Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, March 29, 2006
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A charred electrical outlet is emblematic of Fred’s current condition.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Keeping the Flame

Through a fire and in the face of mounting rebuilding costs, Fred’s Texas Café soldiers on.

By DAN MCGRAW

This past Friday seemed like any other at Fred’s Texas Café, a cozy near-Westside burger joint that’s been open for more than 50 years. As the sun shone on the small restaurant’s wooden-fenced patio, folks downed bottled beers, and the smell of juicy burgers wafted through the springtime air. One young guy was hand-painting a sign out front, another young’un was running around with a power drill, and co-owner Terry Chandler was fidgeting with the cash register while talking non-stop on his cell phone. Just a normal Friday happy hour at Fred’s.

But in actuality it wasn’t just any Fred’s Friday. All of the action took place outside, and the burgers came from an outdoor grill. The lovable shack connected to the patio has been closed since a fire ran through the kitchen on March 11. As for the cause, Chandler said, “It was a fire that just happened in some old kitchen equipment.”

As with any situation that causes a business to shut down, lawsuits may be on the menu. For now, Chandler has scaled back hours, from six days a week, breakfast ’til midnight, to Thursday through Saturday only, 11 a.m. ’til midnight. While he’s also had to reduce his 15 employees’ schedules, most of his cooks, waiters, and cleaners, he said, have been able to pick up shifts at nearby restaurants.

The inside of the crazy-fun joint has been completely gutted. Even though Fred’s is commonly thought of as a dive, rebuilding isn’t going to be cheap — even with help from his insurance company. Since the structure had been around so long (circa 1946), it had enjoyed a “grandfather” exemption from updated building codes. But that went up in smoke along with the kitchen: To get up to spec now, Fred’s has to develop a new electrical plan and install a new ventilation system, new grease trap, new ceiling joists, and several other wonders of modern technology. Chandler isn’t sure how much the grand total will run, but he’s certain it’s going to stretch his resources. Until the fire, Fred’s was grossing about $20,000 a week from the sale of burgers, beer, and Chandler’s exotic and widely praised specials. Now that hours have been cut back and Chandler doesn’t have full use of his kitchen (potato chips have temporarily replaced the eatery’s legendary fresh-cut fries), revenue will undoubtedly drop precipitously.

Chandler, however, remains upbeat to a certain extent. “Right now, we are trying to rebuild and doing it out of pocket,” Chandler said. “The insurance companies are dragging their feet, but they do that with almost everyone. So it’s the same for all of us small, independent-business owners. The big corporations get taken care of quickly, but we have to fight it out.”

In the back of Chandler’s mind is another option, one no one really wants to think about. As redevelopment spreads throughout the West Side, property values are going through the roof. The corporate headquarters of Acme Brick, less than a block away from Fred’s, was recently sold to a Dallas-based condo developer. Chandler, who owns the Fred’s building, admits that cashing out would make life easier for him. But for a guy whose family essentially built a cultural institution on doing the right thing, taking the easy way is utterly out of character.

“We could let someone bulldoze it down and have it sold, but we’ve decided to bring it back,” he said. “We like the business we’re in right now — it’s what we’ve done as a family for so many years — and we’d like to see it grow with the area.”

Chandler hopes to be back in business full-time in about a month, but that may be a pipe dream. “So often, in a case like this, the business owner will have to deal with the whims of the building inspectors,” said one local real estate developer who regularly deals with urban redevelopment issues — and who requested anonymity because he often works with the city. “One inspection might bring just a few changes, and then the next [inspector] out might come up with a long list of more changes. It can drag out for months.”

Some folks have suggested to Chandler that he hold some benefit concerts to help defray rebuilding costs, but he is adamantly opposed to the idea. “Every day I’m open is a benefit,” he said. “I’m not just some tick on the ass of society. If you like our business and want to help rebuild it, come down on the weekends, and we’ll serve you a great burger and a few beers. That’s all we ask for right now.”


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