Houston — Twelve years ago, Elouise Heatherly awakened at 6 a.m. every day, packed an assembly line of sandwiched and salads into a giant hamper, and sent them to her husband's Houston office, where they were snapped up by 12 regular customers. The price for a three-course lunch was a modest $1.50. Often the bags were decorated or even contained a note. Many times notes of appreciation came back.
Ouisie, as Elouise is nicknamed, called her one-woman enterprise the Traveling Brown Bag Lunch Company.
This modest operation was the seed for something bigger. Elouise was carefully creating menus in an old black notebook tied with a pink ribbon. On other pages she was penciling a logo: Ouisie's Table and the Brown Bag Traveling Lunch Company. She didn't know what the outcome of these pages would be, but she knew she loved working with food.
Elouise Heatherly had grown up in Houston tugging at the aprons of a mother and grandmother who both had an intuitive sense about food. She was also influenced by Rebecca Stringfellow, a housekeeper who served up memorable fried chicken, dark brown gravy, and lemon meringue pie. "She was a pinch of this and a handful of that," recalls Ouisie.
"I knew that a restaurant would work. I tucked away that name and the idea. I really thought I'd go into catering. I didn't think about the restaurant," she says.
After her son, Tucker, was born, she worked as a secretary, but that did not satisfy her creative bent. An aunt, hearing about this, offered Elouise financial assistance to start a restaurant.
Her first step was to rent a nostalgic old neighborhood grocery store on Sunset Boulevard, near Rice University. "It never occured to me that it would not work," she says. "I didn't listen to people who tole me about the high risk factor. I didn't look to other restaurants to guide me. I put my blinders on and didn't take anyone's advice."
Tucker and Elouise (by now she was divorced) spent weeks living at the old store while it was being transformed into a restaurant. Elouise didn't actually hammer nails, but she painted, scraped, and did the cleaning. She went to auctions to buy secondhand restaurant equipment that had no warranty.
"The high risk was staring me in the face," she recalls. "At auction were the restaurants going out of business."
By January the sign Ouisie's Table and the Brown Bag Traveling Lunch Company and Storeside went up, and the storeside of consigned antiques and gifts opened. By May she was ready to start serving lunch and supper. An American country atmosphere pervaded the restaurant, with dark pine tables, silverware wrapped in white cloth napkins, and a blackboard for the menu.
The day she opened the door she immediately had 40 customers.
"I don't know how they knew to come," Elouise says in wonderment. "I felt I was serving friends, so I didn't have stage fright. I've always felt they were my friends and I'm cooking for them."
For two years Elouise rarely left the kitchen. For three years she took no salary. She countered fatigue with the fact the number of customers was climbing.
The restaurant now has a staff of 40 and serves 350 people a day. Some customers have been regulars from the beginning. One neighborhood woman whose refrigerator went out never got it fixed. She's there for lunch and supper.
It's Ouisie's menu that is always a surprise -- a bit of Texas (chicken-fried steak) and middle America with an international accent. In fact, she has almost single-handedly educated Houstonians to soups with such original creations as lemon garlic; bacon, lettuce, and tomato; artichoke cream; spinach with orange. Some items stay on the menu, such as the unique pimento cheese sandwich and Ouisie's spud: baked potato with sour cream, onions, and caviar. She also features lots of local fish and seafood -- scalloped oysters, fillet of trout with crab stuffing, trout with saffron, tomatoes, and eggplant. In the spring there's boiled crayfish. Red meat is scarce on the menu except for Ouisie's hamburger (Mondays and Saturdays).
Elouise is frank that sometimes the customer has to be educated to new items on the menu. "When I add something to the menu that people don't know, I find that if I'm determined, I'll run it for a full week. It starts to pick up, catches on, and becomes a best seller. Then I pull it off."
The restaurant's popularity goes beyond good food. There are also traditions at Ouisie's. Photography, painting, and rug shows provide changing displays on the walls.At Chistmas the staff serves about 500 barbecued turkey legs to customers at the annual party for them. There is also an annual birthday celebration, with pates and a giant bowl of the famous pimento cheese spread.
This year, for the restaurant's sixth anniversary, all of the regulars were invited to bring a covered dish for a festive potluck. Some of the best cooks in Houston showed up, offering specialties such as braised Italian artichokes and homemade pastas.