Tuesday, June 6, 2023 Jun 6, 2023
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BUSINESS Chicken-Fried Success

In October, Gene Street and Phil Cobb discovered that Black-eyed Peas are worth their weight in gold. And the rest is gravy.
By Sally Giddens |

Remember the last scene in the movie Trading Places’? Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd have just made the fortune of a lifetime in the commodities market. The camera lets the audience into their dream come true, swooping down over the blue Caribbean past Aykroyd on his yacht to Murphy relaxing on the beach with a beautiful babe. Murphy is about to help make the most important decision of this day: what to have for lunch, cracked crab or lobster? They’ll have both, of course.. ..

Dallas restaurateur-turned-millionaire Gene Street may be struggling with the same tough decision right this moment-only his dream-come-true scene is playing out in Maui at a recently acquired home. Street and his partner Phil Cobb made a fortune in commodities-sort of, if chicken-fried steak and cream gravy count-when they sold their Prufrock Restaurants chain (the Black-eyed Pea, Dixie House) in October to a division of Unigate PLC, a British conglomerate, for more than $45 million.

When it comes to future lunches, Street will be opting for the seafood, too: “I signed a non-compete clause that I won’t ever eat chicken-fried steak again,” he jokes,

The eccentric Street, who once won a bet from employees who thought he couldn’t go a year without a haircut, plans to expand his collection of Hawaiian shirts and work on his tan. Meanwhile, back in Dallas, Cobb, one of this city’s more laid-back entrepreneurs (dressing up for work once meant wearing clean jeans), is toying with the corporate ladder. As part of the deal with Unigate, Cobb has promised to stick around for a year or so and help run the company, and he’s excited about it. (He’s coming to work early on Mondays in a suit and tie, and he actually looks comfortable with and quite dapper in his corporate uniform. Cobb’s sixty-five Hawaiian shirts are in semi-retirement.)

“I don’t want to play tennis and golf, and I don’t want to go out and create a new restaurant concept,” Cobb says. “I’ve done that. I get more of a charge out of improving and expanding the Black-eyed Peas. I want to see how a really big company works; I want to see what they do with us.”

It’s been eleven years since Cobb and Street left jobs as salesmen (Cobb for Harris Corporation selling printing presses and Street for the Maremont Corporation pushing automotive parts) to start Prufrock.

“It’s going to be hard for Gene and me,” Cobb says. Parting, even in a deal sweetened by $45 million, is tinged with sorrow. “We own these son of a bitches-we’ve been saying that for eleven years . . .”

“When we started this, I never thought this could happen. It was started on a lark,” Street says. “I just sold a major part of my life; it’s like selling a kid.”

But, of course, kids grow up, and Street and Cobb began feeling the growing pains about a year ago. During a decade, Prufrock expanded from one neighborhood bar and restaurant, J. Alfred’s (from their favorite poem, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), to a chain including thirty-seven restaurants in Texas, five in Oklahoma, and licensed franchises in Colorado and Tyler. Annual sales had reached $47.5 million. It was time to move-they just didn’t know the hows, wheres, or whats. So they started with the image. Prufrock has always been a casual kind of company, operating out of a comfortable old building in Oak Lawn just down the street from the original location of J. Alfred’s. (It’s now another Street/Cobb establishment, the Wine Press.) But a year ago, Cobb and Street moved Prufrock into a high-tech office building on McKinney Avenue. With all of the corporate trappings-conference room, reception area, clear glass doors with chrome fixtures, and cushy carpet (gray, of course)-the not-so-little company began to look the part. At the same time, they hired an investment banking firm, Alex Brown & Sons out of Baltimore.

“We saw at that time that we weren’t just a funky little home-grown company anymore. We needed to go one way or the other,” Cobb says. That meant either sell, or go public.

It didn’t take Cobb, Street, or the investment banking firm long to figure out that going public was not the ticket. They found out fast they weren’t going to like living in a fishbowl with shareholders and analysts peering in at them. (“Let’s just put it this way, going public was not going to fit our lifestyle,” Cobb says.) So, Alex Brown & Sons started fishing, and there were quite a few bites. Then some big fish started nibbling at the Prufrock bait, among them The Pillsbury Company and Unigate.

“It’s almost scary how fast it all worked out,” Cobb says. “When we got into this, it became pretty obvious to Gene and me that if we were going to do this, we needed to do the deal before December 31 for tax reasons. It would have cost us a minimum of 8 percent more to do it in January. The company that was going to move the fastest was clearly going to be the winner in this case.”

The fastest mover, it turned out, was not necessarily the largest or most efficient corporate power. It came down to personalities and egos, those of the three principals involved in the deal: Street, Cobb, and the chairman and CEO of Unigate. John Clement. Early on, while the bobber was just making tiny circles in the pool, Cobb let it be known that he didn’t think the British could move fast enough because, you know, they’re British and all.

“That got back to John Clement. And he got on the Concorde and came to Texas. He went to twenty-eight Black-eyed Pea restaurants in three days. He ate in a lot of them,” Cobb says.

During those three days, Cobb and Street tried to keep close track of Clement. Playing a little game, they’d try to find out where Clement was going, then contact the restaurant and ensure a peak performance. It must have worked.

“He went to Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City. He went to Denver. He still talks about how dirty the floors were in Denver. Then he came back to Dallas and we gave him the tour of the office,” Cobb says.

The next day, the men met in a room at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. In his newly acquired, mock British accent, Cobb tells how the three of them “really hit it off, you know, you know.” In fewer than two hours, they sealed the deal with a handshake. Clement had never had a margarita, so Street and Cobb, who have had a few, ordered a pitcher to the room. Two pitchers later, everybody was happy.

That day, Cobb headed back to the office, enthusiastic about the opportunities ahead. Street, ever quotable, tells his story best: “I walked out of a two-hour meeting at the Mansion, and I said, ’Gene, you sold too cheap. It didn’t take long enough.’ So I got in my Chevy and I tore off the rearview mirror. Then I got out, and I tore off the two side mirrors. And I handed them to the valet parker and I said, ’Friend, you can have these, ’cause from now on, I’m not looking back. But I’m a little worried about what’s ahead of me.’ “

What’s ahead looks pretty good from here. Street’s gone Hawaiian, but beneath all of that Woodstock-veteran hair, inside that creative head of his. he still has some restaurant concepts alive and growing. “I’m going with this Mother Mesquite concept (a Mexican-theme restaurant started here in Dallas that promises to become a chain], and after I take it easy for a while, I’m going to Sacramento and I’m going to eat my way to Tijuana where I’ll lose it all,” Street says. “Restaurant concepts seem to move from West to East these days.”

Cobb, gone corporate, is having just as good a time. He’s aglow with the power of a $2.6 billion corporation. He’ll be able to watch and participate in an expansion of the Black-eyed Pea chain that never could have happened without a Unigate. And he really likes working with Clement (“They call him farmer John the milkman because he was a farmer before Unigate bought his family’s dairy. Before he became CEO of Unigate. he was in the theatrical staging business; he set up rock ’n’ roll shows.”) and the idea of going to London several times a year on business.

Unigate has big plans for Prufrock, and Cobb, no doubt, will be a part of that. The company operates in three linked areas- food manufacturing and distribution, transport, and industrial services. Its United States acquisitions include Casa Bonita Incorporated of Dallas. Frigo Cheese of Wisconsin, and Gardenia Foods of Los Angeles. Prufrock is the company’s largest U.S. purchase to date.

Although Prufrock employees have probably felt the natural growing pains of acquisition (“What’s going to happen to my job?”), Cobb’s familiar and very happy face has eased some fears. He assures employees that the corporate ladder has just been extended for them, too.

“I’m going to be around. I don’t have another agenda.” he says. Cobb, who has spent the greater part of this decade blowing breath into and perennially resuscitating hopes for a return of the trolley car to McKinney Avenue, isn’t going to skip town before he sees those cars rolling daily. One of the first things he’s going to do with his new-found fortune is pay off a personal debt on the trolley barn that houses (he renovated trolley cars.

Although Cobb and Street seem to be turning their lifestyles in opposite directions, they have not totally parted ways. They still co-own the popular yuppie hangout SRO and the Wine Press. There’s some sentimentality attached to that original J. Alfred’s location. As Cobb explains it: “You gotta have a place to drink.”

And should I then presume? Perhaps when Cobb and Street, having measured out their lives in black-eyed peas, grow old . . . grow old . . . [and] wear the bottoms of [their] trousers rolled . . . they’ll still be going to the Wine Press. And over the trousers, they’ll probably be wearing Hawaiian shirts. That is, unless they’re wearing white flannel trousers [to] walk upon the beach . . .