How an Austin restaurateur's Jewishness shapes his burger approach
Growing up in the melting pot of El Paso, restaurateur Mo Pittle was known to his friends as El Jewboy.
We recently caught up with Pittle, the Jewish and very chatty owner of JewBoy Burgers on Airport Boulevard — as well as JewBoy Sub Shop in Allandale — to ask about keeping the cost of burgers down during a supply chain crisis.
- The discussion inevitably turned to the tricky business of reappropriating a slur as well as his early history with Beto O'Rourke.
Your basic burger starts at $9, which isn't bad in today's Austin.
I face different challenges from most people because the name brings baggage. We all understand the stereotypes that are out there. I'm very conscious about the cost of my product, the size of the portions. I purposely have lower margins than most people doing what I do. If I was just Mo's Burgers, I wouldn't have to worry about a lot of these things. But I also wouldn't have as much attention on the front end.
So you're self-conscious about the name?
At first I was very flip about it, then realized it was a sensitive topic.
You and Beto were El Paso contemporaries.
I knew him when we were this tall. [He puts his hand about four feet off the ground.] I did the branding on his first run for El Paso City Council. His dad [the county judge] had these white signs, with green type, and the apostrophe was a four-leaf clover. Beto and I are sitting there in my office. "Look dude, all respect to your father, that was then, this is now. The candidate of the future is the guy who can walk into the men's grill at El Paso Country Club, have a great conversation, go down to the Lower Valley, walk into a dive bar, and have the same great conversation. That's the future: bilingual, bicultural." I did his branding.
- The sign said Robert Beto O'Rourke. And the Beto was big. It's memorable, and it fit on square signs. Instead of 4-by-8 signs, you could do two 4-by-4s and cover twice as much ground for the same price. It's very practical and looks good on those square signs.
Why did you move from El Paso to Austin, and from advertising to food?
El Paso gets smaller and smaller the longer you're there. I like food. It's universal, it's tangible, it makes people happy.
How do you judge your performance?
I talk to all my customers. To me it's the best way to learn about your own business, and it's entertaining as hell. I know what that decision tree looks like. You want to eat in or go out? OK, you want to eat Mexican, Chinese, burgers, whatever? By the time you get here, I'm fascinated with how that works.
Do you think any of your customers come here because of a fascination with Jewishness?
Yes, we're protecting the Holy Land. I had a woman come here once and pointed at my shirt and said "it's a shin." [A shin is a Hebrew letter and the W in the JewBoy typeface resembles a shin.] I said, "It's a W here, but meant to look that way." "I'm learning to speak Hebrew," she said. "Oh, that's great." "Are you a Jew?" That's when you know it's a red flag. [He laughs.] I said, "Yes, ma'am. I'm Jewish. What makes you want to learn Hebrew?" "When the Rapture does occur, I would like to speak to the Lord in his native tongue."
She was a sweet enough lady, but I'm thinking, "This is insane."
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