This is One Year In, in which Eater Austin interviews chefs and owners on the occasion of their restaurant's first anniversary. This week, we speak with Ben Edgerton and Andrew Wiseheart of Contigo.
Andrew Wiseheart and Ben Edgerton. [Photo: Andrea Grimes/EATX]
When Contigo opened in May 2011, it was the culmination of years of planning by owners Ben Edgerton and executive chef Andrew Wiseheart. Edgerton's vision had transformed from the initial low-key burgers-and-beer patio bar he'd imagined into a nose-to-tail-inspired, classy cocktail-slinging destination watering hole named for his family's South Texas ranch.
Eater Austin grabbed a patio seat at Contigo with Edgerton and Chef Wiseheart to debrief on the last twelve months of running one of Austin's favorite new gathering spots. After surviving their first SXSW, serving thousands of pounds of fried green beans and wondering why they didn't build a bigger kitchen, the guys say that in the next year of business, they're mainly hoping for a vacation day or two.
So how different does Contigo look today from what you'd originally imagined?
Ben Edgerton: The basic vision for the restaurant was to take the atmosphere and hospitality of Contigo Ranch, which is my family’s ranch in South Texas, and recreate it here in Austin. How that was going to take place was kind of the process of the two and a half years before we opened. To be completely honest, Andrew and I have known each other for years. We went to summer camp together growing up. We would get together and talk shop, probably a year to a year and a half on a regular basis before we ever decided to work together.
My business plan, and Andrew can attest to this, was basically going to be a big flat top with hot dogs and burgers and a big outdoor beer garden. I wasn’t ever totally sold on it but that was just kind of the direction I was headed. Then, just talking with Andrew and collaborating a little bit, I asked him if he wanted to come make it an actual restaurant. Basically take the concept of the space and apply his food to it. I think that was about a year before we opened. We spent that year kind of just planning and building and doing all the stuff that goes into getting the doors open.
Andrew, what did you plan for the menu initially?
Andrew Wiseheart: Bar food. What can we do that we can execute well and cater to a lot of people? The nose to tail direction is something I’d wanted to do before. While we’re not 100% nose-to-tail, we touch on it a little bit. I’d done a lot of traveling before and I knew that I wanted to take the summary of all the places I’d been and execute it in one spot. Beyond that, I was so inexperienced I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what I was going to be doing.
How'd you end up with this primo location by the Mueller development?
Ben: I used to live, if you see that house with the column [points across the park], I lived on that street. I was in the process of looking at space and I’d looked all over. One day I was looking outside, and it was just right there. I literally walked out the front door and walked across the lake—or, past the lake, I walked on water! —I came over here and there was this big gate. It was right next to this neighborhood and I knew from living there that there’s not much going on. Two years ago there was nothing. And it was completely paved. Which anyone who’s gone through the city in getting building permits and site plans, if it’s paved it’s like a gold mine. One, we already have parking spots. So we were able to leap frog a lot of city stuff. That was what initially made me think this actually could be it. We’re so close to the city but we’re off the beaten path. Because we have the park across from us, we’ll never have a building or anything. So with the ranch theme, it is that secluded space. That’s what originally made me call about it. It worked out.
How different does the menu look today versus on May 7, 2011, when you opened?
Andrew: We’re definitely headed in the same direction. The bar snacks portion of our menu has stayed the same. Everything else is rotated pretty steadily. We ran a product report the other day at the end of the year and we had 200 plus items we’d shuffled through and 45 charcuterie items that we’d shuffled through.
How nervous were you, before you opened, about whether you'd be able to run a kitchen like this?
Andrew: Once I was actually able to move into the kitchen, that’s when the anxiety started to subside a little bit. It was the three to four weeks leading up to that. When we broke ground, we were quoted a three-month build time. And then four and a half weeks in, he said we’ll be done in two weeks. Something along those lines. And that’s when it was really starting to sink in. all the stuff leading up to that was all a first time for me. Sourcing equipment. Finding purveyors. Building these relationships. From linen people to equipment purveyors to dry goods, I was sold on a lot of those based on customer service alone. Unfortunately. I didn’t have a whole lot else to go on. I didn’t have a lot of local references. But once the kitchen was compete and I was able to start putting in shelves and opening packages or opening boxes of fresh food, that’s when I started falling into my comfort zone. That’s what I know. How to set up the kitchen as my station. And everyone’s got stations inside of that. That’s when I started getting comfortable and I was able to create my world. And I haven’t left since then.
Austin's reaction to Contigo has been incredibly positive. How have you taken response and criticism?
Ben: Yeah, the response has been really positive. It’s funny to look back a year, I’m sure you get this on every one of these interviews you do, but when we opened we didn’t want to have a host. It was just come in, sit down, real casual. I’m sure in the first couple weeks—we lasted about three days without a host—I’m sure in the first couple weeks, customers were like these guys have no idea what they’re doing! To an extent—Andrew has put out perfect looking food since day one, in my opinion. I’m amazed by it.
Andrew: We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have butts in seats since day one. Because of that we’ve been able to do what we want to do. There’s certain sites, a couple of public review sites we don’t read, but because we’ve stayed busy, it’s allowed us to stay on the path of what we set out to do. We definitely hear all the feedback. We listen to most of it. We act on some of it. We take it through a series of filters. We’re, like is aid, inexperienced and learning as we go. We appreciate feedback but it’s got to be filtered to remain our vision and our place.
Ben: Well said!
What have your biggest sellers been over the last year?
Ben: From the drink side, as far as sheer sales go, the El Pepino. It’s just a cucumber and lime and mint and tequila drink, it’s been our number one seller.
Andrew: In the kitchen, the two biggest sellers are our fried green beans and the hamburger. We saw the hamburger being a big seller from the get-go, but fried green beans just happened to fall into that place as well. Whether or not I resent selling as many green beans as we do, I understand the importance of them because they bring in money. People pay for ‘em and that allows us to pay more cooks which allows us to get in more pigs and do more charcuterie. But to answer the question, green beans and hamburgers.
But it sounds like you dig doing the charcuterie best.
Andrew: Yeah, and our small plates. Yes. We sold a lot of charcuterie. We’ve been able to grow the menu and keep it on and keep these guys excited. They come in and do their own projects.
Ben: And neither one of those things will ever leave the menu. Because they’re both extremely important to what the vision of the restaurant is. A couple buddies can come have a beer and a green bean, or you can come out and get a spread of really well prepared house-made charcuterie done in a comfortable environment done with what we hope is great hospitality. That is our goal. They both play a key role on the menu.
So is it a blessing or a curse to have a restaurant that's mostly outside?
Ben: Oh, I think it’s a blessing. I get to work outside.
Even in 150-degree August heat?
Ben: Sure. There’s a few months where it’s hot and a few months where it’s cold. But never so much that it’s unbearable with the shade and the misters and we’re only open for dinner, so the sun goes down. By and large, I think people in Austin are just used to being hot. Like I said, we do our best to keep it cool.
Andrew: We saw that going into it. We know it’s hot and kinda cold for a small portion of the year. But it’s fun to be doing something like this.
Ben: I’ve often thought to myself that there is a great upside to being able to enclose this and air condition it during the summer. But the fact that you sit outside and you’re just under the stars or under the sky, it’s open. There’s no umbrellas, there’s no retractable shade. And that’s intentional. We could have put a lot of that stuff up. But I feel like the upside outweighs the downside because it’s a really unique dining experience. I enjoy it. That’s one of those things where we’ve had to just stay true to what we do. This is what we built, this is how we want to do it. We’re always looking for other ways to create shade, though. Shade is at a premium here.
What has the biggest challenge been with Contigo?
Andrew: Trying to meet supply with demand. And the size of the kitchen.
Ben: We often say and lament the fact that we designed and built that kitchen from the ground up. And why we built it the size we did, I don’t know. It definitely speaks loudly of our experience.
A challenge that we have in the front, and it translates to the back as well, is, and it’s a good thing, I’m not complaining about it, but because we have picnic tables and it’s outdoor and casual, we get a lot of really big parties. Combine that with a small kitchen and a menu where we’re trying to spend a little time on each dish, it just creates a logistical thing where we’ve had Friday nights where we served over 12 groups of more than ten people. and it’s just challenging. I don’t want people to have to wait two and a half hours to sit down. I don’t want a bunch of long tickets hitting Andrew at the same time. Then you’ve got the table that came in at 5:30 and at 10 they’re still at their table, which is great and we’d never ask them to leave, but it means that table I wanted to seat, can’t. It’s a logistical challenge to get that many big groups in. So we’ve come up with different strategies and plans that help us out a little bit. But trying to create and deliver on the great experience we want to deliver on to everybody that walks in the door, you can’t always do that. It’s hard.
How was your first SXSW?
Ben: We didn’t do any events, but we did get a lot of traffic. Our goal for the first year was to intentionally be that place just a little bit removed. We had known that in our first seven, eight, nine months of being open that there were going to be people going in looking for that new restaurant. We braced ourselves for attracting people who wanted to get away from the madness. It was fun. Our Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday during South By was like our normal Friday, Saturday. Lots and lots of people. Lots and lots of green beans.
Andrew: For sure. I think I calculated we served 1.62 tons of green beans in the first years of operation.
All those green beans! Does that fall into your nose-to-tail philosophy? Or is it dangerous to use those kinds of buzzwords?
Andrew: I don’t think that we’re pulling it off 100 percent. But we get whole animals and we use all of it. So I guess we’re touching on it. We’re still supplementing some cuts. With charcuterie, it’s just a craft I’ve been interested in for the last few years. Most of my travels have revolved around food, and once I get to a certain location, markets are the first places I like to seek out. So it's, I don't know, the sustainability? [Laughs]
Ben: We had about an hour-long conversation on Monday about the definition of sustainability. To that point, we’ve made a pretty conscious effort to never market, promote or label ourselves as any of those titles. We just try to serve fresh food.
Andrew: Not local. Not farm-to-table. Just quality. And we’ve been fortunate enough to get the majority of our food from Texas and the Austin area.
So what's coming up for Contigo in the next year?
Andrew: The first year, we turned down a lot of opportunities to do off-site events or host stuff for South By. Because we were and are still trying to figure out what we’re doing day to day. It’s hard to forecast the business base don a lot of factors, weather’s always a factor, obviously. Going into this year we’ve got notes that were taken on a daily basis from last year. To reference. We’re definitely looking to reach out and do more off-site things. and on-site things.
Ben: We definitely spent the first year learning everything we currently know about running a restaurant. So the goal is hopefully to apply it in the second year and do the same thing we did this year, just maybe it’ll be a little easier for us. Days off could be, maybe, something?
Andrew: It’s on the short list.