Eater's long-running series of One Year In interviews give readers a peek into that first intense year in the restaurant business. Making it a year is a big deal in the restaurant industry, and making it ten years is a much, much bigger one. Eater is kicking off its inaugural Ten Years In series with Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill co-founders Larry Perdido, the partner/chef, and operating partner Chuck Smith.
Moonshine opened on Red River back when "illegal trade" was going on in Palms Park and Rainey Street was just a gleam in Bridget Dunlap's eye. Since then, they've hosted the Bush twins' graduation party, had Vampire Weekend sign their record deal in their wine cellar, and mentored young whippersnapper Bryce Gilmore. The future looks bright as well. Larry Perdido reports that in terms of earnings, "we haven't even seen a plateau yet." The full interview is below.
What was the original concept for Moonshine? How did it come together?
Larry: I think you've got to go further back than that, to what this place represented in 2003. It was a restaurant called Emilia's. This hoity-toity new American super expensive place. We wanted to get real with it.
Chuck: In 2003, Larry and I were partners in a former restaurant called Saba. We were seeing this trend towards tiny stacked foods and everyone leaving hungry. We began working on a tavern concept. We were planning on being in the 'burbs.
The restaurant here before Moonshine, it was one of those high check average, tiny little food, everyone left hungry places, and you better not laugh out loud because it was so quiet in there. When the opportunity presented it self to do something here, we actually said no about three times. Obviously we finally said yes.
Larry: The building never spoke anything other than comfort food to us. We let the bones of the restaurant tell us what we really needed to cook. Was that something we intended? I don't think so. Not until we got into the space we agreed that we really need to focus on food that's understood and welcomed, that's comforting, big portions to share with family.
Chuck: We like the fact that we've taken it back to what it was. Originally these old buildings were referred to as the Waterloo Compound, which was Austin's first name, Waterloo. This was a trade center. People would come in from their ranches and their farms and trade goods. They would arrive on Saturday, do their trading, and stay the night in these little houses called Sunday houses. It was a loft house, and they would all crash, go to church on Sunday, and then hop in their buggies and head back to their farms and ranches. This place is pretty special in that it's yet again a common gathering place.
How different is Moonshine today from what you originally started out with?
Chuck: As business partners we believe that people crave favorites. The Moonshine menu is a menu of favorites that has never been designed to be evolving and changing. This menu is meant to be consistent, so you can bring more people to experience what you love. What's really changed is the increase in business with the size kitchen we have.
Larry: That's been the biggest challenge for us. We feed so many people every week. The kitchen was actually designed to do 60-90 covers a night we probably do 700+ people on a good day. The kitchen has been stressed to a point where it needs some new infrastructure. We've been updating the equipment little by little. Space is our biggest challenge here.
Moonshine is known as a big brunch spot. How do you handle your brunch crowds?
Chuck: It's really more like how do they handle us! There's only X amount of seats, and we've been opening earlier and earlier to accommodate the crowds. Guests would love if we would take reservations. But the demand is so high we don't have to take reservations, and there's always people in the seats and the tables are always turning. If you have reservations you're not seating a table, you're holding a table, and if you have 100-200 people on the wait, and they see a table just sitting there not seated, it drives them crazy. It probably hurts that you have to wait for a table, but at least you know you're in the same boat
Larry: I can tell you why buffet is our only option. Logistically speak the size of the kitchen prohibited us from doing al carte items. I could easily design a menu with a soft shell crab over some rice with a poached egg on top of it and some hollandaise, but to do that for 400 people in a space as small as we have it's we'd have so much turnover in the kitchen. We had to design around our limitations, which is why we went to this brunch format.
Let's talk about changes in the neighborhood.
Chuck: When we opened, the Hilton wasn't open yet, and people were still participating in illegal trade in Palm Park. There was a lot of dealing going on.
Larry: And tricks and stuff down there. It was real seedy back then. It wasn't until 2004, when we had an officer who responded to some sort of dispute among some homeless guys out there, and for whatever reason they assaulted him. The officer didn't go down, but they called – I think we had every police officer in the city here in not even thirty seconds. After that point, this place got really clean.
Chuck: Sales have increased steadily for the past ten years. We never saw a dip even when the economy slowed down.
Larry: We haven't even seen a plateau yet.
Chuck: Which shows you that we started a little light, right? Back in 2003 when people weren't coming down here in this back end. Now, we can do in a day what we did in our first week.
What was the biggest surprise of the last ten years?
Larry: My biggest surprise is that we haven't plateaued yet, that we continue to grow business. It's just a testament to how good the staff is. Everyone takes care of the customer and does a great job of the hospitality.
Chuck: The reason we're growing is not that we're serving more people Friday and Saturday. It's that the city of Austin is growing so much in its central urban core that there's little difference between Sunday through Thursday. The lunches and the dinners in those early parts of the week we see getting busier and busier.
Was there ever a moment where you were unsure if it was going to work?
Larry: Well, I had to twist both of [Chuck's] arms to believe in the project. I was very confident that we could make this a success. Once Chuck bought in, we were all in.
Chuck: The thing with restaurants is there's a lot of people who know what they're doing, a lot of great chefs and restaurateurs. There's a little bit of luck involved. You can know exactly what you're doing and still not make it.
What really helped us bust through this sleepy back end is that we hosted the graduation party for the Bush twins [in 2004].
I was going to ask about that.
Chuck: You're in People Magazine, you're in all these publications because it's being covered. That gave us a great little kickstart.
What was that like? He was President at the time.
Larry: It was surreal. That's probably the easiest word to use. Knowing that you can be in a place and have it be the most secure place on the planet. And then as the President left, the energy flipped from having the President into having all the frat brothers and sorority sisters come in. It went from the most secure place on the planet to Animal House with a flip of the switch.
Having to go through all the Secret Service security to even approach the President was kind of wild. Seeing the suitcase with the nuclear launch codes was crazy.
Chuck: "The football."
Larry: Seeing the other gentleman with the two red phones on him. That was crazy.
Any other notable celebrity moments?
Larry: Oh everyone.
Chuck: We're ground zero for SXSW. Vampire Weekend signed their record deal in our wine cellar.
Larry: I don't think there's another restaurant outside of either the Four Seasons or Uchi that sees as many celebrities as this place does. I'm sure the W is taking the lion's share now. But we see our fair share of big celebrities here. Like most of Austin we leave them alone.
Chuck: I think that's why a lot of celebs are drawn to Austin is they don't see us as residents get all star struck.
Larry: I'll tell you who made the biggest impact with the crowd, when the women just couldn't help themselves, is that Ty Pennington guy? From Extreme Makeover. We almost had to call security to get him out of here.
What's been the best moment of the last ten years?
Larry: I'll say the best moment is we just celebrated our ten year anniversary. That's a milestone for any restaurant. I'll say for me, not only did we get there, the future looks even more promising. We still retain about 15%-20% of the original crew.
Chuck: What we see here are great team members fostering great long term friendships. That's what makes me the most proud is seeing the relationships developed here.
Larry: I think our biggest challenge was getting through year number one. Like most. But we quickly got past that hump.
If you had to do it all over again, would you do anything differently?
Chuck: We do believe that today dining is becoming more honed. You see people – whether it's a food trailer that specialized in one certain kind of food, or if you're a small footprint restaurant specializing in in a very tight menu that tells your own little story. I don't think we'd open a Moonshine today exactly this way.
Larry: With the menu as big as it is? I think it has its place. When you talk about cravings, we always talk about "What are you in the mood for?" To us if we can satisfy that craving, if you can take that craving and do it better than anyone than anyone else can, like Tyson with Uchi, he took "I'm in the mood for sushi" and took that sushi and ran with it and no one will ever touch him, at least on that level.
For comfort food, people come here. They know they can get a good steak or a pork chop or a chicken fried steak or a meatloaf. There's other ones out there – Hoover's and Threadgill's. Jack Allen's, our good friend Jack Gilmore, we're seeing eye to eye in terms of what we do. He's in other parts of the city that we're not. The pie is big enough for everyone to share.
Bryce [Gilmore] worked here when you guys opened. Did you have this sense he was going to go on to becoming a nationally recognized chef?
Larry: You know special when you see it. Or at least I do. He was driven and consumed and he was creative and good at what he did. When Food and Wine tapped him, we knew that was going to happen.
What do you guys think the future holds for you, and for Austin?
Larry: I think people the population in general is really focusing more on nutritional dining. I think that's where it's going to go. We may make some changes here lightly. In terms of everyone talks farm to table but it even goes beyond that with dining.
Chuck: I think you're going to see restaurants pushing for non-GMO foods. You're going to see restaurants pushing for animals that are humanely raised and harvested.
Larry: I think you'll see chefs pushing the envelope in terms of really dictating seeds or the genetics of certain animals. I'm not saying genetically modifying them, but trying to bring back these heritage breeds and ancient seed grains.
Chuck: I think for Austin, we're going to get a lot of great, creative fun restaurants to dine in. I think hat's going to continue to build. It used to be nobody wanted to be a chef or cook. Now you're a celebrity of you do that.
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