Mixin’ Food, Love, Fitness, and Business

By Courtenay Verret – November 5, 2013
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

What do you get when you combine high-end customer service with a love of simple, healthy food? For restaurateurs Amy and Sam Ramirez, this mix created the Blue Dahlia Bistro. Since its opening on Austin’s east side in 2007, the Blue Dahlia has wowed customers with its attention to detail, outstanding service, and simple—yet elegant—food, all at an affordable price. Throw in the owners’ passion for fitness and sense of fun, and the results are a uniquely Austin recipe for success.

Opening Doors

The Blue Dahlia was Amy Quinn’s brainchild, conceived seven years ago after the newly single 30-year-old took a leap of faith and quit her jobs in New York City as a part-time model and flight attendant. “I had a house here [in Austin] and an apartment back in New York City, and it started to be that every time I left Austin to go back to work, I’d start crying,” she reminisced. “Austin just felt like this beautiful, healthy city…I finally got to the point where I sat with a friend and we had this conversation: ‘I’m going to do what feels best for me, with nothing in my wallet, and just take this leap of faith that I’m going to make whatever the next step is for me work.’ I didn’t know what that [next step] was at all.”

As luck would have it, though, the next step didn’t take long to present itself. Only three days later, a friend called Amy to say that the Dandelion Cafe on East 11th Street was going up for sale, and that she should consider opening her own place. Although she had no culinary skills to speak of and no background in the restaurant business, Amy was intrigued by the idea: “I thought, ‘That’s cool; I could do that.’ Make really pretty dishes that are really healthy…just this coffee shop-type place.”

Amy set to work creating a business plan and seeking out investors. Three women were interested in financially supporting her business, and her friend (the same one who’d planted the restaurant seed) introduced her to Sam Ramirez, a 50-year-old widower and owner of a successful drilling company. Sam, having just gone through some recent personal changes of his own, was interested in a new venture, and so Amy set up a meeting over coffee for all of the potential investors. “I’m all excited and I’m pitching this idea, and these three women are all so involved,” described Amy. “Meanwhile, Sam’s just sitting there…quiet and stoic the whole time. I walked out of the meeting going, ‘Oh my God, he hates me.’”

Actually, however, Sam didn’t “hate” Amy or her idea. He requested a second meeting and ultimately decided to come on board. “Ironically,” he laughed, “I was the only investor.” With the paperwork signed, the two plunged elbows deep into their new project, taking on much of the renovation work themselves. Amy had no prior construction experience but quickly proved herself as a hard worker; Sam was a construction veteran with access to the necessary equipment, thanks to his drilling business. “We had a lot of work to do and there was nobody else to do it,” he explained. “I really wasn’t supposed to be actively involved in building the restaurant, but I saw that [doing so] would be very beneficial because I had the tools, the Bobcat, and the time.”

As the weeks ticked by, the restaurant slowly began to take shape, but Sam and Amy’s hard work also had an unexpected payoff: After spending long hours together, day after day, the two began to realize that they liked each other. A lot. “We started working on the backyard of Blue Dahlia together,” said Amy. “He’d come in his work gear and be twirling tools and looking like a total man–beast.” Looking back, Sam jokingly noted that, “If there had been other investors, we might not be sitting here [as a married couple] right now.”

“That’s true,” Amy agreed. “We spent so much time making Blue Dahlia happen that—”

“That’s how we got to know each other,” finished Sam.

The couple loves to argue (good naturedly) about how, exactly, their relationship finally came to be. There’s a fun story about Amy tilling up the Blue Dahlia’s backyard with the Bobcat, which made Sam look at her in a whole new light (“He liked the fact that I was able to get down and dirty,” joked Amy). There were misunderstandings straight out of a romantic comedy—like the time Amy thought they were on a date, but Sam ended up ignoring her the whole evening and got into his car without saying goodbye (“I had invited her along as a business/nice thing to do,” Sam defended). Despite their differing opinions on what finally brought them together, the one thing these two agree upon is the fact that “she chased me,” asserted Sam.

“I did; I chased him,” laughed Amy. “…I finally texted him one day and said, ‘Hey let’s go to dinner.’ And he didn’t text back. And I remember going, ‘Oh man, I just screwed that business situation up.’ The next day, I get this message back and he was like, ‘Ok.’”

Sam admitted that he was initially unsure whether to pursue a relationship with Amy because of their business circumstances—as well as their 20-year age difference. “I was terrified,” he said. “I had never been in that position before. It’s like the old Groucho Marx saying: ‘I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.’ I figured it was too good to be true. But, she was tenacious, so she finally convinced me it was worth a shot.”

By the time the Blue Dahlia Bistro opened its doors on East 11th Street in July 2007, the two were a full-fledged couple. While excited about their new romance, Amy was—or so she thought—clear about their future: “I had always thought marriage was just a piece of paper,” she explained. “The day before we opened [the restaurant], I just remember sitting on the front porch with him and saying, ‘This is great; I really think you’re awesome. But wherever this is going to go, I don’t believe in marriage.’” And yet, in spite of this staunch assertion, there was something about Sam that eventually changed Amy’s mind. A year later, the two were married on Sam’s ranch in San Marcos in front of their family and closest friends. “I don’t know what changed my mind,” she admitted. “With Sam, it just felt different.” The couple celebrated their nuptials with a pig roast, jump castle, swimming pool, and homemade moonshine—all testaments to their informal and fun-loving style. “It was one of the funnest weddings I’ve ever been to,” reminisced Sam.

Working the Details

Meanwhile, the Blue Dahlia Bistro—with its cozy, European vibe and simple plates of fresh, healthy food—was generating buzz around town, earning the reputation of being a classy yet affordable place to dine. “I had traveled all throughout Europe, so I knew the feeling of European cafes,” Amy noted. “I like things that are beautifully simple; I think that’s how food should be.” In alignment with that belief, Amy and Sam extended this simplicity to the restaurant décor: Communal wooden tables; soft, romantic lighting; and carefully selected stones in the restroom sinks are all Blue Dahlia trademarks. Their lush outdoor patios are pleasant (even in warmer weather) and local artwork adds to the ambiance; there are even live musicians on certain nights. But, as they say on the restaurant’s website, “We’re more than just a pretty place!” Sam and Amy also created a mission statement for the business that went beyond surface appearance to a bedrock of beautiful practices. In addition to using organic and local products whenever possible, Blue Dahlia participates in composting with East Side Compost Peddalers, supports a wide variety of community nonprofits (museums, sports teams, and youth groups, among others), and strives to “maintain a high quality of attitude, fairness, understanding and generosity with our staff, our customers, our vendors and the local community.”

Despite a fabulous atmosphere and great business ethics, a restaurant’s success ultimately comes down to the food. Many of the Blue Dahlia’s dishes are family and friend originals—for example, the recipe for their decadent bread pudding was passed down by Amy’s best friend’s great-grandmother; Sam’s mother’s calabacitas stew is an all-time fall favorite; and their colorful salads were inspired by Amy and her former roommate’s kitchen experiments. The restaurant is especially known for its French tartines (open-faced sandwiches) that are served beautifully arranged on slate boards that Sam and Amy cut themselves. “Because we had that as one of our main entrées on the menu, people started to classify us as ‘French,’ so I kind of just went with that [theme],” said Amy. Today, she continued, the restaurant boasts many dishes of French origin, but with a Blue Dahlia twist: “For example: Coq au vin is usually made with red wine, but I said, ‘We’re going to do this Blue Dahlia-style with white wine and mushrooms.’” Since the restaurant purchases ingredients from local farms whenever possible, daily specials (like their watermelon gazpacho and peach cobbler) are often built around what’s in season.

If there’s another thing the Blue Dahlia is known for, it’s their bread—what some would say is the most important staple of any European meal. Sam and Amy sampled many options before choosing their supplier. “We spent a lot of time going around Austin just trying to find good, fresh bread,” said Sam. The two finally settled on Chuy’s Panaderia, and they’ve recently added the “classic French baguettes” from Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden to their menu. To further augment their French authenticity, the dough for their chocolate croissants is imported from France and baked fresh at the Blue Dahlia every morning.

Nailing the restaurants’ service component was especially important to Amy and Sam. Drawing from Amy’s background as a flight attendant for EOS Airlines (the now defunct luxury carrier), they established a customer experience designed to please Blue Dahlia’s patrons and exceed their expectations. “One of the things that I was taught at our airline was to call every customer a ‘guest.’ It’s like having someone come into your home…That’s part of what I feel lends itself to the intimacy here,” said Amy. “We don’t serve anything [on the menu] that’s crazy fancy, but you can come in here and have healthy food and really amazing service. You pay attention to the details.”

Each year, Sam and Amy travel to Europe for “research” purposes, gathering inspiration from the places they visit and the food they sample. “Every time we go, we bring something back,” said Amy, adding that she feels “gratified” when she sees the concepts she has tried to incorporate into the Blue Dahlia’s food and atmosphere on display in European cafes.

The couple believes that combining tasty fare, great service, and reasonable prices is well received in Austin, which is one of the reasons why the Blue Dahlia has been named “Best Cheap Date” for three consecutive years in the Austin Chronicle’s “Best of Austin” poll. During the recent “Best of Austin” awards ceremony, the gentleman who presented Sam and Amy with their certificate mentioned that he “felt classy” every time he ate at their restaurant. “That, to me, is the essence of what we are,” emphasized Amy. “And it’s accessible to everybody. You’ll have the hipster sitting next to the two little old ladies, [who are] sitting next to the business guys, [who are] sitting next to the people who just got out of the yoga class.” Throw in a U.S. congressman and some world-famous musicians, and you’ll complete the picture of the Blue Dahlia’s diverse customer demographic.

Finding Fun in Fitness

With the day-to-day stresses of managing a business, it would be easy to assume that Amy and Sam have little time for extra-curricular activities: Not so. Amy is a fitness enthusiast who is self-admittedly unable to pursue any activity at anything less than “full force.” She enjoys challenging herself and, over the years, she’s taken on several impressive endeavors. Harboring a love for full-contact sports, Amy once trained at world-famous Gleason’s boxing gym in Brooklyn, New York. She picked up the sport again in 2007 at Austin Boxing Babes and ultimately landed at Lord’s Gym, training under champion and gym owner Richard Lord* and Anissa “The Assassin” Zamarron (junior flyweight). Two years later, acting on her desire to “take things to the next level,” Amy began to train for Austin’s 2010 Golden Gloves tournament; she whipped her body into competition-ready shape in only four short months. “I fought welterweight, which (for women) is 140-147 pounds—I was 141,” she recalled. “I fought a girl from Austin Boxing Babes and I lost, but I don’t care! [Competing] was the most amazing experience!” Now at age 37, Amy’s considering a return to the Golden Gloves in 2014, thanks to a recent ruling that raised the tournament’s age limit to 40.

Shortly after competing in boxing, Amy was inspired by an excursion with Sam to the rodeo. With little previous experience to speak of, she decided to try her hand at horseback riding, first competing in English Saddle (winning several blue ribbons) and then moving on to barrel racing (“because I wanted to go fast!”). As if her fitness portfolio wasn’t diverse enough, in November 2012, Amy trained for and competed in the Texas State Natural Championships (a local bodybuilding competition), which she jokingly refers to as “a science experiment of my mental and physical state.” Preparing for the two events—the Bikini C class (for women over 5’6”) and the Masters Bikini division (women 35 and older)—required adherence to a very strict diet and working out twice a day—challenging under any circumstances, but especially difficult while trying to run a business. Amy built exercise time with trainer Joey Trombetta of HEAT Bootcamp into her busy schedule and planned her meals in advance, carrying them around in plastic containers so they’d be available whenever she was ready “to feed.” “I wanted the challenge,” she said. “I felt like I couldn’t do it, which made me want to go out and say, ‘I can do this.’”

When it comes to being supportive, Sam would argue, “I’m not the cheerleader type.” Whatever the terminology, Sam has provided unwavering support for each of Amy’s athletic endeavors: He’s woken up with her at 4 a.m. to drive to the boxing gym; he’s attended all of her competitions; and he even followed the same “crazy” diet while she prepared for the Texas State Naturals. No physical slouch himself, Sam is an avid runner and surfer; he also rowed recreationally through the Austin Rowing Club on a team called “crewÜ.” He has been known to bring (sometimes drag) Amy along on his runs (“I hate running!” she admitted), and the two enjoy taking trips to coastal areas to surf.

Making the time to participate in the activities they enjoy is important to the Ramirezes, and, whenever possible, they try to incorporate that sense of fun among their staff through team-building and social events. They are quick to brag on their “stellar” employees: “We love our staff,” said Amy. “That’s one of the most amazing things [about the Blue Dahlia Bistro] that makes it special, is our staff.”

Sam agreed: “They’re committed to making this a place you want to come. They’re very proud of where they work.”

Continuing to Grow

Sam has a favorite saying: “When the shark stops swimming, it suffocates.” Though the Blue Dahlia could rest on its laurels, the Ramirezes are continuing to stretch. In June 2012, they opened a second Blue Dahlia location in Westlake, hoping to fill a niche they saw in that community. They more recently launched a catering service, and their sights are set on opening a third restaurant—“eventually.”

The couple works as a team to tackle the day-to-day responsibilities of running two restaurants: Amy handles the staff, the menus (with input from Sam), and food vendors, while Sam takes care of maintenance and physical aesthetics. Although they couldn’t be more pleased with the Blue Dahlia’s rise to success, Sam and Amy have never felt as though their work was done. They have been cautious in their growth, unwilling to compromise on the level of detail for which they have become known. “I’m still not breathing a sigh of relief,” laughed Sam. “I have to think that any business owner—regardless of the business—the moment they breathe a sigh of relief, they’re not trying anymore.” For Amy and Sam Ramirez, not trying is simply not an option.

Amy Ramirez Shares a Boxing Workout
Here’s what Amy Ramirez, co-owner of the Blue Dahlia Bistro and fitness enthusiast, gave as a “pretty normal workout” while she was preparing for the Golden Gloves here in Austin.

Warm-up with 10 minutes jumping rope

3 rounds* of shadow boxing 3 rounds working mitts with trainer 5 rounds on heavy bag 3 rounds on speed bag

3 sets of 25 ab exercises with medicine ball

In addition: Run 5 miles 4-5 times a week in the morning Incorporate weight training at the end of the workout at least 4 times a week, each day focusing on arms, legs, back, or shoulders

* rounds = 3 minutes with 1 minute rest between


Making Slate Boards: DIY Blue Dahlia Style Artful presentation can make even the humble cheese sandwich look like a million bucks. While the Blue Dahlia’s signature tartine (an open-faced sandwich) needs no hard sell, you’re likely to take note of its beautiful arrangement. A key component of that presentation rests just beneath your bread in the form of a weathered slate board.

Sam and Amy Ramirez, co-owners of the Blue Dahlia, cut those slate boards themselves. They were seeking an alternative to their original handcrafted wooden serving boards; although beautiful, they could not withstand the daily wear and tear of restaurant use. Sam came up with the idea to purchase slate wholesale and cut it themselves. The couple found that the soft stone shaped easily into curved edges and held up well in the dishwasher. In fact, the more the slates were used, the deeper the color and richer the patterns became. Soon, customers began asking if they could purchase the boards for themselves.

Cutting the Blue Dahlia’s slate boards is a fun and messy garage project that both Sam and Amy call “a blast.” There’s a constant flow of water to keep the wet saw’s blade cool; slate is also prone to spall, which means that small pieces of the porous stone break free and create dust. That combination results in the two often covered in mud by the end of an afternoon of slate board prep. The mess is all part of the fun, and the joy that goes into cutting these boards is a key component of that personal touch the couple works so hard to instill in the Blue Dahlia.

Interested in creating your own slate boards for those special dining moments this holiday season? 
Here are some tips AFM collected to help you with that DIY project.

How to use a wet saw

Tips on cutting slate

Step-by-step from report from EatFoo blogger David Barzelay




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