This is One Year In, in which Eater Austin interviews chefs and owners on the occasion of their restaurant's first anniversary. This week, we speak with James Holmes, chef and owner at Lucy's Fried Chicken.
Chef James Holmes was already an Austin success with his upscale comfort joint Olivia, but in December 2011, he took his signature fried chicken to a whole new level with Lucy's Fried Chicken. Plans for Lucy's started out after-hours at Olivia, when Holmes and his staff were looking for a good South Austin dive to unwind at.
"We'd say, 'Where's a good dive we can go to?'" explains Holmes, "And we all loved the fried chicken. Every time there was fried chicken left over from brunch, we'd be eating that fried chicken."
And thus, Lucy's was born. It hasn't been an easy year—Holmes says he barely remembers Christmas and the pies have been a "struggle"—but the chef is undaunted. In fact, he's maybe looking to open a second Lucy's. After the jump, Holmes debriefs Eater Austin on the last twelve months in his fried chicken adventure.
What was your original vision for Lucy's, and is the restaurant today different from what you planned?
I think it hit about 90 percent of what I was hoping. It all started out as, late at night we'd hang out at the bar at Olivia after service, all the cooks and myself. And we'd say, 'Where can we go? Where's a good dive we can go to?' We don't want to drive very far because we've had some beers, and we all loved the fried chicken. Everytime there was fried chicken left over from brunch, we'd be eating that fried chicken. And it escalated into ACL, when I did the fried chicken. And I thought, 'Shit, I want to open up a fried chicken place. It's going to be an ode to the old South Austin. It'll be like old Austin.'
There are so many people here that weren't familiar with the way Austin used to be. So in that way, Lucy's nailed it. It's got local, for the most part, Austin musicians. It's got that feel with old-timers coming in. It's kind of divey in a way, without being too dive-ish. It's real good fried chicken. So all that, yes.
The things that I wanted that didn't happen, I always thought it'd be more live music. But being in a neighborhood, I learned a lot about that opening a restaurant. I'm much more conscious of that and limited on live music, but that's okay. I'd rather have happy neighbors. As much neighborhood clientele as we get at Olivia, we get so much more at Lucy's. It's hard to explain, but I almost feel like family. I've catered weddings over there, walking food over to weddings. I've walked food over to funerals. I can't explain it, but sitting on the patio up there, it has a New York feel.
What's been your biggest challenge?
The pies, that's been a revelation. That's probably been my biggest struggle. Keeping up with the pies. I had no idea how many pies we would sell. In the very beginning, it almost gave my original pastry chef a nervous breakdown. And me. We'd have nights where it's like, 'Holy shit, that's a lot of fuckin' pies.' And then new equipment! I just learned a ton.
I'm friends with a lot of pastry chefs in town and they've helped me out, but we're still learning on the pies. There's still a learning curve. In fact, I'm buying a new oven right now to handle all the pies, do them in-house. We have been doing them over at Olivia. Just transporting pies, if you think about it, you're going to a party and your'e trying to transport something a little precarious? Imagine doing forty at a time. And I'm not big enough to have a big fancy van to transport that stuff in. I put them in the back of my truck and people are holding pies. The pie has been the hardest part.
The Lucy's sweet tea pie is pretty incredible, though.
It just got better, though! We tweaked it a little bit more and it just got better. That's my mom's recipe, loosely. She turned me on to sweet tea pie, and I'm like, this would be perfect for Lucy's.
Apart from the pies, have you had to make any significant changes to the menu?
I was hoping it would be a little bit more diverse, and it wouldn't just be all about the fried chicken. If you look at my opening menu, you saw a lot more entrees on there. It was more entrees along with fried chicken. And now it's mostly fried chicken and we do chalkboard specials. So that's fine. Instead of having something we're worried about, it's going to get a little funky, I can make thirty orders of a special or the chef can do thirty specials and when it runs out, we go into thirty brand-new specials.
But I mean, fried chicken is the star of the show over there. And our veggie plate. People love our veggie plate. Having that wood-fired grill, we have a really good veggie plate.
How would you compare the first year of Olivia to the first year of Lucy's?
Oh, totally different. These guys are just like my daughters, totally different from each other. With Olivia, I was very in the kitchen, first year, worked the line pretty much every day. We were busy, man. We were that restaurant at the time. But it was manageable. I had a really good manager open up the front.
With Lucy's, we weren't prepared to be as busy as we were. I wasn't prepared. I had never made that much fried chicken before. The first order of chicken, our walk-in wasn't big enough to hold all the chicken I needed.
And it was open so much longer. I had a hard time. Christmas last year, I vaguely remember. It was so painfully hard. I went through the staff. This sounds mean, and I'm not a tyrant at all, but we had to let go 95 percent of the staff. They weren't prepared for how hard it was. I had to bring in some professionals. It was just different.
And it was physically hard. That building, as cool as that building is, it's an old rickety building. We have to haul all that stuff upstairs for dry storage. We get around 5,000 pounds of flour a week. And you gotta take all of that upstairs. That's a work-out. And to mix that much flour? I was used to mixing the flour by hand at Olivia. And I'd add a little of this, a little of that, until I got the flour just right. But I had to go buy a huge industrial grill with a giant cement mixer. We're mixing a thousand pounds of flour at a time. That alone, I can't give you my exact ingredients, but add a hundred pounds of cayenne pepper? That shit gets in your face. It's just nuts. It's crazy. It's under control now, but for the first two months it was crazy.
How have you navigated the feedback you've gotten over the past year?
In the beginning, the big negative reviews we got were portion sizes. And cost. It was too expensive, you kept hearing, 'I'll go around the corner to Church's.' We addressed it. I came off the price and added more chicken and once we did that, we quit getting those complaints. Other than that, parking sucks. There's nothing I can do about it. We have horrible parking.
But I think we address the issues. And part of it is because I'm there. As a chef and owner of restaurants, I really care about the customers. I really want to hang out and be there. It's the place I want to be. And if there's a problem, we address it. And the people that work there, they really love it. It's fun. It's real friendly and just fun. It's very welcoming. And nobody's snooty there. I mean, there's hipsters there but we're not real hipsters. It's real South Austin. It's old-school Austin in my opinion.
What has your clientele been like?
You know, it's the kind of place where your buddy comes in from New York City, where are you going to take him? I'd hope you go eat at Olivia, you also want to take him to Uchi and Lenoir. But also, you gotta go by Lucy's. You gotta go by Lucy's and do the Texas thing. You get a feel for Austin. Eat at all the cool places, too, but throw Lucy's in there, too. But you can bring your grandma and you can bring your three-year-old.
Do you have any exciting plans for the next year?
I'll tell you what, I wasn't prepared for South By, the music we had was really good and I had no idea the amount of people that would come out. So I'm going to be better prepared for that. We'll do a few more live music events. I've got to coordinate with my neighborhood.
And I'm always kind of looking for a Lucy's number two, maybe. I've had a lot of people approach me about it. I would consider that, if I found the right location.
Chef James Holmes. [Photo: Courtesy of Lucy's Fried Chicken]