Amy McNutt was celebrating her 21st birthday in California when she had an epiphany: Open a vegan restaurant. 

She had just graduated from film school at the University of Southern California, and said she was in a good headspace. So, despite not having a business background, McNutt took the leap. 

She moved to Fort Worth and opened Spiral Diner when she was 22.. She experimented with cooking for a year while living with her mother when she moved back to Texas. It was trial and error every day in her mother’s kitchen. 

“I had no clue what I was doing,” McNutt said. “I had never worked in a restaurant.”

Now 43, McNutt has Spiral Diner locations in Fort Worth, Denton and, soon, in Arlington. She is also opening two more restaurants — a fine-dining restaurant right next door to the Fort Worth location, called Maiden Fine Plants & Spirits and an ice cream and doughnut parlor called Dreamboat Donuts & Scoops. McNutt is the executive chef at Maiden. She is letting others manage the rest.

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Working in the early days of Spiral taught McNutt how to ask for help. She advises leaders to hire managers as soon as they can afford it. 

“People feed off of each other’s energy and, if one person is totally burnt out, that’s going to influence everyone underneath them, or around them,” McNutt said. “So that’s definitely something I learned.” 

Spiral started from humble beginnings. To start the business, she said, her mother gave her $50,000 from a home equity loan.

Spiral opened at a market in downtown Fort Worth before moving to its location on 1314 Magnolia Ave. in 2004. She remembers wondering how she was going to fill all the tables inside the night before opening the location. That moment of worry subsided, she said.

“Now it is full every day,” she said. “And it has been for 15 years. We’ve been at that kind of level of busy.” 

The first five years of running the business often involved 90-hour work weeks, she said. She worked every role at the restaurant. Five years in, she started working with Lindsey Akey, who became owner of the Fort Worth location in 2007. 

“That was a really big deal,” McNutt said. “An amazing collaboration … we couldn’t have grown the business without having that help.”

McNutt is involved in the startup elements of the restaurants like finding funding and developing concepts. Taking a step back happens organically, she said. It requires strong training materials and clear management expectations, but then becomes a well-oiled machine. 

Samantha Ofeno worked with the company for about 10 years and is now the CEO of Spiral Diner, Dreamboat and Maiden. Ofeno said McNutt does a good job of empowering employees. She looks for people who are passionate about working for the company and think long term.

“She kind of nourishes that excitement and empowers you,” Ofeno said. “That kind of molds you into a strong leader and … it’s kind of instilled in us to then execute that to the rest of our team.”

Employees are taught how to do everything at the restaurant, Ofeno said. That builds confidence with employees. The cross-training also builds a team mentality, Parker Howard, executive chef at Spiral and Dreamboat, said. 

“We’re all working hard together for the same end goal,” Howard said.  

With Maiden, McNutt said, she is ready to help launch the restaurant and hand it off. She sees it as a door for people who might want to specialize in vegan fine dining that might not otherwise be available.

“You have to go move to another state or go spend, you know, $20,000 going to a vegan culinary school that’s out of state to be able to learn this stuff,” McNutt said. “So my intention with this is really to get it to be a place where people can get that experience. And kind of get the party started and have a place where people can come in and learn.”

Amy McNutt bio:

Birthplace: Southlake

Moved to Fort Worth: 2002

Family: Married to James M Johnston since 2002.

Education: Bachelor’s in film and television from University of Southern California, 1999

Work experience: She has worked for herself since age 21. Before that, she was a film projectionist in college, California AIDS Ride recruiter and fundraiser, assistant film editor, and has done odd jobs since age 13.   

Volunteer experience: LA City Animal Shelter, The Bunny Burrow Rabbit Rescue, Sycamore Tree Ranch, Great Plains Restoration Council. 

First job: Mowing lawns in her neighborhood and working for her dad in the auto-parts business. What she calls her first legitimate job was at a garden center in Southlake.

Advice for someone learning to be a leader: “The Golden Rule, ‘treat people as you would want to be treated,’ is especially true for anyone in a leadership position. Everyone wants to be heard, respected, and feel confident in the skills of those around them. If you surround yourself with like-minded individuals and uphold those principles, then everything will fall into place and work will be fun.”
Best advice ever received: “I have two. 1) ‘If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ My friend Jack Panzeca said this and I try to channel it every day. 2) ‘Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world’ – Joseph Campbell, my main dude.”

Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120

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Seth BodineBusiness Reporter

Seth Bodine is the business reporter for the Fort Worth Report. He previously covered agriculture and rural issues in Oklahoma for the public radio station, KOSU, as a Report for America corps member....