By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
BUDA – A Main Street business that deserved to become a venerable institution and won’t make it that far is soon to close its doors.
Richard Skanse, a retired El Paso police officer who has gifted Buda in his retirement with great hangouts, is finalizing the sale of Constantine’s. Skanse said he expects a new restaurant to open in its place on or before Sept. 1.
Constantine’s was starting to gain fairly wide repute for its excellent pizza and, as time went by, people started dropping in from some distance just to try it. But the restaurant business is tough enough without spending your whole life in an eight-square-foot hole between stoves and hot ovens, and Skanse was doing all of that.
Basically, we had a 58-year-old retired cop spending 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day frantically trying to keep up with orders or tending to every little detail of a restaurant and coffeehouse. Some retirement. The man wasn’t getting rich, and he needs a breath of air.
No one who has come through Buda has taken more risk and put in more work to socialize the town. Skanse gave Buda those ever valuable third places, which lie somewhere between the oppressive publicity of the workplace and the quiet privacy of home. Where would people like me and T.J. Higginbotham be without them?
Restaurants are great, but you can’t spend three or four hours in a restaurant writing essays or reading books. Some might let you, but it’s not good form. You really need coffeehouses, which have a great 500-year tradition as places for free, informative discussion and edification.
Skanse and his wife, Susie, came to Buda when their grown children ended up in the Austin area. Susie took a job teaching math at Akins High School while Skanse opened The Coffee Nut bookshop and coffeehouse on Railroad Street in late 2003. Skanse took the coffee seriously, he was always good for a dumb joke or wry remark, and the books could keep you busy.
Somewhere in there, he acquired 200,000 costume pieces and started displaying some of them in the coffeehouse around Halloween. He could have outfitted Paul Revere and the Raiders, a Renaissance dinner party or GWAR. The Railroad Street location was a little off the beaten path, so the place didn’t draw the foot traffic one likes around a coffee shop, but he cultivated a nice batch of regulars and a good place to kill a couple hours.
Later, Skanse was over-taken with the dream of his own restaurant. When Paul Peterson closed The Little Texas Bistro on Main Street to take a chef gig around Big Bend, Skanse swept in with his plans for a pizzeria. Man, did he ever bite off a lot.
Skanse invested tens of thousands of dollars bringing the space up to code and filling it with equipment before opening Constantine’s in the Fall of 2005. He developed a line of pizzas with no superior anywhere, though with lots of better patronized inferiors everywhere. He peppered the menu with salads, flatbread sandwiches and calzones (it’s really a stromboli, because it has sauce, but it doesn’t matter now).
At the start of this year, Skanse moved The Coffee Nut into Constantine’s, suddenly putting all of his goodies under one roof. At Constantine’s, one could sample any number of signature delights, like the Fungus Maximus (a portabello mushroom grilled with garlic), the Rebel Rouser (a drink made from iced coffee and ice cream), or the cinnamon roasted almonds, to say nothing of the coffee drinks and other staples.
We like to say that demography is destiny, and that’s probably what happened to Constantine’s. While Americans bemoan chain business homogenization, it remains that when they’re driving on the highway and see one sign for McDonald’s and another for Billy Bob’s Local Big Burger, they’ll go to McDonald’s because they know what they’re going to get. Buda is filling up with people who won’t try the local place because they aren’t curious about the town or don’t want to risk a dinner.
It’s also so much more difficult to open one’s own restaurant concept. Not only does one spend big money for equipment, but then he has to develop the menu, perfect the recipes and put the word out about his business. If you want to open a Domino’s, by contrast, you just pay the franchise fee, turn the key and the rest is laid out.
Skanse said the new owner is an Italian chef who specializes in pasta, tosses his own dough and makes his own pesto. It could be good, but it won’t be Constantine’s. It really won’t be Constantine’s, because Skanse is keeping the name.
Down the line, before too long, Skanse expects to open a small bookshop next door on Main Street. It won’t have coffee, just a couple stools. If he sells a lot of books, fine, and if he doesn’t sell a lot of books, that’s fine, too. At least he won’t spend all day under a hot oven.