Daring to Dream
Changing times and trends are the downfall of many businesses. But for the Dagar family of Austin, they are just a signal that it’s time to adapt. For over 65 years their flexible, market-savvy approach has maintained a viable family business, evolving from a small neighborhood brick-and-mortar to two broad-ranging catering operations.
In 1952, a booming postwar economy opened the door to the American Dream for many returning servicemen, including Fred Dagar, a first-generation Lebanese-Syrian American. He opened Dagar’s Café on Sixth Street, near bustling downtown. The American palate was not yet ready for ethnic offerings, so he served familiar down-home favorites with a focus on barbecue. From a gentleman in Bastrop, he learned how to build a pit, stoke a fire, and smoke meat to tender perfection. He built his own pit back on the alley behind that first location, and began creating his own secret rubs. Locals loved the food and the family atmosphere.
But by the mid 1970s, downtown traffic had declined. Fred’s son Albert persuaded his dad to move into catering by building relationships at UT and across town, and expanding the menu a bit. Albert’s daughter Kathryn Dagar-Albarado, who now runs the family business, says, “When you have a business you have to think long term. If the business just isn’t there, you have to make a choice.”
Old Austinites still reminisce about Dagar’s as a barbecue joint, but the family business is now 100% full-service catering. “We still do barbecue of course. However our rub remains a secret,” says Kathryn. “If you’ve worked here for years you may know the basic ingredients. But unless your last name is Dagar or you’ve been married into the family for at least 17 years like my husband, if you need more you have to come to me or my husband Frank to mix it up exactly according to recipe.”
Those early relationships have expanded to include the Thompson Conference Center at the LBJ Presidential Library (where Dagar’s has served national dignitaries including President Bill Clinton and Lady Bird Johnson), and local funeral homes for which they provide meals after services. Weddings and events of all types, public and corporate, large and small, round out the company’s calendar. Beyond their signature barbecue, Dagar’s can provide anything from small bites and appetizers to a prime rib meal. A recent wedding featured lemon basil chicken with sides. “Whatever a client wants, we do. As a full service caterer, you can’t be too niche. You have to be able to do everything,” Kathryn says.
And that attention to “everything” is what sets them apart in the local market. “For brick-and-mortars with catering as a side enterprise, you are subject to their primary onsite operation. Our concept of catering is not just food delivery. We take care of the customer’s every need, the whole kit and caboodle. Our price may be higher, but we take care of the client from the first guest who comes in the door to the last one to leave,” Kathryn says with pride.
That whole-package philosophy has inspired Kathryn’s latest business concept, DNA Events. They do not cater menus from their own kitchen, but instead procure and manage food from other providers, along with all the elements necessary to produce a seamless event. Floral services are done in-house, while staffing, bar service and rentals are coordinated from within an extensive and reliable network of third party providers. “We can also assist with any other event needs, such as venue, transportation, and entertainment. Basically, we’re here to provide the know-how and eliminate hiccups and headaches to make sure a client’s event is one-of-a-kind and stress-free,” Kathryn explains.
Performing at that level takes exceptional organization and coordination by Kathryn and her entire team, including front office and sales staff as well as the culinary team. “Every Monday at 10 a. m., whether it’s a holiday or not, we go over every single event from Tuesday to Tuesday, line by line. We can fix an issue on Monday, but we can’t fix it day of,” she says.
Also, Dagar’s sends logistics questionnaires to local venues, and responses are built into their data system to eliminate any surprises and ensure staff has what they need to execute an event in that location.
Beyond great food and attention to detail, Dagar’s Catering prides itself on dependability. Even in the days following family deaths, the Dagar team carried on without interruption. “People don’t care what’s going on in your life. When our building burned on a Thursday and we had three weddings on Saturday, what did we do? Rent a kitchen and equipment. I’ve towed a broken down truck to an event. Our job is to not have excuses. People want the problem solved and to be able to enjoy their event,” says Kathryn. “Catering is all about now. People want now—they don’t want two days from now.”
In this environment, Kathryn stresses the importance of prioritizing family and personal time. Vacation time and days off are treated with the same respect as any business commitment.
“I make sure there is one day of the week devoted to my family. Sunday is my day, no matter what,” she says. “As a business owner you have to do that so you don’t crazy.”
Her personal drive and a lifetime in the business definitely are among Kathryn’s key assets. But what has made the critical difference in tough times has been, she attests, “our family’s determination that ‘We will not fail.’ We’ve been through cycles of recession, and depression, fires and deaths. Many times we should have shut our doors. But we figured out another way.”