You could hear emotions cycling through Cody Taylor’s voice when he spoke recently about his decision to close a monumental chapter in his life.
Bitterness and frustration punctuated subtle barbs aimed at what he saw as a dining scene more interested in style than substance, more enamored with celebrity than community. But gratitude and pride buoyed him from the stew of lingering frustrations, providing a loftier vantage point from which to view cherished relationships and personal and professional achievements.
Saying goodbye to something you love dearly can flood a person with a unique blend of sentiments.
After 15 years of working at Cafe Josie, the last seven of those as owner, the 38-year-old Taylor decided it was time to turn off the lights for good at the West Sixth Street restaurant established by his mentor, chef Charles Mayes, in 1997.
"My connection with Cafe Josie runs deeper than anything I have in my life," Taylor told the Statesman recently. "It’s been a painful two months once I made that decision, and I’m still struggling with it, whether or not I made the right decision."
The coronavirus devastated Austin’s economy and disrupted its culture in mid-March, as dining rooms were forced to close, but Taylor had already come to terms with Cafe Josie’s future a couple of weeks earlier.
Taylor says his restaurant experienced four record-breaking years in a row under executive chef Todd Havers, but with his lease ending in 2021, Taylor expected his rent to double. He countered this anticipation with plans to add lunch service, Saturday brunch and a catering operation, which he thought would bring in enough money to help the restaurant thrive into the future.
But Taylor says his landlord, Larry McGuire, whose companies own the Pecan Square shopping center and operate the adjacent Clark’s, was not amenable to expansions of the restaurant's footprint that were part of Taylor's plans. McGuire declined the Statesman's request for comment on Cafe Josie's closure and future plans for the property.
Rising rents have served as a death knell for many Austin restaurants, but Taylor pointed to the greater cultural landscape as an equal culprit in his restaurant’s fade to black.
Cafe Josie has attracted over its 23 years arguably as loyal a base of regular customers as any restaurant in Austin, but Taylor felt the charming, modestly adorned bungalow restaurant went underappreciated among a certain set of Austin diners and local food media.
"We never really were in the popular crowd. We never really got the respect that I know we deserved," Taylor said. "It was always one challenge after the next to try and stay relevant, to try to continue to bring new people in and make the money we needed to make to continue to pay the bills and to continue to pay our cooks a better wage than most and take care of my people."
The American-Statesman named the restaurant at the foot of Clarksville one of the city’s best restaurants in 2014 and 2015, but Taylor deems Cafe Josie’s overall recognition inadequate for a restaurant he considered to be a top 10 dining destination in the city.
"We never got the opportunity to be a part of the conversation with the new and shiny restaurants," Taylor said. "We were always determined to keep pushing forward."
Taylor learned perseverance and leadership during his first eight years at Cafe Josie, working under the restaurant’s founding chef-owner Charles Mayes, one of the foundational members of Austin’s modern dining scene. Before bringing his Caribbean-meets-Southwestern flavors to Josie, named after his then-7-year-old daughter, in the former home of the West End Cafe, Mayes worked at Gilligan's Seafood Restaurant, Manana Grill, Treaty Oak Cafe and Mother's Cafe.
Mayes’ leadership and tutelage cultivated Taylor’s faith in the restaurant’s mission and helped mature the young employee who started as a cocksure server in 2005. Taylor learned from Mayes how to treat people, how to believe in himself and how to lead from the front.
"The things that he taught me transcended the restaurant business. They became part of my life philosophy," Taylor said. "Our conversations after service at Josie were all about life and the celebration of life."
Taylor emulated his mentor, whom he considers long underappreciated, in operating Cafe Josie as a restaurant dedicated to being a creative and ethical part of the community, a place where servers cared about their relationships with guests and regulars were integral to the fabric of the restaurant.
"I had the fabric of Austin. I had people in there that were a part of Austin for years and years, people who grew up here, who moved to Austin in the ’60s and ’70s, people that loved Old Austin and appreciated those values," Taylor said of his regulars, some of whom came to the restaurant as children and later brought their own. "They became a part of my life, and I became a part of their lives."
Saying goodbye to the community of diners and staff who he said would "go to the end of the earth" for him was the hardest part of Taylor’s decision to leave. He called each employee individually to let them know of his decision and says they were all heartbroken to hear the news.
Taylor said he believes the closure reverberates beyond the walls of the restaurant perched atop Pecan Square.
"I feel like Cafe Josie closing is also closing a chapter in the Austin dining scene and Austin culture. Austin has always been a place that was so proud of its communities and its values," Taylor said. "But I think the dining scene really started to focus more on flashy and superficial. I think Austin moved into a direction that it lost a lot of its identity with what made it become the culinary scene that it was."
Taylor now views that changed scene from a distance. He lives in San Marcos, where he opened Texas comfort food restaurant Industry in 2018, and says he fell in love with the community that reminds him of what he first loved about Austin.
"And there’s support down here with them," Taylor said. "I love San Marcos and can see a town that’s very true to its core values. It really wants to stay San Marcos; it doesn’t want to be Austin."
He might not be done with Austin forever, a place he still considers "amazing" and a city populated with restaurants he says he misses, but Taylor’s happy to be done with it for now. As he throws all of his energy and focus into Industry, he speaks with the bittersweet weariness that comes with the acceptance of change you never asked for but have learned to live with.
"When I think back about it, it’s always just trying to remember how amazing it was," Taylor said. "And I know everybody who was a part of it, from customers to vendors to my staff, they’re going to remember it for how beautiful that it was."
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