One year ago, a devastating fire erupted inside Texas French Bread at 2900 Rio Grande Street, reducing a building that had stood since 1939 to a burnt-out shell of bricks. A lesser bakery, one that hadn’t been a pillar of the Austin community for over 40 years, surely would have been felled by such a disaster — and in fact, Texas French Bread came very close to this fate. However, thanks to an avalanche of support from the Austin community, a stroke of real estate luck, and a pair of barbecue titans, Texas French Bread has slowly been working back to its former glory. Owner Murph Willcott is cautiously optimistic about the future.
At around 10:30 p.m. on January 24, 2022, Willcott, who lives blocks away from the building, was feverish with COVID-19 and preparing for bed when he got the call from his bakery manager that there was a fire. He could see the flames at the top of the bakery from his balcony, and hurried over. “It was pretty clear we weren’t going to be opening the next day or anytime soon,” Willcott recalls. Watching a crane blast water on the building in vain, he realized that Texas French Bread might close indefinitely.
The Austin Fire Department estimated the damages at $1.1 million for the building and $500,000 for its contents — a total loss. As Willcott struggled with the destruction of his family’s bakery, not to mention the virus, his friend Ilana Panich-Linsman jumped into action. In less than 24 hours, Panich-Linsman, a photographer Willcott met at a dog park, set up a GoFundMe for the business in support of staff who were suddenly without work. More than 2,000 donations poured in from the Austin community, eventually totaling almost $200,000. “I don’t know how challenging it was for her to put that page up but it was perfect timing,” says Willcott.
Judy Willcott, Murph’s mother, started Texas French Bread as a home bakery supplying baguettes and breads to restaurants, and opened her first storefront in 1981. She eventually expanded to 11 locations around Austin, including buying the Rio Grande property in 1986. However, by the time Murph and his brother Ben bought out the bakery in 2006, the Rio Grande property was the last remaining location of a once-great empire. The pair refreshed the brand with new services like a popular bistro-style dinner service that showcased local farms, and Texas French Bread enjoyed a unique status as an Austin icon that still felt modern.
Texas French Bread’s revered place in the Austin dining world was evident as the community rallied around the restaurant with more fundraisers — a bake sale from Les Dames d’Escoffier and Easy Tiger that raised $22,000, donated proceeds from Bufalina, and another bake sale at Camp East from a group of bakers and a beverage supplier, which almost entirely sold out within an hour despite more than 30 vendors participating.
The success of the initial fundraiser created by Panich-Linsman was a turning point for Willcott. “[The GoFundMe] really showed us that the community of people who love and support Texas French Bread, and wanted us to try to continue,” he says. Willcott used the fund to provide his staff severance pay and health insurance.
A second sign that Texas French Bread’s fortunes might be changing came in the form of a real estate opportunity. The Willcott family had owned the garden space next to the Rio Grande Street building up until the mid-aughts, when it was sold as part of a business refinancing. Then, in the early days of the pandemic, Texas French Bread struck a deal to rent the garden space and use it for outdoor dining. When the garden changed owners in 2021, Willcott could no longer rent it. However, in the aftermath of the fire, the new owner of that property offered to sell it back to Willcott. Willcott eagerly agreed to the purchase — which meant he had a space where he could potentially serve breakfast and lunch alfresco.
The final push to restart the restaurant came from a lunch with Aaron and Stacy Franklin of Franklin Barbecue later that spring. At the time, Willcott was still uncertain whether the restaurant had a future — he would need a commissary space right away, a place to sell his products, and he still didn’t know what to do about the burned-out building. The Franklins, who had never met Willcott before but had experienced a similarly devastating fire, invited him and his wife Carissa Ries to lunch at their restaurant. Over their meal, Willcott ran through the troubling logistics of reopening his beloved family business, and Aaron Franklin offered the use of an Airstream trailer he had briefly used for catering.
“Aaron and I wanted to talk with them and tell them all of the good things that actually came out of [the situation],” Stacy Franklin said in an email. “[It was] an opportunity to rebuild, change work structures and work-life balance, etc. I think they felt really stuck and we wanted to rally with them and tell them our story. Loaning them the Airstream trailer was a no-brainer.”
Willcott left the meeting energized. “[Aaron Franklin] is just one of the most incredibly positive, generous optimists. It’s contagious,” he says. “You get around him and you start thinking anything is possible. So by the time we finish this lunch, we’re like, ‘We’re gonna borrow their trailer, we’re gonna put the band back together.’”
That momentum sustained him as he encountered frustrating delays: Although he rented a private baking space in commercial kitchen Prep ATX that he hoped to be using by June, he was unable to move in until October due to issues with the space passing inspections. (Although Prep ATX provides some equipment, the tenant is responsible for buying and installing appliances like ovens — Willcott thanks Barton Springs Mill owner James Brown for selling him an oven at cost.) In the meantime, the bakery was relegated to the shared kitchen space at Prep, which limited its baking abilities.
Even with a limited production, Texas French Bread was able to return to farmers markets in August. The garden space was cleared and ready shortly before Thanksgiving, and the Airstream opened for business with pastries and coffee.
“People have really showed up,” says Willcott. “We’re still trying to learn how to do a trailer-based business and every day it seems like there’s a new challenge. But the biggest challenge is just getting the word out to folks that we’re actually open again,” noting that they now serve breakfast and lunch staples like sandwiches, soups, and salads out of the trailer, which can be taken to go or enjoyed in the garden six days a week.
The fate of the building on Rio Grande Street remains up in the air. Willcott initially floated a plan of working with a developer to turn it into a mixed-use building with Texas French Bread on the ground floor, and while that is still a possibility, Willcott is also exploring rebuilding on his own. “It’s kind of terrifying,” Willcott says. “We had worked for a decade to get the debt related to the business and the commercial real estate down to a manageable level. Now, we’re talking about potentially borrowing more to try to make all this happen.” In the meantime, he plans to expand services in the garden, ideally adding another trailer with an on-site kitchen and renewing the restaurant’s beer and wine license.
Even a year later, Willcott is still blown away by the response from the community. “The decision about whether or not to reopen came down to us wanting to return that love and affection and support,” he says. “We could definitely have closed — we had a little bit of money in the bank, we still owned that piece of property, we could have taken a couple of years off. And that was certainly on the table.”
Willcott believes his intentional business practices — like using organic, locally milled grains and taking care of his staff — are what have made Texas French Bread meaningful for so many people. “There’s something more going on here than just us making food for people,” he says. “And I don’t know exactly how that magic works. It’s not just that Texas French Bread is an old Austin brand. I feel like we want to say something and stand for something that’s about remembering what mattered about that older version of Austin. We want to be a beacon for the core values that made people want to move here in the first place.”