Jose Garcia of FedEx picks up a Gold Belly order from The Cace Kitchen on Monday April 3, 2023. (Michael Cavazos/News-Journal Photo)
It’s likely that Johnny Cace never anticipated this when he started his restaurant in 1949 in downtown Longview.
It was a Monday morning, and his daughter-in law and granddaughter were packing up frozen containers of favorite items from his menu — shrimp gumbo and crawfish etouffee, for instance — and preparing them to ship to all sorts of places that have been introduced to what started as only a local favorite.
Now, Johnny Cace’s fare is regularly traveling outside of Longview — to New York, California, Washington, D.C., Hawaii and Alaska. It’s been shipped to all 50 states.
It’s all thanks to the internet and the mother-daughter team of Cathy and Chelsea Cace, who have reinvented a family business and embraced new ways to help it grow.
The family’s longtime restaurant started downtown and later moved to Marshall Avenue. Gerard Cace, Johnny Cace’s son, and Cathy operated it for many years together, but the restaurant later closed after his death.
Soon, though, the Cace women tarted a to-go only restaurant featuring favorite Cace’s fare — the world couldn’t live without their croutons and cheese spread, gumbo and etoufee. In 2022, they moved Cace’s Kitchen back to the place where it all started on Green Street, with an expanded restaurant that offers sit-down lunchtime dining as well as grab-and-go options
“At the time, we were just trying to diversify,” Chelsea said of the decision to add a new option to buy from Cace’s Kitchen — Gold Belly. The New York-based company operates an online ordering site and system to ship food all over the United States.
The company describes itself as a “curated online marketplace of the nation’s best gourmet and regionally iconic foods …” Translate that to mean that not just anybody gets onto the site.
In fact, the Caces said it took them a few years to get accepted, starting before the pandemic until they were able to start shipping food in 2021. Chelsea laughed as she recalled some of the steps she took to get accepted — sending screenshots, for example, of social media posts about Cace’s Kitchen by celebrities Sunny Sweeney and Brandon Maxwell.
The Caces ship food out Monday through Thursday, using Gold Belly’s containers and shipping procedures. Cathy leads the packing; Chelsea makes sure the food is ready and frozen for at least 24 hours in advance of shipping.
“Gold Belly, for us, in our slower months, it’s been a big help,” Chelsea said. “Before we moved here, we were looking for more income in our slower months. In the holidays we’re always killing it.”
At other times, they were looking for ways “to move this food.”
“(Gold Belly) was another 10% in sales each month that we could count on, which helped a lot,” she said. Also, part of working with Gold Belly is the social media advertising Gold Belly conducts that helps introduce people around the country to Cace’s Kitchen and reminds local diners about the restaurant.
“Sometimes it’s people that are familiar with us or they grew up in Texas and had heard of us,” Chelsea said of Gold Belly sales. “Often, it’s just people in New York or wherever. They don’t get a lot of Creole food and are trying something new.”
Sometimes, those people become repeat customers.
Gold Belly isn’t the only way Cace’s Kitchen uses the internet and social media. The restaurant is on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok,
“I think having an online presence is necessary. I don’t think it’s an option,” Chelsea said.
Susan Reda, the National Retail Federation’s vice president of Education Content Strategy, agrees.
“It’s not just having a website,” she said. “It’s about what their engagement will be like on social media …. It can move the needle in both online sales and physical sales in the store.
“In general, as much as the internet has changed retail — and I think it’s changed it for the better — it’s opened up new opportunities. We’re still seeing that growth is driven by multi-channel sales.”
She said, though, that consumers still like to go in a store and touch and feel what they’re buying.
That’s something Courtnie Perez has learned at her women’s clothing boutique, CoCO & Meg. Perez started her business through Facebook Live events a week before the COVID-19 shutdown hit Texas in 2020.
Perez already had a business selling NFL and NCAA merchandise at pop-up stores. She was looking for something to do in between pop-up stores — and then COVID happened and shut down sporting events as well.
The physical location of her store opened in downtown Longview about eight months after the business began, in response to its growth. It provided a place for local customers to pick up merchandise they order online and for people to shop in the store or try things on.
“My generation and my mom’s — they like to come try stuff on in the store and touch it, whereas the younger generation shops on TikTok and Instagram,” she said.
After Facebook, she built a website for the business and worked with a business called CommentSold that built an app for CoCo & Meg. The app helps her manage sales, including connecting sales that start on the boutique’s Instagram and TikTok to CoCo & Meg’s app.
The balance of sales between online and in-store changes regularly, she said, but she’s been surprised by what she’s seen.
“It’s probably 50-50. Some months online is a little bit more,” Perez said, adding that she has shipped merchandise to all 50 states.
One of her TikTok videos went viral, with 170,000 views, she said. Then, she had people coming from all around East Texas to visit the store.
“It’s the new thing. I post new TikTok videos every day,” Perez said, adding that she expects she will at some point have to hire someone to handle all the social media demands.
At longtime local retailer Barron’s, Lacy Barron said the store had to figure out what worked best for it.
“Updating our online presence was definitely on our ‘to do’ list, and 2020 put that task into hyperdrive,” she said of COVID 19’s arrival.
Like everyone during that time, Barron’s tried everything, she said — live sales, website promotions and shipping specials.
“Ultimately, it became obvious what worked for us, and now we’ve found our groove,” Barron said. “I have friends in the business that kill it on Facebook Live, and while I loved going live on Facebook, we see more consistent sales through our Instagram following @shopbarrons,” she said.
It’s been exciting to see sales at shopbarrons.com continue to grow, she said, although she said more improvements need to be made to the website.
“Part of the magic of Barron’s is our customer service, so one way we make online sales special is by sending personalized thank you cards with every order, and that has prompted repeat orders as well as phone calls thanking us from across the country,” Barron said.
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