Restaurant innovator Lee Ellis, who sees Frito pie as fine dining and creamed corn as an ice cream flavor, is quickly rebuilding his company — after leaving behind his empire. By Edward Nawotka, Photos by Julie Soefer
Lee Ellis, one of the city’s best known restaurateurs, who is now a few months into a massive reinvention of himself and his company, swears that he didn’t grow his long, Billy Gibbons-esque beard in homage to the ZZ Top frontman. “I’ve always had a weird hair thing,” he says while sitting in Petite Sweets (2700 W. Alabama St., 713.520.7007), the dessert bar run by his new restaurant group, Cherry Pie Hospital ity. “It’s just that when I started losing my hair on top, I went for a weird beard instead … and it gets a lot of attention.”
Known also for his colorful, dark-tinted eyewear — “I have a friend at Oliver Peoples who makes my glasses, and I have them in multiple shades of blue, rose, amber,” he says — the 57-year-old has also amassed 75 or so pairs of Nikes: Air Jordans, LeBrons and KDs. “I’ve been into it long enough to know that the best deals aren’t necessarily found at the specialist shoe boutiques,” says Ellis. “I buy most of my shoes, even limited-editions, from the guys at the Foot Locker out at Crosstimbers and 45.”
One wonders if Ellis, given all the attention to his trademark quirky look, is a bit vain. After all, he did name at least one of his restaurants after himself; Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts (601 Heights Blvd., 713.880.3550) also boasts a nearly life-size depiction of the restaurateur, in neon, out front. But, then again, he’s also clearly pragmatic and down-to-earth — characteristics that are reflected both in his comfort-food-happy menus, and in the way he runs his business. Ellis, who’s been called the Godfather of Comfort-Food Chic, explains how when he needed to hire a manager for his eponymous Heights chicken-and-doughnuts setup, he found a great one just up the road managing … a McDonalds. “I went in and had an Egg McMuffin and checked the place out. Was it clean, was it run efficiently? She knew her customers. She was just the sort of person we wanted to hire.”
Ellis, who was born in Lafayette, La., but raised in Houston and attended HSPVA, has been a fixture around town for several decades, having run a variety of businesses, including a surf shop, a screen-printing business and a nightclub. For the past several years, he’d been associated with F.E.E.D. TX, the restaurant group that runs several iterations of Liberty Kitchen and the recently shuttered BRC Gastropub. But this spring, Ellis split from his F.E.E.D. TX business partner Lance Fegen, prompting the launch of Cherry Pie. Ellis declines to elaborate much on the headline-making divorce, conceding only that “partnerships are a lot like marriages: Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.”
As for marriages? Ellis celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary with his jewelry-designer wife Melissa Savarino in wine country this summer. “I travel for inspiration and am always looking for something great to bring back to Houston,” says Ellis, who takes his dogs — a Shih Tzu named Mimi and a Havanese named Millie — everywhere, including on trips.
“California has had a big influence on my thinking as a restaurateur,” says Ellis, whose group recently took over operations for a trio of Houston restaurants originally opened by Cali farm-to-table pioneer Bradley Ogden. They have been converted into wholly new concepts: Bradley’s Fine Diner and Funky Chicken in the Heights have become, respectively, Starfish (191 Heights Blvd.), which emphasizes seafood, and Pi Pizza (181 Heights Blvd.), the first brick-and-mortar location for distinctively tattooed former-food-truck-pizza-maker Anthony Calleo. And in Memorial, Pour Society became State Fare (947 Gessner Dr., 832.831.0950), which focuses on Texas-style comfort food — the cuisine Ellis was known for at BRC and Liberty Kitchen. Menu highlights at State Fare include Frito pie, and a burger slathered with house-made pimento cheese. “We’re even exporting State Fare and are planning to open one in Sacramento soon,” says Ellis with a small degree of pride.
That said, the sweetest accomplishment may be the one of which Ellis is most proud: the launch of his own line of ice creams. With flavors such as Creamed Corn, Bacon Bourbon, Vietnamese Coffee and Avocado Lime, they reflect Ellis’ Houston-trained palate. In all, Ellis developed 75 flavors under the Lee’s Creamery brand. “Houston has a lot of ice cream, but what makes this different is the richness of the base — it’s 50 percent milk fat! And the milk, which comes from Tomball, is so fresh that it’s still yellow when we put it in there.”
So far, the ice creams are available only at Petite Sweets — where Ellis says he and baker partner Susan Molzan have perfected the best chocolate chip cookie in town — but Lee is looking for a location to open a proper ice cream parlor. It will be, he says, another new opportunity for the right group of employees.
With Cherry Pie’s aggressive expansion, Lee finds himself listening to a lot of pitches for restaurants or people otherwise looking for opportunities. “I just sat down with a man I’d never met before, but who is an accomplished chef, a man who’d been on and won a reality-TV show, and lost his job when the restaurant he worked at was sold,” explains Ellis. “He wanted to talk about working with me. I told him, ‘I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know you won’t get the opportunity to start where you are stopping, and you will need to pay your dues again. You just might have start at the bottom.’ It’s a tough lesson, but a true one.”
Ellis notes that he has had his own setback or two, none more so than having endured open-heart surgery two years ago. While he’s too macho to suggest that it gave him a change of, well, heart, he does signal that the man who once infamously posted a sign in Liberty Kitchen banning both smoking and Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook, has softened.
“One of the things I learned over the past few years is that, before, when I used to think that running a business was all about putting the customer first, I was wrong,” says Ellis, stroking the brim of his hat.
“Now, it has actually flip-flopped for me. I learned that when you put your employees first and make them happy, then good service will follow. Sure, the food will always be a priority, but kitchens can have an off night. If the service is good, that can make up for a bad meal. So, in that way, my job really is about making my employees happy. It’s not what you’ll hear from a lot of restaurateurs, but it’s true.”