Couple builds business, love on sweet recipes

Texas Traditions is known for their cakes and pastries, like this brown cow cheesecake, which are baked every morning around 5 a.m.

PORT LAVACA - The recipe came to her in a dream. She was in the kitchen and someone was telling her exactly how it should be done. How to bake the layers of chocolate cake, how to make that gooey marshmallow filling, how to stack the layers so that it resembled the leaning Tower of Pisa in small and to dip the whole thing in a coating of chocolate. Then, the baker instructed her, she would have a homemade Ding Dong.

Patsy Franek woke up from her dream, turned over and shook her husband, Victor, awake.

"Vic, in the morning ask me about my dream," she told him.

Hours later, Victor Franek asked, and, with the idea back in her head, Patsy rushed to the kitchen to start figuring out the particulars of the recipe.

That was years ago. Now, the creations, homemade Ding Dongs, sit in the display case of Texas Traditions in Port Lavaca along with an array of desserts gathered by the couple as they've moved through more than 40 years of marriage (their 41st anniversary is in June) and years of running restaurants together.

The secret is in how they work together. Victor brought home a pecan bourbon pie given to him by an employee - she tasted it and said they should come up with their own recipe for such a pie. She knew how to make coconut cake the way her grandmother taught her - he suggested she start making the cake to serve in their first restaurant in 1997.

They'd known each other since fifth grade, growing up together on the south side of Houston. Victor was a boy who knew how to crack jokes; Patsy was a skinny, little thing with braces and braids. But then, at age 15, a miracle happened, and Victor, "the crazy Cuban," could make her laugh. He loved to make her laugh, to watch those wide blue eyes light up at his jokes.

They were watching each other carefully, but Victor couldn't find the courage to ask Patsy for a date. His friends took matters into their hands, dragging Victor across the street, setting him down at her backdoor. They banged on the door, shoved him forward and took off, leaving him standing there, alone, when she answered the door.

His heart was hammering in his ribs as the door swung open.

"Would you like to go out with me, Patsy?" he asked, stumbling over the words, brown eyes not knowing where to look.

"Yes," she answered without a moment of hesitation. She'd had her eye on him for a while.

"OK-great-goodbye," he blurted out, preparing to retreat.

"Wait, so when is the date?" she asked.

"Oh, I don't know," he said.

"Then it's tonight, at 7 o'clock," she said.

That was the start. Three months later, the pair knew they were in love and five years later they were married.

At 20 years old, Victor only wanted two things from life - to marry his high school sweetheart and to be a manager at Weingarten's Grocery Store. He got both his wishes, and the pair started their life together.

They were just a couple of kids, really, but they laughed at the same things and laughed a lot. At first, Patsy was the homemaker, and Victor worked to bring in the dough. Patsy had learned to cook in her grandmother's kitchen.

Her grandmother was a small, stout woman with brown hair and spotless, white skin that was protected by a sunbonnet when she went out into the sun. Standing on the worn linoleum in front of the old, white gas stove in her grandmother's kitchen, Patsy learned how to bake rich pies and cakes, thick fluffy biscuits and squirrel dumplings, hearty country food. She didn't serve her husband the squirrel dumplings, but she kept the tradition alive. They worked together when they could, running a convenience store for about a decade before Victor returned to the grocery store business, and Patsy gave birth to two more boys. He picked up some culinary skills, running the cafe department of a Randall's grocery store, picking up some tips on running a restaurant along the way. When they came across the Bakeshoppe and Cafe, a tearoom in Tomball, the place was run by generations of women, using recipes honed and handed down through five generations of the family. But the family was looking to sell and they offered the Franeks all of their recipes and the restaurant for a good price.

Patsy knew she could cook, and Victor knew his way around a kitchen and how to run a restaurant. It was the chance to do something different and to spend their days alongside each other. They went into the restaurant business.

It was tough at first. The tearoom was a frilly place, and they couldn't figure out how to get men to feel comfortable coming in for sandwiches and soups during the lunchtime rush.

"We thought about it, and we figured out that if we put a bunch of dead animals on the walls that would do the trick - and it worked," Patsy said with a laugh.

They sold their place on the north side of Houston, planning to move down to the coast and run another convenience store. The deal fell through, and they found themselves in Port Lavaca looking, not ready for retirement and unsure of what to do next.

The restaurant at 234 E. Main St., just before the edge of town met the bay, had been open only a couple of years before folding. The Franeks looked at the place, and decided to buy it.

They hadn't sold their old recipes when they sold the Houston restaurant, so they brought those to the table and looked around to find people who knew how to cook the kind of food they had never served in the tearoom.

They found Mercy Garza, the original cook of an area seafood place, who came in and showed them how to properly fry shrimp, broil steak and the right way to bread a chicken-fried steak. Tila Herrera came in and learned how to bake the recipes they had collected over the years. The Franeks run the place during the day but got their youngest son, Marty, and his wife Crystal ,to come in and run it at night.

"They're the foundation of this place," Victor said.

When the restaurant opened, Victor made a point of being the cashier for his customers, laughing and joking and learning their names, while Patsy was always buzzing around behind the counter making sure everything was running the way it should.

They also make tours around the restaurant, offering customers a glimpse of the latest sweet to top off a meal. Victor slides a pecan bourbon pie - the pecans glistening with a crust of brown sugar - through the air with the flourish and pride of an artist, while Patsy offers a coconut cream pie and scans the table to make sure plates are empty and that everyone enjoyed their food. They work as one unit, knowing each other so well one will answer a question before the other has actually asked it yet. But Patsy can still tick off the list of things that makes her husband so good at running the restaurant, smiling at him the way she smiled at the boy who once stood on her back porch asking her for a date. When Victor talks about what has made their restaurant a success, he talks about all the ideas Patsy has brought to the table. Sitting in the empty restaurant, hours before they're set to open, he smiled, reaching over to pat her hand, still seeing those blue eyes and a girl who had become so beautiful, seemingly overnight, that his 15-year-old heart was rattling in his chest.

Then Victor jokes that they've been married for 100 years, and Patsy laughs.

"We laugh a lot. That's important," she said.

They sit for a moment, happy, remembering how this partnership started. Then Patsy glances at her watch, and Victor realizes the desert display needs to be rearranged, and they're off.