Paul Willis, the longtime Fort Worth restaurateur who founded Fuzzy’s Taco Shop and was involved in a number of other North Texas restaurants, was found dead at his home Wednesday night. He was 47.
The cause of death had not been posted by Thursday night, but his family said he had diabetes and had quadruple bypass surgery two years ago.
Mr. Willis was a force in the Tarrant County restaurant industry, having helped design H3Ranch, Cabo and Lucile’s, as well as founding Fuzzy’s and Yucatan Taco Stand.
His sister, LeeAnn Willis, says that his restaurant journey began when Mr. Willis was 16 and working at a Taco Bell in Colleyville.
“He found out that he liked cooking,” LeeAnn Willis said. “He used to come up with all kinds of creations that he would cook on holidays for the family. He just had a passion for cooking.”
Born Jan. 14, 1966, Mr. Willis grew up in the Netherlands where his father was in the aircraft repair business. According to a 2001 Star-Telegram profile, after Mr. Willis graduated from L.D. Bell High School in Hurst in 1984, he went to work as a hotel chef in Florida, then moved on to Will Rogers Downs in Oklahoma before returning to Fort Worth, where he worked at the River House, a popular seafood spot on University Drive in the ’80s.
He enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., but ran out of money two months short of graduation and returned to DFW, working at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas. Soon he returned to Fort Worth, working with the outfit that owned the River House, Lucile’s, Cabo and H3Ranch.
Later, he and M&M Steakhouse owner Keith Kidwell bought Margie’s Italian Gardens in far west Fort Worth, where Mr. Willis upgraded the menu, according to the Star-Telegram profile.
In 2001, sensing a need in the TCU-area college market, he opened the original Fuzzy’s Taco Shop on West Berry Street near South University Drive. Soon after, he opened Pedro’s Trailer Park on White Settlement Road, in the space that later housed Lambert’s and is about to be home to Clay Pigeon.
Although Pedro’s closed in 2004, Fuzzy’s has thrived since father-and-son team Alan and Chuck Bush bought out the original location in 2003. Chuck Bush loved Willis’ concept, which has since developed into a franchise, beginning with a second Fuzzy’s in 2007 on Race Street in the Riverside area of Fort Worth.
The company has grown to nearly 80 locations, many of them in Texas but some as far as Wisconsin and South Carolina.
Mr. Willis kept going, founding Yucatan Taco Stand on West Magnolia Avenue in 2008; Buffalo Gap Steakhouse and Cantina in Granbury in 2010; Buffalo Cantina Mexican Kitchen & Tequileria on Texas 360 between Arlington and Euless in 2011 (a second location opened in Southlake in 2012). Often Mr. Willis would design the concept and/or the menu, then leave the restaurant in the hands of others and move on to his next project.
He also worked for a year as personal chef for country singer Toby Keith.
One of his latest projects, developed with owners Paul McKinney and Justin McWilliams, was Buffalo West on Camp Bowie Boulevard in far west Fort Worth.
“He was just extremely creative, and probably worked harder than most people,” said McWilliams, who also worked with Mr. Willis on Yucatan Taco Stand. “He was one of the most talented people I’d ever worked with.”
Mr. Willis’ last project was Gas Monkey Bar n Grill in Dallas, which he was involved in from April to July of 2013, according to Tim Hinkhouse, who one of the original investors and is currently the majority shareholder in Yucatan Taco Stand and worked with Mr. Willis on Gas Monkey.