Welcome to The Gatekeepers, in which Eater Austin roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen who stand between you and some of your favorite hard-to-get tables. This week: Derick Wagle of Paggi House.
Derick Wagle, General Manager at Paggi House. [Photo: Andrea Grimes/EATX]
Housed in one of Austin's oldest buildings, wrapped in an expansive patio and revered for its wine excellence, Paggi House has become a South Austin staple. Oh sure, we like their bathrooms and their brunch, too, but there's more to staying relevant in an ever-changing Austin dining scene than a nice loo and a good Bloody Mary--though certainly, those don't hurt any.
We stopped by the shady south side restaurant to talk with general manager Derick Wagle, who says Austin's food is fantastic, but the service side has been historically lacking. The Los Angeles transplant (and former actor, he was totally on Guiding Light!) moved to the city to open our W Hotel and has stuck around, he says, to help bring consistency and quality to Austin diners. For too long, the food's been "up here," says Wagle, gesturing above his head with his hands, but the service? "Down here."
How'd you end up in Austin at Paggi House?
I moved here from Los Angeles to open the W, about a year and a half now. I worked there as an assistant beverage and food manager. I was looking for something in Los Angeles that was going to really be exciting and match my hospitality background and I just couldn’t find anything. So I thought of trying a hotel, because I thought maybe their hospitality levels or expectations would match mine, and I have to say, it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my career, opening [the W]. The interviewing process and the training was exciting. You know, you’re not open so you know, they do a lot of over the top parties, so it was fun. When it opened the restaurant just was not busy. I think it took a while. They say in Austin it takes a good year before anyone will ever consider you. Especially in hotels, restaurants are even a whole ‘nother level.
So I really missed the whole mom and pop style. I kind of met the owner Stuart’s wife who owns Delish, and we became acquaintances. She was always like, you and Stuart have to meet. Because I would talk about my frustrations about hospitality in Austin. The whole inconsistency of it, is pretty much how I always felt. I’ve been coming to Austin for ten years. I’ve seen the growth of the culinary industry. I’ve see great chefs move here. And the food was up here and the service was still down here. It was so frustrating to me. So she and I would have conversations and it’s like, you need to meet Stuart! So finally, I came here and I found my home.
Where'd you grow up?
I grew up in New Jersey. I only started realizing that a lot of my empathy, which is one of the characteristics that I have that makes me good at what I do, comes from that I practically grew up in a nursing home. My mom was a nurse at a nursing home. Growing up, we would always be there. At 14, I started working as a dietary assistant and by the time I was 17 I was the food service supervisor. Then I worked with a dietician about different diets and this and that, and I went on to college. Then I started working for Abercrombie and Fitch and became a general manager for them within the first year. It was a very small company then, they only had 29 stores at the time. I opened multiple stores in the Northeast for them. Dropped out of college to have a career with them, was brainwashed into, that was the cool thing to do, you know. It was such a good experience. I was young with a lot of responsibility and just worked all the time. I kind of burnt out after 2.5, 3 years almost, so I moved to New York City and started to act. I went to acting school. I went to Herbert Berghof studio. I’ve always loved to perform. Not necessarily on the stage, because I don’t talk very loud. I’m soft spoken. It was hard for me to get on stage! It was always like, talk louder. But I’ve had some success in the daytime soap world. I had a recurring on Guiding Light. I played a server on Sex And The City, the episode “The Attack Of The 10 Foot Woman.”
The funny thing, I’ve played servers in a couple things in New York. And then I started serving tables. And my first job was as maitre’d at the Sea Grill in Rockefeller Center, which was so great because it was such a, it really set the bar high. It was a fine dining place. I got to wear a suit and come to work and see how a very structured restaurant ran. So here I am one week doing Sex and the City, and the next week, there. Then I started working with Jean Georges. I opened Spice Market for him. I was a server and then I was service director by the time I left. And then I was serving, oh what’s her name, Sarah Jessica Parker! So it’s all full circle, you know.
And then you were off to Los Angeles?
I moved to L.A. for three months and I just decided that I didn’t really like L.A. or the business of acting. So I went back working, doing what I love, taking my foodieness to the next level. I was fortunate enough to become the service manager of a restaurant for Jean Georges. He’s my mentor, one of two.
Barbara Marie was my general manager at the Water Grill in Los Angeles. I was her assistant. It’s a seafood restaurant, we got a Michelin Star under my regime. She’s just a brilliant woman. She really molded me into my strengths and let me go with them, and the stuff that I needed to develop, she was always there and supported in such a positive way. I still call her to this day. And Jean Georges, once in a blue moon. Okay, only once in the last couple of years. He’s a little busier. But he’s an amazing man. [laughs]
You mentioned the inconsistency of service in Austin. How do you tackle that here?
I do always talk about, one thing, the inconsistency of the service. It’s so funny to me because, if we can just get a restaurant that’s consistent, it could go from here [arms down low] to here [arms up high]. There’s a lack of the thinking that this is a respectable profession, you know, serving tables and food. I come from cities where people make more than, you know, certainly I do! And people that do it and love it. And for me, I learned ultimately that you have to love what you do to do this. And if you don’t, it’s not hard, but it’s challenging. And the challenges that come up, if you don’t love it, you’re not going to meet them face on. You’re going to give bad service. You’re going to not treat a guest the way they should be treated. Because you know, sometimes it’s not easy. There’s so many different personality types.
How has your diverse background--retail, acting, hotel work--come into play at Paggi House?
I think for me, my level of service was just coming into Paggi House, it was looking at what was pre-existing and what I inherited. I felt like there were some policies that needed to be into play, and just make it much more of a cohesive, you know, a positive work environment. And really set the example and the bar that what you do is great! What we do is amazing. And a lot of people can’t do it. Most people can’t. most people don’t have the patience or the skills. I’m always talking about the skills to do it. What skills do you have? It’s not just about being able to smile. You have to have skills, you have to have knowledge. I want skills in people who can deal with a guest who is up here. [hands up above his head.]
To answer your question, finally, what I bring is, I think for the growth of Austin, it’s becoming such a more metropolitan city and the expectations are going higher. You’re getting guests in from other cities and they have a higher expectation of how they should be treated or what they should be able to get. You can’t always be weird anymore with some of these guests. They find that as bad service. So I think what I bring is a little balance. Knowing those guests, they’re who I grew up with. They’re who I’ve worked with from the Northeast and from Los Angeles, and a lot of people moving here from Dallas. I always say you have to have the skills and be able to exceed the expectations of the guests up here, who are becoming a big part of Austin, who are dining out. There’s nothing like social media and repeat guests. We want positive social media in this day and age, and they’re people that are tweeting and Facebooking, and if you have the skills level, and with empathy and patience and knowledge and general caringness, if you don’t, you can’t fake it. That’s what I always shoot for. I only hire people who have the highest skill level to deal with the guests who have the highest expectations.
The more people that move here, the better. The more diners there are. I want to exceed everyone’s expectations. It’s easier for me than some. I don’t want to say it’s easy and I’ve had my challenges for sure, and been tested like everyone.
When it comes to the Paggi House nitty-gritty, how do you keep things running smoothly?
I think it’s being present. There’s nothing like this space when it’s full. I would say, it’s interesting because we have weather changes so frequently in Austin. You really don’t know if people are going to go to the patio or in the heated tent or if they’re going to go inside the house, so I just really am always present on the floor. I think it’s really just being sure that everyone, all the servers, just being attentive. Following our service pattern. If you follow that and you bring your personality to it and you have enough support—I always make sure we have enough support. People underestimate food runners, you know. I think it’s one of the most important positions in the restaurant. That’s like, presenting the art of an artist. The art of a chef. So if it’s not getting out there appropriately and going to be the same with the same quality, so I’m always making sure people have the support. I’m also touching tables, and I have an amazing assistant, Chris McFall, who is one of the most hospitable people that I’ve met, certainly in this city, if not in the country.
When is Paggi House the very busiest?
Certainly brunch on Sunday. Eleven to three. We fill up. There’s a line, and there’s people waiting out front. I wouldn’t call it a line necessarily, but they’re waiting. People are already here and ready to go. I wish we could set our opening at ten. Certainly on our happy hour, Monday through Friday. It can be any day, sometimes it’s weather-driven, sometimes it’s not. It’s unpredictable. Of course weekends. Fridays and Saturdays. Our Friday happy hour is the busiest of all. From 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., the bartenders probably work the hardest they have all week. During the week we probably fill the house up, which is nice because it just gives a nice energy and it’s not overly crowded. It’s on the smaller scale, there’s 60 seats between both rooms.
What does Paggi House do during ACL and SXSW?
Oh yes. We did a couple of parties for ACL this year. ACL absolutely. SXSW, we’re already starting to book things. We’ll do buy outs, we’ll do parties. The wonderful thing about this space is that there’s so much space to have fun parties. To have eclectic, the view, we can do live music. We like SXSW and ACL.
Certainly those festivals bring in these high-end, out-of-town customers you're talking about. How does Austin compare to other cities?
It’s definitely more interesting. It’s a little more eclectic. People are surprised when I say that. It’s funny, you know, having lived in what I call the ‘three coasts’ now, this is the least segregated. People are surprised by that in New York. But you know, New York is pretty segregated. You live in a certain neighborhood, of course and L.A. is very segregated. And in Austin, it’s just, everybody meets. Musician meets lawyer meets doctor meets restaurant manager, you know, meets writer. I love that. That is one of my favorite things about Austin and this restaurant. Because those are the guests we get. You know, we have the table where they’re going to the symphony and then we have a table who comes and they’re going to live music after and a table who comes and they’re old hippies, and a table of young people who are on a new TV show filming here, I love that. That eclecticness is awesome.