Foodie Events / Restaurants

Fort Worth’s Curbside Restaurant Maestro — Jon Bonnell Looks Back at a Crazy Time in New Book

This Is No Cookbook — and 2020 Was No Ordinary Food Year

BY // 08.26.21

Chef Jon Bonnell is a homegrown success story. He grew up in Fort Worth and his family has deep roots here. The Vanderbilt University grad taught English before finding his true passion in the food world and enrolling in New England Culinary Institute. Bonnell has penned a few fabulous cookbooks as well. These include Jon Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine and Jon Bonnell’s Waters Fine Coastal Cuisine.

Now, the restaurateur has just published a new book, but you may be surprised by it.

“It’s not a cookbook,” Bonnell tells PaperCity Fort Worth. “There’s not one recipe in it.”

Carry Out, Carry On: A Year In The Life Of A Texas Chef, tells the story of the most unprecedented year any business owner has ever encountered, 2020, of course. Bonnell’s new book delves into the chaos the COVID pandemic inflicted on the restaurant industry and the sink or swim choice it left.

“It’s full of the sad, funny and tragic stories from the timeline — beginning with the closures of March 2020, until Governor Abbott lifted all indoor dining restrictions,” Bonnell says. “I started out wanting to chronicle this time for my kids.

“Perception is everything, and from their perspective, they were probably wondering why dad was at home all the time.”

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After all, restauranteurs rarely get nights off. When the world hunkered down, restaurant owners had to make a lot of gut-wrenching decisions.

“At both Water’s and Bonnell’s, we went from a staff of 261 to just 31 employees in a single day. And they didn’t do anything wrong,” Bonnell recalls of one of the lowest points.

“Then we sat down with the staff we had left, and the new restrictions we had to abide by, and began brainstorming what was even possible.”

Jon Bonnell, Curbside Pioneer

Bonnell and his team decided to push their fine dining formula to the side all together, and try to figure out how they could serve the most people for the least amount of money. They came up with a $40 family meal pack that could be placed in the backseat with a credit card swiped through a cracked window (as contactless as possible when so little was known about this deadly virus).

Jon Bonnell – folks learned to get in line early or go home empty handed
Folks learned to get in line early or go home empty handed.

“We decided not to bother trying to take orders (in advance),”  Bonnell says. “We didn’t have enough staff for that anyway. Our first attempt wasn’t pretty.”

Still, word of Bonnell’s $40 family meal packs spread like wildfire.

“Gooooood Mornin’ Quarntinees. . . tonight on the Bonnell’s Curbside menu,” became music to the ears of folks who had quickly tired of their own home cooking ― and I mean real quickly. Bonnell posted the menus on social media and the lines began to form along the Frontage Road to 183 Southwest Boulevard.

If you didn’t get in line by 3:30 pm, there was a good chance you’d leave empty handed and be stuck cooking supper for yourself. Again. People began arriving at 3 pm just to be safe. At one point the line of ravenous “Quarantinees” snaked all the way back to Hulen Street ― nearly 1.5 miles down the road.

With Bonnell one of the leaders in the Fort Worth restaurant industry, others took notice and began doing similar setups. And in true Jon Bonnell fashion, the chef offered up every trick he’d learned so far to help his fellow restauranteurs succeed at it.

“All the independents used social media to spread the word — and we each promoted each other,” Bonnell says. “That’s how we got through it.”

Jon Bonnell joined forced to promote other independents like MELT Ice Creams
Jon Bonnell joined forced to promote other independents like MELT Ice Creams.

“At Bonnell’s, the curbside model worked. At Water’s, it didn’t,” Bonnell says. “We were serving between 600 and 700 people a night with our curbside, more cafeteria style than fine dining.

“We ordered as much food as our walk-in coolers could hold, and found we could cook it all just fine. But the real trick was learning to get it portioned, packed and prepped for curbside delivery.”

When the safer at home orders subsided, the curbside pickup continued. Only the announcements shifted to “Goooood Mornin’ Frontage Roadster. . . tonight on the Bonnell’s Curbside menu.” Bonnell’s curbside service is still going strong five nights a week.

“We served 240 people tonight alone (not cars, people), and sold out in just 30 minutes,” Bonnell says of a Wednesday night crowd of Frontage Roadsters. As long as it’s still filling a need, this chef sees no reason to quit.

Bonnell was one of Fort Worth’s curbside meal pioneers. It’s fitting that his new book, Carry Out, Carry On, tells the story of last year’s wild ride and the pandemic pivot that kept many restaurants afloat. Including his own.

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