Change for the Better
The Jacoby family brings the ranch-to-table tradition to Austin
Tue.-Sat., 5-10pm; Sun., 10:30am-2pm
When it comes down to it, those opposed to the rapidly developing landscape of Austin are usually afraid we're losing the city we love – the whole reason we all moved here (or stayed here) in the first place. But we could all stand to learn a lesson from the Jacoby family, which has embraced change in the best way possible: by honoring the past while simultaneously growing with the needs and wants of our evolving city.
Jason Jacoby grew up farming and ranching in the hog business with his father. After decades of experience raising and showing animals, he decided to start his own feed company, Jacoby Feed & Seed, in 1981. The Jacobys' belief is that the health of the animal begins in the foundation of the feed, and they've developed more than 50 blends for cattle, deer, goats, sheep, boars, chickens, and more. They pride themselves in show animals, and have already seen 200 of their customers win championships in 2014 from their feed. They ship their blends (many custom-made) all over the states through their own rail center, and the on-site feed store carries everything from lanterns and bird feeders to household tools, cleaning products, pest control, and (of course) feed and seed.
In 2002, Jason added a kitchen to the feed store, where he and his employees all took turns cooking lunch every day. He also decided to add a grocery element to the kitchen, since the closest store to Melvin (population 184) is 18 miles away in Brady. But he soon realized they were a bit too far off the beaten path to attract customers for more than the occasional carton of milk. "So we said, 'Let's take [the shelves] out, fill it full of chairs and booths and just go to cooking!'" Jason recalls. And just as organically as a small feed store developed into a major operation with its own rail center, Jacoby's Cafe was born.
"All I ever intended to do was cook stuff that you do cook at a convenience store," says Jason. "Hamburgers and burritos and that kinda stuff." Soon, Jacoby's morphed into an entire selection of homestyle Texas comfort food – done really well. The perfectly salt-and-peppered golden batter on the chicken-fried steak and onion rings melts in your mouth. Fresh greens are found in the vibrant side salads, and their rotating desserts are all noticeably homemade fresh every day. There's a freezer full of meat for customers to buy and take home, with selections like rib eye, brisket, jalapeño Cheddar sausage, ground beef, and strip steak. And the fresh, juicy, and flavorful steaks and burgers they serve in the cafe are a testament to the quality of their all-natural meat.
"No hormones of any kind are ever put into this feed or in the animal," assures Jason. "And the difference, when you go and look at the big feed yards, is they're always looking for ways to make that animal perform better. Just like athletes taking some of the things they take to build muscle. We don't do that."
"People are so into grass-fed [beef], but if you feed animals the right way, it is no different than feeding yourself or an athlete," explains Jason's son Adam. "These animals were bred to produce meat to be consumed. They are market animals. So when you do it the right way and uphold the quality in the feed and the way the animals are treated and where they're fed – when all those things line up, things come together really nicely and you have a healthier, happier, more well-balanced product."
The Black Baldie and Angus cattle the Jacobys raise still graze on plenty of grass and wander in sun through wide-open pastures. "They just have an easier life," says Jason. "When they're only grass-fed, they're scrounging to get the proper nutrition they need to develop."
Adam grew up working at the feed company, sacking corn, raising sheep for stock showing, and working in the cafe through high school. "There were some nights [when] a grill cook wouldn't show up and we would be cooking the steak that night," says Adam. "I learned how to work the fryer, I bussed many a table, I ran the cash register many times. It was kind of a natural progression for me." By the time he moved to Austin to study business at UT, he'd already decided he wanted to share the fruits of his family's labor by opening a Jacoby's in Austin.
After graduating, Adam returned to Melvin to run the cafe, this time bringing with him a fresh perspective. The first change he made was obtaining a beer-and-wine license, followed by a remodel of the cafe. Herringbone wood paneling, reclaimed from an old Melvin building, now warms the dining room. The ceiling beam came from an old railroad bridge in town, and a rusty exterior of a barn roof replaced ceiling tiles in the cafe. Big barrels act as cocktail tables with stool seating when you first enter, and Mason jars of wildflowers give a pop of color to each table.
When Adam told his parents about his dream of opening up an Austin location of the restaurant, they suggested he first go get some more experience at other restaurants in Austin. And he did just that, moving back to work the front of the house at the now-shuttered Rivals Steakhouse, then Banger's Sausage House, and finally Clark's Oyster Bar.
"That's when I really gained an appreciation," remembers Adam. "The idea I had in my mind of every detail that needs to be paid attention to? That's when I saw it carried fully out."
It was during this return to Austin that Adam met and began dating local designer Kris Swift, owner of Future Design Now (and a former competitor on HGTV's Design Star). Upon hearing of Adam's goal project, they began scouting locations together. "I've always known that, if anywhere can appreciate doing something different or doing something with a little more care, it'll be Austin," says Adam.
One day while out biking, they found a spot right along the Colorado River, on East Cesar Chavez between Tillery and Springdale, in a midcentury space once occupied by Kanetzky Electric. Now with Swift by his side as creative director, Adam's dream started to become a reality.
They began sourcing bricks and barnwood from Melvin to be used throughout the restaurant – in walls, fences, and ceilings. What they didn't scavenge on their own was brought to the feed store by Melvin ranchers eager to contribute. "It's the passing of the torch generationally. Every piece of wood has a history and different patina," says Kris.
"For me, it's special here because I've been hands-on in finding a lot of this," says Jason, who would often go scouting with Adam and Kris. "Of course, all I did was drive them around and show them and I'd listen to them say, 'It would be great if we did that!' and then 'Dad, can you get all that put on a pallet and bring it to Austin?' 'Yeah, we can do that!'" he says with a smile.
And the Jacoby Feed & Seed crew was on-hand to help with the whole building process. "It's kind of like a piece of them is here too," says Jason. "Because they're helping feed those kids and haul them to the butcher and pick the meat up and bring it here. And they tore down the barns and built the fences."
Adam and Kris began scouring the state, picking up treasures like antique chandeliers, vintage hobnail glassware, and framed needlepoint scenes. "It made me appreciate their vision," says Adam's mom Kelly Jacoby. "When I'd go stay with them at the house, they'd have these [inspiration] boards up. I never knew how much depth of thought you had to go into to figure all this out."
Of course, working so closely with family has its challenges too, especially with a project so passionate and close to the heart. Adam says the key is "definitely communication, but there's also a level of respect because they've been doing this since the Eighties – for a lot longer than we have – and we wouldn't be here today if they weren't doing something right."
"And you learn what's really important to someone else. And you listen and you talk it out, and that's how progress is made," says Kris.
On Aug. 20, Jacoby's Restaurant & Mercantile opened, bringing true ranch-to-table dining to Austin by utilizing a system of microeconomics known as vertical integration. Kris explains: "It's a Jacoby cow that's raised on Jacoby property, augmented on Jacoby feed that comes in on the Jacoby rail center that then is transported, by Jacoby's, to the restaurant in Austin and then prepared by Jacoby's Restaurant & Mercantile in Austin and served with a smile and a handshake by Adam Jacoby on the floor."
The menu includes a mix of classic dishes from Melvin, like their signature chicken-fried steak and their hamburger steak, which is stuffed with cheese, topped with grilled green and white onions, draped in a velvety veal sauce, and filled with layers of flavor. "We dry-age the whole carcass instead of just the prime cuts, so the beef that's used in our burgers is dry-aged ground beef, which changes the flavor of the whole thing," says Adam.
They've also added some more upscale menu items while maintaining a feeling of classic Southern comfort: creamy deviled eggs with a kick of pickled radish, rich shrimp and grits finished with smoked paprika oil, grilled cabbage with citrus and coriander. Homage is paid to both Adam and Kris' families on the cocktail menu – with Grandma Jacoby's signature West Texas Shandy (Coors Light and Big Red) and the Muskoka Smash, named after Kris' Canadian hometown, which is rife with blackberries this time of year (many often ending up in family cocktails). As the weather gets cooler, they look forward to adding more family recipes to the menu, like shepherd's pie, cornbread, and a cowboy stew that's been passed down through generations.
In the same spirit as the Melvin cafe, Jacoby's Restaurant & Mercantile features an attached grocery concept with cuts of meat to take home, jars of homemade jams and pickles, and fresh-cut flowers. Items like Malin+Goetz bath products, vintage cake plates, apothecary jars filled with old-fashioned candy, and artisanal salt give the shop a curated, stylized feel. Soon, they will add raised-bed gardens and chicken coops to the property beyond the patio.
In a color print by photographer Gray Malin which hangs in the main dining room, two cowboys look across the desert toward the Prada Marfa installation, an image representing the marriage of urban and rural, old and new, tradition and innovation. "Jacoby's is something where Adam really wanted, from the beginning, for there to be a sense of discovery in the property, in the different spaces," says Kris. "And I think that photo represents discovery."
The same can be said for the old tractor sign from the Forties which Adam managed to trade for a bale of hay and turn into the prized neon sign welcoming guests into the restaurant. "You can see the neon and just look at it as something new," says Kris. "You can see the sign and see it as something old that was reclaimed. Or you can look at it together and dig deeper into the story that's actually behind it to find out that Adam's grandfather bought tractors and had them serviced at the actual building where that sign came from. There's always more to the story – it always goes deeper. The deeper people delve into the Jacobys' story, the more richness they'll find in that authenticity and in that family history."