Esperanza “Hope” Lancarte, the grande dame of the Fort Worth restaurant trade who worked from childhood in the kitchen of her parents’ restaurant and, with her sister, built the iconic Joe T. Garcia’s restaurant into an award-winning destination, died Thursday after a long illness. She was 86.
Under Mrs. Lancarte’s leadership, the family’s flagship restaurant, known simply as Joe T.’s, received the coveted America’s Classics regional restaurant award from the James Beard Foundation, along with other accolades including praise for “best gardens” from the Fort Worth Botanical Society and top margaritas from the Star-Telegram.
For generations of North Texans, rich and poor, Joe T.’s on North Commerce Street has been the place to celebrate special occasions and entertain out-of-town guests.
“The north side is going to miss her,” said Eddie Gamez, a longtime Fort Worth restaurateur and onetime CEO of Pulido’s. “Joe T.’s will stand forever, and it’s because of her.”
“No restaurant defines Fort Worth like Joe T.’s and Joe T.’s wouldn’t be Joe T.’s without La Maestra Lancarte,” Austin-based author and journalist Joe Nick Patoski, a Fort Worth native, said in an email.
With an iron will and unwavering adherence to her mother Jesusa Garcia’s recipes, Mrs. Lancarte, the mother of seven, turned a 66-seat ramshackle restaurant into a sprawling operation with a 1,500-seat capacity, along with two Esperanza’s Mexican Bakery and Cafe locations, one on North Main Street and the other on Park Place Avenue near the Hospital District.
“It’s an American dream come true,” said a daughter-in-law, Jody Lancarte.
“She leaves an amazing legacy — from a barbecue joint in the front of a house to the James Beard regional cuisine award, to [grandson] Lanny as a nationally respected chef at the highest levels, with most of the family working actively in the business,” said Doug Renfro, president of another family-run Fort Worth business, Renfro Foods, which has worked with the Lancartes.
“Hope set a high bar for family food companies.”
For years, the “cash register” was a pocket on her apron, said grandson Lanny P. Lancarte II. “She was definitely the matriarch, the head of the family — the ‘head lady in charge’ for sure. She certainly ruled the roost with all her children,” he said.
Mrs. Lancarte insisted to her children, grandchildren and unrelated employees: “No matter who walked in, whether it’s [ Star-Telegram founder] Amon Carter or a truck driver, you treat them the same and they’ll always come back.”
And for good measure, she repeated the mantra, “Hard work will never kill you.”
“Mrs. Lancarte became a Fort Worth and north-side institution,” said Mayor Pro Tem Sal Espino, whose City Council district includes the Joe T.’s neighborhood.
“Her legacy is one of faith, family and entrepreneurship.”
The business was started as a barbecue stand in 1935 by her father, Joe T. Garcia. The family legend is that he took a day off, and his wife offered customers homemade tamales and quesadillas. Later, they added family platters of simple cheese enchiladas and tacos.
Hope Garcia was born Aug. 26, 1928. Hope assisted her mother — known as Jessie to customers but Mamasuz to family — in the kitchen throughout her childhood as Joe T.’s gained its reputation and attracted some of the town’s most prominent citizens.
The Garcia siblings attended North Side High School. She was raised strictly by her immigrant parents. Her father forbade dating during her teen years but allowed Hope and her sister Mary to catch a movie on an occasional Sunday, a half-day of work.
Hope and Mary Garcia were off seeing a film when Royal Hogan, golfer Ben Hogan’s older brother and the founder of the state’s biggest office supply company, came in and wanted to be fed, as he had every Sunday.
Told the restaurant couldn’t open until the sisters — cook and hostess — returned, the wealthy businessman lectured the sisters when they finally showed up.
“OK, girls, I have lunch every Sunday, and this is not going to happen again,” he was said to have told them sternly. According to family lore, they replied: “Yes, sir. We won’t be late again.”
In 1948, Hope Garcia married North Side High classmate Paul Lancarte, who joined the Garcia family business. They divorced in the 1970s, and he died in 1989.
When her father died suddenly of an aneurysm in 1953, management of the profitable eatery was thrust on 25-year-old Hope Lancarte and Mary. It was a time when few Hispanic women held such positions in the business world, and it was radical 60 years ago in Fort Worth.
While they grieved for their father, the bank called in loans and suppliers refused to extend credit, Jody Lancarte said.
“No one expected the restaurant to stay open for more than a year after he died,” she said. Somehow, the sisters persuaded creditors and vendors to accept small daily payments.
“They said, ‘Look, we’re going to come up there and pay,’ ” Jody Lancarte told an oral-history project on landmark Texas restaurants at the University of Texas at Austin in 2012.
“And Mary or Hope would run up to the bank every day and pay them a little bit on their note. Every day. ‘We got the money, here’s the money, we got the money,’ you know, and they left them alone. They paid the beer men every day … out of their pockets, you know. Whatever came in, they’d pay it out.”
Under her leadership, Joe T.’s kept the menu limited, with unwavering adherence to her mother’s recipes. Esperanza’s was allowed a far fuller menu, with periodic tweaking, her daughter-in-law said.
“Joe T. Garcia’s is an institution in the state of Texas and beyond and Mrs. Lancarte was a major reason for its lasting success,” Marvin Bendele, executive director of Foodways Texas, a project at UT Austin, said in an email Friday.
“She helped her mother keep the restaurant afloat in the ’50s after Joe T. passed and continued to be a force in its growth and popularity,” Bendele said. “In a period that made it difficult for women to run businesses, Hope Lancarte persevered and flourished. She will be sorely missed.”
Juan Hernandez, a TV commentator and onetime adviser to then-President Vicente Fox of Mexico, remembers being laughed at as a long-haired blond mariachi singer trying out for a job at Joe T.’s. But Hope Lancarte hired him anyway.
“I remember once she questioned if I had performed a full 13 hours,” recalled Hernandez, who worked his way through graduate school at TCU by performing at the restaurant. “I told her, ‘Mama Esperanza, spank me if I didn’t do 13 hours, but pay me.’ ”
Mrs. Lancarte served the trademark enchiladas to the hungry grad student after each performance, he said.
When she was hospitalized recently, Hernandez gave her a vinyl recording of one of his Joe T.’s performances that a friend had found in Houston.
“She was a strong woman who made sure I sang 33 songs every hour. But she was more than a boss to us employees. We loved her. She was a mother to us all,” he said.
Survivors include sons Lanny Lancarte Sr., Joe Lancarte, Jesse Lancarte and Phillip Lancarte, all of Fort Worth; daughters Zurella Lancarte and Elizabeth Lancarte, both of Fort Worth; sisters Mary Christian of Fort Worth and Josephine Castillo of the Houston area; 24 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.