When Ben Siegel stood in line at the Best Wurst cart during his undergrad days at UT, he never thought he'd open his own beer and sausage bar in Austin. But he dreamed about it. After years as a real estate broker, he had an epiphany flying home from a friend's wedding. "I was like, you know what? Life's too short. . . . The plane landed and I called my boss and said I was quitting."
Banger's Sausage House and Beer Garden's first year has been an incredible success, even though Siegel had "zero" experience in the hospitality industry. In addition to sporting the biggest tap wall in Austin, The Chronicle's Claudia Alacrón points out "it offers some of the best food on Rainey, period. . ." Siegel credits his success to trusting his "talented" employees, who he calls "partners," and keeping it simple. "I mean, it's sausage and beer."
The Banger's compound boasts a huge patio complete with off-leash dog park. Siegel took some time to catch up with Eater about the beauty of ignorance, why brats are like vanilla ice cream, and his continued bummer that lamb kofta looks like "poop on a stick."
You've mentioned before that Banger's came out of a desire to create a perfect beer and sausage bar. What's something you didn't expect to have to do to create that perfect bar?
The big challenge on the beer side of things is staff education and the beers you can actually get. One of the biggest things that's been hard to take and one of most unexpected things as first time restaurateur is employee turnover. We spend a lot of time on education. One of things we do is we require is that within a month all staff get level one Cicerone certification. And we've created what we call beer college, which is a more in depth class. We break our beer down by flavor profile, and then sub-categories within those profiles. It's all about having a very educated staff.
In terms of quality of offerings, there are a lot of great beer bars and gardens in this town, and we're all competing for the same unique one-off beers. We're working to develop relationships with distributors and brewers. We're all running businesses, and it's all about volume. Fortunately we have a big space, so we sell a lot of beer.
What do you think Austin is such a big craft beer town?
You've got a lot of creative, artistic people in this town, and by nature that type of person pays attention to things more. So when there's a new cool thing to try, whether it be food or beer, there's quite frankly a market for it. And then some of those folks have desire to make it. So you have this customer base into cool, novel things, and also from that customer base you have people saying "I could do that too," and so you have all these breweries that are popping up. For guys like me that want to open restaurants and bars, it's a perfect storm. We just have to set up a base of operations for those two groups of people to meet.
Jumping off staff education, what do you look for when you're hiring?
The most important thing is hiring people you want to spend a bunch of time with. This place is a monster. We could have 1200 people coming through the restaurant in a day. Nothing on the menu over $10, so the amount of volume, and the amount of space people have to navigate is huge. We emphasize teamwork a lot. If they have a passion for beer and sausages, that matters too, but at the end of the day you want to hire good people.
How different is Banger's now from what you originally envisioned?
In a lot of ways, it's exactly what I thought it would be, pretty darn close, other than it's much, much larger than what I originally envisioned. The concept is pretty simple, I mean it's sausage and beer. But we're up to 350 seats, and the idea that we were going to on a Saturday night serve upwards of one thousand people is crazy. That really caught me by surprise. Pleasantly. I was hoping people would love it, and it's so far been really well received by the people of Austin. I set out to open a sausage and beer place and that's what we did.
How did you end up choosing Rainey Street?
My background is commercial real estate. I have no experience in the hospitality industry, other than when I decided I would do this, I spent six months working with a guy that opened a restaurant in Hermosa Beach. And so when I was doing this, I was very interested in the real estate. I wanted to be able to buy a piece of property. The only option was on Rainey. This would have been beginning of 2011 when we started poking around. There were only four businesses open on the street, and it wasn't clear which way things would go. Icenhauers was the new kid on the block, Blackheart was struggling to get open but they weren't open yet. There was still sort of a question mark there.
At the time, one of my partners in the deal, Adam Glick , was getting his MBA at UT. So I would come into town and stay on his couch and we would meet with attorneys and figure out what we were doing. When the broker brought us to Rainey St., on that first meeting Adam was against it. We were looking at west 6th st and South Congress. But within the month or two that we started looking, the whole dynamic of the street evolved until by the end of that time it was a complete no brainer.
You were coming back and forth from Hermosa Beach?
I've lived in Texas nine of the last twelve years but I'm originally from California. I came to school at UT, fell in love with Austin, then I moved to Dallas and was like, why did I ever leave Austin? And then I moved home and was like, why did I ever leave Austin? Finally was able to get back here.
Especially as the first time working in the hospitality industry, were you apprehensive going into this project?
I don't know if apprehension is the right word. I literally knew nothing, and to a certain extent that was real helpful. One of my strategies was to hire really good people and put them in the right positions. Had I "known" what I was doing, I wouldn't have given those people freedom to do what I hired them to do. I was still the boss and had to make final decisions, but I was able to get advice from wonderful talented people. Fortunately the succeeded more than they failed.
Can you give of an example of when your partners or employees advised you in a way that made an impact?
It's everything. I can't begin to emphasize how little I knew about what I was doing. It really was a big experiment, and I tried to be hyper-aware of that. The thing that I'm most proud of is that I listened to my advisors and gave them freedom. I know I should be able to come up with ten examples but I can't because it was everything.
So you're doing something that a lot of people dream of doing.
How did you give yourself permission to take this risk?
I graduated from UT with a degree in finance and went into commercial real estate right after graduation. I hated finance when I was studying it, and basically about a month into my real estate career, I knew it wasn't the work I was supposed to be doing. I also didn't know what my options were. The job I had was something my parents were content with, and all the other people that judge you in life were like "Oh this is perfect and you're going to be so good at this," but I wasn't happy.
The original idea for Banger's came from being a college student and going to the Best Wurst sausage cart on Dirty Sixth and always being amazed at how much longer the lines were there than anywhere else. I wondered why there wasn't a proper brick and mortar sausage place, and nothing goes better with sausage with beer. But like you said, I never took that idea seriously. Everyone wants to open up a restaurant/bar. Time went on, I worked as a broker for six-seven years, and the idea kept popping up. Around 2007, I moved back to California and right around that time a sausage and beer place opened in downtown LA. It was like, holy shit , these guys walked in my brain and stole my idea. But really, the place just killed it, and it was validation. There's something to this sausage/beer idea.
I was on the plane home from my buddy's wedding, and I was like, you know what? Life's too short. I'm the only one standing in my own way. I don't know why I ever left Austin. I want to make my life there and open up that restaurant. The plane landed and I called my boss and said I was quitting.
You really called when you got off the plane?
Got off the plane and got my boss on the phone. That was December of 2010. I had a buddy opening a restaurant in Hermosa Beach and helped him with his pre-opening, and while I was working on my business plan I was working in the restaurant, whatever needed to be done. Trying to figure out if I really wanted to do this, and also trying to learn something about the service industry before I jumped in with both feet.
July 30 2012 we opened.
You guys are using Facebook regularly. How has social media like Facebook & Yelp been useful, and have there been any negative aspects?
I believe that people are for the most part smart, intelligent beings who can figure stuff out. Quite frankly, when we get a bad review on Yelp, most of the time it's our fault. They had a bad experience with a server, sausage came out cold. We make mistakes, and it gives us an opportunity to improve. The worst thing, worse than a bad review on Yelp, is someone who suffers in silence and tells their friends about their bad experience, but we can't do anything about it. Instead saying, "Hey, look, this sausage was bad." When people come to us, we can taste it and say, "Oh hey, the prep cook didn't put salt in it!" because that happens. We can offer them a better option.
But then there's our one star Yelp review where someone said she tried to go to see Rachel Ray here during SXSW, and the bouncer that Rachel Ray hired was mean to her. I told her, "I'm happy to buy you dinner," but that stuff's completely out of your control.
Overall, I love social media. I almost exclusively do our social media stuff, and I think it's a great way to interact with people and let them know what's going on. We have 100 beers on tap and have 30 sausages, chef's back there is making giraffe patties, it's weird and cool and fun to talk about.
I think about our chef, Chef Ted, he's just a straight up redneck from Tennessee who's a badass cook. He's been hunting his whole life, making sausages his whole life, pickling his whole life. And that's awesome. I love telling people about those kinds of things.
You guys also do some very social media friendly stuff, like the gummy bear sausage.
The gummy bear sausage.
That was not our idea originally; it was a meat market in Minnesota maybe? Gummy bear brat is not a good example because it's just a brat with gummy bears, but anything in a sausage shape we consider a sausage. Cylindrical. Gives us ability to have fun.
What are your best selling sausages?
An ice cream parlor's best selling ice cream is always going to be vanilla, and our best selling sausage is always going to be a bratwurst. We sell by far more brats than any other sausage.
Any sausages that flopped?
A lot of my favorite sausages, and staff favorites, were ones people didn't like. We originally opened with a lamb kofta. It's ground lamb on a stick. It was unbelievable, but it would sit in the display case and look like poop on a stick. We didn't sell any of it. Man, that's what I ate whenever I came in. I'm still a little bummed it's gone.
What about best selling beers?
Best selling beer by the number of pints is the Live Oak hefe. The Guadalupe Honey is more expensive, so that's the one we sell most dollar-wise.
What's an unusual or unexpected beer you guys carry?
One of the cool things we do now is we have a fleet of firkins. The firkin is the keg for cask beer. We send them out to different breweries and they make weird concoctions for us. Recently, Ballast Point Brewery made us a vanilla coffee imperial porter dry hopped with Captain Crunch and lactose. The original beer was called Victory at Sea, so we called this one Victory at Cereal.
What's the best and worst thing about being so dog friendly?
The best thing is man, I love dogs. So I get to play with dogs all the time. We have an off-leash dog park and people are constantly bringing their dogs that I get to play with.
There's really no downside. It's awesome. People pretty much all like dogs, and people who don't don't need to come here.
When you spoke with Eater back in December, you said that "Our goal was to be considered one of the premiere beer bars in the country once we were up and running." Have you reached that goal? Where do you still want to grow?
In order to reach that goal, you need to never stop reaching for that goal. Do I think we're there right now? Not for me to say.
Where do you see yourself being a year from now?
Quite honestly, the beauty of our concept is its simplicity. I hope that in a year from now is that the only thing that will have changed is that we're doing the same things we do now better.
— Meghan McCarron
· All Coverage of Banger's Sausage House & Beer Garden [~EATX~]