When longtime Austin restaurateurs Emmett and Lisa Fox opened Italian cafe Cantine a year ago this month, they were coming off the fresh shutter of ten-year-old campus favorite Fino. With the new Union Lamar spot, the couple was able to keep Fino’s Mediterranean spirit alive, with Italian influences from their first restaurant Asti, which meant pastas, shakshuka, and paella.
The Foxes took a look back at the past twelve months of Cantine’s life, plus reached even further to talk about Austin’s changing culinary scene, the challenges of opening within a development, and what the future holds in store.
What was Austin like when you first moved here in the ‘90s?
Emmett: It was definitely a small town then. Chuy’s was the happening place.
Why did you decide to open Cantine?
Emmett: Our lease was coming up on Fino, and it just wasn’t doing the volume that we felt it should’ve or could’ve been doing. We had two different people approach us about Lamar Union. With the second person, we started talking about it, because we figured: location, location, location. So we decided to do that.
What was the process of opening Cantine like?
Emmett: [Asti] was a little half of what we spent on Fino, and then we had to spend almost three times as much on Cantine.
Lisa: Being included in a project like that, it seemed attractive, but it comes with a lot of frustration because you’re at someone else’s mercy with issues.
What was the process like opening Asti in 2000 as compared to Cantine now?
Lisa: In those days, it was so easy because there was no social media, there was no Eater, there was nothing. There was Virginia Wood, it was the Chronicle.
Emmett: And Pat Sharpe [of Texas Monthly], that was really about it.
Lisa: It was easy to be the big fish in this town.
What was the most challenging aspect of opening Cantine?
Lisa: There was miscommunication between their builder for the complex and the individuals.
Emmett:I think people come here trying to do it on the cheap, and they’re the ones complaining about the city, and I’d say rightfully so, but when you have the right people doing it [like Michael Hsu and Franklin Alan], it makes it easier. For the progressive and small business city that we are, the city makes it so much more difficult.
How has the first year of Cantine been?
Emmett: It’s not location, location, location like we thought. We’re not breaking records, we’re not doing volume down there. There’s multiple things, like that complex being under construction still. The apartments not being filled, the parking issues. If we have customers that go up into the Alamo [Drafthouse] parking lot, and have a hassle, they might not come back.
What do you think about the recent wave of Italian restaurants?
Lisa: I think it’s about time we got Italian restaurants in this town. Italian is classic, but still everyone does it a little differently.
What’s changed in the Austin restaurant scene since you opened Asti?
Emmett: When we moved here, Austin was on the ‘it’ list, and that has not stopped. That brought the growth that we have here. It’s the place to be. I don’t know how long it’s going to go on. It’s just really diluting, between the customers and the employees, there’s not enough to go around.
Do you think the bubble will burst eventually?
Lisa I would just imagine, common sense-wise, that it would have to.
Emmett: At some point, there’s just too many restaurants and apartments, and that’s going to cave in at some point. If you look at any direction, there are buildings going up and apartments not filling up real fast, but for some reason, we keep growing it.
How do you feel about all the big restaurant closures recently?
Lisa: It’s hard, given the climate, not every restaurant’s going to do the business that they would have done even three years ago. If you don’t have that, and you put a lot of money upfront, or if it’s not being run the best to its ability, or it’s understaffed, then you have that one chance to make a go of it. If you don’t, then you never catch up from it. Years ago, you could, and now, you have to get it right off the bat.
What is in Austin’s dining future?
Emmett: It would be nice for it to just balance out, with customers employees, restaurants on one hand, but on the other hand, it’s a lot of fun because then there’s a lot of great places. When we moved here, there wasn’t a lot here.
Where do you like to eat in Austin?
Lisa: I’m excited for Musashino to come closer. It’s going to be weird being in there the first time, but i hope it does well there.
Where do you see Cantine in a year?
Lisa: Settled into a finished complex, because we haven’t felt like it hit its stride yet, so it’s hard to know.