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Erin McKool

At the corner of East University and Greenville, you’ll notice a brightly lit bistro with an industrial-rustic awning and one simple word: Start. Inside you’ll find Erin McKool’s innovative take on convenient dining. But you don’t even have to step inside the eatery to get a taste of “real food fast” in Dallas.

There are plenty of healthy-branded food spots around the city – from salads and smoothies to pressed juices and perfectly portioned meals – but none with the convenience of a drive-through and the peace of mind that you’re consuming wholesome ingredients. Much of what Start dishes out is also locally sourced: the gluten-free bread is baked at Tu-Lu’s; the buns are courtesy of Village Baking Co. and Local Oven; the honey is produced in North Texas; the eggs are laid at Vital Farms; and the grass-fed beef hails from Burgundy Pasture.

Originally from the Bay Area, Erin came to Dallas 13 years ago to practice law. She was an in-house corporate lawyer for a refining company but dreamed of owning a coffee shop or bakery. Plus, “the hours were so tough and I was getting ready to be a mom, so I decided that it was a good time to transition,” she recalls.

Naturally, the culinary venture has been very much a family affair. Erin’s stepdaughter, Raney, designed the original coloring page for the child-friendly restaurant; her 6-year-old son, Michael Finn, gave input regarding kids’ menu offerings; and her husband, Mike, lent his business expertise.

“The first month was crazy town here,” Erin says with a knowing smile. Start opened in August 2012 and had to close early every single day during its first week of business. “We planned for half of the volume so we never had enough food,” she remembers. It’s not a bad problem to have per se, but consumers aren’t always forgiving. That said, where else can you go for a quinoa salad, carrot cake muffins and baked sweet potatoes packed with organic brown sugar, pecans and cranberries without getting out of the car?

While Erin directs Start completely solo, she runs her household with the help of Mike, a litigator and founder of McKool Smith. Their Preston Hollow home is where Mom, Dad and Michael Finn go to recharge, with weekends being their sacred time to relax. They often take a 45-minute drive to their ranch outside Waxahachie, where they have longhorns, horses, skeet shooting facilities and dirt bikes (a favorite family activity).

During the week, Michael Finn gets out of school at 2:15pm, so Erin crams in all of her work between 9am and 2pm. That way she can take care of pickup and the after-school routine, which often involves piano, tennis or football, as well as plenty of time for free play.

“He has a huge personality and he’s extremely enthusiastic about whatever it is he’s interested in,” Erin says of her son. “He’s got a great sense of humor,” she adds. “When you only have one child at home, they’re a part of your adult life.”

She’s fairly easygoing when it comes to being Michael Finn’s mom and Mike shares the same approach. “We agree on everything that’s important. Our styles are very similar because we’re pretty laidback,” she says.

But overall, Erin is more the disciplinarian because she’s the primary caretaker. Still, she considers herself far more relaxed than her own parents were raising her. “We want our son to be exposed to a lot of different things. He’s seen a movie that has some bad language in it, and we explain that it’s not language we use,” she shares. Growing up, Erin wasn’t allowed to watch Bewitched. Meanwhile, the McKools watch Malcolm in the Middle together.

When they saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty as a family, in true entrepreneurial fashion, Erin decided that the clementine cake from the movie would be perfect for her restaurant. “I looked up some recipes online and adapted one for Start,” she says. “We want to stay fresh and current.” So, her version is just one serving and gluten free.

Naturally, Michael Finn had some input on the kids’ menu. His favorite item is the chicken nuggets, which Mom also makes at home. The burger, which he calls “the delicious meat,” is another hit. But he won’t see his request for a restaurant playground come to fruition any time soon. “It changes the perception of what you are,” Erin says, pointing to Start’s current kid corner loaded with board books and coloring pages for drawing.

When it comes to raising a child, Erin makes a point not to be preoccupied with getting everything exactly right and allowing a bit of chaos to foster precious family time. “I could work more but I know there’s a finite amount of time that Michael Finn is going to like me. He’ll love me forever, but when he’s 10, he’s not going to be so Mom-focused. So, I’m trying to get as much of that as I can,” she explains. For the McKools, this means taking their son out to eat, to the Perot Museum Of Nature and Science and to White Rock Lake, where Michael Finn loves to ride his scooter or bike.

With children always front of mind, Erin uses her chairmanship at Vogel Alcove – a childcare facility and preschool for homeless kids – to help make a difference in the larger community. In fact, 100 percent of the proceeds from the birdhouses purchased at Start’s front counter goes to the organization. And, although her leadership position will conclude this July, Erin already has other projects lined up. She’d like to expand her catering business, dig deeper into marketing and perhaps develop a cookbook. But first, she’ll open the doors to a second location on Lemmon Avenue – a fresh Start for Oak Lawn that we can all look forward to this summer.

Published April 2014