Sissy's Southern Kitchen & Bar made its Southern-fried debut on Henderson Avenue last February to plenty of fanfare. Restaurateur Lisa Garza had already developed a following from a 2008 reality TV stint on the Next Food Network Star and her front of house and co-owner duties at Preston Hollow staple Suze, but this was her first solo venture, and as one might expect from the stylish Garza, every last detail of Sissy's dining room was carefully curated with authentic Southern flair, from the screened-in porch right down to the crystal Old-Fashioned tumblers.
Sissy's continues to pack in the crowds nightly for platters stacked high with crispy fried chicken, light-as-air biscuits, and down-home classic dishes like deviled eggs, pimento cheese, and "Grandma's layered salad" (you know, that one with the peas and the Hellman's). Eater recently spoke to Garza about her first year of providing Southern hospitality at Sissy's and what the future holds.
You guys were pretty slammed when Sissy's first opened, and it was difficult to get a table without a reservation. Have things slowed down at all or has that continued?
I don't know that it's slowed down — it's steady. It's definitely less chaotic and more controlled. Definitely on the weekends, we were doing 300 covers on a Saturday night, and that has not changed. I actually had a customer, a high-profile person, offer to pay to just have a standing reservation whether they used it or not! It's really not that hard to get in, it's just if you call on a Thursday or Friday and you're trying to get in for a Friday or Saturday at 7 or 7:30 which is when everyone wants to eat, then yeah, you're probably not going to get it.
You've said previously in interviews that this was your first place where you were truly in control, with no one yelling at you. What have you learned from your first year of really being in charge at Sissy's?
To be quite honest, it has made me appreciate and really savor the experience I had with Gilbert [Garza, former business partner and ex-husband] at Suze. He was my mentor from the time I was 17 years old, and to be able to participate in ownership at 24 years old and go through all those experiences has really laid a foundation for where I am today. I think it's given me such a depth of experience to draw on and perspective and if anything, being the sole owner of Sissy's has definitely made me appreciate the balance that you have when you have a partner. I've worked in the kitchen, I did all the catering and events, but for the most part [at Suze] we were compartmentalized. I focused on the front of the house and PR, Gilbert focused on the kitchen. Whereas here, I'm that girl. The buck stops here. Everything comes to me. I've had to really be disciplined with my time, with my schedule, with making time for each one of the captains in the different departments. But overall I feel like it's been an awesome experience. It's great to be able to have your ideas and your vision and have a team that believes in you and is dedicated to helping you achieve your vision.
I always feel like there's areas of improvement, we're through the first year but we're still in our infancy. When I look at my previous experience as an owner at Suze, that restaurant is still open and it's been since 1999. So when you going from having experience at a restaurant that's 10 or 12 years in, to opening a new restaurant I think it gives you really great perspective — it's been really intense, you're working 20 hour days and it feels like you've been doing it longer than you have, but when you have that frame of reference, you recognize that at one year, we're really still babies. There's always room for improvement, period. From a business standpoint and what I know from previous ownership experience, I think we're ahead of the curve.
How is the kitchen getting along minus Jeffery Hobbs, who departed back in September to work on other projects?
Honestly it really didn't affect anything. If anything, our kitchen times are improved. Chris [Ostlund, chef de cuisine] has worked with me from the very beginning, he worked for me briefly at Suze, so we already had a relationship, and as chef de cuisine he was already running the kitchen. I brought Jeffery on in the beginning to help me get things going because I couldn't be everywhere at all times; his primary function was to get the kitchen running so that I could focus on the front of house and he did that. So as far as the actual day-to-day, and who's actually putting your plates out, that's Chris, so the same person that was in that position from day one is the same person that's running it now.
Has your concept changed or evolved at all over the past year, or has Sissy's remained pretty true to your original vision?
I was really pleasantly surprised, because going into a new project and writing new menus, you're just estimating; you have this vision and you hope people will get what you're putting out. I expect to have to make revisions because that's been my experience in the past. You look at what sells, you look at what doesn't, the next draft you make adjustments. But our cocktail menu has not changed since the day we opened. Our bar is having record sales in the last month. It's only improved and I'm really proud of the fact that menu did not have to change. The dinner menu, we added a few things just based on customer feedback, like people wanted a mixed cornbread and biscuit basket. Things like that. We made a few minor adjustments to some of the fish dishes and that's really it.
I had a very defined version for Sissy's, for our brand DNA, for our company culture, and I feel like more than anything above and beyond being the owner and the financial and business responsibilties that go with that, my number one priority and my number one role is to be the creative director of this business. I'm the one that has the actual experience. I really was born in Memphis. I really am from Tennessee. My grandmother really had this stuff. I really grew up with this. It's the same thing in fashion — if you're the person that has to be the guardian of that brand DNA so that when things start to get askew, you're the one that reels it back in and goes 'no no no, this is where we stay'. We can be creative and expressive within the boundaries of this brand DNA. And it's very specific to the Delta, it's very specific to a time and a place in my real life. So everything happens through that filter. If we want to do specials, if there's something I don't feel like fits, I'll tell them. Like salmon, for instance. That will never be on our menu.
I think what people enjoy when they come in here, they walk in and they sense that there's a genuine experience within these walls, from a real point of reference. It's not something that's manufactured. I didn't sit with a team of people around a table and go 'hey I make pretty good fried chicken, let's figure out a concept that can wrap around this'. This really does feel like going into your grandma's house in Mississippi or Tennessee or Atlanta. And I've strived from the day we started doing the interior, when my people come in here from the other side of the Mississippi, they better say it feels like home. And I don't want to dilute that. I'm pretty black and white when it comes to staying within the parameters of our brand DNA and it has stayed true from the beginning because it started before we even opened.
How was the process of being reviewed by the critics? Were you nervous?
To be honest, after going through media training from doing national television [The Next Food Network Star], I really don't read anything. I mean, I know obviously because my PR called me and said 'hey you got a great review from blah blah blah'. I did read Leslie Brenner's, and it meant a lot to me. It really was a crowning achievement in my career on a personal level to receive such a glowing review from Leslie, because I know what her standards are. Everyone in town does. It's no secret that she doesn't hand stars out. But aside from the big ones, I try not to obsess over all that. I don't read blogs, I really try to avoid all of it and focus on what I need to do. I think there becomes a point where it can be distracting, and my job is to run a restaurant, not get caught up in press. That's why I have a great PR company. That's their job. I just work hard and stay focused on executing our plan and continuing to fine-tune our vision, and I feel like the rest will come.
A lot of restaurant owners seem to read every Yelp review and get really upset if they're on the receiving end of a negative one.
I don't read any of it. I don't. This is something people don't know about me, but I don't watch TV. I don't watch television, and I attribute some of that to the fact that I just don't connect with machines. I waited forever to get a cell phone. My background is fine arts and I love being part of the creative process on a very physical level. I will go check out other restaurants but I almost try to separate myself out if that makes sense. I want my creative process to be very pure and while I know it's almost impossible to be original at this point, everything comes from something else here in 2013, I do have this kind of belief from my art background that if I want to create something truly unique, I need to be careful about what I watch, what I listen to. So I'm all about having positive creative stimulation, I love books. Like real books, not Kindle. [laughs] I love to read, I love to look at magazines, I love to travel, but unless it's work-related I'm generally not on the Internet. I'm not spending hours on Facebook, I don't follow the Yelps. If there's a bad one then my PR lets me know and we do what we can to look into it if there's a correction we need to make on a business level. But as far as obsessing over media, I just don't. I just try to be the best owner and employer I can be, the best wife and the best mom, and that's pretty much a full-time job. I don't have time to worry about the rest.
Any new projects you're working on, or is Sissy's your baby for now?
We definitely want to expand and do have the opportunity to expand Sissy's, so that's something I'm working on. I don't want to jinx it so I don't want to say too much, but my goal is not to have one restaurant. My goal is to have multiples. I have three other business plans that I wrote before Sissy's that are just waiting to be executed, so my goal is to grow.