for her to sort of see her home cooking, you know BB:    Yeah, and we make her part of the brand. And people like that. You know, ‘oh yeah Maw Maw, it’s Maw Maw.’ You know, we have pictures of her up in the restaurants and, you know, Maw Maw’s Gumbo, and stuff like that. People relate to that.  AB:    So you have Abita, I know that, for beer. Is that the only, sort of, Louisiana beverage that you guys do, or do you do? BB:    On the beer side, yes, but on the cocktail side, you know, we’re really working on this kind of Tex-Orleans cocktail menu. But, you know, we have the Hurricane, which is a staple, a Sazerac, you know, just a good old Ole Fashioned. Old world cocktails, I think, are a staple in New Orleans, so you know, we do offer the old world cocktails, and you know, but we’ll offer a Margarita [laughs]. You know, we actually have one that’s called the Texas Twister, and it’s half Hurricane and half Margarita. And, you know, people just really love the fusion and you know, I, I have a partner in the business that I brought on seven months after we opened, he has 5% stake in the business and he’s a food guy. More of an operator in the kitchen, but the more he got into Cajun food, the more he was like, ‘Man.’ He’s from Pueblo, Mexico, and he’s really talented with Mexican food. He’s like, ‘Man, there’s really a lot of similarities here,’ between the two cuisines that a lot of people don’t realize.  A lot of the same seasonings, you know, so I think the same goes for the beverage side. But beer is Abita, I mean, they’re great. You know, great brewery, and they’re using no preservatives, you know, natural stuff, and it’s, you can taste the freshness. You know, so we’ve had a lot of fun mixing that with um, you know, we have what we call Abita-Rita, and you get a Purple Haze and you pour it in the Margarita and it’s amazing! [laughs] AB:    That sounds so good. So I guess, you talked a little bit about the process of opening the first BB’s and a little bit of what the early days were like, can you sort of expand on that a little bit, sort of what went right and what went wrong in the early stages? BB:    Everything went wrong and not much went right for the first 14 months. It was just brutal. I mean, we were, we didn’t have a name. You know, I was working 100 hours a week. You know, catering, if it wasn’t for the catering side of things, we wouldn’t, we would’ve closed. We couldn’t stay consistent. You know, when, as soon as I left the building, put it that way, we weren’t consistent, which was maybe 10 hours a week, but, you know, those 10 hours a week would really hurt us. You know, so, to put it bluntly, I mean, I had, what my mentor Ken Jones calls the case of entrepreneurship blues, where it’s just like ‘why did I do this?’ [laughs] Sure would be easier working for someone and getting a paycheck. You know, but, finally, you know, we caught a break at the 14 month mark, we caught a break, with Alison Cook. She came in and wrote a great article on us. And and then she came and followed that up, that was a small article in her dining section just saying, ‘hey, check these guys out.’ And then, about two months later she followed up with the feature on us, and you know, line out the door. I mean, and you talk about not being able to keep up because we went from you know, zero to sixty in like nothing, you know. So that was a challenge, you know, trying to figure out how to keep up with the volume. Yeah, you know, then Alison Cook came up with top 10 restaurants for 2008 and she put that out in January of 2009 and she put us in there, I don’t know, like 3 or 4, and so even though we opened in 2007, it just took her that long to figure, to find out about us, you know. So, we got listed as a top 10 restaurant of 2008, as one of the openings. But, Alison Cook was huge, was huge for us. I mean, she really, I mean, I don’t know how long we could’ve kept going if she didn’t, you know, discover us and write about us, you know. But, yeah, that was the ups and the downs right there and from there it’s just like we had the momentum. My idea from day one was to try to scale it and try to do multiple units, you know. And so, then I saw that oh wow, this could actually happen.  AB:    What do you think explains the rapid growth of your businesses, your restaurant and catering business, from that early point, I mean it’s 4 locations [currently 3 locations] now? BB:    Yeah, so, really being able to, personnel. I mean, no question. Just being able to be able to hire people that know what they’re doing and that you trust are, is the biggest one because what that did is that freed me up to work, you know, on the business instead of in the business. And as soon as I was able to start doing that, you know, we could grow it. And fortunately I’m in a place right now to where it’s even, we’ve gotten so much done just in the last 6 months to where it’s just, wow, man, if I’m not in there every day having to slug it out and having to deal with all of the staffing issues, and deal with all the headaches that go along with managing a restaurant, you know, I mean, we can really grow this thing and take it to the next level. So, you know, to answer your question, I mean, there is no question it’s personnel related, being able to hire qualified people, you know. But that didn’t happen until we had the Heights location, I wasn’t able to really do that.  AB:    And was that your third location? BB:    That was the third. You know, and so when we opened that one, it was just busy the first day we opened. And it was just like, before that I was doing everything, I was growing the business, I was you know, meeting with bankers trying to get the money, you know, dealing with people when they no called no showed, I was the one that showed up. You know, and then we opened the Heights, it was just like boom, wow. There’s cash here and I can go out and hire a management team. And that’s exactly what I did. [laughs]  AB:    So do you think the location has anything to do with sort of Fitzgerald’s and that crowd being there for the late night or is it mostly day business? BB:    No, no. It’s all, it’s everything. But at that location, it’s more night and weekend stuff. We do get a pool from Fitzgerald’s but we get more of a pool from just the Heights family. You know, I mean, we’re very family friendly there and we have a lot of young families coming in and you know, the young mom and dads can sit there and relax and kind of feel like they’re in a bar, but not be in a bar, you know. [laughs] And we invite that, and we love that about the Heights, you know. So it’s just a combination. Being located on a prime corner in a market that was, at the point when we opened two years ago, was still in need of restaurants, good restaurants. You know, and we had a great draw here already. The Heights, you know, for our Montrose location, they were already going there. They knew who were were, they were just like half the time they’d go there they couldn’t get in. It’s just too small.  AB:    I guess what made you choose the other locations? I guess sort of why did you start in Montrose, you already explained the Heights? BB:    So the Richmond location, you know, I’ve kind of. It’s hard to say why I choose locations, because I choose a location based on just current, the current environment. You know, so I’m looking, so I was looking in the Woodlands, and I wanted to be in the Woodlands, but I couldn’t make an agreement with the landlord there, and the location on Richmond popped up and it was small and it was stand alone and I knew I could make it work. You know, so my location selections are just really on, based on the current environment on availability with lease space and the landlords of that lease space, on who they are and man are they going to be reasonable? Are they going to let me do what I need to do to succeed? You know, and so I take all those factors and I kind of compile them and I study them and I make a decision from there.  AB:    That makes sense. And you did talk already about wanting to take BB’s outside of Houston and other cities, other states. Do you have any plans for that? I know you’re obviously looking to the future, so maybe you can just talk about where you might go. BB:    Yeah, no, no, absolutely. You know, I mean, I’m always looking to the future, but right now I would be stupid to do anything other than just one profitable location at a time. So, my short-term goal is just, hey, let’s get the fourth one open, and let’s make it profitable, you know. So, hopefully that can happen this year, you know, hopefully it will. Next year, the plan is to try to do two and I’m real, I’m real stuck on Houston right now. I mean, I just, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to do anything else until I can really corner the Houston market. So, with that said, the Houston market can hold, I mean seven to ten easy. I mean I got locations right here mapped out that all, you know, I’m looking at the East End, I’m looking at the I-10 corridor, I got Katy, I got Jersey Village, I got Greenwich Park [40:34], Spring, the Woodlands. That’s one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight plus that’s eleven locations right there. So, my short-term focus is Houston. But after that, you know, I want to stay in Texas. You know, maybe whether it be San Antonio, Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, and depending on how those go, and what the current conditions are, either go out of state, or go south into Latin America. Those could be ideas that maybe, potentially you know Franchise E could come in and do for me, or something like that, but I, I’ve seen what’s going on down there with the markets and I think it’s just going to keep getting better down south of Texas. You know, so that would be an option, but right now I’m just really focused on the Houston area. And then outside of that, you know, we probably would do some intermediary location in San Antonio or South Texas maybe, Corpus Christi. I’m not sure about Austin, but Fort-Worth, stuff like that. But I’m just not real sure, I just know that the location, the concept has a ton of potential and you know, how I grow it is going to depend, it’s almost the same philosophy of how I pick locations, you know, what am I dealing with today? What options do I have today? What groups do I have today that are interested in participating because it’s real capital intensive and I’ve been fortunate enough to do everything to date just internally. I haven’t had to bring in outside money, but to take it to the next level, that has to happen. You know, so it’s going to depend a lot on the same way I look at landlords, are just ok what about his investment group? How are they? You know, do they have any operations expertise? You know, if so, what have they done and so forth? So there’s just a lot of factors to consider, you know, when growing, but my mind is always churning on growing the concept.  AB:    Well, I mean you have tons of room to grow in just Houston alone, so that will keep you busy. BB:    Yeah, that will keep me busy for the next few years that’s for sure. [laughs] AB:    So I did read somewhere that you recently added some vegan items to the menu? BB:    We did, however, they are not on there anymore. [laughs] AB:    Really? Because I was going to ask what made you decide to do that and was it? BB:    Here’s the deal, we went to more of a versatile, I mean, we’re always kind of focused on, I mentioned this earlier, but adding a fresher appeal than the other Cajun restaurants, you know. So we have a number of items on there that we just kind of point out and focus, but we have this section we are creating, next week actually it’s called for the Cajunistas [laughs], which is just really light, healthy driven, you know, I’m sure more females will order than males, hence the name Cajunistas. And from there, every item you can easily make vegan friendly. So there is fresh produce, you know, different aspects of grilled stuff, no butters, stuff like that, so I’ve been, we’ve been real focused on always making sure that we do have some sort of healthy twist to the concept. You know, even though it’s still not a lot of sales, it’s still going to get that one person in a group.  AB:    Yeah, because you always have one. BB:    You always have one. AB:    Everyone’s so excited about going out to eat and then everyone eats meat and then there’s that one person. BB:    Exactly. So, that was the mindset behind that. We had a vegan item on there. We called it the Vegan Voodoo Tacos, and we just didn’t sell them. AB:    I wonder if you just called them the Voodoo Tacos, whether that would have made a difference? BB:    Maybe.  AB:    I feel like maybe people going into the restaurant are .. BB:    Vegan? AB:    Exactly.  BB:     But no, it’s um, you know, you can mix and match and we train our staff on if they’re vegan on how to guide that experience.  AB:     That’s cool. I guess my last couple of question are just about Houston in general, so what do you sort of think of Houston as a food city? BB:    Wow! I mean, I think it’s the best food city in the world, if you ask me. I mean, I’ve traveled quite a bit, you know, on the West coast and you know, Europe, and Latin America, and all over Texas of course, but I just have a hard time being convinced, if you tell me there’s another city that can compete with Houston on the food scene it’s just the best. I mean, there’s so many, I mean, it’s just such a great city and it’s so diverse and such a melting pot, that you get all of these fusions coming together. I mean, if you want authentic Korean, I mean, I can tell you where to go and it would be some of the best Korean food you’ve ever had. You know, same goes for Thai, and Vietnamese, and Chinese. You know, and so a lot of operators are just taking that, kind of like what I’ve done, and just mixed and matched stuff and are just doing this killer business. You know, so, and not to mention, you know Tex-Mex is just golly. I mean, I’m just amazed at how many successful high volume Tex-Mex restaurants, chains!, there are in the city of Houston that have been very successful and even taken their stuff out of the city. But, I don’t know, I don’t think there’s a better place to be in terms of food. I mean, Houston doesn’t have a lot to offer like other cities such as maybe quality of life or lifestyle, lifestyle, you know. So you’re not going to come here to come tour Houston. You’re going to come here on work or you’re going to live here and you’re going to know why it’s good to live here and that’s because of the opportunity of the economics. You know, and I think that people in Houston, you know, I know, that the main activity in Houston is going out to eat. You know, that’s really all there is to do [laughs]. You’re not exactly going to go walk down to the beach and you know, hop on the surfboard or you know, go mountain climbing, or you know, stuff like that. So, people in Houston, they go out to eat. And that’s what you do in Houston and that, that competition, you know, that good old competition, only the strong survive. You know, so if you don’t come right in Houston, if you don’t have the right stuff, you know, you’re not going to make it. It’s just too competitive.  AB:    So what are some of your favorite places to eat? BB:    You know. I like the Seoul Garden on Long Point. I like the original Ninfa’s. I like El Tiempo. I like the Seafood Shop on Westheimer outside the beltway. I like Huong,  [48:19.1] I don’t even know how to say it. So really Houston has great Vietnamese food. Good Company, Good Company Seafood is excellent as well.  AB:     Is there any place you like to go sort of in the region, anywhere outside of Houston? BB:    You know, in New Orleans and even before we opened, my wife and I were always down there just researching Po’ Boy shops so I mean. Parasol’s, Domilise’s, Johnny’s. Those are some of the best Po’ Boy shops. Red Fish Grill there on Bourbon Street is excellent. You know, in, but I’ve been, I’m just such a Houston boy that when I go to Austin or if I go like in the Fort-Worth area, I don’t even remember the names of the places I eat at. You know, because I guess they just don’t make that much of an impression on me compared to what I’m used to in Houston, you know. So, I would say, the restaurants in New Orleans, I love to go there and just kind of divulge and walk around and go into random places, you know.  I mean Stanley’s there in the French Quarter is excellent. I’m trying to think of the name of the other little place that I always like to go to. I don’t even know the name of it, I just know where they are [laughs].  AB:    That must have been a fun research trip. BB:     Oh man, we went there for two weeks before opening. And we went back for another week and just, you know, one of my best friends lives there and we just stayed at his house and just everyday I was just out there. After the first place, my wife was like, ‘alright. I can’t eat anymore bread.’ [laughs] I’m eating Po’ Boys for breakfast, for lunch, and for dinner [laughs]. Oh yeah, I mean, our first menu was just Po’ Boys, so I just really went in and I, the menu and concept has kind of evolved a lot since then, but I just went into every place in New Orleans that someone told me about and tried their, you know, their Po’ Boys. And a lot of the ideas were kind of taken from there.  AB:    You know, I read an article about these different Arab restaurants that started off as Po’ Boy shops because they would, you know, they came to Houston and they thought well no one knows what Arabic food is so we can’t just all of sudden have shawarma, so let’s start off with Po’Boys … BB:    Really? AB:    and then they would incorporate and change over time. There was this place called Mama’s Po’ Boys in the 70s and then it became Zabak’s Mediterranean. BB:    Really? Wow! Interesting AB:    So I was sort of thinking about that when we were talking about the Cajun influence on the different people, it’s so prevalent in Houston.  BB:    Wow. That’s cool. I’ve never heard about that.  AB:    Yeah, I’ll have to email you some articles. BB:    Yeah, do that, I’d like to see that. AB:    But those were all the questions I had for you. I don’t know if there’s anything else you wanted to talk about food-wise of BB’s-wise? BB:    You know, I don’t think so. I think we covered quite a bit of it. You know, you did mention that we had four locations, but we have three. Yeah, the location in downtown, I had to close down unfortunately. It was a really rough deal for us, but hence why I’m being even more careful picking new locations because it was just a bad location.  AB:    Yeah, downtown is hard.  BB:    Downtown is really tough. You can’t really, there’s not a lot of night business and it’s really lunch driven and lunch business is for like an hour and a half window time slot, so it was just you know, it was really a rough year last year for us because of that. But we are a stronger company now, you know, because of that and I’m going to be more careful picking new locations. So, yeah, it’s just currently it’s just the three locations. We have opened four in six years of being open, but one of them didn’t work out.  AB:    Not bad.  BB:    Not bad. 75% [laughs]. I’ll tell you what though. It’s tough in the restaurant business to have one not work because they are so capital intensive. But I hope that you guys can do whatever y’all need to do.  AB:    Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time. BB:    Absolutely. My pleasure.  END OF INTERVIEW.  
 
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Title:BB's Cafe Interview
Description:Oral history interview conducted with Brooks Bassler by Aimee Bachari at BB's Cafe in Houston, Texas, on behalf of Foodways Texas and the University of Houston as part of the La Louisiane en Tejas: Gulf Coast Foodways in East Texas Project.
Country:United States
State:Texas
City:Houston
Date:2013-05-31
CreatorBassler, Brooks (interviewee)
Bachari, Aimee L. (interviewer)
Source:Foodways Texas Oral History Collection
Contributor:The University of Houston
Language:en
PublisherDolph Briscoe Center for American History
Subject:Oral history
Foodways
Cooking, Creole--Texas
Original Format:WAV, MP3