When others may end their workday with a movie or a nice dinner out, Jon Bonnell’s day is just beginning.
Bonnell, executive chef and owner of Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, 4259 Bryant Irvin Road, spends his weekends scanning plates as they move from the back of his restaurant to the front. He wipes down the edge of plates, checks each platter’s content and monitors how many tables are waiting on food.
Even in the beginnings of the lunch hour, with only three tables with customers, Bonnell is in the back checking on plates as they are prepared. He points out the different kinds of meat on the Mixed Grill, one of the most popular dishes. He knows every menu item inside-and-out, correctly predicting what will happen next as each dish is assembled in front of his eyes.
His expertise is no surprise. This has been his domain for a decade.
Bonnell opened Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine on Oct. 12, 2001. Unlike a lot of restaurateurs, Bonnell chose to avoid the downtown area, settling instead in the109.
“This was our chosen spot. I looked all over Fort Worth for two or three years for the right real estate deal, looking for a location with good traffic, that was maybe underrepresented in the fine dining area,” Bonnell said.
He chose well — every day, 42,000 cars pass this intersection of Camp Bowie and I-20.
Bonnell, a fourth-generation Fort Worthian, said business has been fantastic, even though some may think downtown is the natural place for fine dining.
With the restaurant’s location, Bonnell is able to maintain about 35 employees, some of whom have been with the restaurant since it opened, something he may not have been able to do downtown.
“It’s a better deal. The downtown real estate is very pricey,” Bonnell said. “And if you don’t put a butt in every chair, every service real quick, you’re out of business. It’s a quick, fast, hard gamble. There are real estate positions downtown that look like they should be the best in town, and they turn restaurants over and over.”
The decision to set up shop in the109 proved to be a profitable one. The restaurant has slowly accrued an incredibly loyal customer base.
The “aha moment”
Bonnell didn’t start out as a chef, though. He graduated from Vanderbilt in 1994 and taught middle school and high school science and math. But it wasn’t until he had an “aha moment” that he decided to turn a hobby into a career.
Bonnell graduated with distinction from the New England Culinary Institute in 1997 and went on to cook in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
That experience, plus his time in culinary school up north, left an impression on Bonnell and inspired him to focus on Texas cuisine when he opened his own restaurant.
“It’s where I’m from, it’s what I know the best,” Bonnell said. “These are the kind of people I feel like I understand. I cooked in New England and I loved working in New England and cooking in New England, but the food seemed foreign to me.”
Bonnell said the biggest dissonance came when he couldn’t find a jalapeno up north. After growing up in a state that he said practically prints a recipe for guacamole on the back of birth certificates, having no access to dried chilies or peppers popular in other Southern foods was unsettling.
Working at several different restaurants provided the experience Bonnell needed to comfortably design his own menu and feel confident approaching banks for a start-up loan.
His menu features some of the best of Texas cuisine. Bonnell said he gets most of his ingredients from Texas farmers who make only one trip to deliver to him. Ingredients like venison, tomatoes, greens, cheese, grits, eggs, beef, quail, oysters, shrimp, crabmeat, redfish, chicken and herbs all regularly come in from local farmers.
And though the name implies a certain amount of prestige, Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine is a dressed down version of what Bonnell calls “Fort Worth Fancy.” Chefs utilize high-end techniques. Cloth tablecloths abound. But no one would ever accuse Bonnell’s of being stuffy.
Décor is Western-style, but not casual. The kitchen is hidden behind a large mosaic and thanks to its design, every table is a corner table.
The restaurant is a reflection of its clientele – Southwest-inspired, but distinctly Fort Worth.
A loyal group of regular patrons
Bonnell’s spot in the109 has earned it a loyal group of regular patrons who appreciate the more relaxed feel than downtown has to offer.
Bonnell maintains that relationship every day by stepping out on the restaurant floor during the lunch and dinner hours. He greets some regulars as he makes his rounds through the restaurant. The lunch crowd hasn’t settled in yet, so it’s a short trip. Bonnell said the crowds usually pick up around noon and then again at 6 p.m.
While there are no typical workdays in the restaurant business, Bonnell spends the most time preparing for the weekend. Friday mornings consist of checking on supplies and inventorying the kitchen.
Work picks up from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. as the lunch crowd rolls through. After lunch, Bonnell skims through paperwork, which can be anything from updates from local farmers to customer recipe requests.
There are no recipe secrets, Bonnell said. Many times customers will email in and request a recipe that they liked.
As the day progresses, Bonnell and his staff discuss how to market that night’s specials and prepare for the busiest time of the night – the dinner crowd.
The hours between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. are a blur, Bonnell said, of regulars, bar patrons and dinner tickets. While his staff waits on customers, Bonnell is manning the food line that marks the border between the back of the restaurant, the kitchens, and the front, where customers are served.
When he’s not wiping down the edges of plates and checking their contents, Bonnell likes to make a few laps around the restaurant to greet customers. He said maintaining that relationship is a major part of keeping Bonnell’s in business.
“You have to build loyal customers one at a time and you can’t ever stop. If you think, ‘you know what, we’re doing great. Let’s just stay exactly the same and do exactly what we’ve been doing and not change a bit” then you’re backsliding. You cannot ever take a break and say ‘That’s it. We’re perfect. Let’s just idle on through.’ You have to constantly be looking for something newer, something better, something cooler, something different and keep impressing your guests.”
After some hellos, he’s back in the kitchen, making sure the rest of the night runs smoothly. Even as busy as each night is, Bonnell said the relative chaos doesn’t bother him, even when he gets home around 11:30 p.m.
“The way my brain works, I can’t sit at a desk and do the same thing day after day. I’m not wired that way,” Bonnell said.
Make it nice or make it twice
Most nights run smoothly, with his “unsung heroes,” as he calls them, in the back putting out an average of 300 pieces of meat per night without a refire, or sending the steak back for a change.
Bonnell places high value on “making it nice or making it twice,” as the saying goes. He’s no Gordon Ramsey – his tone is respectful, even friendly, as he directs the workers assembling dishes in the kitchen.
But there is one aspect of the restaurant business that raises his blood pressure – professional diners.
Bonnell said these are people who come in, order, and then make a generic complaint about halfway through the meal. It’s particularly frustrating, Bonnell said, because it’s not something he can fix.
“Now when there’s something wrong, we want to make sure you leave happy and I’m willing to give the house away to make sure that you’re happy,” Bonnell said. “When we mess something up, I want to correct it before they leave. I don’t want someone to have a bad experience and leave and then tell me they didn’t like it.”
But professional diners, he said, are just out to get a free meal. Even so, Bonnell said, those diners are a small percentage in a customer base that averages adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s, as well as patrons for special events like proms and Parents Weekend at Texas Christian University.
Over the last decade, Bonnell’s has served over 350 different specials containing a variety of local ingredients. Saturday morning visits to the local farmer’s market yield inspiration and Bonnell said the restaurant serves an average of four to five specials per day on the weekends.
Unlike a lot of chain restaurants, Bonnell’s doesn’t put a warning on its menu against eating raw or undercooked meat. Bonnell said if the ingredients are of a high quality, even high-risk foods, like oysters on the half shell, don’t need a warning label.
“I really trust and believe in the products that we use and I don’t do anything that I don’t eat myself,” he said.
And though his ideal dining experience would be a regular sit-down dinner with his wife, 3-year-old and baby on the way, Bonnell has a clear passion for his career.
“It’s a fun business if you really love it — there’s nothing else like it in the world.”