The (Restaurant) Guy Next Door

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On a recent Saturday morning, West Lynn Avenue in the Clarksville neighborhood looks like a 21st Century Norman Rockwell painting. Kids run ahead of their parents to the corner grocery store; barely-awake couples walk hand-in-hand to the coffee shop for their daily jolt; a woman balancing a cell phone on her shoulder drops off her family’s weekly dry cleaning, passing another young mother pushing a stroller with one hand and holding a dog leash in the other.

Call it Austin’s own little slice of Mayberry. Through the years, historic Clarksville has become one of the most sought-after neighborhoods in town, made so largely by its quaint, decades- old cottages and bungalows situated just steps from downtown. The commercial corridor of West Lynn has also contributed its fair share to that appeal. Lining the street is a café, an old time drug- store and soda fountain, a nursery and a convenience store just to name a few. And in the thick of the activity stand two relative new- comers, a pair of unique restaurants that have added tremendously to the character and taste of this place.

Jay Bunda couldn’t be more proud of what he and business partners Chris Courtney and Kelly Chappell have created in their multiple Galaxy Cafés and Zocalo. A restaurant veteran who’s helped run some of the most-successful eateries in Austin, Bunda is all smiles and easy talking. He’s the kind of fun, gregarious guy anyone would want to hang out with. His charm is that of a man having the time of his life.

“I absolutely love what I do,” he says chatting over a corner table of the Clarksville Galaxy one quiet weekday afternoon. “And not only do I get to do something I enjoy, but I get to do it in my own neighborhood.”

Concept Turned Enterprise

When the first Galaxy Café opened on Brodie Lane in South Austin in 2004, it was something of a novel concept. Few restaurants in town at the time were doing counter service the way Galaxy did. The overarching idea was fairly simple: serve fresh, consistent food in a modified counter service environment with a distinctly modern style. The partners envisioned a model that could be easily replicated in unique spaces all over Austin – a friendly neighborhood sort of place that people could turn to for consistency without the cookie-cutter trappings of a chain.

3The original guys behind Galaxy were Chappell and Courtney, two men who had worked together at the much-beloved Austin eatery Shady Grove. The pair asked another colleague, Bunda, if he would join them in the venture as an investor and consultant. Of course he agreed.

Before Galaxy, all three men had worked for Austin-based Chuy’s, the parent company of the Mexican food chain by the same name as well as Shady Grove and Lake Austin hotspot Hula Hut. As restaurant companies go, Chuy’s was a great place to learn the ropes, according to Bunda. He had worked his way up the ladder to become general manager of Hula Hut, while Courtney served as GM of Shady Grove.

At company meetings, Bunda and Courtney usually teamed up since their restaurants were different animals than the rest. “We became good friends,” says Bunda. “And we realized we had similar styles.”

Bunda was working as a training director in 2004 when Courtney and Chappell launched Galaxy. On the day that the original restaurant opened, he was in The Woodlands outside of Houston opening a new Chuy’s. “I was on the phone with Chris and Kelly from the parking lot out there checking on how things were going over here. I don’t think I actually set foot in the opened restaurant for a couple weeks!”

From the beginning, customers of Galaxy were impressed. Everything was executed so smoothly – the food, the service, even the décor – people continuously asked “You’ve got to be a chain, where are you from?”

“We had taken all of our experience, what we liked and didn’t like about restaurant operations, and brought it together in our own concept,” says Courtney.

Oddly, one of things Galaxy is best known for was something of an after thought for the owners. “We didn’t plan on doing breakfast,” says Bunda. “But because we were doing lunch and we had to be here early prepping for it, we figured why not open the doors? I don’t think any us thought breakfast would be that big for us.”

Because the original location on Brodie was surrounded by restaurants that weren’t doing breakfast, Galaxy filled a void, and Southwest Austin ate early. Unprepared for the onslaught, the team had to move the prep work for lunch to what was supposed to be the restaurant’s dry storage area. Dry storage got moved to the office and the office got moved to a garage apartment behind Bunda’s house until the whole place was renovated to accommodate the morning rush.

“We became the neighborhood café for breakfast,” says Bunda. “It was a homerun.”

Because the restaurant was such a fast success, the partners, who formed parent company Intergalactic Productions LLC, were offered the opportunity to expand within months. They inked an agreement to open a second location at the mixed-use Triangle development taking shape at North Lamar and Guadalupe. But delays on that project would end up making the Triangle Galaxy the group’s third, following an unexpected opportunity closer to downtown.

A Time of Transition

In the months leading up to and following the opening of the first Galaxy, Bunda remained with Chuy’s. Indeed there was a master plan for multiple Galaxys that would eventually involve him full-time, but in his mind that was likely to come much later. On weekends, he would help out at Galaxy during the morning rush and marvel at what Courtney and Chappell had built.

“I was really so proud of what they had done,” he says. “Of course they had always run a very clean, neat restaurant. But here they were doing it from scratch, with a great, efficient system. I was impressed with the kids they had working with them. The whole thing had been so well executed and I was happy to be a part of it.”

Bunda remembers getting a call one day in December 2005 from Courtney telling him about an opportunity to open in a spot close to his home in Clarksville. Hours later the group was meeting with the owners of a building on West Lynn that had most-recently housed a laundromat. That business had closed, opening the door for something new.

Bunda was surprised when a few months into the construction on West Lynn, Courtney made him an offer to join them as a partner, one he gamely accepted.

“Jay has a very even-handed nature about him,” says Courtney. “We wanted someone who did things the way we did, and since we had all learned so much from the Chuy’s guys, we all had a similar approach to how we operate.” Bunda also had multiple-unit management experience, something the others didn’t. “He brought skills to the table that really synergized with our own.”

For Bunda, the transition was bittersweet. Eager as he was to join his friends in building the new brand, he had spent much of his adult life with Chuy’s and departing was difficult.

“I had watched the owners of Chuy’s build their company from the ground up,” he says. “I liked those guys so much, but now I had a chance to do the same thing, build something up with guys that I have great respect for and enjoy being around.”

Part of the (Gay) Community

When news broke that Galaxy was opening in the old laundromat on West Lynn, residents of Old West Austin and Clarksville were skeptical. First, they were losing a service in the laundromat that a few people still depended on – though the new restaurant had nothing to do with the former tenant going out of business. Residents also worried that Galaxy might add to the parking problem in their neighborhood, and truth be told, they weren’t sure they needed another restaurant.

“A big concern for a lot of people was would this place be part of Clarksville?” says Mary Reed, president of the Clarksville Community Development Corporation. “When Galaxy did open, I think people for the most part were pleasantly surprised.”

Chappell, who had grown up in Clarksville, worked hand-in-hand with neighbors to put to rest any fears.

4-1Reed says the family-oriented atmosphere and reasonable prices were a hit among neighbors. The fact that the owners were also on site and accessible when issues like parking came up also helped Galaxy make headway in Clarksville. “I don’t think it took long at all before it became part of the fabric of the neighborhood,” she says. “It really added a new energy.”

With its space-age light fixtures and modern Italian-made tables and chairs, Galaxy is a trendsetter in the design realm as well. Each location plays with mirrors, light and the color palette in a unique way. Bunda says all three of the Intergalactic partners have similar design tastes that trend toward the mid-century modern.

“While we wanted them to have a similar look, we didn’t want them to be cookie cutter,” he says. “Each needed to have a personality, allowing us to go into unique spaces and remake them.”

Perhaps it’s as much for the chic aesthetic as the food that Galaxy has become a hot spot among gay Austinites. Or maybe it’s that Bunda has a lot of friends.

“I know we have a lot of gay customers who are regulars,” he says with a smile. “We have from the beginning.”

It’s a fact recognized and appreciated by all of the partners equally. “The [gay] community is a huge part of our business,” says Courtney. “It’s a community that’s definitely gravitated toward us. We’ve always embraced that; we’re very proud of it.”

Having a large gay following is a two-way street, says Bunda. He watched the owners of Chuy’s through the years give back to the community in the form of nonprofit donations and events like the annual children’s parade. Now as an owner of Intergalatic, it’s his turn to give back to the community that’s important to him. “My partners and I know how important our gay clientele are to our business and we continue to get more involved.”

A Sister is Born

By 2007, with the success of their first two restaurants secured, the Intergalactic partners were pressing ahead with the expansion of Galaxy. But a chance offer would divert them temporarily to another concept.

“One of our neighbors was representing the guy who had the lease for Cosmic Café at the corner of West Lynn and 12th,” says Bunda. “The owner of the restaurant was looking to get out and the agent wanted to know if we were interested in taking over the lease.”

After some careful consideration, the partners decided to bite. But obviously they had to come up with a new concept – one that would complement Galaxy nicely and bring something altogether new to Clarksville.

They decided on an Austin staple – Mexican. But with so many places serving great Mexican food, they needed a fresh ap- proach that also didn’t compete with Chuy’s out of respect for their former employer.

Luckily, the modern-looking building lent itself to innovation and the concept for Zocalo was fashioned after the quaint taquerias of Mexico City. “We decided we would do light, fresh and healthy,” says Bunda. “We wanted it to be unique and the kind of place people could come to again and again without feeling like they needed to go home and take a nap afterward.”

Health-conscious foodies appreciated the result. And Austin Fit Magazine even cited Zocalo as one of the most health-conscious Mexican restaurants in town.

“I think we expected our Galaxy customers would go over to Zocalo to see what else we were doing,” Bunda says. “But what happened is that each restaurant developed its own following; there are Zocalo customers who have never been to Galaxy and don’t even know the two are related.”

Outdoor dining at both Zocalo and Galaxy have also contributed to the streetscape of West Lynn. “Before these guys came, not many people hung out on West Lynn,” says Reed. “It really seems like a little downtown Clarksville now. The two restaurants have certainly added to the dining options here and brought new people into the neighborhood.”

Whereas people living along the West Austin streets between Lamar and MoPac used to walk toward the node of Sixth and Lamar for dining, coffee or other services, increasingly they’re coming to West Lynn. The shops have created a new node of activity right in the heart of Austin.

“It’s been a real neat thing for me, because this is the neigh- borhood I call home,” says Bunda.

“Every Time I Think I’m Out..”

Another key in the restaurants’ success has been bringing on the right personnel, Bunda says. From his days running the behemoth that is Hula Hut, he recalls how, among dozens of people on staff at any given time, there was always someone in trouble or someone slacking off. But in a restaurant where only a handful of people are on the clock at once, one slacker can throw off the whole system.

“In the restaurant business you spend a lot of time with the people you work with, so you want to do it with people you like,” he says. “We hire the kind of people who are like us and tend to think like us and that helps us work as a team.”

Few people grow up wanting to be in the restaurant business. More often than not, it’s a path that folks stumble into, even those like Bunda who end up loving it.

Bunda grew up in a small town outside of Green Bay, Wisc. He worked in a restaurant as he went to college and worked his way up the ladder. Eventually, a restaurant company asked him to open its first location in Austin. He moved to town in 1984 and continued with that company for several months, becoming a regional trainer. After departing, he was contemplating a return to school when he was hired on at Lone Star Café.

“I was brought on because I was supposed to move to Dallas to open a Lone Star there,” he recalls. “But then the Oil Bust hit and those plans were cancelled. I found myself an assistant manager working nights.”

A vacation to visit a friend gave Bunda some perspective. He decided he would return to Austin, leave Lone Star Café and go back to school to earn his landscape architecture degree. “I got back to town and told my boss and he said ‘No you don’t. You’ve got an interview for a manager job with Chuy’s.’”

Bunda jokingly compares himself to the Godfather’s Michael Corleone. “Every time I think I’m out, they drag me back in!”

Of course he kept the interview and got the job. He calls his years with Chuy’s the “best restaurant education anyone could ever have.”

But for Bunda, Austin was not love at first sight. He had worked in the much larger city of Phoenix and was unimpressed with this city’s handful of skyscrapers. But in time, he grew to appreciate Austin’s unique character and vibe. And as a lifelong architecture buff, he’s really enjoying the building boom that’s hap- pened in downtown in recent years.

“I do love it here, everyone is so open and accepting,” he says. “People laugh when I say I’m from Texas, but I have to tell them, ‘you don’t understand, I’m from the blue dot right in the middle!’”

Free time can be a rare commodity in the restuarant business, but, Bunda is committed runner who can often be found on the trail at Lady Bird Lake. “Running is really the only way that I can work in the restaurant business with my metabolism and not weigh 200 lbs.,” he quips.

Getting Aggressive

But the recession is changing the dynamics of dining out and many restaurants, nationally and here locally are suffering. So how is Intergalactic doing?

“During my years at Chuy’s, I had seen the Oil Bust, the Real Estate Bust and the High Tech Bust,” says Bunda. “When we saw what was coming down the pike a year ago, that’s when we got real aggressive.”

The company signed its restaurants up with a local delivery service, which Bunda says now accounts for a nice share of sales. The company also launched a catering program in partnership with one of its former chefs that pulls dishes from its regular menu as well as a specialized catering menu. And this past holiday season, Intergalactic went after businesses looking to throw recession-conscious Christmas parties.

That said, the restaurants haven’t seen the dramatic decline in diners that others have. Bunda believes that’s because a lot of people who would have typically gone out to a different restaurant downtown on a Friday or Saturday night are staying closer to home and relying on places they know.

“People don’t play a lot of restaurant roulette when the economy is down,” he says. “When many of them go out to eat these days, they’re going places where they know what they’re going to get and they know they’re going to have a good time.”

A Model Austin Business

“The goal from the start has been to have little neighborhood restaurants all over town,” says Bunda. “The only thing that’s holding us back from expansion right now is financing.”

Bunda says he can easily see five or six more locations in the region, spread from East Austin to Cedar Park. Still, he stresses there are no specific goals for having a certain number of restaurants in a given time frame. “We will grow, but we will grow right, as the right opportunities present themselves.”

On any given day, there are a number of regulars at Galaxy and Zocalo. From the family with three kids in tow at Saturday brunch to the downtown executive grabbing a quick bite weekday mornings to the neighborhood couple picking up take-out for din- ner, there are repeats aplenty.

“When we opened at the Triangle, it was amazing for me to see how many of our regular customers started going to that new location,” says Bunda. “Pretty soon I realized they were people living in those surrounding neighborhoods who had been coming down to Clarksville and now had us that much closer. We had a built-in clientele.”

In a city that prides itself on the number of locally-owned, independent restaurants it has birthed, there is plenty of competition. Many Austinites eat out regularly, providing a ready customer base. But building loyalty is key when so many competitors are on the scene, says Bunda.

“Our customers keep coming back,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean we can take it easy. It’s up to us to make sure they continue to keep coming back.”

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