Readers often contact the Tribune-Herald this time of year to find Waco-area restaurants that will be open Thanksgiving Day.
Of about 20 non-fast-food restaurants contacted this year, these will be open.
614 N. Valley Mills Drive
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.
511 S. Eighth St.
Hours: 2 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Brown House Cafe
9110 Jordan Lane, Woodway
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
4725 N. Interstate 35 and 221 Enterprise Blvd.
Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
799-4729 or 420-3505
Catered packages available to order.
709 N. Interstate 35 and 2409 S. New Road
Hours: open 24 hours
753-7228 or 752-0743
618 N. Valley Mills Drive
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
113 S. University Parks Drive
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
211 Clay Ave.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
1000 S. Fourth St. and 4109 S. Jack Kultgen Freeway
Hours: open 24 hours
754-3001 and 757-1133
951 N. Loop 340, Bellmead
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The Raleigh, Waco Hippodrome
724 Austin Ave.
Hours: 2 to 9 p.m.
This is do-or-die season for pecan growers, when trees become ripe for the shaking and shoppers’ thoughts turn to pies and candies.
Like Black Friday for retailers, November is showtime for growers. Even as they harvest for the holiday, they scramble to fend off squirrels, the vagaries of climate and chancy market conditions for the right to do it again next year.
This year has been a particularly hard one to crack, swinging from a summer with too little water to an autumn with too much. Barely more than an inch of rain fell from June through August, but more than 20 inches have fallen since Sept. 1. Meanwhile, the pecan industry has reported a wholesale price drop of 40 to 60 cents a pound on the global market, a drop attributed partly to a trade war with China, a major importer of pecans.
In Central Texas, growers such as Ryan and Santana Bay of Gatesville are trying to salvage what they can.
“I don’t like to work on Sundays, but we’re so far behind, I had to make an exception,” Ryan Bay said in a phone interview Sunday. He spent his day of rest playing catchup, harvesting pecans a mile from the flood-swollen Leon River. High water, he said, “has devastated a good piece of my crop.”
The Bays began growing pecans a decade ago on Coryell County acreage now dotted with about 400 trees. This year the couple was named as a finalist in the Texas Farm Bureau’s annual Outstanding Young Farmer and Rancher award.
They also have access to 10 other parcels countywide, five filled with native pecans and five with cultivated orchards, and they work the land for a percentage of the yield.
“In a good year, we’ll get 100,000 pounds or more. But with the flooding and everything, we’ve probably picked up only a tenth of that,” Ryan Bay said. “If conditions improve and the land dries out, we’ll get more.
“But this has not been a good year,” he added.
The couple sells pecans to the public at Coryell Feed and Supply, owned by Ryan Bay’s father, Richard. They also have a handful of wholesale customers.
Ryan Bay described pecan raising as a “feast-or-famine” endeavor, with a mediocre crop typically following a good one in the production cycle. He maintains a shelling operation to smooth out rough times, and charges 40 cents a pound to crack pecans for others, 75 cents a pound for additional processing that includes cracking. These services are offered at the store.
With operations hitting on all cylinders, Bay Pecan Co. can generate $150,000 in gross revenue annually. But most growing seasons include hiccups, and routine overhead can run $180 to $250 an acre, counting the cost of fertilizer, insecticide, seasonal labor, fuel and equipment that may include trunk shakers, tractors, harvesters, sprayers, lawn-mowers and limb shakers.
“Some growers have combines, which cost more than everything I own.”
The Bays work a combined 105 cultivated acres, and an additional 4,000 native trees, using equipment bought and paid for with cash when times were better.
“I’m still paying on one shredder. That’s it,” said Ryan Bay.
Anyone who thinks pecan farming would be relaxing would be mistaken, especially this time of year, he said.
“How many hours are there in a day?” Bay said. “I try to get to the orchard about 7:30 or 8 in the morning, after we get the kids off to school, and I stick around until it gets dark. If there is heavy dew on the ground, the pecans have to dry before we start picking. Moisture will ruin them if they are still wet in the trailer. If it’s dry by lunch, we can start harvesting. Until then, we shake the trees and pick up sticks. All this time, my wife is at the feed store, so I’m pretty much out there by myself. It can be a little scary, but I’m cautious. I shut off any machine before I put my hand to it. It’s not worth the down time, or getting killed.”
Larry Stein, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension horticulturist, recently said in published reports that the Texas pecan crop looked to be above average, but late-season challenges include “excessive and continuous rain.”
Soaked nuts typically have poor kernel quality, and are more susceptible to fungus. Overflowing creeks can wash pecans downstream, and wet conditions hinder harvesting, allowing critters to plunder crops.
“We still have a lot of pecans, but a shortage of good pecans. They rotted in the shuck with all this rain,” he said. “The silver lining is that all this rain means we should have a good pecan crop in 2019.”
Monte L. Nesbitt, a pecan specialist in Texas A&M’s department of horticultural sciences, said homeowners statewide reported “shriveled” and “lightweight” pecans, proof that many backyard trees failed to get the 100-gallon daily dose of water they require between mid-August and mid-October.
“The pecan crop for Texas had been estimated at around 60 million pounds — a strong crop for the state and rebound above the 38 million pound level reported for 2017,” said Nesbitt, in an email message, concluding that recent trials and tribulations may instead drop yield to last year’s level.
Despite the local wind and moisture, and the East Coast hurricanes that crippled pecan crops in Georgia, prices have remained surprisingly stable.
“I would have expected higher prices, but that has not happened,” Stein said. “Basically, in-shell wholesale prices are running $1 to $2.50 a pound.”
Gail Blanpied, who owns and operates Rascoe Pecans northwest of Waco with her husband, Mark, said calling their pecan crop a disaster is an understatement. They sell organic pecans on Rascoepecans.com to customers as far away as Canada. But this year they were bedeviled by insects and drought.
The dreaded caterpillars of the pecan nut casebearer moth laid waste to their trees before they could effectively react with organic sprays. The drought took its toll, rains prevented harvesting, and squirrels and crows delivered the fatal blow.
“We have about 500 trees on 35 acres in the Chalk Bluff area, and our main orchard is right on the Brazos River,” said Blanpied, who picked up the family pecan business in 2007. Good years mean production tallies approaching 11,000 pounds, she said, and the couple reduce overhead by recruiting friends and family and neighborhood youngsters to chip in during harvesting season.
“It’s really a hard business to get into, unless you have something on the side,” said Blanpied, a retired schoolteacher whose husband is an engineer. “We love working outside, but the labor can be hard. You prune when you’re not harvesting or fertilizing. We haven’t fertilized as much as we probably should have. Had we, you could add 100 hours to our workload.”
Frankly, said Blanpied, “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Matt Russell would disagree. He’s part of the Gholson-based Russell pecan dynasty, which dates to 1900 and has blossomed to include candies, mixes, preserves and jams, and nearly every pecan-related service imaginable.
They pamper nearly 1,300 nut-bearing trees, the attention commencing with fertilizer application in March. They start spraying in April on a biweekly basis and start irrigating by early June.
“This is not just a two-month deal,” said Russell of pecan farming.
“We have several wells out here. The pipes were laid by hand, and the ditches were dug by hand,” said Russell. “We have a sprayer my grandpa built in the early 1980s. It runs on a modified Dodge diesel engine.”
He, like others in the trade, are trying to tough out a tough year.
“Pecans are supposed to go in cycles, and this was going to be a real good year,” he said. “We will make enough to get by, but a big profit, no. The cost of chemicals, fertilizer and diesel are not going down anytime soon. The drought hurt everybody this year, especially in Central Texas.”
Russell said he sells pecans to a bakery in West, to fundraising causes, in his retail shop and online. He typically charges $11.95 a pound for shelled pecans, $4.50 for pecans in the shell. He’s tight-lipped about throwing around other numbers, however, saying, “I wouldn’t want to publicize some things. I don’t necessarily want to see somebody else throwing up a store in Waco, or within 60 or 70 miles of what we do. I’m now taking over the operation, and we’ve had a rough year this year, and had one last year.”
Still, he said, the business attracts online orders from Oregon to Maine, and Thanksgiving kitchen plans are bringing up to 50 people a day to the store.
The Pecan Shop in McGregor, a newer entrant in the market, takes a different approach. The “shop” is a virtual one at pecanshop.com, where customers can order shelled, wild-harvested, certified pesticide-free, soaked pecans for shipment free of charge, said proprietor David Brydon.
Brydon and his wife, Amy, who have six children, lost their home to fire in 2013, a couple of years after taking over the shop from previous owners and making their mark at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market.
The Brydons live on 40 acres hugging the South Bosque River, where they produce a modest pecan crop, but mostly they serve as a clearinghouse for other growers of native pecans. They sell to health food stores, Whole Foods Market and a co-op in Austin, Brydon said.
“I have a lot of people, regulars from all over the country, who really love our pecans,” said Brydon. “We are swamped with orders.”
After three years and almost $1 million in work, McLennan County leaders have addressed almost all of the more than 350 Americans with Disabilities Act violations identified at county properties.
The U.S. Department of Justice identified a slew of violations during a 2011 inspection and reached a settlement with the county in 2015 that resulted in a 145-page list of required repairs at more than 20 buildings, and deadlines for each.
One major project that remains is the third-floor skywalk linking the main McLennan County Courthouse building and the annex building, County Administrator Dustin Chapman said. Plans include wider and lighter doors and a wheelchair lift to address an incline that is too steep near the skywalk, Chapman said.
Commissioners will also need to decide whether to add air conditioning to the skywalk, he said. Air conditioning is not a necessity but has long been a consideration for the structure, which is clad predominantly in glass.
“Really it’s just a few, just a handful of bid packages and everything should be done,” he said.
McLennan County has spent $981,151 on ADA-related expenses since the settlement, first assistant county auditor Frances Bartlett said.
County Judge Scott Felton said commissioners are scheduled to get a lengthy update on the status of all the projects after the first of the year.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry said he is still curious to see how the skywalk updates will work. The architect is still working on that design, Perry said.
The county’s building and maintenance department has been able to handle many of the projects required by the 2015 settlement in-house, Perry said. The required repairs ranged from adding or relocating signs to major structural work.
Not all violations were physical. Some required the county review and adjust its programs and services, emergency management and disaster prevention policies, and the sheriff’s office’s policies and procedures.
“We’ve spent far less than what I anticipated we would,” Perry said. “Our maintenance department has done a wonderful job.”
The Department of Justice has also been flexible on deadlines as unexpected issues have arisen and has worked with the county on “outside the box” ideas, Chapman said.
“They were very gracious working with us as we pared that list down,” he said.
For instance, instead of having to make every courtroom compliant with ADA standards, any trial or hearing that involves an individual with disabilities can be transferred to the courtroom used by visiting judges, which is ADA compliant, Chapman said.
Also, the McLennan County Jail would have needed millions of dollars in work to meet ADA standards. Instead of doing that work, the county was able to implement a policy to house inmates with disabilities in the adjacent Jack Harwell Detention Center, which is also owned by the county and meets ADA requirements.
Deadlines for several major repairs at the Extraco Events Center grounds were also adapted after the county announced plans for a major overhaul of facilities on the 60-acre fairgrounds site, which will be paid for with a tax on rental cars and hotel stays that voters approved in May 2017. ADA violations will be addressed as part of that project, to avoid making major repairs to facilities that may not be in place much longer.
The county avoided having to make changes to the former Grand Karem Shrine building at Seventh Street and Washington Avenue and its parking lot because Magnolia is buying the building.
A few private facilities the county used as vote centers needed costly repairs, but the county decided to move some vote centers to other facilities rather than pay for fixes.
Likewise, the Precinct 4 justice of the peace office in McGregor needed repairs that would have cost more than the value of the building. The county instead chose to buy a different building for the office, and the architect is working on designs for the remodel of the former bank, Perry said.
“We’ve got a lot of projects and we need to get them going,” Perry said.
A city of Waco worker died after being trapped on the second floor of a burning house early Wednesday in North Waco.
Jimmy Rios, 46, was reported dead in the fire at a two-story duplex at 1824 Gorman Ave., Fire Marshal Kevin Vranich said. His wife and mother escaped but were hospitalized for minor injuries, family members said.
About 30 firefighters encountered heavy smoke and flames leaping from the house around 6:40 a.m.
“The first units ... found heavy fire involvement on the second floor of the home,” Waco fire Deputy Chief R.M. Bergerson said. “It was reported that an occupant was trapped on the second floor and our units went into immediate rescue mode.”
Firefighters found Rios around 7 a.m. He was taken with critical injuries to Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center, where he later died.
Bergerson said two firefighters suffered minor injuries and were taken for medical evaluation.
The exact cause of the fire was listed as undetermined Wednesday afternoon. But fire investigators determined a space heater was in use on the second floor, and it was plugged into a multi-plug adapter plugged into an extension cord, heavily combustible materials around the heater.
Phillip Bridgewater, who lives on Morrow Avenue behind the home, said he was awakened by sirens and saw flames and large plumes of smoke pouring out of the home.
A resident of the area for 21 years, Bridgewater recalled that the neighborhood experienced a string of arson fires several years ago, but he said he has never experienced a fire this size in his neighborhood.
“It jolted me out of bed when I heard all the sirens stop right by the house,” Bridgewater said. “I’ve heard that sound too much, so I knew it was close. I looked out my window and at that point, the flames were coming out the back very strongly.”
Multiple fire trucks were called and battled the blaze. Smoke continued to rise out of the second story for about an hour before the fire was controlled.
“I saw one person get pulled out and I just thought (they must be suffering) from smoke inhalation,” Bridgewater said. “If they were in what I saw, I don’t know how someone could live through that.”
City of Waco spokesman Larry Holze said Rios was a building attendant in the facilities department for more than 20 years, working at City Hall for several years before moving to other buildings.
“Jimmy was a building attendant in our Facilities Department and gave many years of service to the City,” City Manager Wiley Stem said in a city email to employees Wednesday morning. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today. We also need to be thankful for, and remember the efforts of our Fire Department family as they contained the fire and two of their members were sent to the hospital for injuries.
“Please remember them as you spend time with your loved ones this holiday.”
Ivon Mendoza, Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce marketing & communications manager, said she was shocked to hear of Rios’ death from a board member Wednesday. Rios was an active DJ in the Waco area, known as DJ Xtreme, and would volunteer as entertainment for community events.
“He always was a volunteer for our community events with the chamber and he would DJ our family expo, the back-to-school bash every year and the Christmas drive,” Mendoza said. “He was always so energetic when he would get on his mic for those events. He has helped for the past three year for those events. He always had a smile on his face, always willing to help when he could and he always had a really good sense of humor.”
Note: This story has been updated to reflect that one of the survivors was Rios' mother.