Eric Tschetter isn't used to slow starts.
When he opened the Pour House on Halloween 1995 -- at the ripe old age of 25 -- business came quickly. The second-story sports bar, with its signature balcony, became the Cheers of downtown Fort Worth. And Tschetter, the always smiling, charismatic ex-jock, was its Sam Malone.
When a dispute with his landlord forced Tschetter to relocate nearly 13 years later, he burst out of the gates again with a new, bigger Pour House in the West Seventh Street corridor that helped launch a bar and restaurant boom in the area that still hasn't subsided.
Not bad for a guy with little restaurant or bar experience.
"I remember my dad saying, 'Don't you think you should go and work your way up and be a manager and learn the complete business?'" Tschetter says. "And I was like, 'That's gonna take too long!'"
Patience, he admits, is not his strong suit.
So when Tschetter opened the smaller PhD -- Pour House Dallas -- in Oak Cliff in September, he was a bit dumbstruck when business started sluggishly.
"It was like, where are the people?... I've been told it's more of a growing process, which I've heard about. But for me, it's always been 'wow.'"
A TCU grad who is well-identified with Fort Worth because of the original Pour House, Tschetter has lived in Oak Cliff for more than 10 years and has long wanted to open a Pour House there (PhD is named partly to avoid confusion with an unconnected Pour House in Lower Greenville). But PhD, located across from the Kessler Theater on West Davis Street, is not in Oak Cliff's Bishop Arts District, the hyper-trendy restaurant and entertainment area. Which means it's not on everybody's radar yet.
Tschetter says he talked to the owners of Nova, a 2-year-old restaurant about a half-block away, "and they were like, 'Dude, you so have to grow it.'"
It didn't help matters that PhD, one of Oak Cliff's few sports bars, opened without a liquor license. Sports fans had to go BYOB. Brunch fans had to bring their own vodka if they wanted to take advantage of PhD's Bloody Mary bar.
Because of a 2009 incident in which a former police officer killed a mother of two in an accident that happened after he was drinking heavily at the West Seventh Pour House, Tschetter had to go through mediation with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission before PhD got is liquor license, a month after it opened.
It has been a month since then, and people are still discovering PhD.
On Sunday night, when the Dallas Cowboys played the Atlanta Falcons, a respectable-size crowd watched the game from the cozy bar and in the intimate dining room, where TVs were visible from every seat. Most said that it was their first time there.
"We'd passed by before, so we just decided to come in," said Jessica Mendez, a 21-year Oak Cliff resident who was on the patio with her family. "We like [the vibe]. We needed to relax."
Chris De Leon, who works across the street at North Oak Cliff Beer and Wine (which benefited from the monthlong BYOB policy), has become a regular.
"This place had been empty for a year," De Leon said, "so it will take people time to find it. But I think it'll be successful. It's bringing the neighborhood together and we needed a place like it in Oak Cliff."
Tschetter admits that the slow start has caused him some anxiety, but he reminds himself that despite all his success in Fort Worth, it hasn't always been smooth sailing at that Pour House either. It has survived a tornado, a reluctant move from downtown and being connected to the 2009 fatality. A couple years after opening, Tschetter came out -- a gay man running a sports bar 15 years ago wasn't necessarily the norm, he says -- and he faced some uncomfortable moments with customers and colleagues. Even now, Tschetter says the Fort Worth location is facing one of its toughest stretches because of the glut of new competition in the West 7th area.
So he's trying to be patient and not sweat the small stuff. "I tend to be like, 'Oh, my God, what am I going to do?'" he says. "And I have to literally pull myself and be like, 'OK, in two months, you're going to be laughing at this.' I just kind of have to tell myself that."
Ultimately he believes the friendly formula that has served him well at the Pour House -- "I have it in our training manuals. We call [Pour House] the Cheers of the 21st century" -- will eventually work its magic at PhD.
Enthusiasm over experience
When he was growing up in Sioux Falls, S.D., Tschetter says, the entertainment options were limited. When he wasn't playing golf with his older brother and sister, he'd hang out at the mall with the rest of the kids. "It was the only thing to do, especially in the winter."
But for New Year's, his family would make an annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas, and that was where he fell in love with the restaurant business.
"I was just enamored with the elegance of it and getting to talk to people and all that," he says. "I always wanted to do it." (Pour House customers are familiar with this -- when he's on-site, Tschetter makes a point of visiting every table.)
When his brother Mike and sister Kris earned golf scholarships to TCU, Eric would follow them southward to Fort Worth, where he thought about playing golf (he was a 4-handicap) but eventually settled into fraternity life.
"I just didn't like to practice," he says. "I would go play and then I would go to the pool, while my brother and sister would practice all afternoon. I could've done really well."
Even Ben Hogan, the Fort Worth golf icon, saw his potential.
Kris Tschetter, who played on the LPGA Tour and won two tournaments, developed a friendship with Hogan when she was a teenager practicing at Shady Oaks Country Club. In 2011, she published a book about the friendship, Mr. Hogan, The Man I Knew, and in it she says Eric was one of the few people who could bring out Hogan's lighter side.
"Eric has a great sense of humor and is even more of a talker than I am," she writes. "Mr. Hogan called it 'the sideshow' when he was there, because the banter would go up a level."
Hogan gave Eric a memorable nickname: Ass-n-Elbows, "because of how you flail those bony arms and that butt of yours when you're trying to hit a golf ball," Hogan told him. "You look like a barnyard chicken."
But even if, according to Hogan, Eric had the best swing in the family, his dream wasn't to play professional golf.
After graduation, and a quick stint in commercial real estate, he and a friend began scouting locations to open their own bar-restaurant, and eventually came across an upstairs space at the corner of Fifth and Throckmorton streets called Cafe Panacea.
Owner Vance Martin, who now runs Lili's Bistro on Magnolia Avenue, said he was moving out because of poor night and weekend business downtown. But Tschetter, 25 at the time, and his business partner, 23-year-old fellow TCU grad Scott Priesmeyer, jumped at the chance.
"[They] were fresh out of college, and there are a lot of people in the world, especially young people, that want to be in the bar business," says Martin. "Frankly, I just thought that they were a couple of young kids who had a little bit more money than maybe they should, and they were going to follow their dream and most likely not be successful."
Tschetter concedes there was a bit of a "Let's open a bar!" spirit preceding the Pour House's opening.
"We had our concept: sports bar," Tschetter says. "Now you look around, and every restaurant has TVs, even Del Frisco's and other nice restaurants have TVs. Well, we were like, 'We'll have a bunch of TVs for people to watch.'"
They were in the midst of a remodel when longtime Fort Worth restaurateur David Shaw, then president of the Tarrant County Restaurant Association, walked in to ask them to join the association.
"David had been in the business, and we had no clue," Tschetter says. "So he obviously quickly finds out that we need some major help in getting this restaurant open. Because we were just gonna be, you know, one of us was gonna cook burgers! And one of us was gonna bartend! So David became our consultant and really did help us get open."
Shaw, whose current restaurant is Shaw's Patio Bar & Grill on Magnolia Avenue, says, "I went down to talk to 'em and show 'em the ropes." He helped them develop menus, hire vendors and even get extra money to launch the place. He and Tschetter remain friends, and Shaw helped with the relocation to West Seventh as well.
When the Pour House opened in 1995, the timing couldn't have been much better. New residential buildings were drawing downtown dwellers, and when Reata opened the next year at the top of the Bank One Tower, it began a restaurant boom.
"What downtown needed was a high-energy bar," says Martin. "So everything about the timing was right."
And the Pour House took off.
"It's truly amazed me," Shaw says. "But Eric's willing to get outside the box. He's willing to try new stuff."
Tschetter created special events like DJ spinoff competitions and Cowtown Idol, the bar's spin on American Idol, and his Fat Tuesday parties became legendary.
Still, Tschetter had doubters -- including some who were close to him.
"Of course, I'm [getting] talked to by my father and other people about how the restaurant business has the highest failure rate of any business," Tschetter says. "And we were on the second floor. A second-story restaurant has an even bigger failure rate. But I couldn't think about it. Back then, it was 'It's gonna make it. We're gonna make it work.'"
Kris Tschetter says she had few doubts about her little brother, because of his engaging personality.
"I think he's been so successful because he's just so well-liked," she said from her home in Virginia. "People have loved him since he was a kid. When we all played golf, the people in the pro shop just loved Eric. It wasn't that he didn't get in trouble, because he did, but there's just something about him."
New location, new battles
For years, luck seemed to be with Tschetter no matter what. Even the March 28, 2000, tornado that severely damaged the catty-corner Bank One building downtown and ultimately led Reata to move to its current Houston Street location turned out to be another case of good timing for Tschetter.
"Literally, that day the tornado hit was when I was going to start construction on tearing out my bar," said Tschetter. "So my contractors had already gone and gotten almost the exact number of plywood boards that we needed to board up the building. [He was in Oak Cliff when the storm hit]. And by the time I got back over here that night, they were all sitting around eating pizza. They had everything cleaned up."
When he decided to come out about a year and half after opening the downtown Pour House, Tschetter says, "it was a concern downtown and in Fort Worth in general 15 years ago. I met with my management staff, and I was like, 'I'm coming out. It's going to be business as usual. I'm not going to say anything, because I don't want to hurt business. We're a sports bar.'"
But Tschetter, who is now a co-chair for the Dallas Leadership Council of GLAAD, says he didn't get much negative reaction and, to some extent, his leadership role at the Pour House gave him the confidence he needed to be comfortable with who he was.
"I would never have come out in high school or college," he says. "Never. And to see the stupidity now when kids come out and get bullied and end up killing themselves, it's so stupid," he says, choking back emotions. He decided, "I no longer have to do this. It's not worth it to me. If someone doesn't want to come into my restaurant because I'm gay, then they can go somewhere else."
But they didn't. And Pour House continued to build its reputation as one of downtown's prime hangouts.
In 2008, however, Tschetter (who had bought out Priesmeyer) found himself battling two successive landlords to stay in his beloved space. Lawsuits were filed, but eventually the building's owner, XTO, won out, saying it needed office space downtown and that it had safety concerns about the building, which was a more than century-old wood-frame structure. Tschetter agreed to vacate by Dec. 31 of that year, but he still refers to the incident as "getting kicked out of downtown."
Worst of all, he says he knew he'd have to leave eight months before it happened.
"So not only did I fret about finding a [new] space, but what am I going to tell my staff? I can't tell my staff 'eight months.' I run the chance that everybody bails." Tschetter told his employees on Labor Day, and offered to help them find a job if they stuck around till the end of the year.
Two weeks after the downtown Pour House closed, the Star-Telegram reported that it was one of four restaurants to sign a lease in the West 7th development.
The larger, swankier Pour House opened on Halloween 2009 -- the 14th anniversary of the original -- and despite a 10-month drought, things went so well that by the end of the next year, the Pour House expanded with its 2,700-square-foot Garage dance space, an addition almost as large as the 2,800-square-foot PhD. Tschetter acknowledges that he gets a different crowd than he did downtown, especially late at night, but he still has loyal old-school customers.
"I still have some customers that drive from downtown," Tschetter says. "The only problem is, they have to go get in their car, drive here, park, drive back, park and make it back into the office [during their lunch hour]."
The growth of the West 7th entertainment district has been so fast and furious that some casualties have been inevitable. Bailey's Prime Plus steakhouse and Delaney's Irish Pub are just a couple of the high-profile closings.
"I'm surprised that more places haven't closed down, because there are so many places that have opened," Tschetter says. "I am struggling. I have to have a lot of people in here. It's a big place -- 12,000 square feet is a big place.... Would I move into this location now? No way. There's too much down here. But I'm glad I got here when I did. But there's always the idea that something can fail, especially these days."
A lot of new places, from Magnolia Motor Lounge and Bar Louie to the Gold Standard and even In-N-Out Burger, have increased interest and attention for the West 7th area. But they've also increased competition.
"I want to go see the new place. Everybody does.... [But] it's not like a new place opens and everybody is continuing to do well," says Tschetter. "Everybody is losing some of their customer base. It's a continued battle."
A dark moment
In late 2009, the Pour House would face something much more grim than increased competition.
On Dec. 10, less than two months after the Pour House reopened, an off-duty police officer named Jesus Cisneros and several other were officers were celebrating a colleague's birthday there. Cisneros, it was later learned in court proceedings, drank eight beers and four shots of liquor during the party and left the bar about 2:25 a.m. He broadsided Sonia Baker's PT Cruiser at 76 mph in a city-issued SUV at an intersection in southwest Fort Worth. Baker, a 27-year-old mother, was killed.
Tschetter calls it the most awful thing that has happened during his restaurant career.
"Every bar owner, restaurant owner has the same [hope] every time they go to sleep at night: that people get home safely," he says. "On my way from Dallas to Fort Worth, I got the call that someone had left here and got in an accident and killed someone. It hit me like a ton of bricks."
Cisneros, whose blood alcohol level was measured at .17 -- twice the legal limit -- later pleaded guilty to a charge of intoxication manslaughter, and is serving a 20-year prison sentence. Four of nine other officers were disciplined in the incident.
Baker's family sued the Pour House, with lawyer Jeff Rasansky saying that they filed to hold such establishments accountable for overserving patrons and "placing profits ahead of safety."
The Pour House was thrust into an unfamiliar harsh spotlight.
"All of a sudden I'm getting calls from the media," says Tschetter. "I wanted to tell our side of the story, but yet I was being told to say 'No comment.'"
The suit was dismissed in March 2011 after the bar and its affiliates agreed to pay almost a $600,000 settlement, according to Star-Telegram reports. Tschetter maintains that the bar did everything it could that night. And no one from the Pour House was disciplined by TABC.
"We had videos. We highlighted the officer in question. We highlighted how many times he went to my staff," says Tschetter. "We did everything right, and I said to the TABC, 'You can use this video as a training video of what to do.'"
He says that diligence continues at Pour House. "Short of giving them a Breathalyzer, I do more than any bar in the city."
New and now
So why, with all the volatility and liability in the restaurant/bar business, a business that seems designed to make the people who run it pop Motrin and swill Maalox, did he want to open an additional location?
" Good question," Tschetter says with a laugh. "'Cause I'm crazy, evidently."
But the more you learn about Tschetter, the better you understand his restless nature and quiet ambition.
Most mornings, he's up around 6:30, taking his dog for a walk, then heading into one of his restaurants. He also helps organize monthly networking events and social gatherings for the Dallas Leadership Council for GLAAD.
Kris, his sister, says Eric likes to have a good time, but he was always the one who knew how to get things done, whether it was a family gathering or starting a restaurant. "He works very, very hard," she says. "When he decided that this was what he was going to do, our dad was like, 'Are you sure. It's such a hard life and you're up late and people are drinking.' And Eric's like, 'Sounds good to me!'"
Tschetter divides his time these days between both locations, traveling from Dallas to Fort Worth and back three our four times a week, and says: "I have the absolute best of both worlds. I get to come to Fort Worth, [but] I wouldn't move out of Oak Cliff for anything.... [It's] a little bit like Fort Worth, and a little bit like Austin, and a little bit like Oak Cliff."
If PhD hasn't soared as quickly as his Fort Worth locations, Tschetter remains confident. He says it should only be a matter of time before the West Davis area emerges. More desirable restaurants and new retail are coming in, and not far west of PhD is a new 244-unit apartment complex scheduled to open in November.
"The space that I ended up negotiating on I think is going to be an awesome location," says Tschetter. "It is an awesome location. I'm nervous now, but I think once we really get going, it's going to take off."