Dallas barbecue restaurateur Sonny Bryan gave Warren Clark three pieces of advice about going into the restaurant business.
“First, don’t open up anywhere near me,” said James Hilliard, quoting Bryan. “Don’t open in a small town. And third, don’t go into the restaurant business.” Clark followed Bryan’s advice on point number one. But Clark went through with his dream of opening a restaurant. And he did it in a small town to boot, opening Clark’s Outpost in Tioga in 1974.
Under Clark’s ownership, the restaurant became known throughout the area for its barbecue. Years later, Hilliard — one of Clark’s original employees — took over ownership of the restaurant and continued the tradition.
A fire in January 2016 forced Hilliard out of business, but he promised to rebuild. He made good on the promise, reopening the new Clark’s Outpost last week.
Getting Cark’s reopened meant navigating a tedious course through government red tape, Hilliard said. He used to own the restaurant with partner Steve Gressett before buying him out.
The restaurant reopened June 28, south of its old spot, at 103 S. Ray Roberts Parkway. Sixteen people work at the restaurant. The fire was caused by some faulty electrical wiring. Insurance had been fair in paying the claim, Hilliard said. The restaurant is famous for its slow-cooked barbecue and has attracted celebrities and food industry luminaries through the decades. Hilliard said he filed for a building permit in March 2016 and had to deal with new zoning regulations.
“The city changed the zoning for the downtown area, including this lot to C3, which is a historical district,” Hilliard said, explaining he had to appear the planning and zoning commission and city council four times apiece. But city of Tioga officials did everything they could to help him. Business owners also have to cope with many state regulations, Hilliard is quick to point out. “I was shooting for Jan. 1,” he said about the reopening date during an interview at lunch hour on June 30. “I went from Jan. 1 to March 1, and when I was first started, I was shooting July 1.”
He hit that target. Construction began before Christmas, and employees spent months cleaning bricks with an air hose. The restaurant has walls festooned with the building’s original bricks; the building dates to 1897. Twenty-three of the 43 branding irons were salvaged from the restaurant. Ten of the branding irons are missing. Photos and antiques were lost in the fire, although Hilliard said that some photos were reproduced. Hilliard said he would like to have a covered patio outside and a drive-through window. A stage for musical performances also is planned. Clark, who died in December 1997 at age 73, opened the restaurant in March 1974. “He knew a lot of the horse people who lived in this area,” Hilliard said. “He had been through Tioga. He owned a bunch of property of what is now downtown Frisco.
He basically traded it out for 63 acres and a house up here. … He preferred to be in the country than the city.” Hilliard and his partner, Steve Gressett, took over the restaurant after Clark died in 1997 and his wife Nancy ran it for a few years after his death. She eventually sold it to Gressett and Hilliard.
“It’s where I met my wife back in ’76,” Hilliard said, referring to Kim, in a previous Post-Signal interview. “If it hadn’t been for the restaurant, I wouldn’t have my wife, my kids, my grandkids. “It’s not just what I do; it’s a part of me.” Hilliard started as a dishwasher in the restaurant shortly after it opened in 1974 and later was named manager of the restaurant. He hired Gressett in 1982. Clark was born in Oklahoma and attended high school in Arkansas. In Arkansas, his uncle had “an old wooden shack where they smoked meats” and Warren’s ambition was to mimic those flavors when he opened Clark’s Outpost. “As a boy, he worked as a special courier for the post office, (riding) a bicycle,” Hilliard said. Clark was went to college and served in the military during World War II, and after the war, he worked on oil rigs with his uncle. Clark’s father and uncle were wildcatters, Hilliard said. Later, Clark eventually got involved in the radio business, serving as a disc jockey for a few years and putting his deep baritone voice to use. After a few years in radio, he became a salesman for the Apparel Mart in Dallas, Hilliard said.
Hilliard said he wants to carry on the vision Clark had for the restaurant, which was providing good food and friendly service. The current, temporary menu has too many items, Hilliard said, and he will make changes. “I know that people are mad at me because I don’t have the chocolate pie or apple pie or the coconut pie, but I can’t do everything at once,” he said. “It’s all stuff that I’m going to have to slowly add back in. It’s going to take a year or two to get back to where we were.”
He also had to grapple with losing personnel over the last year and half, too. But he remains optimistic about the future. “A relief,” Hilliard said when he asked to describe the reopening, moments before he had to get back to work. “Nervousness and anxiousness are still there. It’s going to take a while before we get our feet back under us. Also there’s been a lot of excitement and a lack of sleep.”