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 Walt Powell at Flix Brewhouse.
Walt Powell, Vice President of Operation s at Flix Brewhouse. [Photo: Andrea Grimes/EATX]
When Flix Brewhouse, a combination restaurant, microbrewery and movie theater opened in Round Rock in June of 2011, it premiered in a market that has long sworn loyalty to its beloved Alamo Drafthouse. Flix was undeterred: they installed fancy server call lights and a state-of-the-art ordering system to ensure the swift delivery of Chef Scott Reed's menu. But their piece de resistance: microbrewing their own beer on the premises with the help of former Independence Brewing beermaster Justin Rizza. Today, they carry 48 beers on tap.
A year later, Flix vice president of operations Walt Powell says they're already looking to expand on the cinema eatery concept, describing Flix as the "best of breed" in the genre. Today, Eater Austin talks with Powell to talk about the craft beer boom, what Flix learned from Alamo and why they'll probably never host an Air Sex competition.
So what did you guys envision for Flix from the get-go?
The cinema-eatery concept is a tremendously growing idea. A tremendously growing concept. At the beginning of this year, including the one Flix location operating currently, there were somewhere around sixty operating locations in the United States. From Alamo Drafthouse, Studio Movie Grill, Flix, Movie Tavern, Cinebar, Cinebistro, there were a lot of operations that are tremendously successful. What’s a better idea than if you go out to dinner and movie, why not roll it all into one venue? A one-stop shop. So the idea and the development of the concept was to be able to service our guests in a one-stop-shop kind of mentality. Where we can capture and educate guests toward a superior experience. So we did try to find all the other operators in many different markets, and markets that are similar to Austin and Round Rock and operators in Houston, Dallas, Kansas, Seattle, there are all these operations that are tremendously successful. We wanted to be the best of breed. We certainly feel like, learning from these other operators, that we are the best of breed.
Of course the big operator here is the Alamo Drafthouse.
At Alamo, Tim and Carrie have done just a wonderful job at educating this marketplace specifically on how cinema eateries work. People ask us all the time, do we hate being compared to Alamo? Not at all. We view Alamo almost as a friendly competitor. The fact that they’ve been able to educate this market, and they’ve been so tremendously successful, there’s a lot of movie-goers in Austin that are under serviced by cinema eateries, because if you live in Round Rock or Georgetown or Hutto or Cedar Park, Lake Creek is kind of your closest option. And not everybody wants to drive ten or fifteen miles. But almost everyone in Austin has been to Alamo and they provide a great experience. So we definitely give them a tip o’ the hat and thank them for doing a lot of the groundwork for us and for people that are our guests.
So what makes Flix the "best of breed," as you say?
We are the only first-run movie theater in the world that has a brewery. And what better craft beer market than Austin, Texas? Who wouldn’t like to have a beer that was made two weeks ago, it’s completely fresh, it’s delicious. We have just a stellar brew master here [Justin Rizza] that’s worked in breweries all over the world. He called Austin, Texas home and we were lucky to be able to grab him. First and foremost, that sets us apart. We decided that sometimes, in some cinema eatery environments, our competitors in other markets use rolling chairs to solve the I’m-so-far-away from my food problem. Some operators said there’s nothing we can do about it, so you deal with it, your food is two feet from you. Some operators, if you take the new Alamo location at Slaughter, they put a smaller tabletop closer to you. But we thought, if you can’t move the chair and you can’t move the table, why not just move the table top to you? So all our tabletops are equipped with the easy-glider system, which pulls your tabletop to you and when you’re done with your meal you can push it away.
All of our servers use hand-held devices to place orders before the feature, during the feature we use a pad and paper system because nobody wants to be interrupted during the movie. Immediately after you place your order, they can hit transmit on the hand-held device and the bar or the kitchen immediately starts preparing the order. Service is a lot quicker. And in an environment like a cinema eatery, whether it’s Studio Movie Grill or Alamo Drafthouse or us, in an hour’s time span, when we seat 600 to 800 people, that puts a lot of burden on the bar and the kitchen.
We prepare all of our meals to order, so food quality is incredibly important to us. We have a world-class executive chef, Scott Reed, as well. In trying to minimize that downtown between when you place your order and when it’s entered into the point-of-sale system, it automatically makes service three times faster than what it would be at our competitors. Also every seat has an electronic call button, so when you do need something, you can press that button. It notifies wait staff in the theater, in the hallways, outside of the auditorium as well, that someone in the auditorium needs service. There’s a small, soft amber light that notifies and lets them see where they’re going.
Why go for the microbrewery idea as a selling point?
That was always crucial. It was always a piece in the puzzle. Who wouldn’t want, in this market, to be able to make their own beer? There’s a lot of work behind that. You have to have the right equipment, you have to have the right person. So we did a pretty in-depth search to locate our brewer—Justin Rizza. He was formerly the head brewer at Independence here in Austin and as I mentioned, he’s worked all over the world. In Italy, Seattle, Denver, all over the place. He’s earned his chops.
Some of the beers that made him a local beer celebrity, Independence’s primary brand, Stash, that was Justin’s recipe originally. He’s added a lot of beers to their portfolio and some consistency and quality solutions to their brewery. Certainly Rob and Amy [Independence Brewery owners] were sad to see him go, but whenever a brewer moves on, they’re a transient breed somewhat. Here, Justin has complete creative control over our beers. We have our beers that are in our regular lineup, but right now we have eight [Flix] beers on tap, four of which are in our regular lineup and four are at Justin’s discretion. Brewers are like chefs in that regard, who wouldn’t want to prepare a new beer or a new menu on a regular basis?
Talk about the food. What's the mission behind the menu?
Scott Reed is our executive chef here and also at Homefield Grill, the largest restaurant in Williamson County and one of the largest from-scratch kitchens in Central Texas. Of the two places, obviously the menus are different. The buildings, while we’re next to each other, we don’t share a kitchen. When you seat six to eight hundred people, theoretically at once, most of the guests order food. That puts a tremendous strain on your kitchen. So we put a lot of thought into our kitchen. Our kitchen is engineered for speed. That’s tremendously important. We also engineered the menu to be items we could do the legwork or basics of menu prep so if you order a Cuban sandwich, we might have the basis of the sandwich already prepared so when you order it, we finish the sandwich and run it through the oven. The menu is designed to be able to service guests quickly. A lot of guests want to order as soon as they enter the theater, they don’t want to eat in the dark. A lot of guests don’t care if they eat in the dark. In designing the menu, that was the first thing we thought about. What can we prepare quickly but still use high quality and fresh ingredients?
Any specifics on what guests didn't like, or menu changes?
In the last year, we’ve probably done two new menu roll-outs. We’ve removed items that either weren’t practical in this environment or that we didn’t move a lot of or we had requests, where guests said hey, instead of this you should have this. As a locally owned business, when people give us feedback, we’d be crazy not to listen to it. If you come in and there’s something you’d like to see on the menu and you want to be a guest here, why on earth wouldn’t we listen to that?
We had steak fingers on the menu. People said, we don’t want these. We don’t like these. We didn’t sell them, and when people did order them, they said we don’t like this, I should have gotten chicken fingers. And we have Louisiana mac ‘n cheese on the menu with crawfish as an addition, but we had a lot of guests ask us, ‘Why can’t I put chicken on this?’ Well, okay, you sure can! We had pulled pork sliders, with house-roasted pork as an appetizer. People said we don’t want an appetizer, because then we have to get this and an entrée separately, why can’t we just get one big pulled pork sandwich? Okay, sure!
And when you first opened, the brewery itself wasn't even running, right?
It was still under construction because the brewery we bought was a used system from Alpine, Texas, from a boutique hotel. We weren’t ready, so we put it in storage. We had equipment that wasn’t given the TLC it should have had before they crated it up, so Justin had his hands full getting that ready. So we didn’t have beers here until the end of September. But we had guests say, why aren’t you using beer in your food? Oh, duh! So we have a couple of beer items that we brew in house: we have beer-battered shrimp, which uses our golden ale, and we also use Satellite, which is a Belgian-style pale ale. It’s a little bit hoppy toward the finish but it’s got a nice fruity Belgian yeast right up front. So we use that in our queso.
What's coming up in the next year for Flix?
We’ve started dabbling here and there in some alternative content. So that’s one thing to tip our hat to Tim and Carrie League at the Alamo Drafthouse. They do this alternative programming, and they do it so well. But you know, South Lamar is a very different market than Round Rock. It’s a lot of stuff they do that doesn’t fit with our genre, we’ll never have, at least for the foreseeable future, an Air Sex competition, but for Halloween last year we had a clown costume contest and we showed Killer Clowns from Outer Space. We had a lot of beers on tap from a brewery in Massachusetts called Clown Shoes. So that was a lot of fun. We’ve got some good ideas going forward, but we’re a different type of operation.
Especially being as beer-focused as we are, we’ve done some five-course beer dinners with our own beers. We’ve also done some brewery-specific beer events with a guest brewer and seven or eight beers on tap from, Independence as an example. And food pairings with that. This market is a little bit more picky about what their alternative content might need to be. and beer is something we do very, very well. Air Sex isn’t on our radar.