20110928-cover-0101Wednesday, September 28, 2011
By Leslie Turk
Photos by Robin May

The late Leebob Cox wanted Gabe Bako at the helm of his iconic restaurant, but a split with Cox’s children has the La Fonda veteran setting up his own Tex-Mex concept a half mile up Johnston Street.

“I recall the times when we were visited by celebrities — actor Paul Newman, daredevil Evil Knievel, and beauty queen Ali Landry. But even more important than the occasional celebrity were our loyal customers who came week after week, month after month, generation after generation, even to the fourth and fifth generations. All of these have contributed to the warm, happy spirit of La Fonda — a spirit that I hope will live on into the next generation, and beyond.”
— Leebob Cox, from his 2007 book, The Spirit of La Fonda

It was 1968 and Gabe Bako did not like his new job in Lafayette.

Bako had worked alongside his father at four-star Café Budapest in Boston since the age of 14, starting out as a dishwasher and working his way up to waiter. When he was 18, the Hungarian immigrant was drafted into the U.S. Army and by age 19 was a mess sergeant at Fort Polk, a job he held for about a year.

He’d really taken a liking to the restaurant business and Louisiana, so after his service was up and at the urging of his wife, Mary, he’d applied at La Fonda. Bako’s background made him a good fit for the busy Tex-Mex eatery, and founder Leebob Cox hired him on the spot.

But La Fonda was not his style. “I did not like the atmosphere, the rowdiness,” Bako says. Unbeknownst to his employer, he applied at Restaurant Normandy in Lafayette (now Blue Dog Café) and got the job. He had to make a quick decision, and again, it was Mary’s influence that convinced him to stick it out with La Fonda.

As soon as Bako made the commitment to stay and settled in to the boisterous scene, Leebob seemed to take a special interest in his young waiter. A few years later, Bako recalls, Leebob said he wanted to join Bako for lunch outside of the restaurant. “I was going to Jacob’s restaurant [at Four Corners] for lunch at 11 o’clock and I got home at 7 p.m.,” Bako says.

“We talked about business, life, future, what his plans were. We just talked for a long time,” Bako says. At that meeting, Leebob made it clear that he saw Bako in La Fonda’s future. The young waiter was flattered; Leebob would soon after choose Bako to help him with the hosting duties.

20110928-cover-0102
Gabe Bako and his working partners, Richard Dunbar and Sylvia Lopez, test recipes at their new Tex-Mex restaurant, Bako’s, in the
former Serranos on Johnston Street

In his 2007 book, The Spirit of La Fonda, Leebob explains the bond that continued to grow after the two became co-hosts, saying Bako’s responsibilities with the restaurant grew steadily over the next 15 to 20 years. “He assumed even greater responsibility in the mid-1990s when I had heart valve surgery to correct a murmur. So, I relied on him heavily, and I felt confident about his taking charge and operating La Fonda. Gabe has the imagination and sense of humor to take the restaurant where I wanted it to go. Additionally, he has been a loyal and honest partner. I have relied on him now for many years, and he has assumed his duties with fervor and dedication to the La Fonda family and ideals.”

“He was like my dad,” Bako says. “Leebob was my best friend, and partner, and boss. All of the above.”

Leebob made it clear in the book that Bako was his hand-picked successor; the restaurateur also expressed hope that his son Sherwood, who had spent many years working at La Fonda, would eventually take over from Bako. Two strokes over the next six years after his heart surgery meant Leebob was spending less and less time at the restaurant — and leaning more on Bako, who by this time was a minority partner.

Leebob died in February 2008. At the time of his father’s death, Sherwood had been out of the restaurant for several years and living out of state. Until his death, Leebob and Bako continued to work together, as business partners and friends, building a restaurant institution in Lafayette ­— one that 53 years after its inception is still as famous for its caricatures of well-known locals and potent margaritas as it is for hosting generations of families that have celebrated birthdays, engagements, anniversaries and all events in between. One that was the hottest spot in town during the oil boom and continued to thrive long after the bust of the mid-1980s.

But over the past nine months, that rich tradition has lived on without Gabe Bako.

While Gabe Bako developed close relationships with many of La Fonda’s customers over the years, he readily acknowledges most guests were more familiar with his serious side. He was the greeter and the seater — not one for much idle talk. “I’m focused,” Bako says. “When I’m working, I’m working.”

But today Independent photographer Robin May is seeing the other side of Bako, the sense of humor Leebob referenced in his book. He’s shown up for a photo shoot at the new restaurant he plans to open by November in shorts and flip-flops, and one of his two working partners in the new venture, Richard Dunbar, feigns embarrassment over Bako’s irreverence. Bako pretends to ignore Dunbar, and the joking escalates when two friends show up unannounced to see how the restaurant is progressing.

ROBINMAY_110922_2352
                                                                            
                    Grilled Portobella Mushroom with asparagus

The teasing continues with Sylvia Lopez, another working partner, but it’s tempered. Clearly Bako and Dunbar are proud of the dishes she’s cooked and styled for the photo shoot. A native of Mexico, Lopez has been in Lafayette more than a dozen years, having worked at several local restaurants, including Mexican eateries (her husband, BTW, works at La Fonda). She’s in charge of hiring the kitchen staff, which is almost exclusively Mexican cooks experienced in authentic flavors and preparations.

It took some soul-searching for Bako to get to this point, to accept that his career would have to head in a new direction. “It’s like a divorce,” he says. In February of this year, after 43 years at the restaurant and by then a 50 percent owner (Leebob willed him 40 percent of the company, adding to the 10 percent ownership he’d acquired two decades ago), Gabe Bako’s tenure came to an abrupt end.

20110928-cover-0103
Richard Dunbar will assist Bako in the front of the house.

Troubles for Bako started brewing in mid-2010, he says, soon after Leebob’s daughter, Stephanie Cox Gagnard, moved back to Lafayette from Dallas and went to work at La Fonda. Stephanie and her brother, Sherwood, who still lives out of state, own the other half of La Fonda and share ownership of the Johnston Street building that houses it. In the beginning, Bako insists, he was happy when Stephanie said she wanted to work with him.

Though he would not be specific, Bako says Stephanie — who has no known restaurant experience — almost immediately wanted to make changes. La Fonda, he maintains, had continued to make money in the previous 2.5 years, despite the economic slowdown and an onslaught of new restaurant competitors. “That place is a machine,” he says.

Although Bako holds an equal interest in the restaurant, Stephanie and Sherwood have two votes on the board of directors of La Fonda Inc. Upon Leebob’s death, his widow named Bako president of La Fonda Inc., and Bako put Stephanie and Sherwood on the board, “per Leebob’s wishes,” according to Bako. He says Leebob had asked him if the three would be able to get along, and Bako assured him they would. Over the years, Bako made three failed attempts to buy Leebob out of the business, but the founder would always get cold feet. “Leebob and I went to the table three times, and each time he backed out,” Bako says with a chuckle. “He’d just change his mind.”

The final straw for Bako came Jan. 4 with Stephanie and Sherwood’s decision to fire Dunbar, who’d run the kitchen for nine years. Bako was extremely upset: “I told them I was going to take a few days off,” he says.

The conspicuous absence of the most visible face at the restaurant quickly led to lots of speculation and very few answers. “The status is that he’s on vacation,” longtime Office Manager Pat LeDoux told The Independent’s sister publication ABiz in a brief telephone interview Feb. 16. LeDoux made it clear that Stephanie was in the room while she was being interviewed and that she was passing along Stephanie’s comments. “There’s not much we can say right now. It’s out of our hands right now,” LeDoux added. The Independent has since learned that at that time the two parties had agreed to a short time frame in which they would not publicly discuss the matter.

Bako has since declined to discuss specifics about the legal battle, but records filed in state district court reveal that in a board of directors meeting the following day, Feb. 17, Bako was fired as president of La Fonda Inc. and general manager of the restaurant. (When the 200-word story “Where’s Gabe?” was published Feb. 23, the ABiz rack in the entrance to the restaurant mysteriously disappeared the day the papers were delivered. An unidentified female manager told our carrier the rack was “stolen.”)

Stephanie returned The Independent’s call last week, leaving a voice mail message. Reached on her cell phone Monday, she said she did not have time to talk; her attorney, Joe Giglio, did not return calls for comment.

When they fired Bako, Stephanie and Sherwood cut off all access to the restaurant’s books and the corporation’s records, according to court filings. That meant Bako had no idea how the restaurant’s sales were going, what Stephanie was paying herself as manager, what was in the business plan, who was being hired and fired, who was being promoted ­— and who was consulted when the decision was made to terminate him.

In August, Bako asked a judge to compel the corporation to open those records, and last week, the two parties came to an agreement for Stephanie and Sherwood to purchase Bako’s interest. “The corporate documentation did not create an obligation on either party to buy or sell [what’s commonly called a shotgun clause],” says Bako’s attorney, Richard Becker. “We have a deal for him to sell ... an agreement in principle. I hope that this deal will be done in a few weeks; we just have to go through the documentation,” Becker adds. “That pending litigation has been, at least for the moment, subsumed into the purchase and sale agreement.”

Bako says he’s heard a lot of speculation about why he’s no longer at La Fonda and even addressed with The Independent the most distasteful of the rumors ­— an allegation that he was stealing items from the restaurant to supply his Broussard eatery, Ziggy’s Grill. Bako says he did move supplies back and forth from Ziggy’s to La Fonda, but that everything was accounted for and that Dunbar, as kitchen manager, was aware of the swaps.

“It’s unfounded. I don’t know what [else] to say,” Bako offers. “I told Leebob once, ‘In 30 years I took three bottles of wine,’ and he laughed.”

Attorney Becker says Stephanie and Sherwood have made no allegations of theft to him.

“My issue is the restaurant I’m about to open,” Bako says. “I’ve gotten over it. I’m a big boy. I just want closure.”

Bako’s “Tex-Mex and Beyond.”

20110928-cover-0104
             Sylvia Lopez calls the shots in the kitchen at Bako’s

That’s what’s come of Gabe Bako’s departure from La Fonda. The restaurant, in the former spot of Serranos Salsa Co, is only a half mile up the street from La Fonda. Using his name to keep the menu general and adding “Beyond” leaves the door open for the restaurant to serve seasonal dishes that aren’t necessarily Tex-Mex, Mexican or Southwest, Bako says.

Petroleum geologist Lee Bader is anxiously awaiting the opening. Bader, who says he had been a customer of La Fonda for about 40 years, has not returned since Bako’s departure. “Once he was no longer there, I had no reason to go,” Bader says. “I thought he ran the restaurant really well, and I thought his management skills were excellent. It was one of the best-run restaurants in town.”

Bako insists the new restaurant is not about retaliation. “Ask my wife. Ask my partners. I’ve separated the two,” Bako says. “I had to for sanity reasons. I just miss the interaction with the customers, the employees.”

The menu and concept aren’t yet finalized, but from the look of the dishes, Lopez is off to a good start. “The concept, I have to give Sylvia a lot of credit,” Bako says. “She’s surpassed our expectations in creativity and presentation.”

The restaurant seats about 360 with two outside patios and — unlike La Fonda — food will be served in the bar. It’ll be a limited menu, with some items exclusive to the bar, Dunbar says. “But if they insist on [other menu items],” Bako chimes in, “we’ll let them have it.”

While Lopez runs the kitchen, Dunbar and Bako will be managing the front of the house. “They are not employees. They are working partners. There’s a big difference,” says Bako, who also has a silent partner.

20110928-cover-0105
                                                            Submitted Photo
Leebob Cox and Gabe Bako at the restaurant in early 2006, two years before Leebob’s death

And the big question: Will he serve La Fonda margaritas? Bako was evasive on this question, saying only that his margaritas will be as good or better than La Fonda. But it appears there is nothing to stop him, as the recipe (or a replica of it) is used in town by a number of ex-La Fonda employees, including the Filling Station and locations of Legends — along with Bako’s own Ziggy’s Grill. The recipe, which comes from an old tequila bottle, was even published by The Daily Advertiser about a decade ago.

Bako’s house-blend margarita and a top-shelf mango margarita will pour from the machines at the bar.

And what of that spot — the so-called cursed corner at Johnston Street and Doucet Road that’s housed four shuttered restaurants so far? “They didn’t have what we have,” Bako says, noting that each of those concepts had problems that had nothing to do with the location. He believes Bako’s will break the curse: “We’re going to find out soon.”

ROBINMAY_110922_2327
             Wasabi Tuna Salad


Gabe Bako is not sure what kind of atmosphere Bako’s will be known for, because customers will play a big role in defining it. “We want a happy, upbeat atmosphere, good service from knowledgeable servers,” he says.

But what if — God forbid — patrons get rowdy? Now 64, Bako laughs off those early impressions, saying he quickly grew to appreciate the unique experience La Fonda offers. “I’ve come to terms with it, with age and experience,” he says. “Hopefully, Bako’s is something similar.”

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