The first 'patch' built in the first Texas town
Posted 09 - 17 - 2008
Cotten Patch Cafe named Medium Business of the Year

By KELLY DANIEL

Good recipes may be the secret for growing the first Cotton Patch Café on North Street in to a successful chain of 41 locations.

"Anyone who takes a bite of meatloaf tastes one of the owner's grandmother's recipes," general manager Karen Klein said. Many of the original Cotton Patch dishes have a similar history, and the plates that went through the taste test in Nacogdoches set the standards for menu items in cafes across the state.

Business co-owners Mike Patranello and Larry Marshall had already experienced success with Pizza Hut restaurants before they opened the new venture in 1989, offering hearty meals and friendly service. Spouses Carla Patranello and Paula Marshall made their contributions of "charm" to the first store. Shopping in what some may consider unconventional areas, Paula and Carla purchased items from flea markets that set the tone for the café, hence the presence of Lester the rooster.

"Lester is a stuffed rooster Paula and Carla found in Canton. I guess he's our mascot," Klein said. "He's been here since opening day, and he goes with us to every one of our catering events. If we're cooking off-site, Lester will be there. In employee training, my instructions include, 'if you are working Section 1, you have to dust the rooster.' Some think it's secret code, and I explain it means to take the rooster down and dust him."

According to Klein, the food and service are part of the winning recipe for a successful business, but the special ingredients that make Cotton Patch unique are community participation and employee opportunities and rewards.

"I was hired eight years ago as general manager, and since Day 1, Mike and Larry have encouraged me to be involved in local events," Klein said. "My first Taste of Nacogdoches in 1991 with Cotton Patch was so memorable, because we played with a farm theme and dressed up in overalls and played bluegrass music. And of course, Lester the rooster went with us."

Local organizations including Boys and Girls Clubs of Deep East Texas, CASA of Deep East Texas and Vacation Bible School programs benefit from Cotton Patch fundraisers.

The Tips for Toys fundraiser held during the Christmas season has Nacogdoches "celebrities" waiting tables. Approximately $6,000 in tips was raised in the past three events. It is a festive event for all involved, and staff dress as elves and reindeer and one is Santa for the evening.

"It is an honor for me to work with Tips for Toys," said volunteer Betty Shinn. "I enjoy getting to know the Cotton Patch staff. They work so well together, and that's a reflection of Karen's leadership skills."

In the spring, Cotton Patch partnered with the Nacogdoches animal shelter in an adopt-a-thon. Anyone who adopted a pet during the event received two free meals, and the result was that 38 pets found permanent homes.

"The staff really enjoyed the first Tips for Troops fundraiser we held on the Fourth of July," Klein said. "Many made personal donations on top of tip collections. We raised enough to assemble 25 boxes of things recruiters said troops would like the most and to pay for the overseas shipping."

The caring hands of Cotton Patch Café reach to the community when needs arise.

"As soon as the shuttle disaster was reported, Larry called me. We had no idea what the impact would be on Nacogdoches at that time, but he made it clear that we were to help in any way possible," Klein said.

The same policy applied after Hurricane Rita moved through Texas.

Now, able to smile as she recalled relief efforts, Klein said, "I kind of got in trouble during that one. We prepared soup and sandwiches for a group of evacuees. Larry found out about the soup and sandwich menu and got on to me for not preparing a hot meal, something filling. I said, 'Larry, we were expecting 300 people in 45 minutes. Soup and sandwiches are all we could get ready for them.'"

Klein said working with the staff, many being SFA students, is a pleasure for her. She looks forward to hiring freshmen who will, most likely, stay with her through graduation. With the company's "promote from within" policy, she has seen Nacogdoches employees move into management positions.

"In the eight years I've worked at Cotton Patch, eight people have been promoted to store managers. Four of those to general managers," Klein said.

Some Nacogdoches employees are approaching the 10- and 15-year anniversaries. A low employee turnover is good for business and good for the day-to-day work environment. Klein describes the relationship between staff as "family bonds."

"We have established a tradition to say 'good-bye' to an employee," Klein said. "They get pied. It's a pie in the face during the person's last shift, and he doesn't know when it will happen or how many. It's up to the co-workers to determine the number of pies and when the deed is done. Sometimes it happens in front of the customers."

Nacogdoches is proud that Marshall and Patranello applied the good food and service, community involvement and employee rewards recipe to the restaurant on North Street. With five of the 41 stores built in 2008, growth is strong for Cotton Patch Café, and more communities will benefit from the winning recipe.

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The Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce will honor Cotton Patch Cafe at the 87th Annual Meeting and Membership Banquet on Tuesday, Sept. 30, at Hotel Fredonia. The event begins at 6 p.m. with a raffle and social hour. Dinner will be served at 7 p.m.

An event registration form is posted at: www.nacogdoches.org or call the chamber office, at 560-5533, for tickets and table sponsorships. Contact chamber Vice Chairwoman Michelle Smith, 569-1947, to donate items for the raffle and online auction.

Other award recipients will also be recognized at the event, including Small Business of the Year Shannons Pools, Large Business of the Year Elliott Electric Supply, and Citizen of the Year Francis E. "Ab" Abernethy.
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