When Jeff Wells was 19, he saved his pennies for a decadent trip to Stephan Pyles' Star Canyon, and that's when food got real, son. He was hooked and spent the better part of the last decade popping in and out of kitchens, sneaking private audiences with masters in New York and Dallas and kindling his passion for creative combinations and eclectic tastes.
Five years ago, a diagnoses as gluten intolerant forever changed his relationship to food, but Wells quickly and avidly learned ways to improve his body's overall wellbeing by altering and adapting old favorites in innovative ways. As a result, Company Cafe was conceived and realized by a team of savvy investors and a rock-solid management core. Turning one on April 1, the Greenville Avenue restaurant has since spurred another location right on the Katy Trail and has exploded with interest and support from the Dallas community.
While each location boasts a unique personality and feel, the Company Cafe brand bases its core values on locally grown, high quality organic ingredients that support small businesses and foster community. While the Greenville Avenue location offers a more laid-back ambience, the younger Katy Trail location offers the high energy of Uptown, in addition to a full-bar, a colossal shaded patio, and a La Marzocco espresso machine, and it's where we met up with general manager and the creative mind behind the health food game changer, Jeff Wells, to learn about Company Cafe's commitment to positive change in DFW.
So, you're acting manager and you also had a big hand in coming up with the concept, right?
I was working at another spot, family business, and got diagnosed with gluten intolerance about 5 to 6 years ago, and that led to me being diagnosed with dairy intolerance and probably a sensitivity to corn. And, so I posed the question: Well, what do I eat now? I was kind of retrained by this holistic health practitioner on what food does to you, what food does to the human body, the enzyme reaction for proteins, the hormonal response to carbohydrates, and how to formulate basically a meal that provides a sense of wellbeing, or at least causes less stress on the body than most foods. Finding the balance between offering something common, but also providing something that pushes the body forward, instead of pulling the body back.
It's my understanding that there's kind of a scale with varying degrees of sensitivity and intolerance to gluten?
There are various levels. If you have celiac, it's a full-on allergy. And even celiac has different grades—it can't even be in the air. It's pretty temperamental and I think that the more things are genetically modified like grain in this country, the more difficult it's going be for the body, which recognizes things on the genetic level, because you know God was a smart person when he made us. Our bodies know what's bad for us. And, those intolerances are not going to go away. They're going to get more and more complicated.
So would you say the food at Company Café is entirely gluten free? Partially?
I will say our ketchup is not gluten free because it contains vinegar, and that's simply another gray area. If something is distilled with grains, you either have celiac and you can't have it, or you have varying levels of gluten intolerance and you can. And, so it's a matter of you knowing your body and what you're able to tolerate and deal with. But, I'd say that 99% of the menu is gluten free.
It seems like the menu is exemplarily healthy, even for those of us who aren't gluten intolerant—for instance, it looks like there are options that would be okay for folks trying to lose weight or reduce their cholesterol. What do you think the secret is to making something that tastes good but also fits those lifestyles?
Wow, I think that high quality ingredients are the way to go. You have to have clean meat. You have to have clean veg. And, you can't pre-prepare as much as possible. You have to take raw ingredients and prepare them right there to ensure freshness and quality. So, take our chicken fried steak for example—something that's traditionally going to be for you. So, one of the steps that we've taken is that we made a gluten-free gravy. You still have a carbohydrate mixed with a protein. It's still going to have milk in it, but it's going to be organic milk. A little bit of jalapeno and honey in it. The meat is going to be grass fed, pounded and tenderized and battered in a gluten-free dredge. It's seasoned properly and then we're going to fry it, not in peanut oil or zero-trans-fat oil or canola oil, we're going to fry it in olive oil, something that will maintain the polyunsaturated fat under a high temperature and possibly be a bit more Omega-3 friendly. That's what we're looking for. I think anyone would feel better if they had one of these than something done the regular way.
It seems like a concept that would do very well in Austin, but might not be immediately obvious in Dallas. That said, it's been a big hit here. Have you found the welcome reception surprising in any way?
You have people who don't really care what they eat and others who do and I think the way you meet those two worlds is by providing options. I think we're not done here in Dallas.
So you're starting a revolution?
I hope so! I mean, the great thing about farm-to-table is—six years ago when I first started trying to do this idea, there weren't as many vendors and farmers and now there are so many people just out there, and you're able to outsource. Everything from our barbecue sauce to our yogurt our milk has been tailor-made, handmade with love.
And, you're able to support small businesses.
Absolutely! Totally. That's how a community grows. It's the third tier of the core values of a restaurant, the first being employees, the second being customer and the third being community. And, I think the more we're able to support and drive these businesses the more that other restaurants might want to gravitate and find out where we're getting this stuff from and help them grow their businesses. Like our poultry supplier—we're buying him out every week. The guy can't keep them stocked.
It seems like the types of vendors you utilize lend themselves to the home cooking style. Did you grow up eating that?
Yeah, my grandma was probably the worst cook I've ever had in my life, oh God bless her. But, my love of food came from when I was 19. I saved up a lot of money and I went to Star Canyon for the first time and ate Stephan Pyles' food, right? And I was like, "Okay, now I get it. You just took southwestern food and you made it look really awesome, and you're doing some things here that are just ... skill. Next level." So, I started buying every cookbook I could get my hands on, started doing catering work, and really working with some chefs so that I could pick their brains, let them yell at me for a couple of months.
Then I moved to New York for six years and that's where I really learned and saw cutting-edge processes and techniques and management styles. And really saw people who were able to get a vision and a feel in a room, telling a story with food.
Any big lessons from New York that you've brought back here?
Pay your electric bills. I ended up becoming a bar manager for a tourist trap on 53rd and 7th where I learned how to manage a $30,000.00 inventory and corral a bunch of crazy bartenders to hit sales goals and I learned how to bartend really, really fast—all the while sneaking back to the kitchens and having the guys back there show me little things. But, once we had the power go out, and we still served! We still went.
Are you still here every day?
Oh, yeah. [Nods adamantly].
You don't see that changing anytime soon?
Nah, not really. Everyone who works here in the core management team, we're all very hands on people, and I think you can't—especially with a five-month-old restaurant that's still a baby—we're not going to walk away from here for probably another year and a half, just because we can't. We don't want to. We want to make sure that it's doing well and it gets everything that it needs. It constantly has to be maintained.
Do you eat here every day? Ever get old?
It's easy to let things get old—if you worked in a mansion and ate lobster bisque every day it could get old, so that's why it's important to vary it up, get new products and new vendors in here.
When did you realize that you were going to be able to open another location?
Wow, [investor Stephen White] had the gym, the Crossfit here in Uptown when he came in and he said we could lease the rest of the building, so they started construction while we were still getting things going on Greenville, and so we delegated a lot—almost 98% probably—of the construction, unlike Greenville which was very hands on. That store still has a very warm place in my heart because it's very laid back, but this one came up overnight. We were like, "We're going to need a lot of staff ... now."
If the Greenville location is very laid back, how would you describe the Katy Trial one?
Every restaurant we'll make will have a different feel—we're not making Cracker Barrels here. I don't even think the menus are very similar, because we like to utilize the talent we have on the line, so we find people that are creative, and I think that really translates. A real dialogue between the client and the chef. [Katy Trail] is fairly laid back during the week, but it's on this side of the highway, so it's probably one or two notches up in ... anticipating the guests' needs, if you will. And, on the weekends it's absolutely volume heavy. It's called "the show" for a reason. When you think about being on the line on a Saturday or Sunday to really test your skills, you're thinking about a place like this.
Is there a full bar at the Greenville location yet as there is here?
Not yet, it's in the works. Hopefully it will be up in the next four to six weeks. They're going to do some minor cosmetic tweaking, but it's going to remain the very beautiful place that it already is.
And, this is the location with the badass espresso machine, right?
Right, the La Marzocco. There are only two in Dallas and only twenty in the United States. Let's just hope it doesn't break down in August when all of Italy totally shuts down. We also have an amazing, tailor-made smoker at this location. This thing is just a monster. All wood-burning, hickory and pecan, and we fire that sucker up every morning.
I saw on Facebook that you just updated the patio, too.
We just did some covering for it to get that shade to protect the people from that summer heat. It is the age of the patio. I think everything tastes better outside.
So how does it feel coming out of the first year?
I think we held it together pretty good. Greenville hit the ground running, even though we opened faster than we'd expected. It was such a great team that it just took off running. I think for year one, I'll take it. I think we just get better every week, every day we get better. We're a very collaborative group. We're not afraid to yell at each other and be honest, and think it's a great relationship.
[Photo: marcus t./Yelp]