Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Cappy Lawton believes that when you have a major life decision to make, you should choose among three options, any of which you could live with. Fortunately for San Antonio, Lawton owns just that number of worthy restaurants from which to choose, all having stood the test of time.
This year, his namesake Cappy’s Restaurant marks 40 years as an Alamo Heights institution. At age 70, Cappy runs the restaurant with wife Suzy and son Trevor, who also oversee operations at the family-owned Cappycino’s next door and La Fonda on Main.
“Our goal is to be the best restaurant in the city,” he said.
At Cappy’s, a two-story space with a patio, loyal diners find a menu that has evolved to honor changing tastes while keeping old favorites, and a wine list that Suzy said makes Cappy’s one of the largest independent accounts in San Antonio. A Zagat reviewer calls it “charming, comfortable ... thanks to an owner who cares" and “one of the few ‘adult' restaurants in town where you can carry a conversation.”
Lawton opened the restaurant in a former lumber storage facility in 1977 when he was 29, which also happens to be the same number of restaurants he has owned across the state since entering the business. He left an unsatisfying career as an aeronautical draftsman after polling his elders on what kinds of businesses were successful during the Depression Era. He toyed with auto restoration and repair for a year.
Then, giving himself 90 days to choose a new path from three livable options, Lawton decided against beauty salon and movie theater ownership and landed on restaurants, a business about which he knew nothing. The first place he opened was a pub, the Quarter House, near San Antonio College. He said he chose that location because he admires the school for its dedicated faculty.
And, though he says Main Avenue is a “terrible street to have a restaurant on,” it’s also the site for the Tex-Mex mainstay he bought and revived in 1997, La Fonda on Main.
“We bought it when it was on its last legs – it needed everything,” Lawton said. But that was part of the romance. “I don’t like new things. I like old, run-down things that I can fix up.”
In fact, he was so enamored with the idea of renovating old spaces into restaurants, having been inspired by a restaurant group in Paris, he tried to buy old some classics on Broadway – the original Earl Abel’s, Naples, Christie’s, and La Louisiane. “But we couldn’t make a decent deal on those,” he said, lamenting their demise. "All the great restaurants got torn down. It's sad."
He was introduced to La Fonda by lifelong friend Bob Sohn, a self-described "recovering attorney" who had an office next door in the mid-1980s. “He always wanted to meet there for lunch, but I didn’t because it was so filthy,” Lawton said. When the owner wanted to sell, she approached Lawton and they struck a deal, even though the purchase brought his wife to tears over the improvements it needed.
By then, Lawton had already opened and sold such familiar restaurants as Mama’s and EZ’s Brick Oven and Grill. The Mama’s he owned in the parking lot of the first multiplex theater in the city, Santikos Northwest 14, attracted moviegoers for years until the highway bypass made it more difficult to get there. Winning the location in the first place was the culmination of hard-fought discussions.
Lawton said he used to joke about the two things he’d never do again: negotiate a deal with movie-house mogul John Santikos and get a divorce.
Over the years, Lawton has owned restaurants with similar concepts in Houston, Dallas, and Austin. The fourth restaurant he opened in San Antonio, known as The Backyard on McCullough Avenue, was his first to fail. “Great restaurant,” he said. “Poor location.”
“In the world of business, there’s lots of things you don’t have control over, and you can do the very best you can do and try really hard, and be smart about everything, and a hurricane will come along and wipe you out," he said. “How'd you like to be a business owner in Puerto Rico right now? There’s no such thing as an easy business and there's no such thing as a sure business.”
Lawton still owns the land and building where Mama's Cafe is located at Loop 410 and Nacogdoches Road, but sold his interest in the restaurant 30 years ago. He said he was once asked how he knows it’s time to sell a restaurant.
His answer: “When the [chief financial officer] takes over, when it’s not about the food anymore. I believe that making money is a consequence, not a goal. That happens in so many businesses. Our goal was to get to the point where we had no partners.”
Suzy Lawton eventually left a successful career in banking and real estate to join him, starting as a dishwasher at Cappy’s to learn the business from the dishpan up.
Today she sets the direction for the menu and wine list, and has established a waiter hiring and training program that includes the "Suzy Test,” which is an oral exam, the hardest some say they've ever taken. The Lawtons employ about 150 servers and managers in the three restaurants.
Richard Newman, a San Antonio head and neck surgeon, dines at La Fonda on Main at least once a week and has developed a friendship with both Cappy Lawton and the wait staff. He’s a fan of the enchiladas and a frozen sangria swirl with salt, but the waiters need only ask Newman if he wants “the usual.” When Newman was homebound following a recent health scare, Lawton brought the food to him.
Newman said he and his wife Julie have come to think of La Fonda as their second home kitchen, and for that reason, chose the restaurant for their 2013 wedding ceremony and reception.
“When we go there, we see lots of people from the neighborhood, our friends, and we get to say hi and visit a little bit,” said Newman, adding that he admires his friend Lawton for how he supports staff members who are also attending college.
When Cappy’s Restaurant closed for 72 days after a fire in 2015, workers kept their jobs and pay. The average length of a cook’s career at Cappy’s is 15 years. Some have known Trevor Lawton since he was in diapers.
Trevor, 32, began working in the business when he was about 11 years old. By age 13, he was a busboy. Now he is director of operations, having been pulled reluctantly from a job as chef into the business office, where his father mentors him on all aspects of running a restaurant – or three.
“The only thing we haven’t done together is build a restaurant,” Cappy Lawton said. “We tried to buy one recently, but that fell through. We’ll find one, though.”
In the meantime, the family is working to complete recent renovations to La Fonda that will add a “cantina” space to a 100-year-old home that’s served as a restaurant for 85 of those years. Cappy and Suzy also travel abroad frequently, bringing home recipes they incorporate into the restaurant menus. Next up is Ireland.
The thing he won’t do is franchise his concepts. “Cappy can’t cookie-cutter anything,” Suzy said. “It takes away from the wonder.”
"He’s a master at attending to the details, keeping the restaurants up to date, and constantly improving," said Sohn, who often dines at Cappy's. "He not only has been a gift to the city in the way he's nurtured, developed, and maintained the restaurants, making them real meeting and gathering places for people, but he's also done lot of things not many know about."
Those things include purchasing and planting trees around town and mentoring craftsmen of all kinds, Sohn said. "He's a model citizen who gives much more than he takes."