BY AUSTIN MEEK
The three attributes that spell dollars or doom in the restaurant business – food, service, and ambiance – are always the first place to look when a restaurant opens or closes its doors.
Tejun the Texas Cajun has been wowing Central Texas customers with its food for nearly twenty years. After drawing crowds with their trailer set-up in grocery store parking lots in Mexia, Corsicana, Fairfield, and Teague, owners Joe and Tammy Reid decided to build a permanent location at 711 Robinson Drive.
Customers have willingly shelled out top dollar for the Reid’s seafood because of the taste and friendliness of the staff, but the ambiance of their fast-casual offering is “different.”
“We’re proud that we serve a quality, live, cold-water lobster in from Maine on a paper plate in a drive through,” Joe Reid said. “We’re the only ones in the country that do that.”
Tejun the Texas Cajun sells lobster, shrimp, crab, crawfish, and sausage by the pound, much of it caught in the Gulf of Mexico. Deer mounts and pictures of family members with fresh caught fish adorn the walls, making it feel like a cozy living room.
Reid plans to expand the back patio and stock the small pond to host fishing derbies, birthday parties, and fund raisers on the “holy ground” God told him to buy. He sees Tejun as his platform to honor the Lord and create a fun, family environment.
“Jesus talked a lot about everything on the planet, every animal that crawls, walks, flies,” said Reid. “He talked a lot about cattle, sheep, and goats. But when Jesus sat down,” - and here Reid dramatically pauses, only half joking - “He ate fish.”
Ashley Roper, manager of Tejun the Cajun, said she’s been with Joe and Tammy for eight years and recently moved to Robinson to open the new store. While the food is undeniably good, and the ambiance is gives “the feeling of the back porch, being on the bayou in Louisiana.” Roper said that fully dedicated service to the patrons is what sets Tejun apart from the others.
“Joe has always trained us to be over-the-top nice,” Roper said. “Customers are the priority.”
It’s difficult to achieve the right ambiance and service while operating a food trailer, but at least Mike DuBose never has to worry about the food served at The Blasian’ Asian.
“She [Chevy] used to bring me lunch at Genie where I used to work and the employees there asked, ‘Hey, you know what, that tastes pretty good…do you think she’d sell me some?’”
Mike’s wife, Chevy, grew up in Cambodia and recognized the opportunity to bring her cuisine to Central Texas after arriving in Waco and noticing the dearth of Asian restaurants. When Mike’s factory closed, they decided to open the Cambodian food trailer together at the truck park on Franklin and University Parks.
DuBose said that they were apprehensive about bringing new flavors to a market like Waco but received feedback from locals who had tried their food that a Cambodian trailer was exactly what the restaurant seen needed.
“We have some friends here that really encouraged and supported our idea, so we knew we had at least some followers who would support us,” DuBose said.
The crowds have visited in droves since The Blasian’ Asian opened five weeks ago. A sign of many customers blind trust, Mike said that most people get to the counter before asking, “What even is Cambodian food?”
“Asian food for the most part is very similar,” DuBose said. “The differentiator is how it’s seasoned, how it’s cut, how it’s cooked.”
Chevy’s take on jakak, or grilled and skewered meats, has become a crowd favorite and is something folks will always find on the menu. But the DuBoses are still refining their establishment and look forward to serving the Waco community better with every visit.
“We intentionally started the food trailer here in a down season,” DuBose said. “It’s the winter and Baylor had just let out of school. But we wanted to learn the mechanics, what to do, how to do, some lessons learned, before we get to the busy season.
Two high-profile eateries in town weren’t able to sustain their business until the busy season returned. Manny’s on the River, a Tex-Mex concept based in Dallas, and Jimmy John’s sandwiches, each shut down suddenly before the end of the calendar year.
The downtown Jimmy John’s closed simply because “they were robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Tejun’s Joe Reid. The Jimmy John’s on Speight near Baylor campus overlapped with the downtown branch’s business, so the group decided to shutter the downtown storefront.
Manny’s grew popular as one of the only dining options on the Brazos River, and its patio and dock make it an attractive location for future restauranteurs. But what Manny’s offered in ambiance – sipping a margarita while watching boaters sail by – couldn’t make up for the sub-par food and service.
“I have been there several times, and that deck is the biggest attraction,” Diane Nowlain, manager of Buzzard Billy’s, told the Waco Tribune-Herald. “The drinks were good, but the food was inconsistent, sometimes great and sometimes not. It’s sad because with a little work here and there that could have been an awesome spot.”
DuBose admitted that the sudden closures of the restaurants make him feel “a little nervous,” but he and other culinary entrepreneurs have taken it as a an opportunity to make sure they’re doing the best job possible.
“We’re going to have to focus on what we do, doing it well, and also lessons learned [from the closures],” DuBose said. “I heard some conversations on things that Manny didn’t necessarily do well as far as the consistency of their service and food. We’re taking that as lessons learned and making sure that our consistency meets the expectations of the customer if that was a downfall for Manny.”