Restaurant opened just before COVID thriving in Lockhart
By Wesley Gardner
When Sarah Heard and Nathan Lemley signed the lease for what would soon become Commerce Café on the square in Lockhart, they had no idea Texas was on the verge of statewide shutdown.
“We signed on just before COVID,” said Heard, laughing. We tried to actually eat at that space a few times, but it was always closed.
“Then, we noticed it was closed a little longer than normal, so I did some digging and found out who the property manager was. I think it was about three weeks later that we signed the property lease on it. We weren’t even looking for a restaurant, but we knew that that space was the one we needed to go with.”
It wasn’t the first time Heard and Lemley made a spur-of-the-moment decision regarding a restaurant. They also own Foreign and Domestic in north Austin, and the decision to buy the business came just as quickly.
“It was established already,” said Heard. “It had been open for seven years.
“Nathan had worked there when it first opened for three years, so we knew the owner, and we were just chatting one day when he said, ‘Yeah, I think I’m going to sell the restaurant and move out of Austin.’ I was just like, ‘Give me a few minutes so I can figure out this loan thing,’ and that’s how we ended up with Foreign and Domestic.”
According to Lemley, neither he nor Heard had any immediate plans of pursuing, but the idea had always been in the back of their minds.
“We’d been working for other people with the goal of one day hopefully owning something of our own, but it was not the plan for the year or anything,” Lemley said.
Heard acknowledged the pair initially had concerns about opening Commerce Cafe in the midst of a pandemic. They leased the building in mid-March, two weeks before Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide stay-at-home-order that also barred dine-in eating at restaurants.
“We actually had the thought when everything shut down, ‘should we try and back out of the lease?’ but we feel like that building and space was important to try and hold on to through the storm,” said Heard, who moved to Caldwell County when she was in the sixth grade. “Nobody ever wants to be slow, but it’s been kind of a blessing in disguise.
“It’s an old building, and we did inherit the equipment in the building. It’s been nice to work out the kinks and get to know the building a little bit while it’s slow … It gave us something to keep our morale up when COVID was really in the thick of it. Instead of sitting home and being upset about everything going on, we were doing a buildout.”
For both Heard and Lemley, who currently reside together in Luling, working with food has long been a staple in their lives. They share more than 35 years of cooking experience between them and are chefs at both of their restaurants.
“My grandmother had a bakery so it’s kind of in my blood,” said Lemley. “There was always food around the house, and food was kind of the center of everything.
“I eventually started working at restaurants as a server initially, and I started cooking because it looked like more fun.”
Heard pointed to her mother as her source of inspiration but also said her first job in the industry played a large role.
“My first job in high school was at Red Lobster in San Marcos, and I fell in love with the whole hospitality part of it – the adrenaline part of it and the immediate gratification.
“That’s what kind of sucked me into it.”
According to Lemley, the transition from working in a restaurant to owning one was initially difficult, but ultimately manageable.
“When you’re just a chef and you’re just in charge of the food it’s a little easier,” said Lemley “Now, we’re doing the accounting and the marketing and all those responsibilities — wearing all those hats.”
For Heard, watching her employees grow has been one of the most gratifying aspects of owning their businesses.
“We’ve got one cook in particular right now that’s really doing well,” said Heard. “We’ve seen her grow over the last two years, and to know that we’ve had a huge part in that even if it’s just giving her the platform to work off of, is really, really rewarding.
“I know she’s going to kill it. She’s going to have her own place. I guarantee it, and it’s exciting to see that.”
Currently, the restaurant is open for limited hours, with brunch being served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and dinner from 5-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, though Heard said she hoped to have the restaurant open for full hours around February of next year.
More than anything, Heard said she’s happy to be a part of Lockhart’s growing business community.
“It’s really exciting because growing up here, it was pretty desolate,” said Heard. “I think the only thing I really remember other than antique shops on the square was Java Motion.
“Lockhart is really growing, and to see the changes and to see the square be busy and have all these really cool places, including us now, is really exciting.”