Austin Smith Of Party Fowl: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur
Stay in your lane. It’s very easy to find other opportunities once you have found some success. Other options will come about, but every second you work on something else; it takes away from the time you could build what you were there to create. Work to improve every day.
As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Austin Smith.
A Tennessee native, Austin Smith is no stranger to Southern comfort food. Born in Memphis and raised in Nashville where his parents worked in the music industry, Smith is an expert on southern-style hot chicken, a Nashville staple.
After spending a decade in the restaurant industry, holding several positions from busser to manager, Austin earned a degree in political science from Lipscomb University. Shortly upon graduation, Austin recognized his true calling in the restaurant world and opened the doors at Party Fowl.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restaurateur?
I started in hospitality at twelve years old and quickly realized I had an affinity for talking with people and a passion for entertaining. At a young age, I sang at the Mutton Hollow theme park and even opened for the Rockettes, and as I got into the restaurant side, it was the same thrill. When you’re serving a table, you are entertaining them. I fell in love with getting people’s reactions and knowing they had a great experience. I knew that I wanted to put my heart into that entertainment, and I wanted to show my interpretation of what those are through food and beverage. Having been in hospitality for many years, I know the value of an amazing team and the rollercoaster that comes with being in and owning a restaurant. The thrill of not knowing what lies ahead has intrigued me from the beginning and keeps me invested in the company to this day.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
We specialize in Nashville Hot Chicken. I grew up eating fried chicken out of a cast-iron skillet at my Granny’s house, as well as many Southern favorites, and I wanted to interpret this in the menu, along with the experience of giving guests something local and unique to our roots. When I was looking for a chef, I had spent most of my time in the front of house, and I needed someone who shared my passion and understood MY crazy. Enter: Bart Pickens.
When I posted the ad for Executive Chef, I didn’t post a general ad, but rather a want ad, similar to “If You Like Piña Coladas” or Must Love Dogs. Mine was “Must Love Chicken.” I was looking for a perfect person who loved chicken just as much as I did. I had about 80 applications come through, and out of those, I had three that jumped out at me — and one I KNEW I couldn’t afford because of his experience. This one had been a chef for hundreds of people in casinos, opened corporate restaurants all over, done fine dining, and so much more. He stood out the most, but this was a new building with a new concept, and I couldn’t believe that he would want to come work with our little chicken shack. After I posted the ad, he sent me his resume twice a day for four days. I finally called Ernest Bart Pickens, and before I could say much of anything, he yells “I love chicken!”, so I told him, “I can’t afford you”. And he replied, “You don’t know dat!”
We interviewed him, and when we brought him in, I explained that before he could know anything about the concept, I needed to know that he made the best-fried chicken ever. He started spewing out options like he was Bubba in Forrest Gump talking about shrimp. He asked if I wanted dill pickle brine, sweet tea brine, saltwater brine, buttermilk brine, single dredged, double dredged… I just stopped him with, “YES. I want all of it.” He cooked for us and blew us away.
I had an idea to do spicy hard-boiled eggs to put on our back bar like in Western times and call them Fowl Balls. Well, sure enough, one of his dishes was called Fowl Balls — New Orleans style arancini dirty rice balls with Alabama white sauce. After this, we knew that this was our guy, and this is how our entire menu came to be, courtesy of Chef Bart Pickens.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a restaurateur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
The lesson I learned from working with Nashville Hot Chicken is simple, and people often don’t think about it until it’s too late… If you use the restroom after eating Nashville Hot Chicken, wash your hands before AND after eating. That burn doesn’t quit.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
Most of the bumps and bruises that come with being a restaurateur come from not surrounding yourself with the right team. A lot of people try to open the doors and see what happens. My first hire was Tiffany Thompson, who is now our VP, and Bart Pickens, our Corporate Executive Chef, and they are both with me today. Because of this team, most of the bumps and bruises I would have faced I avoided. Surrounding yourself with good people who share your passion is crucial to being successful in this industry. We have met our own share of struggles, but I consider myself blessed to be surrounded by people with different skill sets but the same heart behind what we do.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
The key to creating something that customers are crazy about is taking a dish that everyone knows and is comfortable with and putting your brand’s twist on it. Thinking outside the box with dishes that have been done before gets customers in the door with a sense of familiarity, hooks them with curiosity about what is different about your dish compared to everyone else’s, and blows them away with the difference. For example, everyone has chicken and waffles, but we opted for Hot Chicken and Beignets. I like bourbon, and Chef Bart is from New Orleans, so we made Hot Chicken with Bourbon-Glazed Beignets. It’s one of our most signature items; the same goes for our Brunch menu, like Hot Chicken and Stuffed French Toast. If you look at our menu, we play with many dishes that people are comfortable with and put our twist on them. So far, it’s worked out well for us.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
All different types of food can be great, but it is perfect when enjoyed with friends and family. I believe that you can find good food anywhere, but what elevates it is the company you share it with and makes the food taste even better.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
I come from a family of creatives. My father was a musician who toured the world, and my mother was a singer. As well, my grandparents are both entrepreneurs. It’s in my blood. I can’t stop it, and it doesn’t quit. I’ve been coming up with business concepts since I was 10 years old, and honestly, it’s always been something that’s a part of me.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
Yes, we are currently working on expanding our presence across the country and have a couple of new projects on the horizon that we can’t speak of yet, but they could have a huge impact on the growth of our brand. We can’t wait to announce them soon!
What advice would you give to other restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
If you do not love what you do, this is not the industry for you. You cannot dip your toe in the water; you have to jump all in. If it’s not fun for you, you can’t be here. Once it starts, the brakes are cut, and you’re rolling downhill at top speed, and there’s no stopping. Having a true passion for what you do, having a team that lifts you up, and sharing a collective vision and goal of serving others are essential to personal and professional success in this industry.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- When we began, I was the general manager of our first location. After about a year, we brought in a consultant who told me I could never be a true owner until I could step back and see all the pieces of the Party Fowl puzzle. When I finally did it, I saw so many opportunities to improve, profit, and so many mistakes that we could avoid. Being the owner and the daily operator is difficult because you can’t see the forest for the trees.
- Don’t buy cheap equipment, or you will spend more on maintenance than if you had purchased the expensive piece in the first place. Don’t cut corners in general.
- No matter how talented someone is at their job, if they don’t bring a positive, uplifting vibe, they can ruin your business. One person can poison the well and ruin the culture you’re trying to create.
- Stay in your lane. It’s very easy to find other opportunities once you have found some success. Other options will come about, but every second you work on something else; it takes away from the time you could build what you were there to create. Work to improve every day.
- Don’t wear anything you like when you’re making fried chicken and ranch dressing. It doesn’t come out of clothes.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
It’s like asking which one of my kids I love the most! It’s impossible. We have something here for everyone, and nothing you will have here is anything like you’ve had anywhere else.
If I HAD to choose, our Brunch for Two is the best Bloody Mary/brunch you’ll ever have. We call it our Southern Fried edible arrangement — it’s a 55oz Bloody Mary topped with two whole fried Cornish game hens tossed in your choice of heat, eight fried okra, two scotch eggs, and a whole avocado. It’s huge, it’s delicious, we make these items only for this dish, and it’s only available during Brunch. Y’all gotta try it if you haven’t!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could preach one thing to everyone in this business, it would be to treat your staff as family and honor being a true family. We know our people’s names. We know their families. We genuinely care about their livelihood. When I pray at night, I don’t pray about profits or success. I pray for joy for everyone who walks in those doors and that they have everything they need. We’re successful because we invest in our people; we build them up, see their potential, promote from within, and give them the tools they need to have a happy life. It gets harder to know everyone as you grow, but it can turn into something special if you keep it as a focus. Sadly, in large corporations, it happens too often that everyone just becomes a number. We try so hard to keep a family dynamic, and we will always strive to do so.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!