Culinary Ladies of the Eighties: Sharon Watkins
Chez Zee maven looks forward to another 25 years
By Virginia B. Wood,
10:00AM, Fri. Dec. 5, 2014
Sharon Watkins did not set out to own a restaurant. In the Eighties, she parlayed her theater arts background into a successful Austin boutique ad agency, Wilson and Wilson. The company was one of the first to represent local restaurants, helping them establish their brands by creating memorable, award-winning marketing campaigns.
“We had a pretty diverse client list that always included some food and beverage folks, places like Shadows, Tortuga's, the Night Hawk on S. Congress before it burned, Lock, Stock & Barrel, Good Eats Cafe. Restaurant clients were so much fun,” Watkins recalls. In 1983, the owners of Chez Fred hired her to promote their struggling outlet in the Crossroads shopping center. Watkins' marketing savvy helped the Chez Fred chain expand rapidly during the early Eighties real estate boom.
Chez Fred started out as a tiny French bakery that served breakfast in the former home of Austin's first Dairy Queen at 2912 Guadalupe. Restaurateurs Larry Foles, Guy Villavaso, and Mickey Connolly bought the little business in the early Eighties, moving it off the Drag, playing up the French bakery meets American cafe concept, and offering good pastries and hearty breakfasts, plus the addition of lunch and dinner with luxurious desserts and cocktails. The chain grew quickly, opening new outlets in Westlake and Northwest Hills. Sharon Watkins and her company were along for the ride, creating catchy print and radio campaigns that helped fuel the company's growth.
When the bottom fell out of that particular real estate boom, the Chez Fred chain contracted just as quickly, closing some outlets and filing for bankruptcy in 1986. Watkins' agency was one of their largest creditors. “Everybody told me to write off the loss and walk away, but I just couldn't do it,” Watkins says in retrospect.
In order to establish some standing in the bankruptcy court, Watkins paid the back rent on one of the Chez Fred locations and obtained the lease on the property at 5406 Balcones from building owner Donald Thomas. When the bankruptcy was finally settled in 1988, Sharon Watkins emerged as the owner of a restaurant she christened Chez Zee. She didn't have any restaurant experience, but she was a quick study who resolutely set about teaching herself how to make money in her new business.
“In the beginning, I kept as many of the staff people as I could – cooks, bakers, servers – to provide some consistency for the customer base,” Watkins reports. She put her theatrical background to good use, setting a festive scene with an atmosphere of fun and inclusion, offering live piano music at night and hanging the works of local artists in the dining rooms. Chez Zee became a stalwart supporter of the local arts and arts patrons responded in kind. Watkins credits that community involvement with much of her success.
“The first five years were really hard, digging out from under the debt, but we made it,” she says. Chez Zee maintained it's standing as Northwest Hills' go-to power breakfast spot for more than a decade, but when the market changed, Watkins changed with it, dropping daily breakfast and concentrating on Sunday brunch with dishes like the voluptuous crème brulee French Toast. Instead of opening multiple outlets, Watkins concentrated on creating one classic restaurant. “At some point, I began to focus on maximizing all the potential of one property,” she recalls.
When the other building on the Balcones property became available in 1996, she bought it with an eye towards expansion, renting it out for a few years, and ultimately developing it into a private party venue in 2003. The Gallery Room now hosts rehearsal dinners, baby showers, corporate functions, and all manner of special occasion celebrations, in addition to providing over-flow seating for one of Austin's busiest Sunday brunches.
Though the 25-year-old Chez Zee isn't a player in Austin's hip, chef-driven new dining scene, restaurateur Watkins says the firmly established neighborhood favorite had its best year in 2013 and she expects the eatery to be there another 25 years. She's big on social media promotion partnerships with arts organizations and has someone developing an online ordering model for the bakery. She recently purchased the red Gibson piano that was often played by the legendary Pinetop Perkins and it now graces Chez Zee's main dining room. Carolers from a local high school choir are a weekly feature during the holidays and reservations for the annual New Year's Eve bash starring cabaret singer Mady Kaye are going fast. This Sharon Watkins production is no flash in the pan – the show must go on!