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 Background: courtesy magnolia cafe; pancakes: Leslie banks | Dreamstime.com; napkin: chernetskaya | Dreamstime.com

My Breakfast with Andy

Conservation legend wrangles epic Texas deals over blueberries at a cafe table.

It’s one of the most-coveted invitations in Texas conservation: breakfast with Andy Sansom at Austin’s Magnolia Cafe. His table at Magnolia is a place where state parks were created, land acquisitions were hatched, nonprofits were born, book deals were sealed and every important topic in conservation was discussed.

Sansom, former head of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Nature Conservancy and the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, used the Lake Austin Boulevard eatery as his unofficial “office” for more than 30 years. It’s closed permanently now, a victim of COVID-19 (the South Austin Magnolia location is still open).

He’s had Magnolia meetings, almost all of them over breakfast, with Texas conservationists of all types — state officials, activists, writers, landowners, naturalists and nonprofit directors.

“A huge chunk of Texas conservation has been conceived there,” says Janice Bezanson, executive director of the Texas Conservation Alliance and a regular breakfaster.

I’ve met Andy for breakfast several times myself at the Magnolia, starting with the time he asked me to collaborate on a book about the Official Texas State Bison Herd. At first, I thought I was just having breakfast with Andy at some restaurant. Later, I realized it was bigger than that. This was a thing. This was capital-B Breakfast with Andy.

When I arrive, I see he’s a fixture at Magnolia. He warmly greets the waitstaff by name, waves to the cooks, gives subtle head-nods to fellow customers and has his breakfast served without having to order (in recent years, a bowl of blueberries). This was breakfast club for the conservation set.

Magnolia is a stalwart in the Austin breakfast scene, known for its pancakes and “Love Migas.” It’s a place that looks like it’s been there forever, west of downtown Austin, not far from the historic Deep Eddy swimming pool and Lady Bird Lake, with a tiny, uphill, impossible-to-park-in parking lot. A big window in the funky little dining room looks south over the parking lot toward the lake.

 Earl Nottingham / TPWD

There’s something special about breakfast. Andy must know that. You can have lunch with anybody, but breakfast feels personal. It feels unique to Andy. At breakfast, you’re vulnerable, you’re hopeful for the day ahead, you’re a little groggy (did he really say to meet at 7 a.m.?). You’re starting your day with the person across the table from you, and in this case, that’s Andy, the beloved dean of Texas conservation.

We sit down at the shiny, oilcloth-covered table, and I immediately notice the twinkle in his eye. I’m new to this, but he’s been doing it for 30 years. His warmth, generosity and friendliness put me at ease. Our breakfasts fall into a rhythm — 10 minutes to do some personal catch-up as we order, 30 or so minutes to cover the topic of the day as we eat, and five to 10 minutes to wrap things up. One time, we share breakfast with Shannon Davies of Texas A&M Press; another time, we run into Matt Winkler, one of the most generous donors to Texas conservation causes.

His breakfast topics are wide-ranging, depending on his guest — conservation land deals, state park funding, water issues, book ideas for his river and conservation book series, and more.

“Breakfast with Andy was a very special thing,” says Lydia Saldaña, communications director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation and an Andy breakfast fan. “I think it’s safe to say every conservation leader, just about anybody who matters in conservation, has sat across the table from Andy at Magnolia Cafe. And it’s a precious memory for all of us.”

But it’s not all state leaders and book publishers. Andy shares his time and knowledge generously, and he has served as a mentor to at least two generations of Texas conservationists. With the same rapt attention and intimacy of breakfast at Magnolia, he might wrangle a land deal or offer advice to an intern or a graduate student or a person starting a nonprofit.

“Andy truly is trying to accomplish conservation,” Bezanson says. “He’s not trying to promote Andy. His agenda is the work. To me, that’s what it should be.”

Families in Nature director Heather Kuhlken, who credits her breakfasts with Andy as crucial to the forming of her nonprofit, says one of the highlights of breakfast is seeing who Andy knows and interacts with.

“Andy is a hub in the network of conservation,” she says. “He’s willing to help you and connect you in, whether you are a big player or fresh and new to the work.”

Andy would sometimes meet with a series of people in the mornings, one after the other, sometimes overlapping, at Magnolia. (I’ve wondered how many bowls of blueberries Andy eats — if he orders a bowl of blueberries with everyone, is he eating five bowls of blueberries every morning?)

“The last time I met with him, it was like a parade of people coming in,” Kuhlken says. “They weren’t all meeting with him; some were there for their own meetings, but they’d all stop by and say hi. I just wanted to sit in a corner one day with a notepad and take notes on the who’s who of conservation in Texas.”

Bezanson notes that Andy has a talent for finding just the right moment to boost a project or make a connection with someone, and the result is a tremendous amount of conservation success. From his table at Magnolia, he tossed pebbles in the pond of conservation and watched the ripple effects.

“He’d often meet with somebody who had a problem who was trying to get past a certain point in an issue, advising them, connecting them, saying, ‘Sure, I’ll make that phone call,’ or ‘Yes, I can help you raise that money,’” she says. “By doing that, he can sit back there in his spot and make things happen for other people and their issues.”

Ken Kramer, statewide director of the Sierra Club from 1989 to 2012, recalls two results of his breakfast meetings with Sansom — Kramer’s Living Waters of Texas book with photographer Charles Kruvand and the “environmental flows” legislation passed by the Legislature in 2007. The legislation, which protects instream flows in rivers and freshwater inflows into bays, was fleshed out over a series of Magnolia meetings.

“The meetings expanded my horizons while the migas were expanding my waistline,” Kramer says.

Andy will still find a way to meet with people, but, sadly, it will no longer be at Magnolia Cafe.

“It feels like a ritual,” Kuhlken says of the Magnolia breakfasts. “It feels like the heart of a community. Those breakfasts and the place and Andy himself feel like the heart of the community of conservation.”

Bezanson echoes the sentiment.

“The Magnolia is part of his persona — Andy at the Mag,” she says. “The minute somebody told me the Magnolia Cafe was closing, I immediately thought of Andy. He said he was heartbroken, like losing a friend.”

We talked to Andy about the closing in the restaurant’s now-empty parking lot.

“As much as anything else, it’s proximity to where I live. I live just across the lake here. It’s on my way to work. It’s my kind of place. I’ve been coming here since 1988.”

“There were several things. Number one is the waitstaff, with whom I became very close over the years. Number two, it’s emblematic of what people call Old Austin. I think that’s one reason people are so sad that it’s disappearing. It’s a symbol of an Austin that we all knew when we came that is disappearing. And the food is great.”

“When I was at Parks and Wildlife, if my assistant asked you to meet me at the Magnolia, it was either very good news or very bad news. I had some of the more important meetings with associates here over the years.”

“When he was alive, I used to meet Bob Armstrong here. He had been land commissioner and the person over the years who had been the foremost champion of Big Bend Ranch. Bob and I often met here to scheme how to get Big Bend Ranch done.”

“Garry Merritt, who was head of the Hill Country Alliance and is now heading the Great Springs Project, is a person who I’ve met with here recently to talk about deals — land deals. It’s hard for me after all these years to stay away from conservation real estate deals. It’s still in my blood. I’ve done a lot of that here.”

“One good thing that came out of this is that oftentimes, because there were multiple people coming in, I was able to introduce people to each other that had not previously met. I made some good connections here for other people.”

“You had to be careful. [Eye twinkling intensifies.] The menu is so good you could eat all morning.”

“I have to say that in recent years I’ve eaten a whole lot less than I did in the beginning. When I first started coming the most famous thing on the menu was pancakes, and I ate pancakes, but I don’t even remember the last time I had a pancake. Now I usually have fresh blueberries, which are not on the menu, but they always accommodate me. I generally bring my own tea, and they keep me supplied with hot water.”

“Because of Magnolia, over the years I have felt more comfortable with all kinds of important meetings, doing them over a meal. It seems to me a meal adds an important ingredient to an important meeting.”

“I used to tell people that the waitstaff at the Magnolia were going to be my pallbearers. I got to know them really well. There was an absolutely beautiful and wonderful waitress here named Rebecca, who would meet me every morning with a hug. I got to know a waiter whose father was a game warden. Almost every one of the waitstaff, I had something in common with or some connection.”

Carter Smith (executive director of TPWD). “Like me, Carter over the years has gone through rough spots. Now, I think he’s the longest serving executive director. He’s flattered me by bringing me into those conversations and seeking my advice.”

George Bristol (political lobbyist and parks advocate). “I always met George Bristol here. This is where we did our business. Bristol was appointed by President Clinton to be on the board of the National Park Foundation. When he rotated off, he contacted me and we met here. He said, ‘I’m no longer working for the National Park Foundation and I want to know what I can do to help you.’ I said, ‘M-O-N-E-Y!’ He’s done more than any other person over these past 20 years to help with the finances of state parks.”

Evan Smith (CEO of the Texas Tribune). “I always met Evan here — every meeting. I’ve worked with Evan for a long, long time. He was the first person to give me the news that it had closed.”

Shannon Davies (former director of Texas A&M Press). “There are very few people who are such a significant part of my life as Shannon Davies. A big part of my life in recent years has been writing, and a lot of that has had to do with encounters with Shannon here with potential authors and brainstorming.”

Laura Huffman (former director of the Texas Nature Conservancy). “Laura Huffman flattered me by seeking out my advice because I had been executive director of the Texas Nature Conservancy. There was a video done in which Laura is quoted as saying I’m the mayor of Magnolia.”

“One of the pleasures and privileges of my life today is meeting with younger people who are involved in conservation. That has most often taken place at the Magnolia. I like to pay it forward. I feel privileged and honored to be able to do it and that young people will listen to my B.S.”

“I’ve met with a lot of people here who have financially supported my work over the years, like Marilu Hastings of the Mitchell Foundation, the Winklers and others. Plus, friends. I have lots of contacts that I don’t have particular business to do with, but it’s a place to connect.”

“With the Meadows Center, because I had so many people I dealt with in Austin, this became the Austin office of the Meadows Center. When the announcement was made that this was closing, [Meadows director] Robert Mace put a post on his Facebook saying that the Austin office of the Meadows Center was closed. It really became important after I began working in San Marcos. Oftentimes, I’d be here all morning and have several meetings.”

“No restaurants have been open. I thought about that the other day. Where am I going to go? I don’t even have the opportunity to experiment.”

 Kuhlken Photography

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