The Goode Son

Page 3 of 8

Jim's old art buddies began eating at Goode Co., and they brought their friends; Kirby office workers discovered the place, and families from West University started to drop by. Jim could estimate the day's take when he emptied the garbage bags -- the heavier the bag, the more money they'd made. By fall of '77 the daily gross hit $400.

Sometimes, late at night, Jim talked with the manager of the Burger King next door, and from him learned some of the basics of restaurant management. The Burger King manager showed Jim the chain's policy manual, and Jim was impressed. It was full of rules he hadn't known. Be consistent. Avoid nepotism. The customer is always right.

Consistency made sense to Jim: He wanted to be fair to customers and thought they had a right to receive what they expected. The other rules weren't so obvious.

For starters, he didn't think customers were always right. Once, one complained about Jim's chili: It didn't have beans. Jim pointed to the menu, which stated clearly that the chili was the Texan kind, all meat and spices -- no beans, no junk.

Still, the man demanded his money back. Jim refused. The bean lover dumped the chili on a vacant table and ran out of the restaurant.

Jim ran after him, leaving the cash register unattended, his smooth-soled boots slip-sliding on the parking lot pavement. At a car lot, the bean man doubled back, heading toward his car in the Goode Co. lot. He jumped in the old Pontiac, but Jim caught the door and tried to extract him from the car. The bean lover managed to crank the Pontiac and roared away.

When Jim walked back into the restaurant, the remaining customers applauded. Those were Jim Goode's people; to hell with the bean lovers.

Likewise, in the abstract, Jim thought it made sense to avoid nepotism. But outside of his relatives, hardly any of Goode Co.'s early employees met his approval; he considered them a mix of warm bodies and drunks. Instead, he wanted people who'd be "like family": people like Liz and Joe, who'd do a job without being told, who didn't whine, who felt as fiercely about Goode Co. as he did.

Stanley Woo was one of the first outsiders to qualify for Jim's adoptive business family. Jim describes Stanley as a "Chinaman," 70 years old, who'd spent his adult life working at Texas barbecue joints. Stanley was reliable and a hard worker, a guy who'd rather sweep the floor than sit still -- but even more important, he knew how to carve a brisket, a skill neither Jim nor Joe had mastered. At first, Jim says, it took him 15 minutes to cut meat for a sandwich. Stanley taught him the secrets of speed.

But Stanley began telling another employee that the only reason Jim was succeeding was luck. She told Jim, and Jim didn't like it.

Stanley, he said, you gotta quit saying that.

Stanley said okay. But a week later, he did it again.

Stanley, Jim said, I'm going to have to fire you.

You can't fire me, Stanley said. I'd lose face.

Jim was exhausted; Jim was like an animal. Jim said losing face is better than losing your ass.

That was the last he saw of Stanley.

"He was a good man," Jim says mournfully now. He tells the story to show how tired he was, how hot his temper was running, how Goode Co. Barbeque operated then: not by the cool rules of a policy manual, but with the passion and heat of a family fight.

By the next summer the zeitgeist was smiling on all things Texan. Gilley's was hot, Willie Nelson was on the radio, and customers were lining up at Goode Co. Barbeque. Houston and Texas were full of themselves, and more than any other place in town, Jim Goode's place fit that mood.

But Jim didn't relax. Nothing but the restaurant commanded his full attention; even his family came second. Off the top of his head, he can tell you what Goode Co. Barbeque was grossing in the summer of '78 -- $1,500 a day -- but he can't remember the year he and Liz were divorced. It was 1980.

Liz remarried and moved with Levi and Jana to her new husband's home, Delcambre (pronounced "del-cum") in southeast Louisiana. The tiny town, only a few miles from the Intracoastal Waterway, had one pharmacist, no hospital, and even in the '80s, remained effectively segregated. There was no Wal-Mart, no McDonald's, no Sonic. Kids swam in horse troughs. Crawfish shells filled the potholes. Cops carried coolers of beer in the backseat of the police cruiser. "I think we had one homosexual," says Jana. "But he was married."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lisa Gray