Leray Scifres learned to cook professionally at the now shuttered T&P Freight Warehouse when it was home to the culinary institute of TSTC-Abilene.
“I was in the first class,” he said, finishing as valedictorian in 2011.
Now, he has keys to the building.
Call it La Stazioné
Scifres, owner of The Flour Shop Bakery and Gatehouse Café at Abilene Regional Airport, plans to open an upscale Italian restaurant and bar in the T&P building, 901 N. First St.
Scifres is leasing 10,000 square feet of the building, noticeable for the iconic outdoor flamingo sculpture at the corner, from local developer Charlie Wolfe. Wolfe bought the building in March 2021 after outbidding the Abilene Chamber of Commerce.
His stated intent at the time was to put a restaurant at the site.
Built in 1916, the T&P Freight Warehouse underwent a major renovation in 1999 to preserve the property, according to the Abilene Preservation League website.
Scifres wants to open La Stazioné (Italian for The Station) in mid-summer, with seating in the building’s west end and a bar in the middle. Outdoor patio seating for brunch services also is a possibility, he said.
A sneak peek of the dining space’s exposed brick, heavy wood beams and rustic high ceiling may be possible as soon as mid-May, when Scifres moves the bakery to the building’s east end.
“We’re looking more toward the upscale end of the classic fare of Italian food. Not necessarily hone in on one specific region of Italy, as well, but just open it up to general Italian food,” Scifres said.
“… Steak dishes, seafoods – they can all be incorporated into the Italian genre. So it’s not just tied down to strictly pastas.”
As he searches to hire a chef de cuisine to develop the menu, fresh in-house pasta is on Scifres’s wish list.
Returning to downtown
Operating a restaurant in downtown Abilene is like homecoming in more than one way for Scifres.
Before cooking became a profession, Scifres retired early as an internal auditor at Blue Cross Blue Shield to care for his then-ailing father for the last five months of his life.
After earning an associate’s degree in culinary arts from the TSTC program that was phased out in 2019, Scifres opened in 2012 The Flour Shop Bakery in the lobby of The Windsor, also downtown.
The bakery closed when new ownership took over the hotel-turned-apartments and did not renew his lease, Scifres said.
Limited bakery and catering orders have been handled at the Gatehouse Café, an airport dining sport since February 2021.
“I’m still turning down quite a few orders, nearly some every day, while we’re not open with the bakery. Looking forward to getting that back up and running again and back downtown,” Scifres said.
When it’s not serving grab-and-go breakfasts, desserts and modern diner fare such as Wagyu beef hamburgers and waffle sandwiches, the Gatehouse Café is a test kitchen for new creations that could make the La Stazioné menu.
Scifres will continue operating the café after the Italian restaurant opens.
The timing seems right to start a venture downtown, he said, with construction on the convention hotel and “a lot of new bars, a lot of new venues, a lot of new places,” he said.
“And, we’re just right there in the middle of it. We’ve got the SoDA District just to our south across the railroad tracks. We’ve got downtown just to the north of this, and it just seems like it’s the perfect time to get going on something like this.”
First food love
Italian food is Scifres’s favorite, “from the time I was a child on up to adulthood,” he said.
“It always was my go-to food for when I would be able to pick something. So, Italian seemed like a natural fit. I enjoy eating it as well as cooking it and am looking forward to sharing it with Abilene.”
He finds foodie inspiration on his travels, whether it’s a short trip to Dallas or for several days on cruises overseas.
“When I first started getting into actually the restaurant business, … that’s always been my goal is to ultimately have a fine dining Italian restaurant. So this is a dream come true for me,” Scifres said.
Other specifically Italian restaurants in Abilene, excluding pizza, are: Olive Garden, Little Italy, Joe’s and Fazoli’s.
Update on downtown Abilene restaurant scene
The downtown Abilene restaurant scene continues to evolve, with newcomers in recent years joining the ranks of the more established for diverse dining options.
Bogies, 241 Cypress St.: The Breakfast-and-lunch joint catering to the downtown on-the-go crowd opened in 1990 with signature sandwiches, soups and salads named after classic movies. Breakfast was added later.
Beehive Steakhouse, 442 Cedar St.: White-tablecloth service is combined with West Texas sensibilities for a uniquely elevated dining experience that feels comfortable, whether its the escargot appetizer, filet mignon or chicken fried steak.
Cypress Street Station, 158 Cypress St.: The upscale restaurant is approaching 30 years of being a date-night and special occasions destination because of its menu and ambiance.
Grain Theory, 202 Pine St.: The brewery and restaurant takes dining up a notch, literally, on the second floor and balcony of the renovated Motis Building. Grain Theory marked its one-year anniversary on Jan. 29.
Hickory Street Café, 655 Hickory St.: Classic American sandwiches, salads, soups and baked goods are available at this long-time favorite lunch spot on the edge of downtown. Zucchini bread is a must-order for long-time customers.
The Local, 250 Cypress St.: An elevated play on contemporary, scratch-made Mexican food served with flair is the specialty of the restaurant that opened in November 2019 in the former Busch Jewelers building.
Sweet Thyme Kitchen, 1246 N. 6th St.: Grab and go, or sit and savor at the bakery and bistro that celebrated its third anniversary on Feb. 22. Menu items include sandwiches, soups, quiche, frittata and cookies and other baked goods big enough to share.
Vagabond Pizza, 1056 N. Second St.: Like a pied piper, Vagabond Pizza drew its loyal fans of brick-oven pies served from a food trailer to a permanent downtown home. Artisan pizzas, local ingredients and decadent desserts that sometimes swerve into the whimsical rotate through the menu.
Laura Gutschke is a general assignment reporter and food columnist and manages online content for the Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.