If he could see it now, John Tucker would be pleased.
Not only is the hot dog and burger stand he opened seven decades ago still holding its own on the corner of Houston and Cherry streets, when Tucker’s Kozy Korner reopens Friday following weeks of renovations, the restaurant will look and feel a lot like it did back then, only better.
Local restaurateur Chris Cullum, who took over the Eastside favorite in 2014, sold Tucker’s this summer to barman Jeret Peña and his partners, The Boulevardier Group, better known for The Brooklynite, The Last Word, and Rumble.
Peña’s team, which includes his brother Jorel Peña, Rob Gourlay, and Steve Martín, closed the soul-food fixture in August and began giving the place a good polish. They changed out the carpet and installed new fencing along the outdoor patio, added more seating indoors and gave the bathrooms a much-needed facelift.
“We’re not tearing anything down, we’re not rebuilding, we’re just doing a cleanup job,” Peña told the Rivard Report when renovations began. But he has also been working with Chef Jeff White on a slightly different menu, one that offers the same comfort food regulars have come to expect at Tucker’s.
“It’s a bar, [and] we’re going to serve everything it has been serving, but we’ll have a small menu on a chalkboard,” Peña said. “Some people have been very adamant they did not want to see a cocktail menu, and as a group, we talked about it. Chris had cocktails there, so we’ll have a few and we’re going to execute them the way we do – put some great personality in there.”
Peña said he is also reviving live music at Tucker’s.
The opportunity to run a historic bar in San Antonio is a dream come true for Peña. “I think it’s a good opportunity to retell the Tucker’s story for the 21st century audience,” he said.
Born and raised in San Antonio, Peña was drawn to the bar business by tequila. Given the opportunity to attend a tequila seminar, he became an advocate of good sipping tequila. He went to work in 2007 for Partida Tequila as a bartender ambassador, the first in the state.
Peña later managed a French bistro, Le Midi, until Chris Hill asked him in 2011 to run the Esquire Tavern, where he was nominated for a prestigious James Beard Foundation Award.
“That’s what helped put me on a map and give me direction,” he said. “It’s been really crazy, because it’s been one opportunity after another that just paved its way to where I’m at.”
He saw himself as “just a regular bartender,” but as time progressed, he learned to love drinking cocktails as much as mixing them. His favorite is the boozy Negroni, an Italian cocktail of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, and it’s how he judges a bartender’s skill.
“Everyone associates me with great cocktails, but the truth is, I just love bartending. I love to engage with the customer, make him feel at home and offer great service. I guess I’m old school.”
From Hill, he learned how to manage an establishment, how to read profit-and-loss statements and do weekly inventory. “Without that experience, I didn’t think we would have been nearly as successful as we have been,” he said. “I think a lot of people open up bars because it’s fun. But there is the business aspect to it that a lot of people overlook.”
The father of three said his business fun these days comes from opening new places and working with his managers, creating new concepts and systems. Earlier in his career, Peña opened The Bar at Bohanan’s and, more recently, Stay Golden Social House, a short-lived bar at the Pearl.
Turning his attention to the Eastside with Tucker’s is a strategic business move, he said. Development has not grown as fast as he expected in the area of The Brooklynite, on Brooklyn Avenue in the River North neighborhood.
“But we’ve been looking at different markets, and the Eastside is definitely growing,” Peña said. “You have a lot more people moving into the area. … You have more apartment complexes being built. You have Alamo Brewery, St. Paul’s Square, all that stuff.”
So Peña has also teamed up with David Malley to open a second bar on the Eastside, the Cherrity Bar on Montana Street. Malley is an Eastside developer and owner of Cherrity.
Set to open later this fall in two former Victorian houses joined by decking, the bar is based on a similar concept founded in Houston known as OKRA Charity Saloon – the Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs, where a portion of the bar’s proceeds are donated to local charities. Since OKRA opened in 2011, it has raised almost $1 million for Houston charities.
At Cherrity, three San Antonio charities will be featured each month, with each getting a share of the profits. The charities will use their social media influence to encourage people to visit Cherrity and drive up their share. For every drink purchased, the customer will choose which nonprofit they want to support. The charity with the most tickets wins 60% of the month’s proceeds, the second place wins 30%, and the third 10%.
“So everyone’s going to win,” Peña said. “We’re working with SA2020 to vet all the nonprofits according to their 13 pillars that make up SA2020 goals. We’re choosing a different pillar each month.
“With the combination of working with SA2020 and our marketing team, we’re trying to bring as much business as we can to raise as much money as we can [for charity].”
The cocktail business success story, Peña said, lies in the fact that everyone thought it was a fad, but it clearly was not. “There are tons of bars open now, all making drinks, and there’s this dilution in the market. It’s not that cocktails are dead; it’s just reached its pinnacle. We are a victim of our own success.”
Last January, the sixth annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference that benefits children’s charities issued almost 10,000 tickets during the week-long event. Organizer Cathy Siegel said Peña was one of the original bar participants of the conference.
“San Antonio has a very tight-knit cocktail community,” Siegel said. “It’s a group of people who want to succeed independently and collectively, which I think is unique. Not every city can say that.”
Over at Tucker’s, Friday’s grand opening is also committed to working together and helping the community. Money raised from $5 admission tickets will benefit the San Antonio AIDS Foundation. Doors open at 4 p.m., and live music by Joshua K. Swensen and special guest DJ La PHDj of Chulita Vinyl club starts at 9 p.m.