Roots Chicken Shak to Open at Revamped H-E-B Mueller Food Hall
Chef Tiffany Derry proves that working moms should run the world
If there's a business uniquely equipped to open a new five-part food hall in the midst of a global pandemic, you can bet it's grocery chain favorite H-E-B. And it also should come as no surprise that women – working moms, to be specific – are in charge of much of the behind-the-scenes planning and operational work. Toward the end of this month (an exact date is tricky due to coronavirus restrictions), the Mueller location will reopen its remodeled food hall, Main Streat.
"H-E-B is so big and so broad. Some of our departments are bigger than some businesses," said Leslie Sweet, director of Central Texas public affairs team. And Kristin Irvin, director of restaurants for H-E-B, heads up the teams in charge of bringing the restaurant visions to life. "Innovation at H-E-B is not for the faint of heart and [Irvin] powered forward some great offerings for our customers – to the point that we received the accolades from Texas Monthly: We have the best barbecue chain in Texas, which is crazy, but it's real people helping to drive it. And that's Kristin. I'm super proud of her."
The brand now boasts more than 60 restaurants across the state, including 12 locations of True Texas BBQ (born in the original Mueller, incidentally); 40 locations of Flaming Bird Rotisserie Chicken; and 10 locations of the South Flo Pizza brand including Hancock Center. Irvin also runs the experimental restaurant concepts, which include Mueller, Lakeway, and two in San Antonio (where she resides), plus a coffee shop in Houston. But Irvin, who was part of the original Mueller plans, actually began her career as a mechanical engineer: "I was gonna build satellites and rockets and really cool things and then I did it for a year and it totally sucked." From there she got a side gig as a Central Market cashier while in grad school earning her MBA. "I was spending my nonexistent money there so I decided to try to get some of it back and that is – by happy accident – how I ended up with my toe in the door at H-E-B. Going to business school took a very different path than most of my business school friends: They were going off to be finance people and I went into grocery store operations."
Why redesign a bustling seven-year-old store? Especially now? Mueller was H-E-B's first foray into food halls and they wanted to improve just about every aspect. The decision to open was a big one, especially given the current state of Austin's restaurant community and all of the COVID-19-related systematic changes, but ultimately they pressed on. "Part of our overall goal at H-E-B is to take care of Texans, to feed Texans and their families, and this plays into that," said Irvin. "And the restaurant industry is in shambles, with so many people out of work and hurting." So with the 50-60 new service industry jobs, she is thrilled to "get them in there, just like I was able to do back when I was unemployed – with a great company that takes care of their customers and their employees and the community as a whole." Plus it gives folks something new to break up the pandemic monotony.
From a short list of more than 20 concepts, with the collaboration of Houston's James Beard Award-nominated chef Randy Evans (their director of culinary development), the lineup was whittled down to five different restaurants and the dining space itself has been completely redone, with the former outdoor area now enclosed. "It's going to feel more like, 'I want to hang out here,' as opposed to 'I'm going to eat at the grocery store,'" Irvin explained.
New concepts mean new equipment and spatial plans, and inspiration born of necessity. The menus are boiled down to their truest essence because each concept's space is extremely small, around the 11-by-11-foot range. The Yumai concept features "Asian bowls, kushikatsu, skewers grilled or fried to order"; Calle Taqueria features fresh press corn tortillas and a legit al pastor trompo. Irvin added, "We worked really hard to make sure there's really good vegan and vegetarian options. My favorite taco is actually the Impossible picadillo taco with Impossible ground meat. And talk about recipe development: We probably did 30 versions of that before we [settled on this one]." The Meltery boasts unique grilled cheese sandwiches: "My personal favorite is the Hippie Hollow with turkey, avocado, and smoked poblano peppers on Seedlicious bread. It's a very Austin sandwich, hence the name." While the original bar was focused on Texas beer (and some wine), the new spot is opening with a mixed beverage license, allowing them to bring in Texas spirits, too. That's right: You'll be able to get a real margarita at H-E-B Mueller.
But, said Irvin, "I'm actually most excited about bringing in Tiffany Derry from Dallas. She does everything with such a purpose. She's not just about selling duck fat fried chicken wings; she's about feeding and caring for her community up there in Plano and now she can take it to Austin."
"And she's willing to make us better, which is a huge gift," added Sweet. "She's going to broaden who we are and deepen our understanding of a commitment to excellence and community every day, so I'm super excited. She's already unlocked learnings – in just a year of working with her – that we wouldn't have gotten to without her. It's gonna be great."
Tiffany Derry, known for her Top Chef accolades, is a Beaumont native who began her culinary career at IHOP and worked her way up, attending the Art Institute of Houston and training in esteemed kitchens in Houston and Dallas. After earning finalist spots in two seasons of the hit television show, Derry created Tiffany Derry Concepts (TDC) and is now branching into Austin with a sister Roots Chicken Shak in H-E-B Mueller as well as other ventures, including Derrywear, her line of "statement T's."
"For the first time in my life, I put fried chicken on a menu," laughed the acclaimed chef. "I always said if I ever put fried chicken on a menu it had to be the best fried chicken – I was afraid that if it wasn't, my mom and cousins and uncles were gonna come for me, so I had to make sure it was delicious. So I did, and it ended up being the top seller. I'm talking about an upscale restaurant where we had plenty of wonderful dishes – sweet breads and scallops and things – and fried chicken sold the best. Fast forward, and everywhere I would go people were saying, 'Can I get that duck fat fried chicken? You got some in your purse?' I'm like, 'No I don't have fried chicken in my purse!'"
Derry's Roots Southern Table restaurant is being built out now (also delayed due to pandemic restrictions) and the Shak, born to stand alone, opens with the H-E-B Mueller food hall in late August. Derry said of the small menu, "We're not trying to be anything different other than what we do. We have eight, technically nine, items on the menu and we're not putting anything else on. That's it, that's what we serve."
In addition to the wings, sandwiches, and strips (an item Derry, a "bone-on person," fought against, but now says are the "hands down best"), there are duck fat fried french fries, banana pudding, and Caesar salad with mustard greens, kale, and romaine. "We have an amazing dressing. I am a Caesar dressing connoisseur – we take the breadcrumbs and fry them in duck fat, and that all gets tossed with Parmigiano and white marinated anchovies on top." As for sauces there's a trio of house honey mustard and ranch, and her West Indies hot sauce with mango, habanero, and ginger. "It's full of flavor. That's how I like to eat, so that's what we serve." She's adding biscuits and pepper jelly to the list of cravings, and occasional specials like a caprese chicken sandwich with heirloom tomatoes, slice of mozz, and fresh basil, but the menu will stay small. "Quality above all," insists Derry.
Derry knows a thing or two about making things work – her Metroplex space in Plano's Legacy Food Hall is an incredible 320 square feet, and with only fryers, Derry had to get creative when the pandemic hit. After returning from embassy work in Paris and then a long planned family vacation to Vietnam in February, Derry returned masked and gloved only to realize how far behind the United States was in preparation for COVID-19 devastation. But she and the team got to work, evolving from selling grocery bags with prepped raw ingredients to feeding frontline workers to creating affordable family meals ("church girl meals" that utilized fresh produce from her big restaurant's garden), garnering community support and loyal new customers.
"It was strictly about feeding people, not the money," she explained. "I see some people's dinners are so expensive that most people can't afford it – or they're only gonna do it one time – but I want repeat business. I want people to be able to trust that I'm going to cook you something delicious. We won't be afraid of what's to come. At the end of the day, we are all going through the same thing. We can either push through or give up. And giving up is just not part of my DNA."
At least part of her drive stems from a passion for progress – something she has worked toward throughout her career and as a working mom (a title Irvin and Sweet proudly share as well). "Coming up in the business, I didn't see people who looked like me," she explained. "I didn't see other African American chefs and I definitely didn't see them in charge and I definitely didn't see them owning anything. Representation matters."
Her ultimate goal is franchising Roots, and she hires with the intent of diversifying kitchens and empowering women and people of color to own their own business. "When we own it, we control it, and that's where we need to be. You have your days when you work for someone else, and that's important because you have to learn and grow and hopefully make the mistakes on their dime, but eventually, ownership is important."
Derry added, "As we get older, you start to form ideas about what's possible and your idea of what's possible is based on what you've seen or heard. And so the more women that are stepping up and finding their voice – and some of this is because we've forced them to listen, they're not giving us an inch – I think that's going to be a big change for our next generation."
H-E-B Mueller1801 E. 51st, 78723
The location’s new job postings are live, and the grand opening, scheduled for “late August” but dependent on health officials’ safety recommendations, will host community donations to Urban Roots and The William B. Travis Institute of Hospitality and Culinary Arts at Travis High School.
[Editor's note: We corrected the name of H-E-B Mueller's Food Hall, Main Streat.]