It wasn't the faux Tuscan paint or the arch paintings of seminude glamour girls that led David Brown to apply for a job at the Empire Cafe, a stylish coffee bar-cum-hangout on Westheimer's antique row. The ponytailed idealist says that when he started behind the counter in the spring of '94, he dreamed of a genuine cafe, a caffeine utopia.
And in the beginning, he says, working at the Empire was everything a java-savvy waiter could hope. He found his fellow employees simpatico: young and mildly countercultural, a few extra earrings here, a goatee there. He worked long hours and he carefully selected music -- lots of Annie Lennox and Morphine -- for the sound system. To show his devotion, he tattooed the cafe's logo, a woman rising out of a coffee cup, onto his leg.
Other employees shared Brown's fever-pitch, caffeine-fueled fervor. They felt the Empire was their place, a sanctuary from nasty capitalism, a sacred spot with its own rhythms and rules -- rules that they made. But that, it turned out later, was precisely the problem.
When the cafe succeeded, the employees felt the credit was due to the attitudinal ambiance they'd created, and not to the efforts of owner Smoot Hull. Hull, in his early thirties, is a hands-on manager; he likes to be in his restaurant, polishing vintage doorknobs and rotating cakes. Brown says that Hull's constant presence and his insistence that procedures be performed his way started to sour employees' attitudes: "Smoot's got a talent for starting a business, but he has no idea how to foam milk. I know how to foam milk. I don't need 'a,' 'b,' 'c' and 'd' directions to help me through it."
When Hull bore down, banning smoke breaks and refusing to pay employees for shift meetings, Brown gritted his teeth and kept the counter rolling along. But a nasty feeling had started to brew between Hull and him, and Brown didn't have to convince other employees to express their dislike of the owner.
"He does tai chi," says Shay Perrin, one of the Empire's first hires. "What can you say?" Perrin explains that, because Hull came from a nightclub background, he aimed to draw the "Houston elite" with managers who fit a certain mold: people with high cheekbones, black wardrobes and prominent families. "And what he got," says Perrin, "was a bunch of nimrods."
Independent of upper management, Empire employees developed an ad hoc customer appreciation system, rewarding loyal patrons with free cake and coffee. Customers returned the favor by stuffing the tip jar. The system wasn't meant to spite Smoot, Brown explains eagerly, but was rather a necessary element of good customer service that Hull simply wouldn't understand, just as he didn't understand milk foam. "There were some people, mostly the Montrose crowd, that would be in like three, four times a day. I wasn't gonna charge them for a bottomless cup of coffee three times a day. They would come back and I would say: 'Hey, I washed your cup, here it is, good to see you.' "
"Everyone gave coffee away," says former assistant manager Amy Kasufkan. "A few people gave food away." Kasufkan, a slight woman who favors disco-wear, never thought she was doing anything wrong: "None of us thought Smoot was going to miss that $1.52."
Some employees took even more direct measures to feed the tip jar. A piece of cake cost $5. If a customer paid with a $5 bill, an employee could hit "no sale" on the cash register, close the register drawer, and drop the bill into the jar. The counter staff shared the wealth, the customers had their cake and Hull was none the wiser.
At least, not until he hired a secret shopping service in February of this year. Over the course of an hour, a secret shopper noted several varieties of petty theft. By this time, Brown was long gone -- he'd quit in late '94 -- but clearly, his legacy of charitable service lived on.
"I can almost understand giving the coffee away," says Hull, "but taking the money for a piece of cake and never ringing it up -- that's theft in anyone's book."
Hull says he doesn't see himself as "a labor-camp director." He describes himself as someone who holds a high degree of trust in people, and says that when he learned about the free-flowing caffeine, he felt enormously betrayed. He held an employee meeting and described the secret shopper's report. Immediately afterward, employees lined up outside his door to confess and apologize. The line, he says, kept growing.
Hull is angry that his employees stole from him. And he's angrier still that a few wouldn't admit to any infraction, claiming that since Hull and other managers handed out freebies, staffers thought the practice was part of the Empire Way.
Whatever the Empire Way once was, it is no longer. Hull says that of the 50 employees who worked for him over two years, 25 were implicated in the various cake-and-coffee heists; two of those employees were fired, and the rest quit. In March, Hull filed a $28,000 claim against his theft insurance. If that claim isn't paid, he says he'll consider hauling his ex-employees into court to recover the loss. He does not deny rumors that the cafe's oddly placed smoke detectors conceal hidden cameras to ensure that his current staff doesn't repeat the old staff's petty crimes.
David Brown still has his tattoo, but no longer frequents the Empire. Even after he quit, he used to hang out -- "It's a great place to suck coffee all afternoon," he says. But earlier this year, he found employees' new uniform T-shirts too much to bear. "Corporate coffee sucks," read the shirts, a declaration that struck Brown as a travesty, the ultimate in cafe hypocrisy. As he tells anyone who will listen, the Empire buys its coffee from -- horrors! -- La Creme Inc., a Dallas roaster. He rolls his eyes and struggles to express his disgust with the cafe that once meant so much to him.
"It's cold and sterile," he says bitterly. "It's like that Pink Floyd movie where kids walk into the meat grinder." And with that, he settles back into a booth at his new hangout, Cafe Artiste, taps his Camel and swirls the ice in his French vanilla coffee.
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