One of the biggest stars of the South First dining boom is Sway, the Australian-Thai-influenced restaurant from restauranteur Jesse Herman. Herman's third restaurant after downtown's La Condesa and La Condesa Napa, Sway was named one of Bon Appetit's 50 best new restaurants and has been one of 2013's buzziest destinations. Eater spoke with Herman about 'peak restaurant' on South First, how Austin's restaurant scene has evolved since he opened La Condesa, and his continued expansion plans in Austin.
What's been the biggest surprise of the last year?
We've just been overwhelmed by the support – it's exceeded all expectations, on sales level, dollars, covers, how much people love it. I'll be at the restaurant and people who don't know who I am will say how much fun they had.
I think that's the most fulfilling thing for us as restaurateurs. We're packaging up a product: food, service, ambiance. To have people respond to that is the most fulfilling part of the job. We're about to introduce app-based takeout in beginning of year. The reason we haven't had takeout yet is because it's been too busy. Those are the good issues to have.
How would you define the role of restaurateur in a project?
Like what a producer is for a film. A producer finds a script, or hires someone to write one, casts the film, finances it, puts the talent pieces together. A restauranteur does the same thing - finds the chef, GM, maybe a sommelier. With a restaurant, like any other kind of company, all these people have to work together. And you're working with people on creative side, architects, landscape designers, graphic designers, chefs, all your FOH management.
At the end of the day people have an experience made of a lot of different components, food, ambiance and service. The customer is faced with a value proposition, and their feeling coalescences into three fundamental components of the restaurant experience. It's a shame to have great ambiance and great service but not have good food. Putting that together is one thing, and continuing to run it year after year after year, that's a whole different component of that business.
It's very much an artistic endeavor, but there's a commercial aspect to it and you really have to find that right balance. We're held accountable to ourselves our employees, our investors, and we are here to make customers happy and create opportunities for our staff. To do so we have to run a successful business. The day to day running is very unglamorous, but it's still paramount.
How did it feel to be named of one Bon Appetit's Fifty Best New Restaurants?
It was more a surprise when La Condesa got a James Beard nomination for best new restaurant, because at the time no one nationally, critics or folks who nominated for awards, was paying attention to Austin. There's a lot more attention paid to Austin now, and once you've been through the process, people are obviously paying a little more attention to what you're doing. So this time around was not as surprising, but it's always a great honor to be recognized. That said, it's just as rewarding for us to have customers who eat there three times a week.
How do you see Sway fitting into the South First dining boom?
It was a street that was ripe for some reinvention – and even Bouldin Creek reinvented themselves when they moved. But on the "new" South First, there's only a small handful of restaurants. There's people who have been there for a long time who are consistently crowded, if not more so, and there are some new places that didn't exist before. But South First is very limited. Going forward, there aren't going to be new places that weren't previously restaurants. You've got a parking issue due to the zoning.
I live two blocks away. As a resident of Bouldin Creek, it's amazing to me that there are so many places I can go, like Elizabeth Street, Lenoir, El Primo, and there's lots of places within walking distance of my house. There's even so many places downtown that have that concentration of great options within walking distance. That said, South First is not going to keep changing at the same pace.
So you think South First has hit some kind of "peak restaurant"?
It will continue to evolve in its own way. There's a really cool-looking gelato place coming in, for instance. You still see some people getting creative about the archaic zoning regulations. There's also mobile stuff. El Primo is amazing, Soup Peddler and Juice Box is a smaller place, and you still don't have to deal with the crowds or volume or traffic as you would on South Congress.
How did you end up choosing South First to begin with? Did you have a sense it would blow up?
When we signed our lease, there was no way to know it was going to become what it did. A lot of quality operations picked the location at the same time. The same thing could be said for Condesa. The only thing down there was Lamberts, our neighbor. That area ended up going in the right direction, but what if they didn't build the hotel right across the street? Some luck, some foresight, but you never know how it's going to go.
Do you and Larry McGuire have some kind of agreement that you always must be neighbors?
We've quit after two – we made a deal we wouldn't do that any more. Austin's not that big, though. When you're looking in certain areas – all the appealing pockets in the city - you're bound to end up being neighbors with people multiple times.
What are those pockets, in your opinion? Any areas of Austin still seem under-served?
I think we went through a phase for a few years where there were areas that were kind of overlooked. Now there are very few. There's nothing that I can think of, or at least not that I want to tell everybody about.
But I do think that there are some areas where you'll see a bit of boom in development, and you'll see restaurants come with that. But that relies on developers and the economy – new areas, not existing areas. Great developers are always communicating with restaurateurs and retailers because they see us as key components of new development.
Executive chef Rene Ortiz left the restaurant in August, as did executive pastry chef Laura Sawicki. Was that a challenge at all?
We have a robust company and a lot of talent – that transition was a long time in the making, and executed over many months. It was not necessarily as much a surprise as it may have seemed. We knew before Sway even opened. It wasn't even a challenge – the challenge overall in a restaurant is maintaining high level of quality and consistency in the food and service day in day out. Things like turnover, even changes in key positions, you deal with that every day and, and you just become used to it.
How was opening Sway different from opening La Condesa?
Sway was my third restaurant. When we first opened La Condesa, we thought that it might be the only restaurant we opened Austin. We didn't know if Austin was the right market for other ideas and concepts we wanted to do, including Sway.
You look at the evolution of the restaurant market in Austin over the past five years, it's grown more like New York or San Francisco with very sophisticated foods scenes. Demand surged for new restaurants, and so much attention is paid to Austin's new restaurants and chefs. Also, Austin has a food legacy of barbecue and Tex Mex. We realized there was a lot more latent demand for things that didn't exist here. I don't think there's anything you can't do here anymore.
The first year of La Condesa was not easy. I remember a lot of people asking me how I could open a restaurant at that time [during the recession]. I would say, "Well, I've been working on it for two years and I didn't think the world was going to implode." A lot of it also was the way that Austin was in trough of a small wave. It wasn't dealing with the economic fallout a lot of other cities were, but people were still very cautious.
People had for a long time defined Mexican food in Austin as Tex Mex or interior Mexican. People were unfamiliar with the idea of restaurant designed the way La Condesa was and also being able to deliver on the food side of it. La Condesa was one of the first that had a pretty sophisticated cocktail program as a component. The year the James Beard nominations came out, it was the last thing I expected for any restaurant from Austin, let alone ours. That really changed everything. The city was changing, the economy was changing, a lot of other factors were there, but the James Beard really gave everybody this confidence boost. If you stay focused and believe in what you're doing, there will be enough other people who will enjoy that product and believe in the same thing. It's been crazy since then.
What's the weirdest thing that's happened since you opened Sway?
Literally the night we opened, there was a middle aged Thai couple that came in, and I was on the floor. I could tell from facial expressions that they weren't happy. They were ordering a lot of menu items, taking one bite of each thing, and kept calling servers over. It didn't look good, and I went over an asked if everything was OK. They said, "I know I don't even need to tell you that nothing we've had is authentic or traditional in any way." And I said, "Have you seen the Mexican gentleman who's the executive chef in the kitchen? I'm fairly aware of that."
Kate Thornberry at The Chronicle criticized Sway's communal table setting. Do you perceive that to be an issue?
You can't please everyone. I think the hardest job in the world, President of the United States, you're considered to have a successful approval rating at 61%. We know Sway is not for everybody. I don't know how to create a food concept for anybody. We wanted to break down a lot of traditions in the way that people eat and have very sophisticated food in a very casual setting.
We have communal tables, and yeah, it's loud. I've been in restaurants with less people that are louder. The volume level is in part because there are three hundred people in there. For me that's part of the specific experience we were trying to create, you meet your neighbors, and food comes out when it's ready. There's enough people that like it,
thankfully, that it stays busy all the time, so we really focus on that.
Condesa has a branch in Napa, and you've considered L.A. Any interest in expanding Sway?
At the end of the day, a restaurant is a business, and it's a careful balance between art and commerce. The art is in the food and design and ambiance and service, but we have to engineer a restaurant on paper to make it something we believe could be a thriving business. Sway is designed to be a very simple, fun, appealing concept that's also really unique. Communal tables, and not traditional Thai food. It's been interesting to see how it appeals to kids and much older people.
The thing about Sway is that there's an opportunity to do more of them. It's a very consistent restaurant, one menu all day long, continuous service. Having had the experience of opening La Condesa, I can tell you it's a more complicated restaurant to open in another space. Sway has more future growth potential. Within a few months of opening, we had people approaching us to expand it. For the time being, first with Sway we would potentially do another one in Austin.
Everything we're working is in Austin. It's a great time to be a restaurateur in Austin. I travel a lot and Austin customers are the best in the country for restaurants. Creatively, I want to do a couple other things, but expanding Sway is something in the works at some point.
Could you talk about your other projects?
Not at the moment – we prefer to wait until we're at the right point as far as those concepts having coalesced. But we're working on a number of different things. Information about that will be coming at some point in the near future.
Sway is amazing and I can't believe it's been a year. We've had virtually no turnover in all our key positions. In our business, people are key and deserve most of the credit for helping us deliver on that experience. It's awesome to have been open for a year, and we also have our customers to thank for that. We look forward to many more.
· All Sway Coverage [EATX]
· All Jesse Herman Coverage [EATX]
· All One Year In [EATX]