From concept to reality with Oak Cliff’s hotly anticipated new restaurant Pink Magnolia … in 743 easy steps!
It’s the second week of August, when a lot of sane people are slowing down because of the heat, but Blythe Beck has never been busier. She’s feeling the pinch of time. And she doesn’t like it.
When she announced in May that she and her business partner, restaurateur Casie Caldwell, would be launching a new concept in Oak Cliff this summer — to be called Pink Magnolia — they gave a target opening date of mid July. That’s long gone. Today, there are still construction crews busily renovating the space. Skylights still need to be cut out of the ceiling, and paperhangers are carefully but quickly installing wallpaper in the bathrooms. (The design is custom, but Caldwell and Beck are keeping it a secret for now.) Wait staff, line cooks and bartenders are being interviewed, and it’s all going slowly. But they’ve already sold out one night for a special event in September, and there’s no chance they’ll miss that. As of now, Labor Day weekend is the target. Beck and Caldwell insist that’s for sure.
Opening a restaurant isn’t a big thing — it’s countless little things, and the experience is largely new for Beck.
Despite her bona fides in the kitchen, this is Beck’s first resto from the ground up, if you don’t count coming in as sous chef a month before Hector’s on Henderson opened, and that was a decade ago — long before she was The Naughty Chef. Long before she had a following. Long before there were expectations. And that’s a big part of why she’s nervous.
It’s lucky for Beck, then, that Caldwell has been through this before … often. Pink Magnolia will be her seventh restaurant concept from scratch. That makes her an old hand, and she projects a tolerance for the bureaucracy and a been-there-done-that familiarity with the delays. Not Beck, though. Beck was so happy when the first health inspector gave her green tag that she burst into tears. The inspector even offered to call more inspectors to expedite the process. By the third time, one inspector saw Beck approach and stopped her cold. “I’ve heard about you,” he said of Beck’s reputation for getting nervous and teary. “You sit right there.” He approved the permit quickly; more tears of joy.
But it’s what makes the two — a comparatively rare team of woman chef and woman restaurateur — ideal business partners. The affection — the respect — is real. So we started talking to them soon after the announcement: What is it like building a restaurant brand (not just the menu) from soup to nuts. Here’s what we discovered.
“I’ve always talked about starting a restaurant from scratch, but I was really scared about the back-end part — how do you get the money?” Beck wondered. That’s where Caldwell’s calm, connections and organizational skills came in.
“Let me tell you a little story about my partner,” Beck drawls coyly. “It starts with a simple thing called Excel. She’ll send me a spreadsheet about a schedule to set up a schedule to talk about spreadsheets. Meanwhile, I’ll write recipes on the flaps of cardboard boxes. It’s what makes for the perfect partner. I knew a month ago that this was the week would be doing interviews. It’s a great team.”
And one born of friendship. Although they had known each other for about five years, the first time they worked seriously together was two years ago, when Caldwell was launching Kitchen LTO in the brand new Trinity Groves development. Her concept for the restaurant was a laboratory to allow chefs and designers to create, rotating chefs every four months so that each time a diner returned, it had the potential to be a brand-new experience. She called Beck to pitch the idea to her and get her feedback.
“She said I was crazy,” Caldwell recalls.
“She was taking the worst part about being a restaurant owner — opening a restaurant — and repeating it over and over again!” Beck screams with disbelief still.
Nevertheless, Beck agreed to be part of the culinary team that vetted the potential chefs wanting to compete for the initial slot. She had no intention of ever being in the running herself ever — in fact, she had decided to take a much-deserved a break and not work all last summer while her fiancé supported them. Suddenly, though, he broke his wrist and she was looking for a job. Caldwell suggested she audition for the fourth rotation at Kitchen LTO. Beck was initially skeptical.
“What if I don’t win?” she asked. But her popularity — especially among her loyal gay fans who like to feel naughty with her — quickly made her the frontrunner. She was a hit, and handily won the chance to take over the kitchen there. It became instantly clear to Caldwell that working with Beck was a dream.
“Guests would come in and were like, ‘you can’t let her go,’” Caldwell says. (Two of the eventual investors in Pink Magnolia, in fact, were complete strangers to both Caldwell and Beck —they simply came into the LTO, tasted the food, and said, “How can we be a part of this?”)
It was almost immediately that the two began making plans for a new concept.
Caldwell started a campaign to extend Beck’s stay an additional four months, during which time she and Beck began scouting locations for their new concept. When she found out Driftwood, the acclaimed seafood restaurant on Davis Street in Oak Cliff, had closed, she called Chris Zielke, the owner, who said it was available.
They bought it up quickly.
The next step was hiring an interior decorator to make their vision manifest. After some failed attempts, they finally tapped April Schneider. “She’s nuts and we love her creativity. She’s brilliant.” They changed the interior of Driftwood, adding black, white and lime green — very little pink, though (“It’s not Barbie’s Fun House; it’ a fine dining restaurant!” Beck sighs); they rescued shutters from a mansion in McKinney; they removed the wooden slats from the windows to add more light to the interior, then repurposed them for bar shelves. And perhaps most importantly, they tore down a wall to provide an open kitchen.
In the spirit of Dirty Dancing’s “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” Caldwell said, “Nobody puts Blythe behind a wall.” There will be counter seating right there for a kind of chef’s table.
Those are some of the big decisions, but Beck insists, “We have to make 55 decisions every day,” from light switch wall plates to hostesses (“Is this person going to be great?” Beck asks herself at each interview) to menu boards and of course the dishware. In fact, one thing that she didn’t expect to get hung up on was selecting bowls. They finally settled on a homey-yet-elegant bone-white design that calls to mind Corning Ware, reinforcing the indulgent, familiar charm of Beck’s Texas upbringing.
“You have to be so intense about every detail – just to sit down with our small wares and make decisions [is exhausting],” Caldwell says.
“And nothing is contrived — everything has a purpose … and I worry about everything,” Beck says. She’s personalized it more than you can imagine; Beck refers to the restaurant as “her” all the time. “She’s a girl, of course!”
It’s not just the décor details that obsess her, of course; the term “chef driven” has rarely been more accurate. The restaurant will be unapologetically over-the-top — “Bacon, butter and booze,” as Beck likes to say.
“It’s about the personality, the budget, the food! The menu had to be done first, because everything flowed from that.” No wonder it took a while to pick a plate — how can you decide if you don’t know what you’re going to set on it?
The dinner and brunch menus were the first to be finalized; lunch will come later. There will be some holdover items from the menu at Kitchen LTO – and for that matter, Central 214 – including the chicken-fried ribeye, the shrimp and grits, the chocolate waffles and the iceberg babies. These are staples that Beck’s legion of fans will demand. But it won’t be a rehash of those concepts.
“This is bigger than any menu I’ve ever done — bigger than Kitchen LTO, of course, but even Central 214 and Hector’s. We went with very shareable plates. All the apps you can add onto. The whole idea is not to make a reservation, or even come in, but to ‘come over.’” The Southern hospitality theme echoes throughout the entire space; it’s part of the mission statement, printed right on the exterior sign: “Where company comes to dine.”
That’s reflected in many menu choices, but Beck is especially proud of the punches she’ll serve. One, the Pink Magnolia punch, will be available when you come in, but another version — the Ladies’ Punch, made of pink sherbet, champagne and soda, and served to parties of six or more — will arrive in a one of several one-of-a-kind mismatched punch bowls they bought at estate sales. “We could’ve purchased them from a vendor, but that would’ve missed the point. We wanted punch bowls that had history, where lives have already touched it,” Beck says.
So there will be pink on the kitchen door, on the sign and in the punch bowl… but that’s it? Then why call it Pink Magnolia?
“I think people expect to see pink everywhere when they come in, but there isn’t,” Caldwell explains. “The whole pink positivity thing? She really lives it. I didn’t get that until I worked with her — it’s for real. We will go to another restaurant and I’ll say, ‘This just doesn’t work for me,’ and Blythe will say, ‘They didn’t put their heart into it.’ It’s a philosophy, not a gimmick. Why distract? Blythe is the Pink Magnolia.”
Pink Magnolia by Chef Blythe Beck, 642 W. Davis St. PinkMagnoliaDallas.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 21, 2015.