Thursday, March 28, 2013
Maple & Motor “burger Nazi” readies new BBQ joint in Design District
It's owner Jack Perkins' way or the highway.
DALLAS A stark, plain 8.5 x 11” sign greets me at the door: “Nobody came here to hear screaming children.” Maybe “greet” isn’t the right word. Equally unwelcoming, a sign just below demands that I “Order FIRST then find a table best suited to your party’s size.” The smaller print not so subtly indicates that it’s probably in my best interests to obey.
Just as I reach for the door handle to make my way inside, my eyes settle on a smattering of window stickers. They boast the many accolades the infamous Maple & Motor has earned since its opening in September 2009, including two consecutive years as D Magazine’s “Best of Big D: Burger” and being named one of D’s “Best New Dallas Restaurants” in its first year.
“But to be perfectly honest, there are people that hate us too,” reads a sign underneath the medals of honor. I steel my nerves before going into the belly of the beast.
When my eyes adjust, I see bright red ketchup dispensers, translucent green salt and pepper shakers, and golden fries pop at each table. The place is abuzz with greasy contentment. Like a monarch watching over his kingdom, Jack Perkins occupies the gap in the main counter, leaning to the side, an elbow on the bar. Flowing brown-gray hair, a circle beard, scruff, and full cheeks frame the piercing blue eyes that settle on me immediately. He breaks out into a smile and gestures for me to come over.
From this post, where he spends most of the day, Perkins can monitor all Maple & Motor proceedings – from the door to the cashier to the table. As a woman pulls a chair out, Perkins puts a cell phone conversation on hold to ask her to please wait until she has been through the line before seating herself. A little baffled, but compliant, she returns to the line. After hanging up, Jack heads out among the tables, welcoming patrons, asking them how their burgers are, and helping his staff bus tables. Two decades ago, Perkins might have been found doing the very same thing, working as a waiter at Morton’s in Abilene. During his days at Abilene Christian University, not far from his hometown of Desoto, Texas, he worked his very first job in the industry: the grill at a Wendy’s.
“This is gonna sound silly – it’s an easy way to make money,” Perkins says.
Not at Wendy’s – in the restaurant industry, he means. At 47, with a wife of 10 years and no children, Perkins has spent nearly half his life in the restaurant business: waiting tables, bartending, and managing. Perkins and close friend and neighbor Austen Wright decided to open Maple & Motor at the start of the economic recession in 2008. The crash made them rethink the stock market as a stable vehicle for retirement savings; the pair wanted to start a business they could “watch and control.”
Guarding the castle
By noon each day, if not sooner, when the line of customers begins to tumble out the door of Maple & Motor, Perkins grabs his sunglasses, bee-lines to the entrance, swiftly grabs one of the stainless steel and black leather barstools lined up along the front paneled windows, and sets up outside as the gatekeeper to his kingdom.
“Are you the owner or the bouncer?” a 30-something business type asks.
“Yes,” replies Perkins.
He alternately teases and converses with customers, monitoring closely who goes in and out and how and when. He shakes hands and thanks people for coming. He wishes everyone a nice day. When a group of newcomers unknowingly walks past the queue and attempts to enter, playtime is over. Perkins’ hand pops out and slams the door shut.
“You gonna skip these guys?” says Perkins.
His tone sends them back wordlessly to make their way behind the others. By the time the newbies make it to the door, they’ve had time to think about what they’ve done. A group leader offers a timid apology.
Later, back inside, Perkins resumes his rhythm of alternating leaning against the bar, closely watching everything, and sweeping out into the dining room among customers to thank them and check in on their well-being. Longtime friend Tommy Arceneau attempted to shed light on the reputation Perkins has earned as a cantankerous, disagreeable “burger Nazi” of sorts.
“Jack is ... passionate,” Arceneau said. “He has to do it the right way, his way. He’s not gonna cut corners.”
Perkins blames his less-than-flattering reputation on his commitment to doing things properly (and on the entitled subsection of Dallas diners who want things done their way and their way only) and, in his restaurant, his way. Although Perkins spent 10 years in the Navy after studying at Abilene Christian and graduating with a degree in management from UT Austin, he believes his “no-bullshit” attitude was formed long before he ever sported a military uniform. Instead, it was inherited directly from his father, who was a “straight talker.” Perkins explains to me that false, glib talking, and kowtowing are simply a dance that he doesn’t know how to do.
“I’m not disagreeable. That is kind of a myth. The deal is that – because of the size of the building and the fact that we want to provide great service – we have to do things a certain way,” Perkins said.
“He’s tough but fair. Very fair,” Sonia Ortiz, 24, who runs the cashier during the daily rush, says with a smile. She has been working Maple & Motor for almost a year.
“I don’t mince words, at all, ever. If I think you’re a dick, I’m gonna tell you you’re a dick. I’m not gonna tell you, ‘Hey, I think you have some areas for opportunity.’ Fuck you. I don’t like you and you don’t like me. And that’s cool,” Perkins says plainly.
Here comes castle number two
If Maple & Motor is any indicator, Perkins has mastered creating a product – a dining experience – so good he can make up all his own rules. Perhaps that’s why he’s expanding his restaurant holdings with the opening of his second venture, Slow Bone, sometime around the end of March. The barbeque restaurant will be cafeteria-style, serving up brisket, sausage, and the like alongside hot and fresh vegetable side dishes at 2234 Irving Blvd. in the Design District. When we dropped by to tour the place, Wright, who has been heading up all design aspects of the new restaurant, was jokingly concerned for my well-being.
“What has he thrown today?” Wright asked. When I answer in the negative, he smiles mischievously, “Yeah well, the day is young.”
Slow Bone is still a work-in-progress, but with textured natural wood walls in place, pops of red, white, and blue throughout, and the serving line installed and undergoing steam-testing, the personality of the new establishment is largely in place. Perkin’s favorite feature is a trough-style urinal that Wright has re-imagined as a barbeque sauce-holding vestibule.
Perkins seemingly has no doubt that Slow Bone will soon be just as successful as Maple & Motor. It’s probably the first of many new endeavors by the “no-bullshit” man behind one of Dallas’ favorite burgers.
“Ideally, I’d like to create a company where we open multiple restaurants, in multiple genres, with people I want to work with,” said Perkins.
“I’d like to do things, build things. Do things that hadn’t been done before – or at least do them differently than people are doing them. Like this,” he gestured to the dining room back at Maple & Motor, finally resembling calm in the late afternoon. It’s Perkins’ favorite time of day, when the staff is prepping for tomorrow and things are quiet enough that he can sit down and talk – really talk – to his customers. “No one runs a restaurant like this in Dallas.”
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