Sarah McIntosh is the owner and executive chef of Épicerie, a neighborhood cafe, bakery, and bar that opened in 2012. This interview was conducted at the end of 2023 and has been edited for length and clarity.

When I was growing up in Shreveport in the nineties, there were these little groceries everywhere that were also restaurants, like Maxwell’s Market and Cush’s Grocery & Market, or Stein’s Deli in New Orleans. I don’t know if it’s that common anymore, but that was on my mind when I opened Épicerie. The space was small, just sixty-five seats, in a converted house with a courtyard in a north-central Austin neighborhood, but we designed the dining room with shelves along two walls, with packaged specialty foods and wines, and a cheese case in the back. I cooked and we also made and sold pastries, jams, pickles, pâtés, and rilletts to go. The restaurant menu was eclectic—lots of Louisiana influences, obviously.  

We did really well, and the first year was amazing. Then I got pregnant. My husband and I had our first child in 2014, and after that, things got harder. In 2016 our second child was born. I wanted to do all the things that moms do, and I also wanted the restaurant to grow—to be more polished, to have more finesse. But there just wasn’t enough time. To be truthful, I was sort of holding on for dear life.

And then, at the beginning of 2020, the pandemic happened. There would be days when we would barely have twenty customers all day long. And they were on edge. The way people conversed was completely different. Everyone had a barrier: Don’t come inside my bubble; stay away from me. I had gone into the restaurant industry to be hospitable, to create an environment for people to talk and have fun, and I couldn’t do that anymore.

A bit of Franklin BBQ's smoked brisket is rolled up in Épicerie's croissant dough.
A bit of Franklin Barbecue’s smoked brisket rolled up in Épicerie’s croissant dough. Sara Gordon/Épicerie
A prepared croissant before baking.
A prepared croissant before baking. Sara Gordon/Épicerie

I had no idea what was going to happen, but now, ironically, I had plenty of time to think about it. So one of the things that I began to think about was pastries, especially croissants. We had made French pastries all along, and they were popular, but I wasn’t real happy with the product. I thought, “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it. It could be our thing.” And so I got really obsessive—which happens to be a path that I love.

I began thinking about croissants all the time, and it wasn’t long before I was making them every day. I would make them at the restaurant; I would make them at home. I would test different times for proofing the dough, different times and temperatures for baking. There were so many variables, like dough temperature, for instance. You really need to keep the temperature of the dough below 58 degrees, so the butter doesn’t soften. We ended up freezing the flour, and in fact everything except the butter. Even our liquids were icy. The dough needed to rest for an hour at room temperature, and you didn’t want it to get past 60 degrees.

Then there was fermentation time, which produces flavor. But for how long? I would put the dough in the walk-in cooler for eight, twelve, fifteen hours, trying to decide which time produced the best flavor.

And butter. For laminated pastries, which is what a croissant is, you need a high butterfat content. We ended up with this butter from France with 83 percent butterfat—most American butter is about 80 percent. It’s a fabulous product that subtly changes flavors throughout the year. The dairy is by the ocean, and in the winter, it has this nice, light salty flavor because the cows are eating salty grass. In the spring, they’re eating the flora on the mountain, and it tastes different.

Every single element was something to work on. Daily humidity could affect how much liquid we used. Flour was crucial, and it seemed like I was always chasing down a different one. I would find the perfect flour, and the next time I ordered it, the company would be out of stock.

Trying to be perfect was a never-ending process that made a huge difference; the pastries got better, and it lifted my spirits. And then a completely random thing happened that made even more of a difference: in 2015 our oldest daughter ended up at a day care center where Aaron and Stacy Franklin—who own Franklin Barbecue, here in Austin—had also enrolled their daughter.

I was barely involved in the restaurant community at all then, because I just hadn’t had time to socialize. But during the pandemic, as we got to know each other better through day care, the two of them became our first real restaurant friends. They were part of our pod.

Aaron and I could relate because he’s a perfectionist like me, always tinkering with cooking times and temperatures, but Stacy was the one I could talk to about personal things. There are not a lot of women with small children who are restaurant owners. She understood what was going on with me. I felt, finally, someone hears me. My husband and I would be at their house all the time—well, when the restaurants were closed—laughing, eating, drinking negronis. In fact, Aaron is the one who got me to be serious about cocktails and that inspired us to start a bar program. The “Negroni AF” on the menu—that’s named for him.

He was also the inspiration for one of our really successful new products: the brisket croissant, which we first served during football season in 2022 and then again last year. It’s filled with just a little bit of shredded Franklin smoked brisket, a dab of cream cheese, and chopped candied jalapeños. We don’t make them all the time, just as an occasional special, but people seem to love them.

I’m really happy with the direction the restaurant is going now—something that seemed impossible not that long ago. We have an amazing chef de cuisine, Steven Rodriguez, who was formerly with Emmer & Rye. He is helping me come up with new dishes like gnocchetti with oyster mushrooms and fresh goat cheese and this wonderful roasted butternut squash with toasted pumpkin seeds. Our general manager, Katie Paschall, who previously worked with Hestia, is a level two sommelier with a serious coffee and tea background. She has started a daily tea service from Spirit Tea, this small, high-quality importer, and it’s been crazy how much people enjoy it. We’ll do it anytime somebody wants it, either hot or cold. And, of course, our pastry program is bigger than ever.

As for the long term, I have this new idea: walk-up coffee windows that also sell pastries at various places around town. Imagine: Franklin brisket croissants all over Austin. Wouldn’t that be amazing?