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Taco the Town

So how is it that Tin Star (see review, page 57), a Tex-Mex chain outfit from Dallas, and John Jourde, a first-time restaurateur more comfortable around software reps than line cooks, came together in Colorado to create a place that so impressed me?

Good question.

Rich Hicksopened the original Tin Star in Dallas in 1999. It was his dream joint, a place that combined everything he loved about eating and restaurants -- and he knew quite a bit about both. Like most good cooks, he got his start young and did all his essential growing up in galleys. His first job was as a dishwasher at the Marsh Creek Inn in Pennsylvania, which he took at the ripe old age of fourteen. Before long, he'd hooked up with Brinker International, the mega-corporation that owns and operates some of the well-known brands on my personal enemies list. Chili's, Macaroni Grill, Maggiano's -- they're all Brinker outfits.

And while I have no qualms admitting that I would dance a naked jig on the roof of the office were I to get the news tomorrow that some strange plague had come along and wiped every Chili's, Applebee's, Red Lobster and Olive Garden off the face of the earth, I also have to admit that I'm impressed with the numbers these operations do, as well as the kind of people they produce.

A chef -- fine-dining, French-trained, experienced and talented -- is a very high-maintenance creature. He may be an excellent businessman, a magnificent cook and a gifted manager, but he is still a highly refined specialist. Chefs (and, in turn, their restaurants, whether they have one or five or even ten) are the Delta Force of the food world. Individual, insular, accustomed to working alone in hostile environments, they represent a discrete application of power, capable of doing wonderful things, but only on a small scale.

Organizations such as Brinker, on the other hand, are like the regular infantry. They produce grunts -- both front-line, mud-foot trigger-pullers and officers made for commanding such because they, too, were once down there in the trenches. You want to take a strip mall, control a block, command a food court? These are the guys you call. No one moves numbers like a successful chain restaurant, and because these companies and divisions are in the business of maximum body count with minimum fuss, everyone involved becomes a ground-level expert.

In other words, an experienced Brinker veteran who's risen through the ranks and made a career for himself in that high-pressure, high-volume world will come out of his tour a preternatural badass, able to do anything, anywhere, and knowing exactly what it will take to be successful. Hicks was one of those guys. And what made him even more dangerous was that he also had a history outside the chains. He recognized what kind of difference a cook-from-scratch kitchen could make, what benefit he would see from buying good product and making sure it was treated well.

Although Hicks pinned his first Tin Star on Dallas, I have no doubt he did so with visions of Tex-Mex world domination, and there are already dozens of Tin Stars scattered across the Midwest and the West. The first one in Colorado belongs to Jourde, who spent several years living close to the original restaurant, eating there three or four times a week.

Jourde had made a lot of money in software, but he wasn't entirely happy. He wanted something of his own, a business he could run himself that would put him in contact with people -- in particular, people who didn't care about software. Because he didn't have a lot of experience in going it alone, Jourde started checking franchise deals, figuring the centralized support that comes with such an arrangement would offer him a crutch to lean on while he learned. "I looked at car washes, dry cleaners," Jourde tells me. "My wife and I sat down and discussed all this, but we weren't even thinking about the restaurant business."

That is, not until he scheduled a lunch meeting with a franchiser (he can't remember what kind) at his neighborhood Tin Star and got to thinking.

"A friend of mine told me I should talk to Rich Hicks and see if there was an opportunity there," he says. His wife thought it was a good idea, he adds, "but I told her, 'I can't even open a lemonade stand. I don't know what the hell I'm doing.'" Jourde had no experience with restaurants beyond eating in them, and the only thing he knew was that most people who go into the restaurant industry go broke. Fast.

Still, he made a couple of calls. He e-mailed Tin Star headquarters to see if they were selling franchises, and they were. He asked about the possibility of opening one in Colorado, his wife's home state. Tin Star gave the okay, but only if Jourde hired the right kind of help. And where did he go? Straight to Brinker, where he found Vince Baraket, a twenty-year veteran who was commanding Chili's outlets as a regional manager -- until Jourde made him his manager.

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