Jacoby’s Restaurant and Mercantile, which opened late this summer, offers Southern comfort food to be enjoyed in a cozy dining room with full bar or outside overlooking the Colorado River. The owners, Adam Jacoby and Kris Swift, are first-time restaurant owners. But they’re both veterans of hospitality and food service endeavors–and graduates of the McCombs School of Business at UT, which can’t hurt one’s prospects for launching a business.
Growing up, Jacoby ran his ranching family’s café in Melvin, a small town about 150 miles northwest of Austin, and helped with the family’s feed and seed company. His partner, creative director Swift, honed his eye for detail over ten years as an interior design consultant.
They’ve developed a menu spotlighting beef from the Jacoby family farm available in dishes such as chicken-fried steak or a classic half-pound cheeseburger (comes with hand-cut fries). Favorites such as mac-n-cheese or braised greens with house-smoked brisket and pork come family style, and you can whet your appetite with snacks like fried pickled green tomatoes and deviled eggs. Adjoining the restaurant is the mercantile, where you can find community-focused artisan food, vintage and modern goods, and one-of-a-kind finds.
To hear their story I caught up with the couple over a glass of rosé.
This location is unbelievable. I just saw a heron down in the river and now we’re out here in the trees enjoying the breeze. Yet we’re in Austin. I read that you checked out this location bicycling, but how did you get this place?
Swift: I used to buy fixtures from the former occupant, Kanetzky Electric,
so when we were looking for a spot it was in the back of my mind. But we bid against four or five other restaurant ventures when we put in an offer here. The owner was really concerned about the land being used for something he believed in, so we had to submit a concept and design. He liked our ideas.
How’s business? Who’s coming here?
Jacoby: Everyone! And we’re full every night. We have young Eastside families who see us as our neighborhood restaurant. And then we’re a destination for outsiders. People use us as a handshake of ‘this is Austin’ and bring visitors here straight from the airport.
Swift: We have an inclusive, family mentality. People come here and feel comfortable.
Has it been difficult since neither of you have run a restaurant before?
Jacoby: We’re both here every night. Some people are surprised. They go, “You’re here? Why?” I’m thinking, why would you spend nineteen months to build the place and then not be here? We’re learning so much. The owner of Bufalina told me: “Every chance you get, write down something, because you’ll like looking back.” We’re doing nothing but getting better.
Many people in the food and beverage/hospitality world doubted us when we announced the plan to open. They just saw this kid who worked in his family’s café. But they didn’t have the whole story about what I learned in business school, about me having managed the café at home. And I also learned so much from my dad about running a successful business. He’s so strict about what products he uses, about what comes in. And that’s just like being in the restaurant business. You try to offer an affordable product that’s the best.
Since you’re a couple outside work, how do you find balance? And how is it working with family?
Swift: We work well together. But it’s definitely all about balance. In the first month we never sat down. But then Jason and Kelli [Jacoby’s parents] came in on a Thursday night, from 150 miles away. It was a busy night. They said, “We are having a family dinner and we are sitting down.” And up to that point, we had never gone “off duty” when the restaurant was open.
Jacoby: My dad knew it wasn’t easy for us to stop and sit down. But he said, “You need to have this experience. It will make you better.” And it did. It opened up our perspective. But yes, it can be challenging to “turn off” the restaurant.
Adam, you had the option to stay in Melvin and help run the family business, but paint a picture for me what West Texas was like. What was it like growing up gay there?
Jacoby: It’s small. Most of the graduating classes at my high school had about a hundred people. Stuff is way behind. I’ve known I was gay since third grade. But being from a prominent family, Southern and Catholic, made it difficult. My brothers are my best friends. I came out after college, first to my parents, then to my three little brothers. They stood behind me from the start. Growing up I was comfortable in the sense that, being from a successful family, I always had enough. But internally there was discomfort. My dad always dreamed of having us kids continue to run the family business, but for me, extending the family business here in Austin made more sense.
Swift: The family really welcomed me from the first moment. I was floored by the unconditional love they showed us both. It’s testament to the Jacobys’ strength as a family unit. I feel nothing but respect and inclusion.
How did you meet?
Swift: We met in April 2012, at a party of a mutual friend. It was an instant connection.
Jacoby: I had this idea in my head about opening a restaurant. I’d just graduated from business school. Most of my peers were, you know, going into banking. So I was a little strange. And a lot of people on the restaurant side doubted me and the value of my experience running my family’s café as being relevant. They thought it was about waking up early and taking care of animals. Kris always believed in my ideas and stories.
What has been the most surprising thing about running the restaurant so far?
Jacoby: It’s been fun seeing how much of a destination it’s become. And also when people see it, they are surprised. We kind of got used to the location and were immersed in the details of opening up the place for a year and a half. We thought people would enjoy the place, of course, but we didn’t expect them to freak out like they do when they see it! They come out here and ask, “How did you do this?”
Swift: You do all you can do, set goals, and try to live up to family tradition. You are your own toughest critic. And we certainly stuck our necks out over this place. But people really come to enjoy it. It’s been humbling to be so well received. We by no means have done it alone. Our staff are the best. There are tons of restaurants opening up in Austin all the time that they could go to, but they’re staying. They’re an extension of the family.
Jacoby’s Restaurant and Mercantile is at 3235 E. Cesar Chavez St., Austin, 512-366-5808, jacobysaustin.com.
Interview by Katie Matlack