Photo: Richard and Barbara DeWitt have successfully built a collection of family restaurants -- but the operations are anything but a chain. (Photo by Bruce R. Partain)
Chamber names Clear Springs and Auntie Pasta's
as its Large Business of the Year 2015
By Bruce R. Partain
On September 14, 2008, Jeremy Niuman approached the debris-filled parking lot of Clear Springs and Auntie Pasta's in Nacogdoches with high anxiety.
As general manager of both restaurants, he already knew there was damage from the high winds and downpours of Hurricane Ike. The massive storm had power-washed its way north the day before, after smashing into Galveston, and was on track to wreak further havoc from St. Louis to Montreal.
He noted that one restaurant was apparently in worse shape than the other.
"The roof of Clear Springs had lifted off and landed on top of Auntie Pasta's, where it knocked in some holes," Niuman recalled. "There was ankle-deep water in the Clear Springs dining room. The whole place was flooded. All the decor was damaged. I wondered if we would ever open up again."
Ultimately, the unexpected partial demolition kicked off needed repairs and new remodeling that benefited the local eateries, with owners Richard and Barbara DeWitt and other managers diving into the rebuild. "It ended up being a Godsend," Niuman said. "The buildings and the business have improved since."
Because of the resilience of their operations and success through years, the Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce has named Clear Springs and Auntie Pasta's as its 2015 Large Business of the Year.
Richard and Barbara DeWitt each have had an important role in the success of the Clear Springs locations in New Braunfels, Nacogdoches, Midland and Tyler, plus the Gruene River Grill in New Braunfels.
Richard's path started with his parent's decision to move to Texas to join family members.
"We moved to Nacogdoches in the 1950s from Michigan," Richard DeWitt said. "At first in the turkey business, then in raising chickens. That's how I grew up - on chicken farms and hatcheries. Later on, when I was in high school, my dad decided to open a Kentucky Fried Chicken store. The first was in Lufkin in 1966, the second in Nacogdoches. He got up to 71 restaurants."
The decision to become KFC franchisees took place after a unique product test.
"We were in Galveston with our cousins," DeWitt said. "Dad sent me next door to buy some Kentucky Fried Chicken. I bought three buckets, which seemed like a lot of chicken. I went back two times and bought three more buckets each time. Everyone was raving about it. I don't know if that was when he made up his mind, but that was my first taste of Kentucky Fried Chicken."
"I worked for dad for 20 years," DeWitt said. "I started in the Lufkin store. Then I delivered supplies to all the stores."
He graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University in 1971 with a business degree. As a Lumberjack and a business owner, DeWitt appreciates the many SFA students who have worked at his and Barbara's restaurants. "I believe we have better employees now," he said. "Jeremy started as a waiter. He is a valued employee. He has a family and is doing well. He has six or seven assistant managers."
The name Clear Springs comes from the first store's central Texas location. The building "is actually in the town of Clear Springs," DeWitt said. "It was a dance hall built in 1874. George Strait played there. It was all the beer you could drink plus George Strait for $3." The first Clear Springs restaurant opened in 1985. But Richard was only getting started.
DeWitt is enamored with the Gruene River Grill location. "It is just a really neat building," he said, "right over the Guadalupe River. It opened up with the same menu you now see at Auntie Pasta's. Over the years it changed to something entirely different, American eclectic. or American Italian."
Nacogdoches came along next, taking the space that had been a grocery warehouse and a popular operatic-themed restaurant, Rossini's. "We had the Nacogdoches restaurant open for several years before we actually moved back," DeWitt said, "But that's why I did it, so I could get back to Nacogdoches."
Midland was the enterprise's first from-the-ground-up building in 1992, with a similar concept in Tyler to follow.
Multiple locations might sound like a chain, but DeWitt insists it is not. "It is a family owned restaurant," he said. "I think a chain has to be a little longer."
At Clear Springs, there are also several famous taste bud tantalizers that patrons savor.
"Our catfish is from Greenville, Mississippi," DeWitt said. The massive onions for the big, breaded onion rings are "Texas 1015s, when available."
To make the popular rings, Clear Springs goes through "hundreds of onions per day," Niuman said. For customers watching meals come out of the kitchen, the plate "is a real head-turner," he said. The Texas-sized orders use two or three of the super-colossal onions. "They look like the size of your head - at least a softball or better," Niuman laughed.
Richard and Barbara credit the people who work day in and day out to make the restaurants successful.
"Your business is run by your employees," Richard said. "It is not your recipes. It is the employees who make you successful. We have basic plans we go by. They make sure it happens every day."
In return, Niuman sees DeWitt as equally important. "He's Boss-Dad," Niuman said. "He's a father figure to us all. I have learned a lot from him and I look up to him."
The family atmosphere of the restaurants is a touchstone.
"I try to carry that on for our new employees," Niuman said. "When I'm doing interviews I will say we are one big family. That shows to our guests. We get along well and work together well. But we all know when it is time to get down to work. It helped me through school, and the same for my wife. There have been a lot of long-term friendships, relationships and marriages."
After 30 years, a hurricane and thousands of onions, the restaurant keeps making special towns in Texas all the more special.
The Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce 94th Annual Meeting and Membership Banquet begins at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 29, in the SFA Grand Ballroom. The 2015-2016 board of directors will be inducted and award recipients will be recognized.
The 2015 Citizen of the Year and the Gary Justice Business Excellence Awards recipients are:
Grace Handler, Citizen of the Year - award sponsored by Tipton Ford, Inc.
Shelley's Bakery Cafe, Small Business of the Year - award sponsored by Heritage Land Bank.
Mast Motorsports, Medium Business of the Year - award sponsored by Regions Bank.
Clear Springs Restaurant and Auntie Pasta's, Large Business of the Year - award sponsored by R&K Distributors, Inc.
Bronze sponsorships are available for $750 and include corporate recognition and seating for eight or nine. Individual admission tickets are available for $40. Contact the Chamber at 936-560-5533 for reservations. Seating is limited, and the reservation deadline is Sept. 16.