EXCLUSIVE: Familiar Austin faces buy Sweetish Hill, announce plans for bakery’s future

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A new school titan of the Austin restaurant world is taking over an old-school classic. The McGuire Moorman Hospitality group has purchased beloved Clarksville-area Sweetish Hill Bakery (1120 W. Sixth St.) from Jim Murphy, with the sale slated to close in early September.

Sweetish Hill Bakery was founded in 1975. (Mark Matson FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The owners of Jeffrey’s, Clark’s, Perla’s (and more) will close the doors for remodeling on September 8 and plan to fully reopen by Christmas under the moniker Swedish Hill Bakery Cafe & Deli. The new spelling is a slight rebrand and nod to the Swede’s Hill neighborhood where Patricia Bauer-Slate and Tom Neuhaus originally opened the business at 14th and Waller streets in 1975.

The new Swedish Hill will serve as the bakery for all seven of MMH’s Austin-area restaurants and also operate a retail bakery offering savory and sweet items, a wine bar, and deli serving prepared foods and made-to-order sandwiches. There are also plans to serve bagels and smoked fish spreads (initially probably only on weekends). And, yes, there will still be three dozen parking spaces on site. 

MMH co-founder and native Austinite Larry McGuire points to the business models and offerings of Gjelina in Los Angeles and Russ & Daughters in New York City as inspirations for the concept that will expand on the bakery that Jim Murphy has owned,initially with Bauer-Slate, since 1990.

McGuire, who grew up in the Travis Heights neighborhood and has fond memories of his family buying Italian cream cakes from Sweetish Hill for birthdays, said his business needed a centralized bakery for its wide assortment of baked goods and that purchasing Sweetish Hill and the land on which it sits would allow them to help preserve a bit of Austin and what makes the city cool.

“If we didn’t buy it, somebody was gonna build an apartment complex,” McGuire said.

The bakery, which will bake the San Francisco-style sourdough for Clark’s, the laminated doughs and baguettes for Elizabeth Street Cafe and much more, will be under the direction of chefs and MMH partners Alex Manley and Jennifer Tucker.

Sweetish Hill co-founder Patricia Bauer-Slate and Jim Murphy at Sweetish Hill Bakery in 2005. Mark Matson FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

After baking in Houston and New York City, Murphy returned to Austin and became the bakery manager at Sweetish Hill in 1988 and a partner in 1990. The bakery, which relocated to the current Clark’s space on West Sixth street in the late 70s, moved across the street to its current location in 1991. Murphy, who helped found the Bread Bakers Guild of America in the 90s, bought out Bauer-Slate’s interest about 10 years ago.

After more than 40 years of keeping baker’s hours, trying to stay afloat in an increasingly expensive city while catering to an aging customer base, and paying fair wages and keeping prices affordable, Murphy said he is ready for a change.

“It’s something we’ve worked hard it. It’s a tough business. It’s a people business. You have to really like it,” Murphy said. “Ultimately, I’m a baker first. And I think the bakery business all over the world is evolving more and more to restaurants and cafes. I don’t want to be in the restaurant business.”

Friendly neighborhood service and cakes like their legendary Dutch chocolate and the fruit-filled holiday cakes have made Murphy and Sweetish Hill a Clarksville-area institutions for decades. And as word has leaked out in recent weeks, many longtime customers have come by the bakery to say thank you to Murphy and pay their respects.  

“It’s just been great to have such loyal customers,” Murphy said.

While he is ready for the change of pace, and to get out from under the soaring property taxes, Murphy, who took about a month to come around to the idea of selling, admits he still has brief moments of doubt.

“Some days I almost wake up with a panic attack, thinking, ‘Gah, what am i doing?’” Murphy said.

What he’ll be doing in the future is consulting, working on projects and maybe teaching classes as Barton Springs Mill. He’ll also help the MMH team get the bakery up and running once construction, which includes expanding into the adjacent Pause & Imagine dress shop, is completed.

Murphy, who along with his partners has always been steadfast about sourcing locally, avoiding trans fats and using unbleached flour, felt it was important that the brand he and Bauer-Slate worked so hard to cultivate remain in good hands. And he believes that McGuire Moorman will honor their legacy.

This is not MMH’s first time to take over a historic brand and space. The company known for its keen attention to detail and stunning aesthetics and branding revamped 80s and 90s icon Jeffrey’s in 2013. McGuire sees his role in taking over the popular neighborhood bakery in the same light, and appreciates the responsibility of polishing a classic brand and carrying it into the future.

“I’ve been through this a bunch before; it’s a valid concern,” McGuire said of people worried about losing their favorite bakery. “We’re trying to open the best thing we can open. My job is to set them up for the next 30 or 40 years. That’s our goal.”

Exclusive: Freedmen’s barbecue near UT is closing. Here’s what’s next.

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Freedmen’s — the barbecue restaurant near the University of Texas that has consistently held a spot on the Austin360 list of Top 10 barbecue restaurants in Austin — will close Aug. 31 amid plans for construction of an apartment complex around the historic building at 2402 San Gabriel St.

Freedmen’s is closing Aug. 31. (Contributed)

Cuatro Kowalski earlier this summer sold the building, which has been home to Freedmen’s barbecue and cocktail bar for the last five-plus years and which is registered and protected as a historical landmark by the City of Austin, to a group called AMS Retail Two. The group plans to develop the surrounding area into a horseshoe-shaped apartment building that caters to student housing in West Campus, Kowalski said.

Kowalski, who bought the building in 2010 and opened Freedmen’s in December 2012, said he wanted to stay in the space, but when he realized that the coming construction would surround him, taking away his parking and introducing obstacles such as temporary interruptions of gas and electricity, he decided to sell. Once the housing complex, which includes the land where the former Tap 24 and current 7-Eleven stand, is completed in approximately two years, Kowalski said he hopes to reopen in the historic space.

The building was originally constructed in 1869 by former slave George Franklin and served an important role in the early African-American community of Austin, including a stint as home to the Rev. Jacob Fontaine, a community leader and newspaper publisher.

While the storefront is closing, Kowalski said he has found a commissary space that will allow Freedmen’s to continue to operate and service the company’s catering and event business. Additionally, Kowalski said he is working on securing a lease for a new business called Four Stones, which the Austinite said will be “a sexier Freedmen’s.”

When he opened Freedmen’s in 2012, Kowalski intended the space to be a cocktail bar first and restaurant second, but that equation got turned on its head over the years. Four Stones, which Kowalski hopes to open by the end of the year, would be a return to that intended business model, focusing on whiskey and an expanded wine list while serving Freedmen’s barbecue cooked at the commissary.

While the future of Freedmen’s sits in limbo with the new development coming and the new focus on Four Stones, Kowalski said he has not completely given up on the idea of relocating Freedmen’s if he found an appropriate space.

“Freedmen’s has a certain feel about it. If we find that in another location, we would open a Freedmen’s in another location, but the location I’m negotiating right now doesn’t have that feel,” Kowalski said. “We didn’t want to force Freedmen’s into this location.”

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Downtown sandwich spot closes unexpectedly

Capitol denizens and downtown workers along the northern strip of Congress Avenue are going to have to find a new option for their lunchtime sandwich fix.

Credit: Planet Sub Facebook

Planet Sub (906 Congress Ave.) has closed, posting a sign on the door indicating that the closure came due to the shop’s inability to adequately staff. The sign also states that the Cedar Park location (1320 Cedar Creek Blvd.) of the regional chain popular from Texas to Michigan remains open.

One of Austin’s oldest restaurants is closing

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Austin will lose a piece of its dining history later this month when the Frisco closes July 29. The shutter, first confirmed by the Austin Business Journal, will be the end of the 65-year run for a restaurant that was originally opened by Harry Akin at Koenig Lane and Burnet Road in 1953. 

The Frisco on Burnet Road. (AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Known for its comfort food like beef tips, chicken-fried steak, chicken and dumplings and icebox pie, the Frisco Shop was part of the Night Hawk chain that Akin, mayor of Austin from 1967 to 1969, started in 1932 when he opened the first Night Hawk at Riverside Drive and Congress Avenue. The Frisco Shop, which moved into the former Curra’s Grill location at 6801 Burnet Road when the original was demolished to make way for a Walgreen’s, was the last of that storied chain. 

In addition to being a staple for decades for families and devoted regulars, the Frisco Shop and Night Hawk also played important roles in the sociopolitical history of Austin, as Akin was one of the first white restaurateurs to serve black customers. 

PHOTOS: 20 Austin restaurants that are at least 20 years old

“He was a hero to me,” former Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn told the Statesman in 2008 when the new Frisco Shop location opened. “Harry was open and accessible to all, which is what Austin is all about. He was a visionary and with the times.”

Go to mystatesman.com to read more about the Frisco and the fans who are coming by for one last meal.

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From 2017: El Gallo closing in South Austin after 60 years in business
From 2016: One of Austin’s oldest Mexican restaurants closes

One of the Top 20 restaurants in Austin is closing

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Downtown is losing one of Austin’s rare fine dining establishments. Counter 357, the prix fixe menu specialists on Congress Avenue, announced on social media that it would close July 28.

The Peeler Ranch Striploin with local potato, summer truffle and beeswax at Counter 3. FIVE. VII on Thursday, May 11, 2017. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Chef Eric Earthman oepened the austere and modernist space in March 2015 and cycled through three chefs — Lawrence Kocurek, Damien Brockway and Alan Delgado — before announcing the restaurant would shutter after just over three years.

The announcement comes on the heels of closures from fellow Top 25 restaurants Bonhomie and Bullfight and is a blow to locally owned businesses in a downtown that is seeing increased rents and more national brands entering the market. There is no word on what will come of the space nestled in between the Elephant Room and Swift’s Attic.

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Review from 2015: Attention to details sets Counter 357 apart

Warehouse District restaurant connected to celebrity chef closes

The massive Warehouse District restaurant Searsucker is closing, according to a report from Culture Map. The restaurant was opened in 2013 by former “Top Chef” contestant and “The Taste” judge Brian Malarkey, though the chef had recently sold his interest in the restaurant to focus on his demi empire in Southern California. The Hakkasan Group, which owned Searsucker, told Culture Map it intends to focus on its other hospitality brands around the country.

Snapper romesco with lemon and basil at Searsucker in 2014. Deborah Cannon/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Searsucker joins Chicon, Bonhomie, Bullfight and Alcomar among the recent closings, but this is the first major closing from an out-of-town group in recent months. The space was formerly home to another out-of-towner, as it took the place of the Carlos Santana-backed Maria Maria.

Restaurant review (5/10) from the archives (September 2014): Searsucker draws in the tourists with New American dishes

 

East Austin restaurant Chicon is closing

East Austin will soon be down one restaurant. Chicon, the casual sister restaurant of ranch-inspired Contigo, will close following service this Saturday.

(Ricardo B. Brazziell/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The restaurant from Edgewise, the hospitality group run by owners Ben Edgerton and chef Andrew Wiseheart, was the second concept in the space at 1914 E. Sixth St. The duo originally opened upscale Gardner in November 2014 but closed it after a little more than a year, deciding to soften the space and deliver a more approachable menu with some similarities to the refined comfort food served at Contigo.

Chicon opened in March of 2016 and earned a positive review from me for its new approach. With the closing of Chicon, ownership says it will shift its focus to the Contigo brand, which includes the restaurant near Mueller, Contigo Fareground, Contigo Catering and Contigo Ranch.

“We are thankful for everyone who has supported us over the years,” Edgerton, says. “Our patrons have been incredibly good to us, and we are honored to have been part of the vibrant East 6th Street neighborhood.”

Chicon will be open for dinner and brunch from Tuesday, June 19, until its last day of service on Saturday, June 23.

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Another of Austin’s Top 25 restaurants has closed unexpectedly

In a sign of the shifting landscape of the Austin dining scene, Shawn Cirkiel announced tonight the immediate closure of his modernist Spanish restaurant, Bullfight. The restaurant, which opened in September 2015, landed the number 25 spot in our annual Austin360 Dining Guide in 2017 based on the strength of the execution of seasonal dishes inspired by the chef’s trips to Spain.

Paella at Bullfight. (Ricardo B. Brazziell AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Dishes like branzino crudo with peach and corn, grilled octopus with squid ink bourride and roasted mushrooms topped with a Jamon Iberico-cured egg displayed the kitchen’s appreciation for ingredients and its touch with building flavors.

Shawn Cirkiel at Parkside. (Ricardo B. Brazziell AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Though Bullfight is closing, Cirkiel said he still has plans for the space built on the spot next door to where his grandfather, Gene Johnson, once owned a service station.

Many diners likely saw the upmarket Bullfight, which on weekends was often crowded with nice cars parked outside, as a destination location. Cirkiel said he intends to rebrand the spot as a neighborhood restaurant with a menu better suited for daily and weekly dining. He is partnering with a friend, whose name he did not disclose, for the new venture but has not announced a name or an estimated opening date for the new restaurant.

“Bullfight is an emotional and romantic project for me, but we had a unique opportunity to do something that fit in with the neighborhood,” Cirkiel said. “I continue to be excited about the Austin restaurant scene and what it all means. And what I’m most excited about is introducing something new that will work well with the neighborhood.”

Following the closure, Cirkiel said he will place former Bullfight staff at one of his other concepts around town, with Bullfight general manager Tara Davies and many of her crew headed downtown to Parkside. A native Austinite, Cirkiel also owns and operates the restaurants Backspace and Olive & June, as well as downtown juice bar Jugo.

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El Chile Group closes its Mexican seafood restaurant in South Austin

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Seafood-centric Mexican restaurant Alcomar on South First Street closed permanently after service Tuesday night. The restaurant was a member of the El Chile Group, which got its start on Manor Road with El Chile in 2003.

Alcomar located at 1816 closed Tuesday. Rodolfo Gonzalez AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In the decade and a half since, the restaurant group has opened several concepts (El Chilito, El Alma and Yuyo among them) and swapped restaurant locations inside the group.

El Chile opened a location on South First Street in 2013, but that location morphed into the breezy Alcomar In 2015.

In an emailed statement, management thanked its patrons and said it was actively searching for a new location.

“We worked diligently to renegotiate a new lease that would allow us to continue offering an affordable, high-quality dining experience, but staying open was simply not a viable option,” the statement read.

The closing of Alcomar in South Austin comes less than two days after North Austin restaurant Bonhomie announced its closure.

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Exclusive: One of the Top 20 restaurants in Austin closes suddenly

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Austin lost a unique and comforting casual spot over the weekend as chef Philip Speer’s Bonhomie closed after brunch service Sunday. The restaurant, which Speer and his partners aptly billed as Waffle House-meets-French bistro, opened in March 2017. The blend of execution and flavors of thoughtful but not pretentious food in a laid-back environment made Bonhomie one of our three favorite new restaurants of 2017 and landed the Burnet Road spot a place in the Top 20 in our annual Dining Guide last year.

Ricardo B. Brazziell /AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Speer, who didn’t seem ready to go into extensive detail about the nature of the closing, said he and his team were “proud and grateful to have had the opportunity to create the concept.”

Philip Speer at Bonhomie, 5350 Burnet Road. Ricardo B. Brazziell/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“I couldn’t be happier with the product and service that we consistently offered to our guests,” Speer said. “We would like to thank the Burnet Road community who welcomed us as well as the patrons that supported us in this time. I am also super proud of our staff, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of service peeps.”

Bonhomie, which was located in a mixed-use development, had been part of the wave of new restaurants that had been building momentum to make Burnet Road a dining destination in recent years, along with restaurants like the Peached Tortilla, Barley Swine and Bufalina Due. Speer opened the restaurant known for its potato rosti, cheeseburger and bistro classics following a decadelong run with the Uchi restaurant group, where he had been director of culinary operations.

Speer says he plans to open a new restaurant where the empty lot is at Fifth and Colorado streets in the months ahead. Speer has no details other than the fact the restaurant is not a partnership with his partners from Bonhomie.

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