When you hear the phrase “Gut Pak,” what comes to mind? Probably some sort of food that is the leading cause of protruding bellies, or possibly something manly men enjoy while cheering for their football team. While these two may be close to the truth in Waco, the Gut Pak is first and foremost the most popular menu item at Vitek’s BBQ. According to owner Julie Keith, this pile of Fritos chips, beans, cheese, sausage and beef is one thing among many that keeps the business at Vitek’s successful.
Vitek’s began as a small grocery store with a meat counter located a few minutes from Baylor University down Speight Avenue. While remaining in the same spot, it has changed names from Vitek’s Grocery & Market to its current, Vitek’s BBQ.
“I have pictures that date back to 1915 when it was mainly a corner store and meat market – sausage and your other raw meats,” Keith said. “Ready-to-eat food evolved over time, and when my dad [Bill Vitek] took over in the ‘70s, Vitek’s became kind of a sandwich shop. In the ‘80s, the Gut Pak came in, along with the barbeque.”
Keith took over the business nearly five years ago, leaving a seven-year career in dental hygiene when her father, Bill Vitek, retired from his 30-plus career. She became the fourth generation of her family to run the restaurant.
“The family is still in the business, owning and operating it,” Keith said. “That’s becoming more of a unique thing. When my dad decided to retire, I figured since my husband works, I could put all my money back into the business to grow it.”
Recently, this growth has been visible even to the occasional customer. The expansion of the outside area, including an open fire pit and a concert area, began a year ago. The indoor renovations opened in April, adding much more space for customers to stay and eat.
“Now that we’ve added the indoor seating, we have picked up more of the local professionals because they now have a place to go eat with their colleagues,” Keith said.
Despite this change in the customer mix, Vitek’s continues to attract a variety of customers.
“We get all walks of life,” Keith said, “from the neighbors to the business professionals to college and high school students. We serve all walks of life, partly due to the fact that we’ve been here so long. We have generations of customers coming back.”
Vitek’s thrives on the loyalty of these different customers. Through the years, they have entered to eat and have left pleased enough to talk about it. Keith maintains this pattern by focusing on and listening to the customers.
“Our best [advertising] is word-of-mouth so we work on our customers who come into the door every day,” Keith said. “By keeping that good quality service when you walk in the door, we count on our customers to share the word. It seems like that could be your worst enemy or your best friend.”
This strategy has proven successful for Vitek’s business model. Small businesses that can develop a reputation as being “where the locals go” often survive without excessive marketing. In fact, as Keith understands, this marketing can ruin the small town-small restaurant feel.
“I don’t really want to plop up a highway sign,” Keith said. “I want to keep it like this.”
“Keeping it like this” does not mean Keith has not thought about what the future might bring. These considerations include what it would take to open a second location.
“We always get requests to build somewhere else,” Keith said. “I think what I would do first is get this place operating where it would be reproducible. I’ve gotten it from where it was my mom and dad doing everything to now making it where the sauce can be measured out consistently [by anyone]. If we did want to do another location, we could have the ability to do that. But I don’t have any plans to do that right now.”
For now, Keith plans to keep the restaurant running as it is, with its parking lot that never seems big enough to its Gut Paks that keep hungry Wacoans coming back. She also plans to continue to enjoy the everyday pleasures of running her own business.
“The joys of the business,” Keith said, “are seeing customers over and over and building relationships. That makes it fun. But before going into your own business, you’ve got to know that some days you may be the only one who shows up because everyone else can have an excuse. There are some days when I wonder, ‘What am I doing?’ But I’m here now, committed, and it’s awesome.”