Mike Terry, oil investor, son of a Terminix franchisee and the newest owner of the Cafe Express chain, is still just trying to work out the bugs of the restaurant business.
He admittedly started the first two ventures — taking over his father’s pest control franchise and later drilling for oil with Chief Oil & Gas founder Trevor Rees-Jones — without "knowing a whole lot what I was doing."
This time, as he tries to resurrect a restaurant chain that’s largely been in mothballs for more than 10 years, he’s relying in part on guidance from some local industry experts and in part on skills he learned decades ago chasing critters.
Terry, 63, is president and chief executive of M. Terry Enterprises, a Dallas-based investment firm that manages holdings in oil and gas, real estate, banking, ranching and now, for the first time, food service.
He describes himself as a "passive" oil and gas investor. About four years ago, he got an itch to be busier.
"I said, ‘I want … to be in an operating company again,’" recalled Terry, seated at a conference table in the company’s North Dallas office, flanked by walls covered with commendations and plaques.
"I want to be more hands-on, be able to manage a company again, be able to influence decisions that are being made and have a say day to day," he said. "It was really a dream and a vision I had."
His team of investment scouts looked at manufacturing companies. "We looked at an oil and gas production company, we looked at all sorts of things," he added. "Cafe Express just sort of rose to the top."
Potential for growth
Launched in Houston in 1984, Cafe Express was a pioneer in the space now called "fast casual," a rapidly growing restaurant industry segment that includes brands such as Panera Bread and Dallas-based Corner Bakery Cafe.
Chef Robert Del Grande, a James Beard Award winner, teamed with Candice and Lonnie Schiller of Houston’s Cafe Annie to create a scratch menu restaurant with lower price points and speedier service than your typical sit-down spot.
Today the brand retains a loyal following, especially at lunch, but has been eclipsed on the growth chart by many of its peers. Panera Bread, founded three years after Cafe Express in 1987, has more than 2,000 locations. Corner Bakery, launched in 1991, has nearly 200.
Cafe Express has 15, including nine in Houston and five in North Texas.
That’s only two more than were open when burger giant Wendy’s paid more than $9 million for a majority stake in the brand in 2002, as the fast-casual segment began to take off. Wendy’s eventually took full control.
In 2007, Wendy’s sold the chain back to the Schiller Del Grande team, with financial backing from The Redstone Cos., a Houston-based development and investment firm.
By that time it had 18 locations and had posted $32 million in 2006 sales, according to a trade publication.
When Terry opened his checkbook in 2016 (he declined to reveal the sale price), there were 16 locations. Hurricane Harvey has since shuttered one.
"Yeah, it’s a little tired," said Terry, only half joking. "Just what I want.
"You take a restaurant that has survived 34 years. To me, while I wasn’t a restaurant guy, that was incredible."
Valerio Dujmovic serves wine at a remodeled and reopened Cafe Express on McKinney Avenue in Uptown.
Repeatedly Terry noted how his experience at Terminix — he was in his 20s when his father’s death left him in charge — shaped his business outlook.
"When I would meet a customer, it excited me to make things right," he said. "That whole process was influencing … everything that’s happened in front of me, from my management style to the type of company I like … to how I would run a business later on in my life. What it showed me was that I enjoyed the service business."
One of Terry’s first acts as new owner of Cafe Express was to move the headquarters from Houston to Dallas and oversee a complete renovation of the location on McKinney Avenue in Uptown, which originally opened in 1996.
The nearly $2 million redo, at the base of the M-Line Tower apartments, now sports brick walls and digital menu boards with videos of cheeseburgers being flame grilled and spring-mix salads being tossed.
A honeycomb-patterned ceiling of oak and poplar hangs above tables of mahogany and pine.
The brand’s signature "Oasis," a free fixings bar with imported or restaurant-made add-ons including olives and breadsticks, was moved from the center of the floor to a side wall to improve traffic flow.
It will be the first Cafe Express to serve brunch, beginning in April.
The menu, featuring from-scratch items including Mediterranean salmon with roasted artichoke hearts, has been pared back while the bar was beefed up with 19 craft beers, including Deep Ellum IPA.
Ann Romine of Oak Cliff has been coming to the McKinney Avenue Cafe Express for years, since one of her sons was in school nearby. This day she’s accompanied by 11-year-old Abigail, who has a fondness for the kids’ mac and cheese.
Romine was "bummed" when the predecessor location closed but is pleased with the reopening.
"You see so much in Uptown where they get rid of things," she said. "We need a place like this in Uptown."
Based on what he learned from the McKinney Avenue updo, Terry said he plans to roll the renovations out to other Cafe Express locations, heading next to Lovers Lane, where Terry was a customer before the purchase. (That location will remain open during renovation.)
"We want to walk through each location in Dallas and Houston and do the exact same thing," he said. "And we’ll wake up and go, ‘We’re complete. Now we can grow.’… I believe that we can look back and have 25 locations in not too long."
That means more company-owned locations and potentially franchising. This year the company expects sales of $29 million.
Mike Terry, the new owner of the Cafe Express restaurant chain, at a remodeled and reopened location on McKinney Avenue in Uptown.
Lots of support
As the brand returns to growth mode, it helps that Terry’s a quick study, friends and business associates say.
"I think very highly of Mike; he’s a great guy," said Rees-Jones in an email. "And I would think Mike would be successful in any venture he undertakes."
One of Terry’s first food instructors was Doug Brooks, former chief executive of Dallas-based Brinker International, parent of Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy.
"Mike Terry has had fantastic success in many different industries, so it was exciting to see him acquire Cafe Express," said Brooks, also in an email. "I look forward to watching the evolution and successful growth of this new venture."
Mark Parmerlee is president of the Dallas-based parent of the Golden Chick chain and a member of an advisory board Terry created after the purchase.
"Mike, he’s attentive, he listens, he’s been very passionate about this," said Parmerlee. "I’m hoping this owner will get them back on track."
Terry, who also is known for his philanthropy, allows that he’s still learning the ropes of restaurant ownership.
"Frankly, I never feel like I got it," he said. "I always feel like that you’ve got something you can learn.
"I think I’m more than over the hump, [and] I’ve got a great leadership team. I couldn’t be more excited and feel better about our direction."