People of the Year 2017
People of the Year
Meet the visionary Austinites who are leaving their imprint
on the city
Feature: Austin People
Meet the visionary Austinites who are leaving their imprint
on the city
Maya Payne Smart
Writer & Literacy Advocate
the Austin community
When it comes to community involvement, Maya Payne Smart is in deep. Since moving to Austin in the spring of 2015, when her husband, Shaka, became the men’s basketball coach at UT, she’s joined the boards of the Library Foundation, the Texas Book Festival, Montessori For All, and St. David’s Foundation; chaired the UT Libraries Advisory Council; and served on the advisory council for the Fearless Leadership Institute, a mentoring program for undergraduate women of color at UT. Not to mention her other volunteer commitments, like working with toddlers at the YMCA’s early-learning readiness program or being an in-school reading tutor.
“I’m sure it’s more than 40 hours; if I look at my calendar, I see everything. I don’t want to go through that exercise,” she says with a laugh. In the two and a half years since her family relocated from Virginia, Smart has made community work a priority.
“I’ve always been a really active volunteer in whatever community I’ve been in,” Smart says. “Volunteering is a great way to get to know a community because all of the nonprofits that exist to serve some particular community need, so when you volunteer you get up close and personal with whatever that place’s issues are.”
For Smart, her heart belongs to words and books. After earning a B.A. in social studies from Harvard, she went on to get her master’s in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and create a career writing about education and entrepreneurship for outlets like Edutopia and CNNmoney.com.
Since finding a home in Austin, Smart’s focused on her love for literacy. Earlier this year she interviewed English novelist Zadie Smith in front of a live audience for the release of her latest book“Swing Time,” and she contributes reviews and author interviews to “Kirkus Reviews.” “I do a lot of homework,” Smart says. The self-imposed homework is born from a love of reading, something Smart gets to share with the kids involved in the Texas Book Festival’s Reading Rock Stars program and with her six-year-old daughter, Zora. “She likes to make her own books,” Smart says. “Now it’s kind of flipped from me reading to her to her reading to me.”
As for personal reading, Smart cites Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing” as the best book of the year. “It’s just incredible on so many levels; she’s an excellent writer, but she tackles some ambitious themes and does a great job of painting textured portraits of characters who you don’t often see in literature,” Smart says.
While 2017 has been a year of “hardcore volunteering,” Smart does have plans to put her own pen to paper, working on a children’s book and a nonfiction book aimed at parents to inspire a love of reading.
“For me, 2017 has been about digging in and figuring out what my power is as an individual to impact my community and the world more broadly,” Smart says. “I think as individuals, when we focus our efforts in a specific area and approach things as curious learners and people who are open and curious and aware, then we can find a place to contribute, and over time all of those experiences add up to something that can matter.”
While Smart has carved her niche in the reading and writing realms, she credits her education about Austin to groups like Impact Austin, the women’s philanthropy network, and programs like Leadership Austin’s Experience Austin. “I would encourage people to go out of their way to learn about part of the city that they’re not familiar with and find out what the community needs and how they might be able to help,” Smart says. “Dig in and be curious.”
Blame it on Spain. That’s where 39-year-old commercial real estate developer Ben Bufkin decided how much he loved Austin. He was a University of Texas student spending a summer semester in Granada and traveling through Europe. “That experience clued me in that there was a whole new way to think about living and lifestyle,” remembers Bufkin, who grew up in Dallas.
What struck him most was seeing so many places where people were passionate about their city and their local culture. And he recognized that Austin had that same passion. “When I came back, I was committed to staying,” Bufkin says. With a freshly printed economics degree, Bufkin interviewed with Andy Pastor, co-founder of Endeavor Real Estate Group, the largest full-service commercial real estate company in South and Central Texas. “I knew right then this was what I wanted to do,” Bufkin says. “Everyone at Endeavor loved what they did, being part of and even helping create the fabric of this community.”
Unfortunately it was a dream deferred. It was 2001 and the bursting tech bubble splattered Austin real estate. Bufkin passed the Endeavor chemistry check, but the company didn’t have a position for him. So he headed back to Dallas and a job with HFF, a national commercial developer. Bufkin honed his skills and bided his time, knowing that this stretch away from Austin would be temporary. The call came in 2004. An email actually, from Endeavor, who remembered the young man who shared the firm’s enthusiasm and vision for the future of Austin. This time there was a job for him.
Bufkin’s first project was Southpark Meadows, a sprawling shopping complex on I-35 near Onion Creek. There he learned not just about retail development, but also the often unique approach Austin has to large-scale projects. Austin has a history of being inclusive, opinionated, free-spirited. People speak their minds about anything and everything. Often loudly. Go to a Planning Commission meeting and you’ll see.
It’s an openness that has frustrated many developers. But where some see contention, Bufkin sees opportunity. “There are a lot of stakeholders — individuals and groups with an interest in every side of any given project, and everyone is in on the conversation,” he says. “That means the process takes longer, but in the end it leads to more-thoughtful decisions.”
Bufkin and Endeavor took that way of thinking north for their next venture, The Domain, the 300-acre high-end retail, office, and residential center at MoPac and Braker Lane. And then north again, to Endeavor’s latest effort, Domain NORTHSIDE.
Domain NORTHSIDE offers 43 acres of retail, restaurants, bars, and the Aloft and Archer hotels. Among the dozens of shops and restaurants, many are well-known brands but new to the Austin market, like Suitsupply, Guideboat Co., and Diptyque. But you’ll also see many familiar homegrown favorites, such as Stag, Eliza Page, and Birds Barbershop.
That combination was crucial. While Endeavor wanted to bring in names and experiences new to Austin, there also had to be a strong local connection. That’s important in this town, and Bufkin and Endeavor knew that to be successful they would have to create something with which Austin would be “comfortable,” a word Bufkin uses often.
Most of all, they didn’t want Domain NORTHSIDE to be just a place where people would blow in to shop or eat and then leave; they wanted a vibrant community where you’d see people doing the same things you’d see in any other dynamic neighborhood: early-morning yoga, a stop at a coffee shop, work, lunch, business meetings, shopping, happy hour, dinner. There’s even Rock Rose for the late crowd, a collection of shops, bars, and restaurants — many of them locally owned — that aims to recreate the vibe of areas like South Congress Avenue.
Even with another notch in his belt, Bufkin isn’t taking a break, except to spend more time with his wife, Susan, and their three boys, George, William, and Luke. Instead, he’d rather look ahead. And in that regard he thinks the city is just getting started in terms of its potential.
He’s excited about the future but doesn’t stay awake at night worrying about what’s next. “In fact,” he says, “I love my work and this city so much I still pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming that I get to live here.”
Dr. Carlos Brown
Chief of Acute Surgery, Dell Medical School
“I don’t feel like my job is very stressful at all. I love what I do.” A statement like this might seem fairly innocuous, but it’s more surprising when your job is trauma surgery. As the chief of the Acute Care Surgery division at Dell Medical School, Dr. Carlos Brown oversees trauma, emergency general surgery, surgery critical care, and the new burn program and instructs medical students as a professor of surgery. “I love taking care of patients, love teaching, love doing research,” Brown says.
Love for this type of work came to Brown at a very early age. “I wanted to be a physician my whole life and probably a surgeon my whole life, but the only real event that I could see that sparked that was watching ‘M.A.S.H.’ as a kid,” Brown says.
Spending most of his formative years in Austin, Brown graduated from Westlake High School and then the University of Texas, followed by the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston for medical school. Receiving a scholarship from the Navy, Brown started his career at the Naval Medical Center San Diego and the LAC-USC Medical Center, where, as the deputy director of the Naval Trauma Training Center, he prepared Navy personnel for deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2006 Brown himself went to Ramadi, Iraq, spending seven months performing trauma surgery in one of the most dangerous places in the country. Part of his experience was covered in a lengthy Texas Monthly article — “Carlos Brown Is a Hero (No Matter What He Says)” — in 2007. “That was by far the single greatest professional experience of my life,” Brown says of his time in Ramadi. “The opportunity and privilege and honor of taking care of our troops who were wounded in combat was like nothing I’d done before. The volume and acuity of trauma cases that I took care of there just made me hone my skills as a surgeon exponentially from what they were before that.”
After his time in Iraq, Brown took over the trauma unit at Brackenridge, establishing a trauma research program, starting the general surgery residency program, and helping to make Brackenridge a Level I trauma center. “I miss the military tremendously,” Brown says. “I decided to get out to come back here to help build this program, but I look back on those days fondly and realize it was a critical part of my growth as a person and as a surgeon.”
In the past year, the Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas (Brackenridge Hospital became Dell Seton) has opened, and the first class of medical students has started rotations. Two specialized programs are being built out as well, a geriatric trauma program and a burn program, serving Central Texans who previously had to seek care in Houston, Dallas, or other cities.
“Trauma is always unknown,” Brown says. “People are coming in severely injured with life-threatening problems, but you don’t know what they are when they walk in the door. You have to figure that out. So making really difficult decisions with limited information and high stakes, it’s a really invigorating part of the job. Elective surgery — you know what you’re going to take care of, you know what you’re going to operate on. In trauma, you just know someone’s really badly hurt, and you have to figure out what’s wrong with them and what to do to fix it.”
While Brown’s work is demanding, his off-hours are devoted to his family: his wife, Debbie, and his kids, Madison and Tyler, who attend Westlake, and Trevor, a sophomore golfer at TCU,. “If I’m not at work, I’m trying to hang out with my family more than anything else,” Brown says. “That keeps me grounded, and if there is stress, it’s a great way to decompress.”
Will & Noël Bridges
Partners, Antone’s, Arlyn Studios, Cisco’s,
Deep Eddy Cabaret, Lambert’s, Pool Burger
They may seem young to have their names attached to some of Austin’s most storied and beloved establishments. Will and Noël Bridges, both in their early 30s, are putting their mark on the Austin landscape by not letting things die, whether that’s a building, a business, or even an idea.
It’s part business and part calling. They’re both Austin natives, with a deep love for the city. On top of that, they feel their generation has a responsibility to preserve Austin’s culture and heritage. “We’ve been handed a torch,” Will says.
It started with Will partnering with McGuire Moorman Hospitality in 2006 to open Lamberts in a historic building downtown. Five years later he became a partner at Arlyn Studios, the legendary music house that has attracted musicians from Ray Charles to Lorde. Next, he and Noël, along with his father, Robert, took over Deep Eddy Cabaret, the venerable beer joint on Lake Austin Boulevard that opened when Truman was president.
Last year they became part of the group that revived Antone’s, arguably Austin’s most noted music club, and this year it’s Cisco’s, the migas mecca on East 6th Street that opened in 1946. And while they’re at it, they’ve launched a brand-new place, Pool Burger, which if you didn’t know it, you’d think had been around just as long.
It was while on their honeymoon in Hawaii that they learned they had closed the deal on Deep Eddy. That trip also proved the inspiration for Pool Burger — a combination burger trailer and tiki bar that sits below and behind Deep Eddy. The couple share a fondness for dive bars and found one near where they were staying on Kauai. They fell in love with its tiki theme. When they returned to Deep Eddy they discovered something interesting. A tiki-like carving on one of the tables, similar pictures in the women’s restroom, even a palm tree growing outside, none of which they’d noticed before. The Bridgeses couldn’t ignore the connection.
That’s how you get an authentic tiki bar, which feels as though it’s been around forever, next to a bar that has. Both places highlight two things that come naturally to both Will and Noël: a strict attention to detail and a desire not to change things too much.
Changes had to be made to Deep Eddy to bring it up to code. Not that anyone noticed. The couple meticulously photographed and documented everything in the bar so they could get it back near exactly the way it was. “Not changing things is even harder than changing things,” says Will. “But so worth the effort.” That’s why you’ll see very little visible difference at Cisco’s except the addition of a liquor license and evening hours.
The same goes for Antone’s, which has had many homes since it was founded in 1975. “A symbolization of the resilience of the Austin music scene,” as Will puts it, which he’d like to see remain true to the legacy of founder Clifford Antone. The idea of preservation goes beyond their business interests. Noël is deeply involved in the “Save Muny” movement — the effort to preserve Lion’s Municipal, the UT-owned, city-leased golf course just down the street from Deep Eddy.
Noël, who doesn’t even play golf, sees the effort to save the course as similar to the other preservation efforts she and Will have embraced. “The impact goes far beyond golfers,” she says. “It is a civil-rights landmark and an important urban green space.” Noël is exploring ways for Muny to serve an even broader community purpose.
That notion of inclusivity is common with the Bridgeses. They see Austin as a town full of “…places where people of all kinds are hanging out together,” according to Will. Inclusive also applies to their work styles. Many of their partners are family or longtime friends. Conventional wisdom says that friends and family don’t make good business bedfellows. But then the Bridgeses don’t see themselves as conventional.
Austin isn’t their sole focus; they like to travel and seek out inspiration in places that are kindred spirits to Austin. Hawaii proved to be one, and they both cite New Orleans as a spot where respect for the city’s legacies and traditions seems inherent in its residents. But when it comes to new deals, they aren’t looking outside of town. While they worry about growing too fast, they feel like there are plenty of local opportunities right in their wheelhouse.
“It’s exciting to us that we get to have a hand in what the future of Austin looks like,” says Noël. And at least where the Bridgeses are involved, it’s a safe bet that Austin’s future won’t look very different from its past.
Director, Blanton Museum of Art
Simone Wicha is a native Texan, but she was never one who had specific intentions to return. Growing up in Mexico City, attending high school and university in Texas, and departing afterwards for a career in New York City, Wicha’s agenda did not necessarily include a trip back down south. Rather, being recruited by the museum that she now calls home, coupled with excellent personal timing family-wise, brought her back. That was more than a decade ago. Since her arrival at the Blanton, Wicha has been promoted from director of development, to deputy director, to museum director outright, assembled what she believes is a world-class team, produced arguably the most ambitious exhibitions the museum has ever housed, and cemented the museum’s place as a pillar of both the university and the city’s art community as a whole. If it wasn’t already obvious, this is one unexpected return that quickly proved invaluable in amplifying Austin’s arts reputation tenfold.
“It was a really important moment in my mind for Austin, because while I was at school at UT, it was a city where the arts were not really part of the fabric of the community,” Wicha says. “So I thought, ‘This is a moment to be a part of this. How many opportunities do you have to really make an impact on a city that’s growing like this, and hopefully have an impact?’ It’s huge.”
Wicha is only the fifth director in the Blanton’s 54-year history, and she’s arguably its most determined, insofar as her ambition for the museum — and its potential cultural influence — knows no bounds. Directing a museum that already greets upwards of 20,000 visitors from UT’s campus alone (one of the highest percentage-wise in the country), Wicha has set her sights equally on the Blanton’s position within the city’s larger arts landscape, looking far beyond the building’s physical location on campus to the hearts and minds of every Austinite she can think of. No stone gets left unturned in this director’s pursuit of greater awareness and significance for her institution.
“We want to serve the university campus, obviously, but our intention is to be open to the community,” she says. “So that’s always a balance. To me it’s awareness. I want everyone to feel like, ‘This is my museum,’ and I want all of those people to be impacted with where they need to be with where they’re at in their life. I want all of them to feel really proud of their community and what we’ve got here at the Blanton.”
Wicha’s ambition is matched by her unwavering excitement — for both her museum’s potential and the city’s future as a whole. For her, it’s an exhilarating time to be in Austin — and the Blanton’s visitors undoubtably would agree. Proof of the institution’s (and, by default, Wicha’s) ability to live up to this potential can be seen in exhibitions from recent years past — from “Warhol: By The Book”, the first exhibit in the US to analyze that specific body of work, to, most recently, “Epic Tales From Ancient India”, which was on view from the San Diego Museum of Art. For Wicha, fulfilling the potential she so clearly sees is, at this point, all but second nature.
“I want to provide the city with the museum it deserves,” she says. “And I want more people to feel like the arts add value to their life and can be a place that they can find joy and learn and thrive as much as the other art forms in this city. I believe that it’s already happening, and I believe that it’s going to happen even more so.”
Practically speaking, Wicha’s most recent labor of love, and what has specifically memorialized the year 2017, is what she calls a monumental Ellsworth Kelly project, appropriately titled “Austin”, that’s set to open in February, potentially having national and international implications for the museum and its search for greater influence.
“Austin” is the only freestanding building that Kelly has ever designed. A 2,175-square-foot building with colored glass windows and 14 marble panels, it was created with the intention of bringing joy and contemplation to its visitors, and will become a cornerstone of the Blanton’s permanent collection.
“I think the opening of the Kelly project makes Austin a true destination for the visual arts,” she says. “So if you care about the arts anywhere in the world, there is a reason, a real reason, for you to make the trip to Austin. I feel proud of what we’ve done on campus and in our community, and I think marking the city and marking the museum with the honor that we were given to be able to realize this project at the Blanton starts to change the dynamic and make us a world-class destination.”
Wicha may have a lot of the aforementioned ambition resting on the upcoming Kelly project, but one thing’s certain: this is one director who’s already made her mark. Here’s hoping she’s here to stay.
Tatsu Aikawa &
Takuya “Tako” Matsumoto
Co-Owners, Kemuri Tatsu-Ya
On the day Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya “Tako” Matsumoto opened Ramen Tatsu-Ya in September 2012, the temperature would reach 100 degrees. And yet despite the scorching conditions, the nascent restaurant was already showing signs of a cult following: Customers queued up in long lines, with wait times that sometimes stretched upward of an hour, all to slurp their way to the bottom of steaming bowls of decadently rich pork broth and fresh noodles.
In mid-2015, with the restaurant’s iconic status in Austin’s dining scene firmly secure, Tatsu got a call about a building on East Second Street — the former home of Live Oak Barbecue, in fact — that was on the market. Tatsu and Tako quickly realized that the space would be perfect for an idea that they’d been simmering on for a couple of years: Texas BBQ meets Japanese pub.
In January 2017, that idea became a reality with the opening of Kemuri Tatsu-Ya.
Inside the eatery, it’s Japanese bathhouse (dark wood paneling, a large neon kanji sign) meets Texas kitsch (Lone Star beer sign sits over the front window, a Sapporo Draft flag hangs by the entrance to the bar). Festive tunes from Busdriver and Anderson .Paak pulse through the speakers. And the essence of smoke (from burbling beef bones and slow-roasting pork and charring shishito peppers, all fueled by the embers of wood) diffuses through every nook and cranny: It’s embedded in the walls, it stretches to the curb, and before you leave the place, it will have taken to the fibers of your shirt and the strands of your hair.
On the menu are clever renditions of Texan-Japanese food (or Japanese-Texan food), but be forewarned: If you walk in expecting to find a “sushirrito” among them, you will be shamed. If you walk in mentioning “fusion,” you’ll be met with a compliant eye roll. Mention “traditional,” and you’ll be redirected to Ramen Tatsu-Ya. Here, Tatsu and Tako are working with tastes and experiences that they grew up with, and that authenticity permeates the menu the same way the smoke permeates the building.
“Our ultimate pleasure is for customers to walk in without knowing anything about Kemuri Tatsu-Ya and ‘get’ the whole idea of what we’re trying to do here,” Tatsu says. “It’s not a concept that’s been made out of thin air, you know what I’m saying? This is more experiences. This is more our life as Japanese immigrants and growing up in Texas.”
Take the sticky rice tamales. “Growing up, we ate a lot of sticky rice on the weekends,” Tatsu says. “So naturally our tamales are made of sticky rice, wrapped in bamboo instead of corn husks, but steamed the same as tamales.” Naturally. “It’s really a lot of home cooking. That’s like the number one trigger of memory — eating something that resembles home cooking,” Tatsu says.
He just happens to have grown up in a pretty unique home. “We had a smoker in the backyard, but my mom would bring home fish instead of meat. Stuff like that. I mean, we’re immigrants, you know? we’re not just creating something just to create it. I have a flavor in my mind, which has built over the years of living in Texas and cooking Japanese food.”
The menu at Kemuri is divided into five loose categories: “Munchies,” “Smoked,” “Skewers,” “Rice Stuff,” and “Ramen.” While each section boasts some plates that may sound more like the deep cuts (Dank Tofu, Toro Brisket, Chili Cheese Takoyaki), all make room for some lovably spun classics, like crispy nigiri, classic karaage chicken, and “Texas” ramen.
To be a “person of the year” in Austin requires an authenticity almost to the point of indulgence. It means that you are doing something so authentic it feels inevitable. For Tats and Tako, that inevitability is the mingling of Texas and Japanese culture within them, expressed through food, served with a side of chili cheese and an extra ajitama egg.
CEO, National Western Life Group and
Trustee, Moody Foundation
Visit with Ross Moody and it’s quickly apparent that the man sitting across the table, casually dressed in a gray down jacket that matches his silver hair, is quite a busy guy. Not because he’s checking his phone or giving off the vibe of needing to be somewhere else (he does neither), but because even a brief conversation covers a lot of terrain, past, present, and future.
To wit: his first years in Austin as a student at UT; his father, kids, and extended family; his business (he’s chairman of the board, president, and CEO of Austin’s fourth-largest publicly held company, National Western Life Group); the state of Austin’s economy and arts scene; local nonprofits, from small, under-the-radar groups to well-established outfits; his zeal for the outdoors and history with marathons (he’s run 35 and completed three Ironman triathlons), and the most effective way to go about dispensing millions of dollars each year to benefit the city and state he loves. Yes, Moody is a busy guy, but a more apt description is to call him thoroughly engaged.
“In the last few years, the Moody Foundation has grown incredibly,” he explains, “and what we’ve been able to do as a result is so exciting.” Moody’s enthusiasm is evident as he uses the words “pure joy” to describe the feeling of seeing a need and being able to do something about it. After graduating from UT in 1984, Moody worked for four years (two in New York City) before attending Harvard for an MBA. Austin has been home ever since, and his commitment to the city runs as deep as his family’s Texas roots.
Alongside his sister, Francie Moody-Dahlberg, of Dallas and his daughter, Elle Moody, of New York, Moody serves as trustee for the Moody Foundation, which started in Galveston in 1942. Arts, education, the environment, health, and social services are the foundation’s focus, and since its inception, it has funded grants across Texas worth more than $1.3 billion. The foundation also has three hallmark initiatives of its own, each of which brings Texans opportunities for education, as well as inspiration and nourishment for body and soul.
The Capital Area Food Bank, AIDS Services of Austin, Candlelight Ranch, Jeremiah Program, the Contemporary Austin, and the Blanton Museum of Art are just a few Austin beneficiaries. In 2013, the announcement of a $50 million donation to establish the Moody College of Communication at UT Austin marked the largest endowment for the study of communication at any public university in the nation. “They’re doing amazing things,” Moody remarks. “Everything from 3-D filmmaking to innovative ways of teaching kids with speech and learning difficulties. These are things that can change people’s lives and their future; I’m blown away by what goes on there.”
As with many grants, things often start slowly, with one or two small requests, and gain momentum as conversations deepen and the potential is envisioned. Such was the case with the Moody Foundation’s recently announced $9.7 million grant to the Pease Park Conservancy.
“This is a true grassroots organization,” he says. “Knowing that the city can only do so much, a group of neighbors just got together and started planting trees, doing their best to take care of a place that’s at the heart of Austin’s character.” Moody explains that the first requests were small, but then discussions grew. “Pease is such a ‘people’s park’ beloved by folks all over town. I’m thrilled we’re able to help them get going on something that’ll have a big impact,” says Moody. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Moody sees an impact just as strong with the foundation’s other major gift to the city’s green space this year, a $15 million grant to the Waller Creek Conservancy. The funds will create an amphitheater and a great lawn in a revitalized Waterloo Park, part of the conservancy’s initiative to connect a chain of downtown parks running along Waller Creek. In discussing the plan’s vision, Moody says he loves the connectivity and inclusiveness at the heart of the public-private effort: “They have a bold vision for all of it — the design, the architecture, and the cultural enhancement. Each piece brings economic as well as social benefits to everyone.
“Every day,” he says, “I thank my lucky stars I get to live here and do what I do. When we support an organization, from then on we’re their unofficial cheerleaders. What a wonderful role to be able to play.”
Margaret Jabour &
Co-Owners, Twin Liquors
While it’s hard to imagine in today’s Austin of online everything and delivery everywhere, our booming city was once a small town. From its start, Austin was the kind of place that drew risk takers and hardworking newcomers seeking every opportunity to better their lives. The burgeoning businesses were often family affairs, meaning every member, young and old alike, took part in the labor and long hours. In the late 1800s, one such family was the Jabours, whose patriarch started with a peddler’s cart and went on to open a mercantile store in the heart of Austin at Congress Avenue and Pecan (now Sixth) Street.
In 1937, not long after prohibition had ended, the Jabour family ventured into the fiercely competitive liquor business. (Austin had no fewer than 26 liquor stores within a two-mile area at the time.) “Trading” with people you knew and trusted was a way of life, and Jabour’s Package Store — a liquor store, drug store, and soda fountain under one roof — thrived, eventually expanding to three stores and a tavern, which sold only beer. When the second generation of the family retired after more than 40 years in the business, the next one picked up the baton and opened the first Twin Liquors, a modest 700-square-foot retail space at the corner of Seventh and Red River.
Third-generation Austin natives and siblings Margaret Jabour and David Jabour are co-owners of Twin Liquors and serve as the company’s executive vice president and president, respectively. Like their father and his twin brother for whom the store is named, Margaret and David have worked side by side in the family business, off and on, since childhood. While each has pursued other interests (Margaret sold car stereos as a teen and studied fashion, and David spent 15 years in banking), the Jabours share a genuine enthusiasm for taking their company into the future while maintaining the heart and soul of its past. For instance, the Jabours are intent on balancing the use of technology with providing services like alcohol delivery in a safe and sensitive way they can feel good about.
“When you grow up working in a family business like we did, you learn what it means to do things the right way,” explains Margaret. “Everything you do has to come from the heart first. Of course, a good business should make money, but if that’s all you’re about and don’t listen to your customers to learn their needs and wants, I don’t see how you could get up and go to work every day. What would be the point?”
The question is rhetorical, yet it’s abundantly clear that Margaret and David have given it much thought over the years. The answers — for them, as well as their team of employees at the more than 80 Twin Liquors stores across Central Texas — come from a strongly held desire to continue a legacy of building relationships that go far beyond selling. David illustrates that point by sharing a story.
“I was at an event, seated next to a highly accomplished physician,” he says. “As soon as he recognized my last name, he asked if my dad worked at the liquor store at Seventh and Red River back in the day. I told him, ‘Yes, that’s our store and Dad was there most of the time.’ He went on to tell me, ‘You probably don’t believe this, but your father is partially responsible for what I’m doing today.’ Apparently the young man was particularly discouraged by his studies one day when he went into the store, and he told Dad he was thinking about dropping out. So they talked a while, Dad listening to his frustrations. He told me that without Dad’s advice and encouragement that day, he likely would’ve gone ahead and left school. That’s just the kind of relationship Dad had with his customers.”
In addition to industry accolades, the Jabours have received numerous community awards and recognition for their leadership and support of local nonprofits. Margaret ties their work in the community to the family’s core values of responsibility and trust: “It’s about always being of service and doing whatever you can in the most responsible way you can. Our customers are our neighbors, our friends; what matters to them matters to us. Figuring out more ways to serve is our passion, and it just keeps growing.”
Partner, New Waterloo
It’s early on a Friday morning, and Delfo Trombetta is walking through the lobby of the South Congress Hotel, nodding to friends and staff members, on his way to get a cup of coffee at Mañana. “We have a two-year-old, so he’s up like clockwork every day,” Trombetta says. “ went to an event last night and saw some friends and stayed out late and he doesn’t care. He’s up at the same time.”
A lot has happened for Trombetta in the past two years. In 2015, his hospitality management group, Violet Crown, merged to form New Waterloo, where Trombetta is now a partner with Patrick Jeffers, Bill Stapleton, Stuart McManus, and Bart Knaggs. “We went from two restaurants with a handful of employees to two restaurants, two hotels, five more restaurants, and a management company that grew very quickly from five to 20; that wasn’t easy,” Trombetta says of the group that manages some of Austin’s most popular hot spots, including Sway, Otoko, Hotel Ella, and the South Congress Hotel.
While the growth happened rapidly, Trombetta had paved the way for success starting with the opening of La Condesa in 2009. He’d been living in New York and developing projects in Dallas and Atlantic City, but with La Condesa’s debut, he decided to make a permanent move. “I think the mystique of Austin was, it was really quiet, everybody rode their bikes around, nothing was too crowded, but there was energy — there were fun places to go at night and good activity,” Trombetta says. “Now you still have that energy, you just have a lot more people.”
Born in Catania, Italy, Trombetta lived in Sicily, with a two-year stint in Phoenix when his father’s work was transferred, until high school, when his family moved to the Boston suburb of Lexington. Trombetta went to Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., for college, and afterward he worked at a record label, which led to a job in Florida booking DJs for two large nightclubs. “It was fun, but I was also the director of operations for those clubs, so that was where I found my true calling,” he says.
His upbringing in Italy also factored heavily into determining his career. “That’s why I’m in the hospitality business,” Trombetta says. “Every single Saturday growing up we were at my mother’s parents’ house with all our uncles, aunts, cousins. It was one long meal and just a whole afternoon hanging out. And every Sunday we did the same with my father’s family. Food is community; that’s, I think, what I enjoy the most about our business and our industry.”
It’s certainly kept Trombetta busy. In September, New Waterloo opened French brasserie Le Politique downtown, and the firm has four more openings on the horizon, including two East Side Italian eateries — La Matta, a sandwich shop, and Il Brutto that will serve classic Italian dishes — and two new outposts for modern Thai favorite Sway, in Westlake and in the Domain’s Rock Rose.
The growth further motivates Trombetta, and he cites the offering of health plans and 401(k) options as benefits they couldn’t have provided with just one restaurant. Today the group employs around 600. “Growth for me and my partners goes hand in hand with growth for our people , whose shoulders we stand on. It really is the most motivating of things for me personally.”
Trombetta also looks to his father to inspire his work ethic. “To have the fortitude to uproot his life, my mom’s life, and give my sister and I this great new opportunity in the United States; he always worked so hard,” Trombetta says. “The harder you work, the harder the people around you will work. I just keep my head down and keep doing that, and it ends up working out.”
Whitney Casey &
What’s it take to start a tech company 2017? That question’s certainly been on the minds of Whitney Casey and Brooklyn Decker. In March, the high-profile pair — Casey, a former CNN anchor, and Decker, a model and actress currently starring in Nexflix’s “Grace and Frankie” — launched the fashion-focused Finery, a sort of personalized digital closet described as a “wardrobe operating system.” But the road to creating a new tech platform hasn’t been a totally smooth one.
When we meet, on the ground floor of the new Central Public Library, Casey and Decker are still clad in the outfits from their photo shoot, Decker in a long-sleeved white Isabel Marant Etoile dress and Casey in a bold floral Raey dress from Matchesfashion.com, joking that they’d been “styled by Vogue.” The night before, Casey had asked Vogue Australia fashion director Christine Centenera, an early adopter of Finery, for advice on what the duo should wear (taking into account Decker’s being eight and a half months pregnant with her second child). “When we’re together, we try to match the level of appropriateness. It’s less about the look and more about how dressy are you going,” Decker says.
Casey and Decker met in 2015 on a trip to Palm Springs, California, organized by a mutual friend from Austin who wanted to connect the interesting women she knew. “You think about six or seven strangers coming together from different areas, it could be awkward, so Whitney of course comes in with costumes and games and ideas just to break the ice,” Decker says. “She is a human icebreaker.”
“The people at Lucy in Disguise know me,” Casey says. “They’ll be like, ‘What’s happening this weekend, Whitney?’ I should have an account there.” Armed with desert-themed costumes — a cactus, tequila bottle, margarita salt — Casey and Decker hit it off. “It was a really great group of women, and Whitney and I just connected,” Decker says. “Also ’cause we were in Austin, it really helped us build our relationship here.”
After that initial meeting, Casey and Decker started talking about possible ways to collaborate and build something together. “ thought of a lot of really terrible ideas, and Finery was Whitney’s brainchild,” Decker says. “She was basically saying, ‘We have all these tools to expedite these processes in our lives that make it run smoothly, run easier. Why is there nothing for our wardrobe?’”
Citing finance-management tools like Mint and travel-planning tools like TripIt, Casey and Decker started the buildout for Finery, which uses machine learning to read receipts captured in your email inbox from online purchases and fill your digital closet. In-store purchases can be added in manually. From there users can create outfits from what they already own, make wishlists for future purchases, and shop for new items. The team released the desktop version, and since launching, they’ve passed 100,000 users and harnessed some star power for the site. You can check out, and purchase items from, the wardrobes of Camille Styles, Rachel Zoe, and Margherita Missoni, among others.
But when it came to raising funds, the two found it incredibly challenging to convey the power of their idea. “Someone told us, you’re going to have to prove to VCs that this isn’t a hobby,” Casey says.
“I was about eight months pregnant, and Whitney was working on her birthday, and we were in this meeting trying to talk about our company, and we’re like, ‘I don’t know how much more seriously one can take this,’” Decker says.
After a whirlwind of pitch meetings in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, and New York, the pair found the right investor, and they’ve all but cashed the check on their first round of funding. “Trying to tell men why this is valuable to women was a challenge,” Decker says. But they’re excited for what 2018 will bring.
Asked if they have a personal mantra that keeps them going, Decker pulls out her phone and scrolls for a quote from Confucius she’d recently found that reminded her of Casey. “‘A lion chased me up a tree, and I greatly enjoyed the view from the top,’” Decker says.
“That’s good,” Casey responds. “I’m going to change it to a tiger.”
“It’s her spirit animal,” Decker says.
Go ahead, let them hear you roar.
Read more from the People Issue | December 2017