Considering his industry’s egomaniacal tendencies and the achievement of ushering any restaurant past its 25th anniversary, Bud Royer’s humility drives remarkable to the doorstep of ridiculous. Still, when you’ve been known for much of your adult life as Bud the Pie Man or, these days, as the Padre of Pies, it all comes down to how you view that success.
“People say, ‘You’re Bud Royer, you’re the owner here,’” offers Bud, sitting on a stool by the register at Royer’s Round Top Café, beside a plastic bucket of branded matchbooks topped with a paperback copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. “But I’m not. My family is the owner. They’re the ones who’ve had to make this place go, and I stand on their shoulders.” Bud smiles, even as the café’s quiet starts tipping toward Saturday night cacophony. His eyes glisten. “My daughter always tells people, ‘I went to Dad School.’”
To enjoy any level of success in Round Top, off anybody’s beaten path between Houston and Austin, is odd enough. After all, the town’s sign lists the current population as 90. Yet as though to make that 90 even harder to handle, there are more than 100,000 other folks who show up twice a year, in the fall and in the spring, for Round Top’s big deal of an antique market. And there’s an international music festival here too, plus a whole lot of affluent doctors, lawyers and stock brokers who show up for weekends to pretend they’re ranchers. All this makes for a pretty strange crowd. But that’s okay, since the Royer family has created a pretty strange café to take care of them.
The café is authentically quirky, the kind of place that every fake quirky restaurant on earth – read: Joe’s Crab Shack and a thousand others – tries to emulate, never with total success. There’s nary an inch of wall or ceiling that doesn’t have some card, fabric, drawing or photo thumbtacked to it. Guest inscriptions and signatures complete the look, along with Royer’s t-shirts (“Remember the Alamode,” “Eat Mo’ Pie” and, a Texas favorite, “No Pie Left Behind”) hanging from the ceiling for buying. There’s a soundtrack of ‘60s hits, loud enough to wrestle with any conversation and seem to be winning. At intervals, the crowd even hushes, for something truly iconic like “My Girl,” as two dozen grownups visibly restrain themselves from singing along.
For all this studied chaos, the menu at Royer’s Round Top Café makes the décor almost seem “normal.” While it began life as a Texas café with Texas café food, today there’s not a meatloaf or chicken fried steak in sight. The list is a series of high-octane self-expressions, neither upscale nor truly down, bursting with flavor and no small amount of butter and cream. A favorite sandwich, for instance, is the grilled shrimp BLT, with a quarter-pound of grilled shrimp and another quarter-pound of thick-cut bacon, plus smoked mesquite mustard on a sourdough hoagie roll. And then there’s the jalapeno poppers that are more like jalapeno whoppers, each pepper stuffed with Swiss, cheddar and cream cheeses, crabmeat and shrimp, then deep-fried and paired with lush cilantro ranch for dipping.
If such a fancy word can apply here, entrees run through several seafood and meat options that declare themselves “OMG” – from Tara’s Grilled Gulf Snapper OMG to something billed as The Awesome Steak OMG – a 10-ounce center-cut beef filet on a bed of mashed potatoes, topped with portabella mushrooms and red onions with a creamy sauce of red wine and rosemary. And if those mashed potatoes aren’t enough, you can always order some Bud’s Smash, a mixture Bud concocted for himself one day (“Yes, I do like to play with my food”) and customers kept wanting to “have what that guy’s having.” For the record, it’s mashed potatoes with the café’s creamed corn, red onions and crumbles of blue cheese.
“People kept asking me what I called it,” Bud remembers, “and all I could think of in the moment was Bud’s Slop.” He grins. “I finally decided that, in marketing terms, ‘slop’ wasn’t exactly a great word for selling anything.”
Surprisingly and not at the same time, Royer’s features an impressive wine list. A quarter-century ago, an eatery like this would be lucky to stock bottles or cans of Lone Star, if indeed the county it was in wasn’t dry. Today, the place offers whites and reds of some distinction – Bud entirely credits his kids for this – not only from California with a bit of Texas tossed in, but from France, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Chile… Yes, Royer’s serves beer as well, with a lot more choices than Lone Star.
One of the ironies, Bud points out to anyone who’ll listen, is that people assume he moved his wife and four kids (then aged 6 to 12) to the country after making a fortune in the city – just as many of his best customers did and still do. But such folks forget their history: Houston (where the Royers lived) was “flat on its face” a quarter-century ago. The Royers moved to Round Top because they knew people with a café that was struggling, and those people let the family take it over for paying the bank note each month. They opened with $200 in the till, and not a thing to fall back on. No one knew quite what to do, or quite what the world wanted the place to be. Within a year, though, they’d begun to figure a few things out.
“It was pure survival,” Bud recalls. “It wasn’t a matter of ‘We’re going to go live our dream in the country.’ Not at all. But the café evolved. And our family evolved right along with it.”
To this day, Royer’s Round Top Café is family-owned and family-operated, with Bud the oh-so-familiar face at the door and on the t-shirts but various other family members doing most of the jobs. All pitch in with the pie business too, with shipments going out around the world (especially to U.S. troops missing a taste of home). After several years of having outside companies bake and ship, the Royers recently brought that business back in-house. And even more recently, they opened a second location a few steps away, Royer’s Pie Haven, a coffee and pastry café that’s part of Henkel Square Market.
After 25 years of watching his kids grow up around the cafe, Bud can afford to be philosophical about the business and what exactly makes it tick. He knows what “slow” feels like in this restaurant, but he knows what “slammed” feels like a lot more often. Bud perches atop his stool this particular evening, scribbling people’s names in a small tablet and assigning tables to parties of this or that size at this or that time. When he shares his “system” with an observer, he’s told it’s less like managing a restaurant than playing a really serious game of Tetris. He nods delighted agreement, then turns thoughtful.
“You know, the big thing here is the expectation,” he offers. “When people walk in this door, they’ve just driven 80 miles to get a meal, and they’ve passed at least 80 other places to eat. And nearly all of them are repeat customers.” Bud ponders this collection of evidence a moment, then hands down his verdict. “Food and service, they’re the product, sure. But what we’re really selling here is the experience.”