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: Dana Curley of Contigo.
When Contigo opened last spring, they took Austin's love of all things patio and put it to the test. Could a restaurant with almost no true indoor seating thrive? And how. Assistant manager Dana Curley can attest to that. Contigo's a magnet for large parties craving outdoor dining, often with kids in tow. She's part gardener, part hostess, part server, part all-purpose problem solver for a restaurant that seems to garner more buzz by the day. We sat down with Curley to find out how she wrangles weeds, weather and patrons to keep everyone happy.
What’s your background like? How’d you prep for being an all-purpose front-of-house wrangler?
I’ve been in the industry for about 18 years now. It started out as it’s one of those things and you’re going to school to make money to support yourself. I was going ot school for fine art and living like a staving artist and waiting tables, and some financial troubles came up and I had to quit school. Down the road I was like, ire ally need to go back to school. So I paid off my debt and instead of going back into fine arts which would just lead me back to waiting tables, I decided I had a passion for the industry so I decided to get an associate’s in restaurant and catering management. I went to the Art Institute of Houston. And I chose that for the hands-on experience, so I could work in the kitchen. I worked my way into fine dining, and was working for a restaurant called Mockingbird Bistro and did my internship there. I became a GM for that restaurant and got a lot of experience. I started getting into payroll and accounting and booking parties. I worked for the Malone family in Houston and gained a lot of experience through them. After all these years of experience and school I moved to Seattle for a couple of years.
I did more of a management experience there with Nordstrom in their restaurant division. That was totally different. My husband moved with me, we got engaged, and he works offshore. We had to move back to Texas. We were spending like six months apart. I said the only way I’ll move back to Texas is to Austin. I was like, I’ll kick and scream and be in a pine box before I go back to Houston. We moved to Austin, that was almost four years ago.
Where'd you start off at in Austin?
Here I bounced around for a while. I ended up working for Taverna, that was my longest stint. It was good. Contigo kind of just fell in my lap. If ell in their lap. It was just kind of an impromptu, thing, just happened one day. I had a friend who was the assistant general manager here, and we’d become friends through Taverna. We stayed in touch and she was like hey, we’re looking. And I was like okay, I might be looking. Here’s my resumé. Here I am. I came on as a server in July and Ben [Edgerton, the owner] noticed that I took pride. I was very dedicated. They looked for different ways I could manage more and all of a sudden, here I am.
Now, it’s great. I take a lot of pride and ownership in the place. It’s like my home away from home.
When we arrived today you were pulling weeds! What does a shift look like for you?
I meant to do it yesterday! But my car was broken. So I had to do it today. I especially liked Ben calling me a child wrangler. I don’t know if I wrangle them. I observe them and how they like to use the beer garden as their sandpit. It’s imaginative.
I basically do a lot of hands-on front of the house. Scheduling, hiring, luckily no firing yet. Obviously a hostess and busser. Training. Basically, I’m a liason between the servers and the kitchen. I work closely with Andrew, our chef and our sous chefs Dave and Chris. We do a lot of communicating as far as the flow of the floor goes.
People love to bring their large groups to Contigo. How do you manage that?
Yeah, the big thing here is our large parties. Phasing out the flow of large parties. The communication between the servers and expo and the kitchen is a huge factor here. What else do I do? Gardening, of course. I don’t know about the child-wrangling. We do our menus every day so that’s a constant communication issue. Our kitchen education for our staff, making sure they have everything they need available so that they’re ready to go.
Charcuterie is a big thing for us, so that’s not exactly something that a lot of our staff has in their back pocket. Education is a huge factor whether it be demonstration or just typed-out sheets on what we do. And what things are, from consommé to back fat.
When are you the busiest?
Thursday, Friday and Saturdays. Sunday brunch, kinda getting there. But Thursday, Friday and Saturday by far. I love that call ahead, they’re like, we’re coming in for happy hour and we’re gonna have thirty people. [Jokingly looks at her watch.] Okay, thanks for the heads up.
Do you take reservations?
We take reservations. It’s what we like to refer to as call-ahead seating. Again, it’s all about spacing. So on Thursday, Friday and Saturday we’ll take large parties of eight or more. Anything larger than like our picnic tables outside, which can hold ten to twelve at max, anything larger than that has to be 6:30 or earlier. Just to coordinate with our kitchen and make sure food comes out in a timely manner and spacing. Anything larger than 20 gets tricky.
How do you keep people happy when you're serving a large group ordering from your notably diverse menu?
I mean, we try to serve everyone all at once. Just like any other restaurant. It kind of depends on the group. If they ordered at different times, it’s a given. Sorry guys, you ordered a well-done burger and you guys ordered grilled cheese ten minutes prior. The way our menu works is bar snacks, small plates and charcuterie. And basically for large groups, if someone’s ordering off the small plates and the rest of the table has snacks and entrees, what we do is communicate with the guest and take a moment to say, by the way, our small plates come out quicker than our entrees. Is that okay?
It really depends on the server, and the kitchen makes it happen. They send out the ox tongue slider with the well-done burger. If we do it right, and hopefully we did, it'll happen.
Contigo is almost all patio. How do you deal with the weather?
We use Weather.com. That’s my homepage. I use it for scheduling. You have to use it. If it’s going to be a beautiful day, it’s going to be packed, it doesn’t matter if it’s Monday or Sunday or Friday. It’s huge. We staff to the max. It’s kind of a fire drill plan. It’s like what if this happens? This is what we’re going to do. What we’ve decided is that Friday last week? It started to rain? We’re constantly bouncing back and forth. What’s it going to do? Is it going to rain at 8 o’clock? This says 9 o’clock. What should we do? Should people order? That’s our fire drill plan. Our rain drill plan. We get to a point where it’s starting to rain, and there’s no seating outside. We warn people. It’s Texas, so we don’t know what it’s going to do. It could fly right over us.
If it rains, I say I may not have a spot for you available inside, I don’t want you sitting out here and eating a soggy burger. Can you wait for a table inside? Would you mind? So at that point we go on an enormously long wait list. But at least we know that people are going to have our type of dining experience. They’ll have what we want them to have. Not the sitting in the rain eating a soggy burger experience.
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[Photo: Andrea Grimes/EDFW]