Callie Speer didn’t know what would happen when she set out to open her downtown brunch-obsessed punk rock diner restaurant Holy Roller. The Eater Austin chef of the year wasn’t sure what to think at all, but it all worked out in the end.
“It was totally accidental,” Speer said of her Rio Grande Street restaurant, “but ended up being perfect in a way that we never expected.” It all began with the inkling of an idea, then called Bombshell, and became the already successful restaurant to rave reviews.
Speer didn’t take the safe restaurant approach when it came to Holy. She didn’t employ the usual restaurant tricks like an all-pleasing menu, Edison bulbs, fancy soaps, or even the ubiquitous Italian approach. Instead, she fashioned a restaurant that is wholly herself, with her voice and intentions, through and through. Holy’s approach is more inward: “Let’s shake off all of these expectations that people have,” Speer explained. “We don’t have to be the same as everybody to be successful.” That resulted in an edgy, comfort food-laden dining establishment full of punk rock and religious kitsch.
While that combination might exude a “we don’t care” vibe, as Speer acknowledged, it’s far from the truth. “We care so much,” she said. “All of the fucks are given.”
“Here I am like, ‘It was an accident,’ but it was the perfect accident,” Speer continued.
Even Speer’s daughter loves Holy Roller, so much so that she quit her job at Bonhomie, which is run by her father and Speer’s husband Philip Speer, to work for the downtown restaurant. She asked her why, and her response: “‘I don’t want to tell him, but, like, it’s just cooler.’”
Holy Roller started with a strong team, which consisted of Austin’s best female hospitality members that happened to be friends of Speer’s. She surrounded herself with people she trusts, because that lends itself to dynamic working relationships.
Speer knew then-Hotel Van Zandt pastry chef Britt Castro (and former co-worker) had to be part of the restaurant. Her pitch: “We are taking over the world, and this is where we start,” and Castro was immediately on board. “She’s the perfect partner in crime,” Speer explained, because of her enthusiasm and energy.
Similarly, bringing cocktail maven Jen Keyser (another former Speer co-worker at Hotel Van Zandt) on board was essentially the same. Speer wasn’t sure if she would be up for the position, but it turned out she jumped at the chance.
The restaurant runs on the energy of the staff, people who encourage the “really strange ideas” she has.
The Holly Roller team works well together, letting themselves get carried away with ideas and taking them just far enough to be strange yet inviting. Take the confessional, found near the bathrooms. Customers are encouraged to write down their confessions anonymously, and the staff combs through the results and uses one as inspiration for the week’s drink special. Most are unprintable, but there was one that involved running over actor Val Kilmer with a golf cart during Fun Fun Fun Fest (presumably while he was filming Terrence Malick’s Song to Song).
It speaks to the comfortable level at Holy Roller, where people are willing to share their deepest darkest secrets with the staff, all potentially to be exposed in the form of an inventive drink special.
“There’s something to be said for being creative enough for coming up with the idea,” Speer said, but there’s importance with “having people that are confident enough to follow through.”
Then there was the pie-eating competition that benefited Safe. Speer and the team wanted to go beyond the usual, expected charity event, they wanted something memorable that didn’t require too much effort from the participating chefs.
“We can make an impact still without having to spread everyone thin,” Speer said, referring to the unrelenting number of food events and dinners across the country. “How do we come up with ways to do what we like to do, because all of us like to be philanthropic, but in a way that makes people want to do it?” That meant watching Austin’s top chefs stuff themselves silly with cream pies, no hands involved.
Now that the restaurant is up and running, Speer worries about staying relevant in the constantly-growing food scene in Austin. “How do you keep it to where you’re not just some trendy thing for the moment, and then people move on?”
“A lot of that is giving a shit, even when we pretend we don’t. It’s about customer service, it’s about taking care of your staff, and your staff exuding wanting to be here,” Speer said.
She knows, she has been embedded in the Austin restaurant scene for quite some time. She was the pastry chef for Cafe Caprice, Jeffrey’s Cipollina, Mars, Parkside, Swift’s Attic, and Geraldine’s/Hotel Van Zandt.
To keep up with changes, Holy Roller is introducing new dishes, with more of a lunch and dinner focus. There are new sandwiches, like the turkey/collard greens, new desserts like the banana pudding, and more vegan-friendly fare like the dairy-free version of the grilled cheese and popcorn tofu melt.
Another new addition soon to come to the restaurant will be blue plate specials, which will begin at 4 p.m. daily. It’s to remind diners that “hey, we do dinner too, we don’t just do breakfast,” Speer explained. Late hours were nixed too, because it turned out the need for a heavy late night meal wasn’t there for the West Sixth Area. “We have to put our efforts where the business is,” she said.
Holy Roller opened just six months ago, and it already left an important mark on Austin.
“I want to do what I like to do, do it well, and hope that the energy gets put out into the world and gets reciprocated,” Speer said. “I hope other people in this city do the same thing, because I feel the more of us that do that, the more [Austin] becomes a draw as a food town.” That’s the goal.
- All Coverage of Holy Roller [EATX]