Sarah McIntosh's Louisiana-inspired cafe and grocery Épicerie has quickly become a hit. McIntosh's resume includes Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc and Austin fine dining restaurant Olivia, and she has brought the professionalism and refinement of fine dining to her counter-service cafe. Eater spoke with McIntosh about what defines a neighborhood restaurant, the challenges of owning a business, and why chefs love curing meat so much.
Before Épicerie opened, it was subject to some neighborhood resistance, and now it's become a part of the community. How did you achieve that transformation?
The initial resistance seemed to be just a few people. We sat down and met with them, and only eight people turned up. They were more scared about what they didn't know was coming. Worried about parking and overflow and loud music. They didn't know what to expect.
It was really only that one meeting, and for the most part the media kept it going. We never had other complaints after we opened. For the most part we fit the mold pretty well here. We're a small, low-profile restaurant, and we have a lot of neighborhood regulars that are in all the time. Those eight people might still hate us, but I think we've calmed the nerves of the people that are worried.
The whole basis of an Épicerie is to be a community-driven place, where you can come see your neighbors. Our focus is to be part of the neighborhood, to give back.
Why did you decide on the particular concept of an épicerie?
Being from Louisiana, there's a lot of French influence. In New Orleans and all over, there's a lot of café and grocery concepts, it's a very French thing. I always loved it growing up. You can either snack on groceries or you can order food. It felt like home to me.
Originally I wanted to do it in Louisiana, and then I found Austin and really loved it and got married. There isn't much like an épicerie here, and I think that it's where the food scene is going, smaller community-driven restaurants. Most new restaurants are like Launderette, more focused on the neighborhood, versus everyone from all over town.
Why do you think restaurants are focusing more on their neighborhoods?
Everyone is geared toward casual stuff now. People aren't really as focused on getting really dressed up and eating out at really high-end place. Every now and then that's great, but people are more focused on being comfortable and getting a good solid meal. That's what I crave.
I love to cook the things that are what I crave when I wake up. There's nothing that special about a good benedict, but that's what you'll crave over something with foam. I've done that too and I love it but my preferences are too cook things near and dear to me.
What are other things on the menu that are particular favorites of yours?
We do a lot of sausages and cured meats in house, and it's a really fun place for chefs to play. When you get to cut into a sausage, it's a Christmas present. You get a whole pig in and you take it down to parts, and cure it six weeks to six months. When you get to taste it, you're really proud of it, "I took this from the whole animal to something really delicate, a coppa or a lomo."
What first drew you to cooking and food, and how did it become your profession?
I came from a bigger family. My mom cooked and my grandmother cooked, and we had these big family dinners. That's what was most attractive to me - sharing food. Thanksgiving has always been really fun. My grandfather would shuck oysters in the morning and drink Budweiser all day, and my grandmother would make oyster soufflé with the oysters he was shucking.
The more that I cooked, the more I liked it. Food is tied to so many good family memories and events, like hunting. When I make something for other people, I'm trying to give them a little piece of what I've been blessed with. It's fun to cook something for somebody and watch them eat it. You want to be able to give something to someone that they'll really appreciate and like.
You have a fine dining background, including time in the kitchen at Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc and Austin's own Olivia. What's the difference between working in a fine dining kitchen, and owning your own, smaller place?
It's definitely different owning a place – your responsibilities become different. It's hard for me to step out of kitchen and do what needs to be done, but that's the consequence of owning, you need to address the business side. Not my favorite.
I get to cook what I like, and I get to teach people how to cook. We have some really excited people in the kitchen, who really love to do butchery and cure stuff, and focus on old world traditions rather than molecular gastronomy. I think a mix is good but I lean more toward the more traditional.
What skills or knowledge did you take from those high-end kitchens?
Professionalism. When you work in a high-end kitchen, it is a profession. A lot of times with more casual places, it's an in-between job. Working in fine dining was what made me realize I can make this my career. I learned organization and cleanliness, it molded me as a chef. From there I got to pick my preferences in flavors and technique.
What's been the biggest challenge of the past year?
It is hard owning a restaurant, and it's hard that I'm responsible for everything that comes out of there, and for all these people and their jobs. I'm trying to make sure I'm making all the right decisions because they affect so many people now. It's not just me and my job, we have twenty-six employees. It's not to say if something did happen, they wouldn't be able to find jobs, but managing people and their lives is a big responsibility.
What was a particularly hard decision you've had to make?
When we were originally opening, we were looking at a difference location. I think we made a great decision, but at the time I was very nervous to leave a location we were negotiating on. At the time, you were picking one over the other, and you don't know what is better. We' already invested money in location with architecture plans and lawyer fees, and we were wondering if we should leave all that money and start over. You might think the potential for profit is better somewhere else, but you're basing it on a guess, nothing is actual. You just have to go with your gut.
Some people really love counter service, but others really don't. How do you manage that model, especially during busy times, like your brunch rush?
In the beginning, people didn't know we were counter service and would come and be frustrated. Our manager handled it well, and our staff does a really good job accommodating people. Our goal was never to be a sit-down long lunch place. We want people to be able to come in and get a great meal relatively quickly and get back to work, or to go at their own pace. You can have a bottle of wine, or get another one if you want. It's not rushed in any way, and you're not waiting on a server to pace your meal.
I will say that most people who are upset are people from an older generation – we have people who are older who love to eat with us as well, but we can't accommodate everyone, you just make an effort and hope they enjoy the food.
When it's rainy we have an issue with seating, or when it's really cold, but it hasn't been a huge reoccurring problem. We hope to get our patio semi-covered this summer, and then we can accommodate more people.
What was the best moment of the past year?
Any time we do events are fun, any time we get written up. Articles are great, they boost morale and people working with us like to know they're doing a good job. It makes me excited that they're excited and are enjoying where they work.
You just brought in a new pastry chef, Heather Butcher, who's previously worked with John Besh. Will you be changing up your pastry program at all?
We're probably going to do a bit more sweet stuff. Right now we do lemon bars and cookies and macarons, and we'll probably do more on that end. And also more desserts and specials – we're going to do mini king cakes for Fat Tuesday.
Where do you want Épicerie to be a year from now?
I want us to do more events on Sundays. I'd like to crawfish boils and couchon de lait, a Cajun pig roast. You want to make sure all your food and service is doing well your first , and then in year two you can play more.
Anything else on the horizon?