The Goode Son

Houston's First Family of Barbecue has anointed an heir apparent to its expanding empire. And his name is Levi.

Jim always looks distinctly Texan, though not always the same kind of Texan. In October he and some buddies posed for the Goode Co. Hall of Flame catalog dressed in 1890s cowboy gear. Jim had his beard then, and looked perfectly comfortable in knee-high boots and a tall, round-domed hat. He appears equally comfortable clean-shaven and outfitted like a retired millionaire fisherman, in a white-white shirt, baggy shorts and new-looking Nike sandals; or in jeans, a cowboy hat and a 1940s-style Western shirt. It's hard, though, to picture him dressed like Levi, in nondescript business casualwear, or toting a laptop or cell phone.

Jim and Levi sound different, too. Jim tells long, funny stories and talks about "loyalty" and "responsibility"; Levi is more theoretical and hurried, and uses words like "proactive." Still, their points are often the same. They both brag, for instance, that Goode Co.'s staff doesn't tolerate fools or slow learners: "If someone's not carrying their own weight, we don't have to fire them," says Levi. "The kitchen runs 'em off." The business might be a family, but it's not one that nurtures low achievers.

If Levi feels pressure to prove himself, he doesn't show it; he makes his position in life sound only natural. He describes the new Seafood as a milestone for the company, not for himself. He's gratified, but not surprised, that his crab stuffing is selling well. When he talks about "taking Goode Co. into the next millennium," it sounds like a kind of noblesse oblige, the hereditary obligation of a privileged family. Of course he wanted to go into restaurants, he says. "It's a natural tendency to want to do what your dad does, if he's successful."

The family - Joe, Liz, Levi, Jim and Jana - stares Blankly into the camera, all seriousness and purpose, like Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl.
Courtesy of Jim Goode
The family - Joe, Liz, Levi, Jim and Jana - stares Blankly into the camera, all seriousness and purpose, like Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl.

But the fact is, Levi's position as heir apparent only recently began to seem obvious. After military school Levi went to Texas A&M and majored in agricultural economics. He left in '97 without graduating. According to Jim, he "had too much fun."

But back in Houston, Levi found his work ethic. He waited tables at Seafood and used the money to put himself through culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston. He learned the theory behind cooking, the professional approach. Once, his dad had been intimidated by the huge pots, pans and spoons of a restaurant kitchen; now, to Levi, a home kitchen's tools looked dinky.

He struck out on his own with a couple of catering jobs, one for a film crew. Almost a year after returning to Houston, he felt able to stand on his own -- and more important, ready to meet his dad's standards.

For years Jim has talked about retiring, about spending less time at the restaurants and more time fishing, or listening to the coyotes on his ranch on the Brazos. He's 55 now; this fall, when he cut off his beard, it was because he didn't like seeing its gray hairs. He says that he forgets things, says that he could use help running the company. And he has always hoped that someday his kids would run Goode Co.

When Levi, newly confident, expressed an interest, Jim didn't expect great things, but said that he'd train him anyway as a manager and make him responsible for some of the top-level day-to-day problems. Levi would swim or drown. Like any other employee, if he didn't carry his own weight, the staff would run him off.

Jana felt a little sorry for Levi; she knows first-hand the standards he had to live up to. She managed Burgers for a while; then, burned out on Goode Co., she moved to Rockport and opened her own operation, Jana Goode's Seafood, serving poor boys from a trailer. But it wasn't just any poor boy trailer: Levi and Jim had the Airstream painted up to Goode Co. standards and topped it with a spotlit 300-pound marlin. "You got the name," they told her. "You gotta do it right." Sometimes, Jana says, she thought about changing her name so she could slack off. And at the end of the summer, she packed up the trailer, leaving both Rockport and the restaurant business.

It's hard being Jim Goode's daughter, even in Rockport; you can see how it'd be harder being Jim Goode's son, working directly for Jim Goode's company. As Jana sees it, Levi had to do more, to try harder, precisely because he was the boss's kid. "Levi's gotta be better than everyone else," she says. "He's family."

Sitting in Seafood -- the original Seafood, packed on a Friday night -- Jana says it's strange for her, knowing that Levi's in the company but that she's not. She's hyperaware of the restaurant: She knows the waiters' and bartenders' names, notices that the ficus needs to be watered, that the rug's a bit crooked, that a door must be open because the air's a tad damp. Like her dad and Levi, she talks about how tough it is to work for the company. You've gotta have it, she says, the kind of gung ho responsibility that her father demands.

Levi has it, Jana says. She's proud that he has not only survived in Goode Co., but that her dad and his employees regard him as a success. She's a little jealous, too. Levi belongs not just to the Goode family, but to the Goode Co. family, tied to their dad not only by blood, but by work. It's not clear which bond is stronger, and Jana obviously feels drawn toward the business. Just the night before, she talked to Jim about someday returning to Goode Co. Jim says there's a place for her -- and a place, someday, for high-school-aged Katie and Emma, too, if that's what they want.

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