History Buff or Not, You Will LOVE Rye!
A nod to a simpler time. Locally sourced products, hand-crafted cocktails, and the forgotten spirit of hospitality.
I am having a great time highlighting the fab peeps who are helping to make Historic McKinney, Texas, so cool. In this post I focus on Michelle and Jeff Qualls, proprietors of Rye Craft Food & Drink, at 111 W. Virginia just off the Square. Flush with community support from day one, Rye celebrated its first anniversary in November!
Michelle Qualls is one busy gal. When I finally get on her calendar, we meet up at Rye, claiming one of the small square tables for two. Little do I know that we’ll roost there for the next four hours, people!
Not that I wasn’t ecstatic to do so. Michelle’s charm is hard to resist. As is Rye’s. Though not a big place, it has a soothing vibe and dreamy cocktails and craft food built around seasonal offerings from the 42 local farms and vendors Jeff uses to achieve his farm-to-table vision.
I love the hint of history in the exposed red brick of the west-facing wall, the eclectic light fixtures, the warm wood paneling, even the casual comfiness of the plaid-shirted wait staff. The painted tin ceiling. The Star Wars decorations in the bathroom. The numerous antiques on the walls that watch as diners chat and flirt and conclude business deals. Among the period pieces is a photo of James Webb Throckmorton, a Texas governor (1866-67) and congressman whose law office once operated within this footprint. If these walls could talk!
Eating at Rye is like simultaneously standing in the past and present. And to Jeff’s way of thinking, the future. His mantra: sustainable foods are not a luxury. We need them to survive. Know where your food comes from. Buy fresh, buy local, from vendors who care about the quality they produce.
Vendors such as Circle 15 Farms, which is located 30 miles from McKinney, in Gunter, Texas. Circle 15 is one of only three local duck sources in North Texas. Owner Keelee Page delivers fresh “pasture” (translation: “out all day, in at night”) ducks to Rye, her largest duck customer, every Tuesday (30-40 ducks/month). Jeff uses every part of her ducks, including the organs for pate, leaving no waste. “I like that Rye is small,” says Keelee. “It means they can focus on producing really good food.”
When Jeff and Michelle were thinking up names for their young but robust restaurant, “Farmhouse” and “The Kitchen Table” were among the contenders. But the winner was “Rye,” in part because of Jeff’s appreciation of whiskey. But also because one night, late, he found himself flipping through a book called Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens.
The author examined the history of American whiskeys, which in Twain’s time were made from rye. Jeff will later tell me—after sharing that his busy schedule has forced this dedicated bibliophile to move to audio books for convenience—that he’s had to explain to more than one person that the name does NOT pay homage to bread.
“Our love of history is one reason Jeff and I wanted this building,” shares Michelle, as she casts a quick glance around the room to assess the hum of activity. “I love that a hundred years from now people will say that a chef housed his dream here.”
God bless the woman who publicly loves on her man! And God bless said woman when she chooses to gift this writer with unexpected yummies soon whipped up by Jeff’s trusted crew in the kitchen: Stephen Rose (He has a chemistry degree from Vanderbilt, people!), and Andrew Ramsey, with nearly 15 years of culinary experience and some pretty rockin’ tats. Ask to see the pork tattoo on his right arm, for sure.
The co-captains are capably steering the ship today, as Jeff is off camping in Los Maples, a Texas state park, with his young daughters, Payton and Parker. The girls, I’m told, are total foodies who enjoy perching on the high bar stools to sample their dad’s specials.
Eyeing our hovering waiter, Michelle chirps, “Tell the kitchen I’m hungry!” She sounds like a kid in a candy shop, which makes me giggle. Quicker than Circle 15 Farms can pluck one of those fresh ducks, an order of the ‘Book Club’ peppers—goat cheese stuffed peppadews—arrives at our table.
Voila! She asks and they deliver. Color me jealous!
Manny Casas, Rye’s uber talented “mixologist” and bar/service manager, personally delivers a pair of Whiskey Sours. Be still my heart, but this drink is yum! Exact duplicates will magically arrive the minute the ice gets lonely in our glasses. “I told them to keep the drinks coming,” Michelle quips, “I’m so nervous!”
I laugh and start the interrogation—err, interview—by drawing a big circle on the blank page of my notebook. I hand this full-time first grade teacher an assignment. “Let’s say this represents your life, Michelle. Who and what are important?”
Michelle ponders a moment, tapping my pen against her chin. Then she quickly draws two lines to create four equal quadrants. She labels three of the quadrants “Rye,” “First Grade,” and “Family.” Dividing the fourth quadrant in half, she labels these sections “Dogs” and “Friends.”
And So Our Chat Begins
We dive into the peppadews. I’m dying to hear about the birthing of Rye, and well as their own relationship. Together nearly eight years, they’ve been married for four.
I learn that Jeff was a seasoned, self-taught cook by the age of 13, and already working in restaurants by 14. He will later graduate from the highly esteemed Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in upstate New York, and fast-track (30 weeks, 9 hours/day) through a pastry/bread degree at the CIA’s sister campus in California. While in Napa, Jeff also studied wine and its interaction with food.
Michelle, on the other hand, admits to a limited foodie education—and she does NOT cook, if she can help it. Her go-to favorites? Tuna salad and cereal-topped bananas! I bet you just assumed that Michelle would simply pop into Rye the minute her tummy rumbled. I know I did. Alas, she lays waste to my fantasy when she says, “If I’m at Rye, it’s because I’m working, meeting someone, or dropping something off.” When Jeff is unchained from the kitchen, they like to seek out DFW restaurants they haven’t yet tried.
Jeff, of course, does cook for his fun-loving bride. Wanna know the very first dish Jeff wooed her with? Chicken fingers, complete with bowls of dipping sauces. “They were sooooo good,” squeals Michelle. “But then he made me short ribs. That sealed the deal. I said, ‘I’m in for life.’”
Jeff and Michelle met about 12 years ago, when Jeff returned to McKinney to help open TPC Craig Ranch, McKinney’s premier golf facility. Michelle was part of the summer wait staff, a job she took to supplement her teaching salary, not because she had an aptitude for it. In her own words: “I was the worst waitress ever. Some guy shook his empty glass at me once and I said, ‘Use your words.’ I’m amazed I didn’t get fired!”
But Jeff immediately recognized Michelle’s stellar work ethic when he found her reorganizing the kitchen storeroom—without asking for permission or waiting to be assigned the task.
Her version: “I was bored. And I have OCD. I’m not good with down time.” His version: “She did it because it needed to be done. If Michelle thinks something is the right thing to do, she’s going to do it. She doesn’t care what people think.”
Insights From Jeff
When Jeff and I chat later, he is quick to credit Michelle with daily stepping up, whether as a great step-mom to his girls, or committing to impact the lives of her first grade students at Sontag Elementary (Frisco ISD), or helping to rescue unwanted dogs—a cause that galvanizes Michelle’s big, tender heart.
Michelle volunteers lots of hours with Golden Retriever Rescue of North Texas. (Goldens are Michelle’s favorite breed.) She is currently serving as secretary, but also put in several years as president. For the last four months or so, Michelle also has been fostering Juliette, a skittish street-weary dog rescued by The Street Dog Project, based in Dallas. Juliette, whom Michelle features periodically on Facebook, is not quite emotionally stable enough yet for adoption into a loving, forever home. But Michelle has high hopes for the doe-eyed beauty, given that Jeff and Michelle’s own three dogs are serving as good role models.
When I later visit the Qualls home on College Street, I can see that Juliette is trying really hard to trust people—and other dogs that occasionally try to share what she considers hers. “Dogs tearing up our living room furniture,” notes Jeff, “won’t stop Michelle from rescuing another one.”
Jeff adds that he’s grateful that Michelle also repeatedly steps up to help shoulder the many responsibilities that come with successfully running a restaurant. For starters, she’s the hostess with the mostest on the weekends. You’ve not seen charm until you see it ooze out of Michelle, people. You will instantly fall for her! Behind the scenes, Michelle manages the books and employee payroll, and tackles whatever to-do lists Jeff might leave for her on their kitchen counter.
When I ask if he could run the restaurant without her, Jeff admits, “Not well. Michelle keeps me from losing it—on another person, on myself, on her. But I’m very cautious about making my dream her dream. Because I know she will sacrifice everything to make this work. I’m hoping that eventually she doesn’t have to work at the restaurant. But it’s great when she’s here. Michelle can make anyone snap out of their funk. The wait staff definitely get charged up when she’s working with them.”
Having Great Staff Helps
Michelle may be the official cheerleader for the front of the house, but in the kitchen that role has been claimed by Andrew. “He’s Mr. Positive,” shares Michelle. “He helps Jeff to not be so hard on himself. Andrew’s always like, ‘We got this!’ We really needed that in the kitchen.”
A cheese tray arrives for our enjoyment (yay!), and Stephen shares that the trio works so well together because they really are friends. They respect each other. They cover for each other. They hold each other to the highest standards of creativity and cleanliness. They’re actually jazzed to get to work together every day, just to see what they accomplish.
“Being friends,” says Stephen, “means that’s it’s not a chore to hang out. Jeff inspires us with his talent. And after a hard shift, when we’ve gotten our butts kicked from being so busy, Jeff has a great way of bringing the team together.” I’m guessing that opening some whiskey helps!
“Our back of the house is solid,” gushes Michelle. “We love them. We’d pay them millions, if we could.”
Can You Feel the Love?
Michelle gives me the phone number for her sister-in-law, Jana Bennett, to get her thoughts on what has made Rye successful. I call her the next day. Jana’s first answer: “We knew Michelle wouldn’t let Jeff fail.” The Qualls clan adores Michelle, she adds, though they did try pretty hard initially to scare her off from marrying Jeff.
“Jeff has this super thick exterior layer. He thinks he has to be a badass all the time. He doesn’t let us see his soft side. But Michelle brings out his best self. We were amazed that she loves him. We told her, ‘You do not have to marry him!’ But she wouldn’t listen; she’s crazy about him.” She laughs, recognizing that she’s picking hard on her youngest brother—as older siblings tend to do.
I ask Michelle to share some of the ways that she and Jeff differ. Why do they work so well together? Well, she says, “Jeff tends to be cautious, and to focus on the problem. But I always see the silver lining. I’m always asking, ‘What are the positives we can take from this?” She giggles and conspiratorially whispers, “The staff and I go around saying, ‘Don’t tell Jeff.’”
As in, don’t tell Jeff that yet another wine glass—or the beautiful coffee mugs, like the one pictured, that they have handcrafted by McKinney artist Heather Smith—has broken. “He knows exactly how much stuff costs,” Michelle adds, giggling again. “I like to think I’m protecting him from unneeded stress.”
When I ask Jeff if he does, indeed, know the price of a wine glass, he doesn’t hesitate: “$4.68. When you’ve broken 10 to 11 dozen like we have since opening, they get expensive.”
What I quickly figure out is though Jeff’s siblings do like to give him a hard time, every member of the Qualls clan, including his very proud father, is solidly here for him. They proved their support when they pitched in to move Rye from “dream” to “reality.” Jana, for example, helped Jeff to purchase the building.
“When the building came available, Jeff was talking to investors, but he didn’t want to be tied to anyone,” explains Jana. “My husband was like, ‘Why don’t we just help him? I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ because my husband is such a tightwad! I said, ‘Hold on! I’m calling Jeff right now before you change your mind!’” She laughs. “Family helping family is the right thing to do. Growing up, we had nothing. If something needed doing, we figured it out and did it ourselves.”
Jeff’s dad helped by putting in the sound system. And Jeff’s brother, Jason, a very busy carpenter who owns Blu Cane’s Remodeling in their hometown of Sherman, Texas, helped Jeff with the buildout. Now, Jason didn’t return my call to give his reasons for helping, but Jeff, in a tone that suggests he is only half kidding, says he “guilted him into it.” The two brothers used to cook together years back, before Jason, at 19 or 20 years old, decided to veer into construction.
“I trust him,” Jeff states simply. “He knows what he’s doing. I didn’t want anyone else to do it.” So during the five weeks it took to renovate the space, Jeff says Jason “sacrificed his weekends” to get the job done.
Don’t feel bad for Jason, dear readers, he gets to eat free at Rye for life—along with the rest of the clan. “They try to pay,” says Michelle, “but we tell them their money is no good here.” She laughs. “I mean they’ve put up with Jeff for years. We owe them.”
In Michelle’s jesting tone, it’s clear that she thinks her man is awesome. In fact, she admits to me that she “still get butterflies when I see him!”
I note the three pretty bracelets on Michelle’s right wrist, and ask about one of them, a leather band topped with a hammered, silver disc—inscribed in Jeff’s own handwriting—with the words I + love + you. 10-7-15.
Michelle’s face flushes as she tells me that Jeff gave it to her for their third wedding anniversary. Okay, it is possible that our Whiskey Sours choose this precise moment to kick in, but I’m not buying that. This, clearly, is a woman who knows she is loved and valued—and cherishes that adoration. And that’s all I’m allowed to say about that, people. Because when I text Michelle that “Love is in the air at Rye,” she texts back, “There is not a throw-up emoji or I would use one right now!” Lol!
Yum! An order of fish and chips arrives at our table, the fries thickly cut, the fish lightly battered, just like I like them!! Delish!
Michelle won’t brag on Rye to the level I want her to (too humble), so I have to find someone who will: Kate Williams, with whom Michelle has been building a friendship with for the past five years. They are in the same book club, they walk their dogs together, Michelle even visited Kate last summer in Cordova, Alaska, where Kate’s husband, John, catches the fresh Copper River salmon that Rye is proud to offer on its summer menu. (The name of John’s boat, by the way, is “Pelagic,” which Webster dictionary defines as “
I ask Kate for her take on why the historic community has supported Rye from the get-go.
“Rye is successful because of a combination of things,” asserts Kate. “Michelle makes everyone feel welcome, Jeff’s food is amazing, and people like the intimate environment and the fact that they’re eating locally-sourced food.” Too, she adds, “Jeff and Michelle really invest in relationships, with guests, food vendors, and alcohol distributors. People want to be part of the little eco system they’ve created.”
Obviously. I mean, I sure want to be part of it. It’s cool knowing that Governor Throckmorton and I have shared the same space, though many moons apart. May I never need a time machine to always have access to Rye’s incredible bacon-Nutella short stack, and yummy BLT! And Whiskey Sours are now my drink, Mama! When can we do this again???
Alas, Our Chat Must End
I reluctantly bring our hours-long interview to a close and note that Michelle is still smiling. Yay! I haven’t scared her off. She’s still willing to let me keep digging into the life that she and Jeff love living out. “Any famous last words?” I ask, savoring, for just a moment longer, the gracious attentiveness and authenticity that Michelle has so freely dished out. (Did I mention that we’ve not shared more than a few words before this???)
Michelle’s smile widens. She really is a kid in a candy shop when she’s here. Yes, it’s hard work, but she and Jeff love it. Together, they’re building a legacy that they believe matters. We’re talking passion, people!
“We’re just a family-owned restaurant trying to offer good, creative food,” she replies. “We love living in Historic McKinney, and being part of the community that has been so good to us. We want to make sure the locals can always get a table, even when we’re really busy. They just need to call and let me know they’re coming!
Note to self: put Michelle’s cell number in my phone ASAP, ‘cuz I’m definitely coming back!
Rye Craft Food & Drink
111 W. Virginia Parkway, McKinney, TX 75069
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 11 am-9 pm, Fri.-Sat. 11 am-10 pm, Sun. 10 am-2 pm
RSVP: Parties of 6+: firstname.lastname@example.org or 214.491.1715, Option 1
Rye Facebook ~ Instagram (Tip: do NOT visit if you’re famished!)
Circle 15 Farms: Keelee Page, owner. 469.450.6400
Azure Photography, McKinney: Christie Pagano, owner. 469.400.8155
Governor James Webb Throckmorton Info: Texas State Historical Association
Golden Retriever Rescue of North Texas: 214.750.4477
The Street Dog Project: 214.670.8246
Writer Sheri A. Bell: based in McKinney, Texas
Tiny Hand Designs: Heather Smith, artist. email@example.com. 940.595.3272
Rye Craft Food & Drink: Community Impact Newspaper
[Article/Video] Manny’s Cherry Boom-Boom Cocktail Recipe: Dallas News