If you’ve eaten in an Austin restaurant in the last 24 years, Jenn Daly has definitely served you.
A lifelong attraction to the service industry has led Jenn Daly (both names, thank you) to work in nearly every notable restaurant, bar and coffeehouse in town. The short list features Les Amis, Hole in the Wall, Spider House, Wheatsville Co-op, Mojo’s Daily Grind, The Ritz, High Life Café (the counter where we first met), The Elephant Room, Epoch Coffee, Uchi, Justine’s, Wink and Chez Nous.
“My passion is creating feelings within a space—as an art form.”
“Service is my favorite thing in the world,” she said. “I’m in love with Restaurant, whom I talk about as a person. It’s got all the excitement and love, all the problems and solutions, and all the food … It’s everything that I ever want.”
In yoga, seva is a person’s unique offering toward making the world better. Jenn Daly’s seva is service, and she offers it with a sincerity bordering on devotion. Food, drink and hospitality are the tools she uses to acknowledge people’s humanity and forge a connection.
“I can tell what people need before they sit down,” she said, describing her gift. “I can see from across the room that that couple does not have anything to talk about anymore. I can get their drink order and sprinkle a conversation piece over the table, and they’ll talk for the rest of the night. And that, to me, is really what it’s about.”
Listen to Jenn Daly’s story about a life in service:
This impulse that creates memorable experiences for customers also fuels a distinctive DIY career as an artist and curator. “My life revolves around people, their stories, the food they eat and the wines they drink, the art they make, their process, their concept, their inspiration,” she explained.
“I truly believe the only things to do in life are eat, drink, talk, travel and make art.”
One of her iconic installations was titled The Tower, after the tarot card representing calamitous upheaval and destruction. Jenn Daly’s version used restaurant detritus: brooms and café chairs precariously stacked atop broken plates, surrounded by candles and half-full glasses of water, and topped with an ashtray and a server’s ticket book.
“Because I prefer install, it seemed silly and pretentious to have a show around one piece,” she explained. “So I started pulling people into my concepts and throwing enormous group shows.”
These happenings rocketed to another level in the late 1990s, when she joined the staff at Mojo’s Daily Grind, the legendary coffeehouse on The Drag.
Mojo’s became infamous for its annual TV Smash, in which patrons demolished old TV sets in a frenzy of anticommercial bloodlust. Every year, Jenn Daly collected TVs via BMX bike (her only wheels for 20 years), then gutted their toxic interiors before reassembling the sets for patrons to destroy. “The first [TV Smash] had three TVs and six people,” she said, “… and I think the last one had, like, 700 TVs. I might be exaggerating … but hundreds and hundreds of TVs.”
Listen to Jenn Daly describe the infamous TV Smash at Mojo’s:
Jenn Daly has always been an unflagging supporter of her community. Every night for years, she paid cover, bought drinks, cheered a show, and rolled to the next venue.
“If someone had a show, I was gonna go to it. Whether I liked their music or not, whether I wanted to be out or not. It seemed wrong to not support.”
In 2012, she and Jon Lawrence opened The Wet Whistle at Martin Luther King Jr. and Chicon. The stress of opening and running a neighborhood grocery took its toll, exacerbating her patterns of alcohol and prescription drug use. She left the Wet Whistle and started to spiral.
“…the root to every problem I’ve ever had is empathy. It’s my greatest blessing and my biggest curse.”
“To be an empath in the service industry can be really awesome,” she said. “But I figured out the root to every problem I’ve ever had is empathy. It’s my greatest blessing and my biggest curse.” At the time, she didn’t understand her empathic nature, so she was left at its mercy.
“On any given day,” she remembered, “anywhere between 5 and 25 people would tell me all of their problems, and I’d sponge it up. And I suddenly find that I have all of these feeling that aren’t mine. Fast-forward three hours, I’m crying my eyes out, I have no idea why. Then I’d be like, Who’s got the Xanax? or Ooh, I’ll just have 500 glasses of wine.”
In 2014, she rolled a friend’s truck while driving to the airport.
There was no roll bar in the truck or other visible means to keep her from being crushed in the single-vehicle rollover. Yet somehow, she emerged with a serious concussion and no life-threatening injuries.
“I’ll never, ever know what all happened in that. I’ll never know how I came out of it so well,” she said. “I kind of wonder, was it god? Was it the half a pound of crystals that got pulverized in my purse? Was it luck?”
The wreck brought noticeable changes, whether from the intense blow to her head, the somatic therapy she pursued afterward to recover, or both. She found herself free from addictive tendencies as well as her anxiety, depression and insomnia, and a lifelong eating disorder. The changes to her neural pathways were intense enough to change her handwriting and signature.
She subsequently swapped nights for morning shifts. “That nightlife can just take it out of you. And it didn’t lend itself to my piss-poor behavioral problems, either. Four years as a 6 a.m.-er kinda changed the game,” she said. She even conquered a lifelong fear of dogs and adopted a sweet pit bull whom she named Tallboy.
Most of Jenn Daly’s energy now is focused on making healthy decisions for her life and recovery. “I’ve learned I need to not say Yes all the time. When I first started saying No, it took practice. Now I’m real good at it. … And I’m finally coming back into saying Yes to things that are awesome,” she said, then paused.
“I wouldn’t take that accident back for a million dollars. You know what I mean?”
Jenn Daly tells her own story better than I ever could. I had the distinct pleasure of visiting her witch’s den—full of shrines, plants, photos of loved ones, good things to eat, and the sweetest pit bull in the world—to catch up with her.
JENN DALY: Q&A
My community is all over the map. But within every group, my loyalty is strongest amongst women.
AWL: What events or conditions do you feel have been most responsible for shaping you into the person you are now?
JD: Being a latchkey kid, being poor, being a server, being a drug addict, being an empath, and being in one particular motor vehicle accident made me the Jenndaly I am today.
AWL: What effect do you most consistently work to exert on the world? Do you have a concept or mantra that guides you?
JD: “It is the speck that makes the cloud that wrecks the vessel.”
My super power is empathy.
AWL: What’s your super power? How did you first recognize it? Do you like having it? Do you use it for good or evil? (Or both? Or has it changed? Please describe.)
JD: My super power is empathy. I discovered this about myself as a child but could not identify it, so it has ebbed and flowed in and out of a thousand formations that I only recently have understood more thoroughly.
I use it mostly for good, but it has its darkness, which usually is directed inward, when I cannot recognize its presence. It changes constantly. It depends on the people involved, their intentions and circumstances and the volume in any particular amount of time.
You once told me I was the most sensitive person on earth. Turns out, you were right!
AWL: What takes up the majority of your brain space these days?
JD: My brain is generally occupied with maintaining my mental health and well-being. Since mental health and physical health are braided together, my days are consumed with making the best possible decisions concerning my diet, sleep patterns, supplements, hydration, temperature, the company I keep, and the things I choose to say out loud.
I keep vocal judgments to a bare minimum and work constantly to minimize silent judgment of others, as well. That shit is no good for anyone, including myself. Criticism and negative circular thinking make me a terribly unhappy and anxious person. So my desire to eliminate judgmental thought patterns is more self-involved than moral, if I’m being honest.
I take the humanitarian side of things, always. So service is perfect for me.
AWL: What does your work look like? What do you do for a living? What do you do for passion? Have you found ways to get those to work together? Have you always been on this path, or has your career focus changed over the years?
JD: I work in service. Restaurant industry. My passion is creating feelings within a space. As an art form. In small ways I combine them often. In big ways, I have tried and sometimes pull it off. But at the end of the day, I loathe paperwork and that doesn’t make the best at being in charge of things. I also don’t give much of a crap about money, so business just ain’t my cup of tea. I take the humanitarian side of things, always. So service is perfect for me.
I enjoy creating lovely spaces, feeling out what folks need emotionally from their experience when they are out, and delivering just that! I treat strangers at the restaurant the way I do my very best friends sitting in my kitchen. Service is truly a dying art, and technology is its grim reaper. I’ll be proud to be an elderly waitress who still makes eye contact and hand-writes tickets. Most folks search high and low for romance. I find romance in restaurants. It’s my longest-lasting love affair. Till death do us part.
I treat strangers at the restaurant the way I do my very best friends sitting in my kitchen.
AWL: What were you like when you were first starting your career? Have you changed in the way that you work and approach situations and people? What kind of scene could you envision if You Today hired or worked with You Starting Out?
JD: I started working in rural New Jersey at age twelve. I worked the register at a dry cleaners on Hope Road. I paid myself $85 a week, cash, out of the register and could smoke all the Marlboro Lights I wanted from the owner’s stash of cartons. From there, various bagel shops, delicatessens, and coffee spots. Then Houston, Texas, at an Applebee’s, where I was too young to carry alcoholic drinks to the tables. In 1995, my first job in Austin was as a line cook at Les Amis. And that is where I fell in love with restaurants. 27 years and 50 jobs later, I’m as in love as I’ve ever been—maybe even more.
I’d make Younger Me understand that kindness is what makes people “cool,” that ego is counterproductive, and that smoking is stupid.
AWL: Who makes up your communities? Have you accumulated or integrated different communities as you’ve moved into or through different areas?
JD: My community is all over the map. But within every group, my loyalty is strongest amongst women. Artists, dancers, BMXers, activists, welders, carpenters, servers, cooks, bussers, dishwashers, healers, herbalists, musicians, teachers, babies, dogs—these are my people. I sway in and out of many different scenes and cliques. And I almost always fly solo.
AWL: Who are three of your female besties? How, when and why did you become friends? Why are you still friends? Tell me the worst awesome story about one of them! (Just kidding.)
JD: My three best female friends?! Over the course of my life I’ve had too many too count. And every last one of them holds space in my heart as big as the moon.
But here, in what is probably the middle of my life, I have my three that will be in place for the second half.
My mother, Kathleen Margaret Huysee Daly.
My aunt, Cindy Evelyn Tracy.
And my dog, Tallboy.
The first two were a package deal with existence. The third came with the lucky break that gave me my second chance at existence!
All three are open-hearted, loving, generous, gifted and honest (sometimes brutally). They give me the opportunity to also be all of those things without the fear of being left behind, riddled with guilt for feeling too much. Cindy and I have had identical dental work done. My mother and I have all the same freckles on our left arm. Tallboy and I have a matching tattoo. These women could never be replaced.
I have a tendency to be overall available to the people I care for, willing to sacrifice whatever I can to keep a girl afloat.
AWL: What do you do for your lady community? How do they support you in achieving your goals? Do you fall into consistent roles, or do you switch up roles as situations necessitate?
JD: As an empathetic woman, that is probably what I bring to my community. I have a tendency to be overall available to the people I care for, willing to sacrifice whatever I can to keep a girl afloat. I enjoy being a good listener and sharing my life experiences to find solutions for others’ hardships. I like to share my opportunities and resources. I also am a connector, a conductor, if you will. I enjoy introducing like-minded folks to accomplish their goals for the greater good.
And I’ve definitely been on both sides of that fence.