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: Ben Siegel at Banger's Sausage House And Beer Garden.
Banger's Sausage House & Beer Garden has only been open since midsummer, but in four months of serving Austin's largest selection of beers on tap and specially made in-house sausages, the Rainey Street restaurant and beer garden has become one of the neighborhood's stand-out destinations. Situated on a street where so many bars blend into one another and drinkers hop indiscriminately from doorway to doorway, Banger's sees two-hour waits on weekends despite its sprawling accommodations.
Eater Austin talked with owner Ben Siegel about managing the front-of-house operations at his place, dealing with over-hyped city events like Formula One, not splitting checks and keeping demanding (and dog-loving!) customers happy.
How do you make sure Banger's stands out among the crowd on Rainey Street? Patrons have so many options.
There's sort of a particular thing happening here down on Rainey Street, and a lot of those guys are doing it well. But there is a lot of repetition on what's down here. So it was important for us to do something a little bit different. We're not a bar; we're a restaurant and a beer garden. We have the argument all the time about do we bring in hard liquor? Or just do beer and wine? But again for us, it's important to have that point of differentiation. Not having hard booze, it's amazing the difference that that makes. We lose out on the business from midnight to two a.m., but it adds to the integrity of what we're trying to do in terms of the tap wall.
Our goal was to be considered one of the premiere beer bars in the country once we were up and running. Without hard alcohol, you're keeping some of the riff-raff out.
What are your busiest times and your slowest times, then?
Busiest times, it's pretty much like any other restaurant, I would imagine. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Saturday's our busiest day. In terms of slowest? We're fighting an uphill battle in terms of our lunch business right now. I really believe, I think we have the best lunch deal in the country. I really do.
Our executive lunch is any one of our tradition or vegetarian sausages, any one of our sides and any one of our Texas beers on draft or root beer for $8. It's a joke! That's the time we're least busy, unfortunately. We do a good Friday lunch business, but other than that, it's slow.
So let's say on a Friday night at 8 p.m., do people have to wait for tables? Or do they sit right down?
Normally, when we're rocking and rolling, and of course we're new, but usually at peak times on a Friday or Saturday night, there is usually a wait. It's sort of a loaded question for me, because as it's gotten colder out, it heavily affects our business. So it's hard to say. We've ran two-hour waits. And we've had fifteen-minute waits. If you're coming at a peak time on Friday or Saturday, there's probably going to be a wait. Going into these colder months, now through February, the wait shouldn't be too bad.
Banger's seems like a big group destination. How do you accommodate those folks' needs?
Oh, yeah. Today, as a matter of fact, we're doing a Christmas party here so we've got 200 people coming in. And we had a guy come by and say hey, I've got a group of 40 people, we'd like to come in tonight, I wanted to check if that would be okay. We can certainly accommodate him, but we get that a lot. We don't do reservations for parties smaller than 20 or 25. But we have walk-ins all the time that are 20 people or less, or bigger than ten.
In four and a half months, you've been through Formula One and Austin City Limits. And you hosted your own multi-day Oktoberfest. How do these big events play out in terms of your front-of-house management?
A lot of that is just sort of fake it until you make it. Fortunately, we have a great team over here. And a lot of really good ideas. Right now, the biggest challenge, it's a matter of executing those ideas while just being open for four months.
I wanted to open up a place where I could do things that I would like to go to. And create a place I would like to be at. Events and things like that are awesome. Our events gal is fantastic. And in terms of having a team that can execute things, it's great. We've got some great ideas for 2013 coming up.
How did F1 weekend play out for you?
You know, Rainey Street's funny, for large, crazy holidays and also for big events. F1, ACL, those are terrible for the street. When you look at hospitality real estate, as a general rule, there's a life cycle to it. There's four phases of that life cycle. And I'd put Rainey Street being in that second phase. You've got primarily a local-based clientele. There are tourists who are aware of you, but not really.
So what happens for ACL and F1, the media hypes that up. And the city hypes it up to be this crazy thing. So a lot of locals stay home. And that's our client base. And the people coming in, that the locals are afraid of, don't really know about us. So they're drawn to Dirty Sixth, West Sixth, places like that. It actually negatively impacts our business but also Rainey Street as a district.
Where's your favorite spot at Banger's to sit and have a beer?
My answer is probably twofold. One of the things we really stress at Banger's is the education of the staff. All of our servers, within their first month of being hired, are required to pass their level one cicerone certification. Then our most knowledgeable people are behind the bar. It's a lot of fun to sit up at the bar and not only be able to sample the beers, you can try whatever you want and go around the tap wall, and like a sushi bar with omakase, you do that with one of our bartenders. Let them take you on the journey.
But at the same time, my favorite area's the beer garden. It's a beautiful place to sit outside and enjoy and drink a beer.
Y'all also have a very dog-friendly outdoor area. That's a big part of hospitality in Austin, no?
When looking at our restaurant in general, I think it's important to find points of differentiation and then as you do that, be the best in whatever category that is. In terms of dogs, I want to be the most dog-friendly bar in the city. The fact that we have an off-leash dog park outside in the beer garden, I think, takes us toward that. We just had, this last Sunday, my dog Pickles a birthday party for her. We gave out doggie cupcakes. Goody bags. I've found that if you open a restaurant you get hit up in terms of charities and things like that, and we've really focused our attention on dog-based charitable organizations.
What kind of requests and demands and suggestions do patrons send your way? How far will you go to make them happy?
There's a fine line there. The answer is, we'll do whatever we can. But what patrons don't always realize is that a lot of times their requests will sort of be to their detriment. Where you find that for example, is when you go about splitting checks. Having people move around. A lot of restaurants are averse to splitting checks and patrons think that's unaccommodating to them. But the reality is, the amount of time it takes to split that up and figure that out would be an inconvenience to the patrons.
The short answer: we'll do whatever we can, within reason. We will like, split checks if you give us ten credit cards, we'll split it ten ways. Itemizing checks? No.
Who minds buying their friends a beer, anyway? Come on, guys.
I'm with you, but you'd be surprised. Or maybe not!
Ben Siegel. [Photo: Matt McGinnis/Courtesy of Banger's]