Swoop House’s Hospitality Honcho Has All the Luck
Stephen Shallcross carries on with Happy Foods and De Nada and more
"I am a great believer in luck," the writer Coleman Cox observed back in 1922. "The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have."
And ain't that just the truth, citizen? So you know that, when some successful person tells you they've been really lucky, usually what they're being is politely humble. Unless that person happens to be Austin's own Stephen Shallcross.
Which is not to say that Shallcross isn't humble or that he doesn't work his ass off, because he is and he does. But when he tells you that a lot of what's brought him to where he is in this town – he's the man in charge of the acclaimed 2 Dine 4 Catering company and its Swoop House headquarters and Supper Friends dinners and Happy Foods pivot, the Sawyer & Co. diner with its classic breakfast noms and perfectly constructed patty melt and authentic New Orleans entrees, and the new Sawyer-adjacent De Nada taco emporium – when Shallcross tells you he's been lucky, the circumstances of his fortune are sometimes sufficiently jaw-dropping that, yeah, he's not just being polite.
Consider, for example, the land that Swoop House occupies on Gonzales Street. "It's really the only smart professional thing I've ever done, and it was a total accident," says the hospitality honcho, who came from Baton Rouge in 1990 to attend UT and started out, with the help of friends Happy Adelbaki and John Haug, running food service for several Greek houses on campus.
"I wish I could say, 'I Could See the Eastside's Potential, So I Invested in Commercial Real Estate!' But what I did was lease space from a guy who was going bankrupt. That building" – he gestures across the property – "was Metropolitan Bakery at the time, in 2000, and so we were paying rent to him, but he wasn't paying the landlord. So he was evicted, and all my stuff was still in the building. So I meet the landlord on the courthouse steps, basically, and say, 'Please-please-please, lease the building to me, I've been paying the rent!' And he was like, 'I'm just not interested in leasing it anymore.' And my heart sank, thinking, okay, I'm out of business, because this guy technically owns all my stuff now. But he said, 'I won't lease it, but I'll sell it to you.' And I was like, 'Really? I, uh, I don't know if I can do that.' And he was like, 'Well, we'll work it out.'"
Shallcross smiles, relating this story at a table in the quirkily appointed gardens outside Swoop House. He's masked for this interview (we're all masked; there's a pandemic going on) but his eyes are definitely smiling. "And the landlord's name was John Lewis, and I can't tell you how many times I've thought of him over the years. Because he owner-financed what we couldn't qualify for, and – because of John Lewis – I've been able to do everything else that we've done. And by leveraging that one purchase, it helped us buy these other lots. It helped us buy Sawyer & Co."
Or consider Swoop House itself, that elegant example of early 20th-century architecture wherein are staged the sort of guest-chef dinners that leave people talking about the experience for years and where the new take-away operation Happy Foods is serving up healthy goodness seven days a week. Why is the place called Swoop House, anyway? Did it just, like, swoop down one day and there it suddenly was? Ha! OMG, what an idea, right?
Except it's true.
"Traditionally, as a caterer, I wasn't busy during the summertime," says Shallcross. "And so one day I answered an ad that said 'Free Garage Apartment,' and then I forgot about it. And a few weeks later, I got a call from this very sweet lady who said, 'Well, the first person didn't come and get it, and you were the second person. So I'm calling you, and you can have it if you want it." And I'm like, 'Well, that's wonderful. What are we talking about?' And she's like, 'It's a garage apartment.' And I'm like, 'You're ... giving away a garage apartment?' And she said, 'Well, the city is making me take it down.' She lived on Caswell Avenue in Hyde Park, and she had this really magnificent old house that her father had built, and there was a garage apartment that had fallen into disrepair and been condemned by the city. So, being the good Eagle Scout that I am, I start to tackle the project of demolition. Because there was a cool cast-iron bathtub in there, and a lot of old wood that I could use. I already owned a 100-year-old house, so I had a little experience, and the wood matched my own house pretty well. But, with the demolishing, I was really in over my head; it's a miracle that I did not die." He pauses, lowers his mask for a sip of coffee.
OK, but that was an apartment and it was being demolished; Swoop House is an entire, well, house. I point this out to Shallcross between bites of a Happy Foods spring roll bowl that's making my mouth very happy indeed.
"Yes," he says, "but while the demolition was going on, somebody was driving by, and they stopped and said, 'So, you do demo?' And I was like, 'Apparently, I do.' The guy worked for David Weekley Homes, and he said, 'We've got a house that needs to be demo'd – let me show it to you, it's just a few blocks away.' So I rode over with him and looked at the house, and I was like, 'You want to tear this down?' And he said, 'Well, you can move it, if you want, or whatever.' And I was already planning to build an office for 2 Dine 4 at the time, so I went to our architect and was like, 'Stop! Come help me sketch this – it's a big house I'm going to move!' It was the most expensive free thing I've ever gotten, and I remember telling my wife at the time, 'Hey, I got a free house today!' But I hired Junior Brown to move it, and he was awesome, and it was really a fun adventure to move the thing, to get it from Hyde Park to here. My absolute favorite moment was riding in the house, waving to our neighbors, like 'I'm moving in!'"
And then, of course, it was just a small matter of getting the proper building permits for everything. But, if you've ever tried to run a business or remodel a property in Austin, you'll know I'm mugging sarcastic with that "a small matter" phrase. Still, Shallcross relates his challenges almost cheerily.
"When the economic downturn happened in 2008 and all our destination catering just disappeared in 2009," he tells me. "We'd been setting up events in Cabo San Lucas, St. Lucia, Costa Rica, and Pebble Beach and so on, and when all that went away, we had to re-focus on catering in Austin. And when we originally got the permits for the Swoop House, it was supposed to be permitted as an office. But I'd had the architects write Tasting Area on the dining-room area on the building plan, and when we went to the plan review, the reviewers said 'Oh, so you're a restaurant.' And I was like, 'No, we're a catering company. Occasionally we're gonna bring in brides and grooms for sampling, yes, and we'll bring in food from across the parking lot, but we're not a restaurant.' I was like, 'We catered in the mayor's office last week – that doesn't make his office a restaurant.' But they said, 'If you're feeding people there, there's no other classification for it.' So we jumped through a few more hoops to get it permitted as a restaurant – even though I never in a million years thought we'd ever be that."
Shallcross pauses for another sip of that excellent coffee.
"But then one of the first tastings we did in Swoop House was very unusual," he continues, "because we had a bride who'd picked out a menu that we all kind of liked, and we had this other bride who was like, 'The food's not that important to me, but I know I'm supposed to taste stuff, so will you just give me a sample of whatever you want?' So I asked the first bride if she'd mind me inviting another bride and groom to come to the tasting? And she's like, 'I don't mind,' and so we had these two brides and two grooms who were coming over to eat the same thing. And the day that that was scheduled, we had someone else call us, who said, 'Look, I was just told today that we really should meet with you about the catering, but I'm leaving for California tomorrow morning, is there any way that we could come in in the next few hours?' And I said, 'Well, what are you doing for dinner tonight?' And I was like, 'Hey, Chef, can we do six tonight?'" So we fed three brides and three grooms together at the same table – and the wedding photographer who'd recommended us, who was a good friend who lived nearby, we invited them, too – and it was hilarious. Because, normally, a tasting is me sitting at the head of the table and talking my head off and answering questions, but this tasting was a regular dinner party of strangers – and the grooms talked and the brides talked, and the photographer talked, everybody just chatting about weddings and things, and it was amazing. And at the end of the dinner, the chef looked at me and said, 'Every tasting should be just like this.'"
[Journo's note: I went to a couple of 2 Dine 4's Supper Friends dinners, back in the Before Times. And the food at those events, the thoughtful service within the elegant setting ... yeah, most dinner parties should be just like that.]
"And this commissary building," says Shallcross, referring to what was Metropolitan Bakery, "we've had so many tenants in there over the years, and we've got to see so many successful businesses begin and thrive. Tracy Claros with Sticky Toffee Pudding started here, and Cosmic Kombucha started here, and Zilks Hummus. Cake & Spoon is still here, and Arlo's Vegan Burger. And, most recently, Rebel Cheese was commissary-ing for their cheese here – and they're doing really well now. I'm like, why didn't I start a vegan cheese company? But, yeah, the Swoop House has been the impetus for most of this."
We won't even mention how Shallcross acquired that House's coral chandelier, or the antique bar from a 150-year-old pub in Ireland, or how ... listen: We won't mention any more about luck at all, except to note that, here's the longtime Austinite and his several businesses, right here with the rest of us: in the seemingly endless midst of bad luck known as 2020.
But he's surviving. Surviving enough, in fact – thanks to his own work and the help and connections of an Austin hospitality industry interwoven with so many go-getters he's been involved with over the years – that he's opened this new De Nada taco joint next to Sawyer & Co. on East Cesar Chavez, pivoting service to the outdoors and serving up the margaritas and a diversity of tacos so good that any of them could make you weep into your salsa verde. Oh, but no brisket tacos in particular – because the man knows what's up. "Yeah, no," he clarifies, "our tacos are great, but if I want a brisket taco, I'm going to Suerte. Because nobody makes a brisket taco better than Fermin Núñez."
So: humble? Or just accurate? In any case, Shallcross, bright eyes twinkling above that mask, always alert for the next opportunity – "I'm thinking about applying for a nursery permit," he says at Swoop House, "so we can sell some of the plants we've got here in the garden. Guests could come in for brunch, leave with a new plant!" – Shallcross is, as ever, downright lousy with the good fortune that often comes of community engagement and sustained effort.
Where Your Paths and Stephen's Shallcross
2 Dine 4 Catering
3008 Gonzales #100, 512/467-6600
Sawyer & Co.
4827 E Cesar Chavez, 512/531-9033
De Nada Cantina
Foodtruck currently at ABIA's South Terminal
Brick & mortar opening soon next to Sawyer & Co.