The Goode Son

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

I'm not sure what those places would be. But even after watching Levi off and on for a month, I'm not sure precisely how to define his job. At first I spent a lot of time trying to figure out a division of labor: where Jim left off, where Levi began. Levi wasn't much help. Talking about Goode Co., he almost always says "we" -- we decided to go into seafood, we opened the barbecue place on I-10 -- even if the event occurred when he was five or six or 12 years old. Ask what he's doing with the new Seafood, and he says he's "handling things."

There are, at least, some general patterns. Jim is mostly interested in the artistic elements of the new restaurant, in its design and food; he and Levi will both develop new recipes. But Levi alone sweats the less artistic details: the building permits, the sprinkler installation and delivery of flatware samples. It's Levi who's out at the building site, worried that the construction workers will be taking Fridays and Mondays off during deer season.

If all goes well, the new Seafood will open in March, joining the throngs of new restaurants now jostling for patrons. Yes, the economy is booming, and Houstonians spend almost twice as much in restaurants now as they did ten years ago. But competition has grown fiercer than ever: Though the pie is bigger, more would-be restaurateurs are fighting for a slice. Back in '77, when Jim first began learning the ropes, a restaurant's honeymoon period, when customers try out the "new place," used to last for a matter of months, even a year; now, it's six weeks, a couple of months, tops. An operation has to prove itself right away.

Jim and Levi don't seem worried. Jim has never paid much attention to industry trends, and besides, the new Seafood will draw on the established Goode Co. name, its proven staff and concept and menu. The Goodes are spending far more to set up the new Seafood than they did on the old one, but this time the expenditures look less like a gamble and more like an investment -- less Jim's old learn-as-you-go world than the Levi-and-Kate realm of controlled risk and manageable expansion.

Already Jim and Levi are looking past the new Seafood, talking about their next possible project. Levi, the jargoneer, suggests that I describe the venture as "an affordable, high-quality, home-meal-replacement concept." I think that translates as "cheap, good takeout." And I think it also means a drive-thru.

That marks a departure for Goode Co. (the Barbeque sign brags specifically, "This ain't no drive-thru"), but another departure seems more significant. This next restaurant, a prototype, wouldn't depend as much on the Goodes' loyal, intensively trained staff, on Jim's restaurant "family." Jim and Levi shy away from the word "franchise," though they admit that's the general idea. Jim likes the thought of selling his design and cooking secrets to someone in Denver or Yokohama and then reaping the royalties for years to come. Those restaurants, he figures, could be like "little oil wells" for his unborn grandchildren -- Goode Co. businesses that don't require Goodes.


At the moment, though, Levi's presence is definitely required. Pulling off I-10, and into the parking lot of the next Seafood, he dials his cell phone without looking at the keypad. This morning he's supposed to meet a contractor to figure out where the parking lot's sign should go, but he doesn't see the contractor or the crane he's expecting. On the phone, the contractor's secretary says not to worry, she thinks he's on his way. Levi looks worried.

This turn of events isn't unusual: Levi often looks worried, and he's always on the phone. He drives a Suburban Z71, a red truck so humongous that it towers over regular SUVs. Levi says the truck's size means he never has trouble changing lanes -- and that's a good thing, because he changes lanes while consulting his notepad, or while dialing the operator for numbers.

He parks the Suburban next to the restaurant-to-be and carries his cell phone inside. At 11,000 square feet, the empty, echoing space seems as outsize as Levi's truck; it's almost twice the size of the original Seafood. Vacant almost two years, it smells like a dead animal. An Italianate mural still lingers on one wall, a ghostly reminder of the site's previous tenant.

But to Levi the future is almost as vivid as the past. He shows me the new Seafood, gesturing toward points of interest that don't yet exist: Down here, he says, in this greenhouse-looking part, this'll be the bar. We're going to take out the glass wall, put in a new foundation, and on that we're gonna place this giant ship's propeller, 14 feet tall and 25,000 pounds. Up here, we're going to hang three old Coast Guard lifeboats; over here, that's where the Cris Craft boat's going to go.

He's especially excited by the gigantic new kitchen. The old Seafood's kitchen is tiny, even compared to the seating area; "we" never expected the place to do much business. The new place has room after room of kitchen space; so much, Levi says, that "we" haven't figured out what to do with it all. Kitchen space limits the current Seafood menu; you can't offer a new dish if you don't have space to prepare it. Here, Levi hopes to introduce some of his own creations.

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