The Restaurant that Defined SoCo
Have you ever come back from a vacation and wished your hometown had some of the same, authentic foods you enjoyed while away? We all have, but probably very few of us have let that motivate us to start a restaurant. But Rob and Cathy Lippincott are a different breed. “I got caught at a weak moment by a friend of mine,” Rob says when discussing how their restaurant got started. “He and I had talked about doing it. We'd spent time together in Mexico at taco bars and we'd always said that'd be something cool to do. Then one time he approached me and said, "Hey. Let's actually do it." We just thought, hey, let's do this thing that's a little bit different. It's a simple taco bar. We'll have the pork, chicken, and beef and three salsas. We started off with our same three salsas we have now, but no chips. An authentic taco bar doesn't have chips. My friend ended up quitting within the first six months, but I liked it and kept going.”
Maybe it wouldn’t be as surprising if Rob and Cathy had experience in food service, but they didn’t. That is, unless you count the pickled eggs Rob served at the dance hall he ran in Bandera Texas and, let me guess, you don’t. Still they persisted and, as Rob learned, decided to make adjustments to suit their market. “Before I was really thinking about being a business person and being in business I decided I was going to teach the public about taco bars. But in the restaurant business you really want to listen to the public more than you want to teach the public. We figured that out pretty quick. We got some chips. Then, finally we got chile con queso and bowed to the Tex-Mex god. You need to be flexible in business.”
While they might not have been able to teach their customers about authentic Mexican taco bars, they helped accomplish something even more meaningful—the complete transformation of SoCo as they expanded their small location into a large one. “I thought we should become like Taco Cabana and have a number of different, small locations. Cathy, the smart one, thought it might be a good idea to just expand to a larger location so we didn’t have to hire managers and drive all over town. We'd been talking about that and at one point I drove by and saw the old feed store on SoCo and started rethinking our plan. I'd always admired this building because it was almost the turn of the millennium Main Street, Capital City, and there were still cowboys on the front porch picking their teeth with hay and rabbits stacked up. I had always thought that it was really cool. Then, I drove by and there was a for sale sign. So, I came home and said, "If we're thinking of expanding to one larger location, I just saw a really cool place this afternoon." As it turns out, Cathy said, "You know, I saw a really cool one this afternoon too." We'd seen the same thing. That was a good sign to us. So much of our deal has been just serendipitous or luck.”
It’s easy to imagine bringing a business to SoCo today, because we get to enjoy it as an iconic stretch of road lined with tons of quirky local shops. But at the time Rob and Cathy were thinking about buying the old feed store, SoCo wasn’t like it is now. In fact, it’s thanks to this couple that SoCo is now home to masses of tourists and locals wandering in the homespun businesses and boutiques. You see, in the 1990s, I-35 had taken much of the tourist traffic away from the area and the only attractions left, well, let’s just say they weren’t the attractions that trendy boutique shoppers are generally looking for. “SoCo was a pretty scruffy area at the time,” says Rob. “There were hookers and drug deals happening on the front porch of the feed store.
But still, it seemed like it could work. It turns out, and I didn't know this at the time, but some very successful restaurant guy said that when he looks for locations he looks for hookers and parking. That's what's going to make the place work.” It worked so well that a 1999 report called, So. Congress Prostitution Problem refers to Guero’s as, “a former feed store and hot bed for prostitution, [that] has become a Mexican Restaurant where President Bill Clinton ate.”
Even if they had a few doubts over the scruffiness of the neighborhood, Rob and Cathy trusted their instincts—which ended up being right. Says Rob, “I thought at the time, the city can't go west. The rich ones are over there. They're not going to let you. It can't go north because of the university and surrounding neighborhoods. It isn't going to go east. No one would want to build over on the east side. So expanding out this direction was the only logical solution in my mind. I had no idea how quickly things were happening all over Austin. I was kind of right because the east side still wasn't ripe yet so this area became successful and we were just kind of running along beside it.”
And not only did they score in the location benefiting from the resurgence of SoCo, but in an effort to control the potential neighbors they might have, they bought some other property in the neighborhood. Cathy says, “We wanted control of this block. We did not want somebody going in with something like a Chili's next door to us. So, we were able to find some backing. We got a couple partners and were able to secure this block. Eventually we sold the condos around the corner.”
But don’t count these two out, because they’re not yet done with their part of the SoCo Renaissance. “We're about to build a hotel behind Güero’s,” says Cathy. “It’s a 35-room hotel with two event spaces that we're going use to expand our event planning. We’re going to call it Kimber SoCo.” Rob enthusiastically continues, “You'll book your room online, go up to your room, and it'll check you in by phone. There's going to be real cool common area, too, where you go out and get soft drinks and breakfast in the morning. Then, when you leave, you just leave. It's like an Uber cab in hotel form.”
Would SoCo be what it is today if Rob and Cathy hadn’t expanded their modest taqueria into the Central Feed Store? Probably not. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more iconic, eclectic, and essential stretch of the city we all love. Newcomers and tourists flock to the heart of Austin and celebrate the local spirit that has come to define what makes us unique. Politicians, musicians, and professional athletes alike have been patrons of this famous establishment. Pierce Brosnan, Tom Petty, and Lily Tomlin are a few examples of some satisfied guests that you may have heard of. For a longer list, check out foundingaustin.com to see some more celebrities that have visited Güero’s.
To learn more about the music or tacos that you can experience at this iconic SoCo stop, check out gueros.com.