Austin restaurateurs understand the concept of increasing sales volume and creating name identification by developing signature products to promote their businesses. One very popular homegrown restaurant chain, The Nighthawk, packaged some of their entrées as a line of frozen foods which ultimately outlasted the actual restaurants. In the early days, restaurants and cafes sponsored sports teams with logos on uniforms which naturally progressed to selling T-shirts and gimme caps emblazoned with logos. These days, many popular restaurants have multiple T-shirt designs to add to their patrons' wardrobes, but they've come up with various clever marketing ideas to increase profits at each particular property.
Cookbooks are a great idea, as the owners of Threadgill's, East Side Cafe, and Hudson's on the Bend can surely attest. Loyal customers love having the recipes from their favorite restaurants, and books make excellent gifts for sharing Austin with the world. Speaking of East Side Cafe, the savvy owners there capitalized on the cachet of their lovely organic garden with a cute little shop that sells food to go, copies of their self-published cookbooks, and all manner of garden gifts. The owners of Stubb's Barbecue took the original owner's likeness and famous sauce recipe and created a nationwide brand-name identification that far outpaces the quality of the food in their Austin restaurant. And local chef/food scientist Dr. Foo Swasdee has always used her Satay Restaurant as a testing ground for the excellent line of award-winning Thai condiments and sauces she now sells all over the U.S. and the world.
In the past few months, three other Austin-area food businesses have joined the signature products sweepstakes. We've got the scoop on their new edible merchandise, and we're ready to share.
When visionary Houston entrepreneur Beau Theriot saw the rustic ranch house on dusty Comanche Trail with the breathtaking view of the sunset over Lake Travis, he recognized it as an ideal restaurant location. He soon purchased the 500-plus-acre ranch and built a restaurant around the old ranch house that he promoted as "the sunset capital of Texas." That was back in the early Eighties; many things about the Oasis Restaurant have changed over the years. The panoramic sunset view is still the same, but now a network of decks cascade down the cliffs toward the lake, they offer live music several nights a week, and a gift shop selling antiques, posters, postcards, T-shirt, caps, and all kinds of other tourist trinkets sits in the parking lot.
Theriot's newest innovation is a line of signature condiments bearing the Oasis Foods label. There's the restaurant's very popular hot sauce, naturally, and a spicy barbecue sauce, as well. However, the product line doesn't stop there. They've added jams and jellies made from area fruits such as peaches, strawberries, and wild mayhaws (this one is particularly good) and have two versions of jalapeño jelly, both a red and a green with a pleasant pepper punch. In addition, several interesting grilling marinades such as a Roasted Raspberry Chipotle, a Hot Plum Chipotle, and a very tangy Seville Orange Cranberry are suggested for use in grilling all kinds of meats. We found them to work especially well with pork, be it chops, loin, or ribs. Oasis Foods products are on sale at the restaurant's gift shop, via their Web site, and the marketing staff is working overtime to place them in grocery and specialty stores around the country.
In the year since the Bunch siblings of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, opened their Cafe du Monde-style beignet franchise in Austin, locals have really embraced the comfortable restaurant with very satisfying food. Initially, the owners added tasty lunch offerings, and, when lunch proved to be an overwhelming success, they opened for dinner serving the same credible renditions of gumbos, red beans & rice, and étouffées. Now, they've packaged their own brand of New Orleans-style Coffee With Chicory and the mix for their wonderful beignets, deep-fried pillows of dough to be dusted with powdered sugar. These two products make great gift items for folks who want to savor a little of the flavor of Louisiana, via Austin, at home. Those of us who choose to forgo the heat and mess of deep-frying will still be found at Crescent City sporting a "beignet blotch" of powdered sugar on our chins and noses.
It used to be that we thought the best thing that could happen to a Boggy Creek Farm organic Roma tomato was that it would be smoke-dried and packed in olive oil for consumption during the long months when there are no edible tomatoes. Then we became enamored of the Smoke-Dried Tomato Pesto with organic onions and jalapeños, our favorite for a while. We had a serious fling with Larry Butler's Jamily Family and Perilously Perfect Pickles and even lost our hearts to the wonderfully vinegary, fiery Gato Negro salsas, not knowing the best was yet to come.
This summer, the newest valued-added product from Austin's favorite Eastside organic market garden is Don Leon's Tomato Tonic. For our money, it's the best concoction to emerge from Boggy Creek farmer Larry Butler's Milam county commercial kitchen, ever, bar none. Now that's a stong statement, but this is strong tonic. Made with organic tomato juice, a little apple cider vinegar, puréed sweet 1015 onions, a dash of salt and garlic, and some smoke-dried serrano pepper purée for zing, the miraculous juice is simmered, strained, and bottled, ready to swig right down.
While we're mighty partial to the tonic just for sipping, other uses have come to our attention. It makes the perfect base for summer gazpacho and adds depth and substance to soup stocks. Perhaps its best venue is as a base for Bloody Marys. At a recent gathering, we saw a gallon jug of tonic disappear when presented in this manner: Don Leon's Tomato Tonic, Absolut Peppar Vodka, a dash of Gato Negro Muy Picante sauce, celery sticks or Perilously Perfect dill pickles for stirring. Pour over ice and stir. Absolutely heavenly. Look for Don Leon's Tomato Tonic at the BCF farmstand on Wednesdays and Saturdays, at Whole Foods Markets and at Portabla (1200 W. Sixth).
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