Having It All

Chef Point Cafe's gas-station grub is worth four stars.

By  Samantha Strong Murphey, Freelance writer

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A friend bet Franson Nwaeze he couldn’t last working in a restaurant for two weeks, and the rest is history. He’d moved to the United States from Nigeria in 1981 to study aeronautics and earn a pilot’s license, but that restaurant job changed his course.

So did meeting Paula Merrell, who was selling insurance for New York Life when she first laid eyes on Franson. “He was wearing a Rolex and he was breathing,” she says, “so he met my two criteria for a life insurance sale: He looked like he had money and he was alive.” Paula was just interested in the potential sale, but Franson had other ideas. The first time they met, he told Paula they’d get married someday. He kept calling her to ask her out and finally wore her down.

“I thought I could trick him into buying me lunch and him life insurance. But we got to be good friends,” she says.

Eventually, Franson’s prophecy was fulfilled. They got married and, in 1989, moved to Texas from Tulsa, Okla., so Paula could take a new job.

After years of working in restaurants, observing chefs and learning to cook in, as Paula calls it, the “school of hard knocks,” Franson wanted to open a restaurant. He had the culinary skills and Paula had the business experience, but neither of them had the funding. With high turnover rates in the restaurant industry and no previous management or ownership experience under their belts, they couldn’t get a loan. But the banks did tell the couple that if they wanted to open a convenience store, it would be a different story.

There was just one condition: One of the two needed to work at a convenience store for six months. After that, the loan would be theirs. One of Paula’s financialplanning clients owned several c-stores. She asked him to hire Franson for one of them, and that was that.

Six months later, they took out a loan and purchased a half-constructed gas station in Watauga, Texas. They finished the building, adding a full-sized kitchen. They had plans to run a catering business out of the c-store while Paula kept her full-time job. “We didn’t want to pull any income out of the business,” she says.

The first week they were open in January 2003, Franson was cooking food in the kitchen for a catering job. A customer in the store told him it smelled good, so Franson offered him a plate. He came back a few days later with friends and asked where the menu was. Franson sat down right then and there and wrote a menu. Just like that, a restaurant was born.

They quickly found that the restaurant was easier to run than the catering business, so they changed their focus almost as soon as they started. Paula and Franson wouldn’t cut out catering completely, but it wouldn’t be their bread and butter either.

Today, Chef Point Café employs 75, seats 175 and brings in $4 million a year in revenue. It’s “five-star food in a gas station,” Paula says. It’s a successful restaurant—exactly what they wanted, even though they were told they couldn’t have it.

“It’s not about feeling vindicated,” she says. “It’s about making lemonade out of lemons. It’s about feeling like we made some great lemonade.”

Perfection, Slowly and Steadily

The couple’s business motto is simple: to always improve. “Our goal: just to be better, more efficient, faster, better at every aspect. Just pick one thing at a time and be better at it,” Paula says.

They aren’t into working toward specific outcomes, just evolving. Take their set-up: They started with just a few small tables, and when those got full, they bought a few more. Stashed in the storage rooms were a few long folding tables for catering events.

“We had people waiting to be seated one day, and one of our servers asked why we didn’t get those tables out of the back,” Paula says. “We asked people if they minded sitting with strangers, and they said no.”

They moved some shelving and set up the tables, seating parties of two to six all together.

Turns out guests enjoyed meeting new people and sharing conversation over lunch. So the tables stayed that way for years.

The menu is also constantly evolving. “One day a customer came in and described in detail a blackened stuffed chicken dish he’d eaten years back and had never been able to find again,” Paula says. “Nwaeze told him to come back in a couple of days.”

He did just that, returning to find Franson’s re-creation of the dish he described better than he could remember it.“That’s how a lot of things on our menu came to be,” Paula says.

Franson subscribes to the culinary philosophy that simple is better. He doesn’t overcomplicate dishes, just perfects their purest forms. That’s the case with his famous bread pudding.

“No raisins, no nuts, no syrups,” Paula says. “It’s something everybody is going to like.” His “What Nots”—cheesy stuffed mushrooms baked in garlic butter sauce—are the re-creation of a recipe from a restaurant where he used to work.

 His fried chicken, another popular menu item, took years to perfect. One day he offered samples to a few older women sitting at the long folding tables in the restaurant. He was looking for feedback, and feedback he got. “This is better than sex!” said one of the women.

Paula was convinced they had the perfect name right there: Better than Sex Fried Chicken. Now the name is as widely loved as the chicken itself, buttermilkdipped and slathered in white gravy. Customers and servers constantly joke about it.

“One time I asked a customer how his meal was,” Paula says. “He held up a piece of steamy chicken, shook it and says, ‘This is the hottest sex I’ve ever had.’ ”

Servers shout things such as, “Hey, I need sex on table five on the fly!” And Franson reminds customers that on Sundays, when the special menu doesn’t include fried chicken, there’s “no sex on Sundays.”

Marketing Momentum

Chef Point Café’s personality-filled menu is part of the down-home marketing strategy in which Paula has found success, another thing she’s constantly trying to improve.

“The key is not just having a great product,” she says. “You can have an average product and great marketing and still be successful. We’re lucky enough to have both.” Her concept, “five-star food in a gas station,” is about as novel as they come. No external organization has come in to grant them those five stars, but Paula says that’s not what it’s about. “We think we’re five-star,” she says. And when customers taste the food, they almost always agree. The only complaints to be found on social review site Yelp.com are about the long waits you have to endure to get a table—a blessing and a curse for the owners. The food gets nothing but praise.

“One bite into the crunchy and delicious chicken and I knew I was in for a wonderful meal,” writes Dan D. of North Richland Hills, Texas, in his five-star Yelp review. “It has a great crunch to it, freshly fried, and the chicken itself has a sweet, tangy taste to it.” When customers do have criticisms, Paula and Franson do their best to listen and make changes. They’ve been trying to do monthly “Wine & Dine” events—selling tickets to themed dinners at which they pair wines with different dishes— but they have some kinks to work out.

“We’re still learning about it all and we’re trying to be better at it,” Paula says. “Our customers certainly let us know when we’re not successful at something. They don’t hold back at all.”

For the first five years, Paula’s main marking effort was gathering customers’ email addresses and constantly making contact by sending out photos of food and information about specials and events. After a few customers told her they should be on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” Paula started including a link to the show’s website in her emails and encouraging customers to request that Chef Point Café be featured.

When the network contacted her about being on the show, they told her they’d never received more requests for a business. The segment aired in April 2009.

Another marketing effort came on wheels. The couple bought a food truck at a great deal because they needed more kitchen space, so they decided to start selling food out of it. After going through the painstaking process of getting the permits they needed, the truck now serves as another marketing tool. “The food truck for us is not a money maker,” Paula says, “but what it does is put us out there in the marketplace. On the highway, people see it. We set up on location for a day, people try the food, and then they want to come to the restaurant on the weekends.”

Bigger, Better Business

In November of last year, Chef Point Café reopened after a big expansion. The kitchen size and seating capacity doubled, and now there’s a full-service bar, which took space from the coolers on the c-store side to do it. The c-store part of their business has been shrinking from the beginning. Now only about 5% of the store is designated to convenience items.

“In order for people to come in and buy stuff, it needs to be convenient,” Paula says. “It’s not easy for somebody to get through the crowd to the cooler to buy things with lines of people waiting for tables.”

Even the remaining 5% will most likely continue to shrink as Paula and Franson devote more space to Chef Point retail items such as spice blends, soups, aprons and shot glasses. But they have no plans to get rid of the gasoline—a crucial part of the concept that makes them so unique.

“Come in for food and leave with gas. That’s what we tell people,” Paula says.

Their business may be constantly evolving, but Paula and Franson’s relationship is steady. Many husband-wife business partnerships struggle with the marriage part, when work overlaps with personal life and heads start to butt. But that’s not the case here. The couple’s two children even are involved with the business, and the family bonds are strengthened by the adventure.

“Even though we’re at the same building all day long, we don’t always overlap in what we do,” Paula says. “All we want to do is be better than the day before. Nwaeze wants to make better dishes, and I want to get more people in the door.”

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