Longform

The Goode Son

Page 4 of 8

Jana, a fourth grader, had a hard time breaking into the social circle of kids who'd known each other practically since birth. But preschool Delcambre welcomed Levi as one of its own. He grew up hunting and fishing with his Cajun buddies, watching as their grandmothers transformed the morning's catch into the evening's gumbo. In return, Levi taught his friends to break-dance, an urban skill he had learned in the big city.

Back in Houston, Jim also remarried, and with his second wife, Kate, soon had two more daughters, Katie and Emma. Kate, too, was absorbed into Goode Co.: She watched over the finances, the profit-and-loss matters Jim had never much cared for.

Levi and Jana saw their dad every couple of weeks. Usually that meant flying to Houston and spending time at Goode Co. Barbeque. On Friday nights Pappy Selph, a Texas swing fiddler, would play at the restaurant. Five-year-old Levi, big boots clomping, would lug beer out to the crowd; Jim taught him how to open a bottle so that the cap flipped into the air. Both Levi and Jana would join Pappy on stage to sing "The Cotton-Eyed Joe."

At first all Levi knew was the word "Bullshit!" It was cute, but cute wasn't enough for Jim: If Levi wanted to keep singing, he'd have to learn the verses. Levi played the 45 till he knew the words by heart.

Jim took Levi hunting and fishing. The girls, Jana and Katie and Emma, didn't like stuff like wade-fishing, Levi says; they hated to get dirty. Jana remembers things differently: She went fishing a couple of times with her dad, she says, but generally wasn't invited on such excursions. "I begged all my life to go hunting," she says with a shrug. "But I was a girl. Levi's the guy."

Still, both Jana and Levi grew up expecting to work someday in their dad's business, which was growing beyond Jim Goode's expectations. In 1982 he and Kate bought the land across the street from Goode Co., and soon after, opened Goode Co. Hamburgers and Taqueria (known as "Burgers" in Goode-speak). Following its success, Jim, the dedicated fisherman, told Kate he'd always wanted to open a seafood restaurant. In '86 Levi watched as a crane lifted an old Amtrak passenger car off the nearby train tracks and lowered it onto the lot that would become Goode Co. Texas Seafood.

A few years after opening Seafood, Jim was buying bullets at Carter Country on I-10 and was drawn to the vacant building across the parking lot -- a white, gingerbready affair that to Jim looked like an old Western whorehouse. He made it the second Goode Co. Barbeque. "Q2," as employees call it, succeeded just like its predecessors. Jana talked about her dad's Midas touch; Jim talked about Kate's good business sense.

Because the schools in Delcambre weren't very good, Jana moved back to Houston for her freshman and sophomore year in high school. She lived with Jim and Kate, ate Mexican rice for breakfast at Burgers most mornings and returned there to work the dinner shift. She transferred to a boarding school in Austin but returned to Houston for college, at the University of St. Thomas. This time she lived on her own.

Levi, too, moved to Houston for his first two years of high school. At Burgers, he washed dishes; at Barbeque, he sliced meat and trimmed brisket. Again he seemed to have no trouble making friends -- old Lamar High School buddies still honk at him on the freeway -- but he also spent time hanging around Jana's apartment. After all, she was old enough to buy beer.

Levi says that Lamar was beginning to feel dangerous and that lots of his friends were transferring to private schools -- that's why he finished high school at Fork Union, a military boarding school in Virginia. Jana says that their dad wanted Levi to learn military-style discipline. But Jana didn't want Levi to leave town. After he left, she sat crying in her apartment for days. She felt like his twin; she felt like his mother.

Jim had begun pulling back from Goode Co., going fishing more often, leaving the day-to-day operations to the employees he trusted and treated like family -- people like Ralph Cabello, the kitchen manager at Barbeque. Cabello has worked for Goode Co. for 18 years. Jim says that he's "like my son"; Ralph says Jim is his best friend. Other employees have racked up similarly long track records. Except for dishwashers and busboys, few people in the Goode kitchens have worked there less than five years -- amazing for the restaurant industry.

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Lisa Gray