Downtown's The Bonneville has been earning rave reviews around town for their well-executed new American cuisine. Chef-owners Chris Hurley and Jenn Costello met while working in kitchens and have always dreamed of opening a restaurant together. Eater spoke with them about their first year in business, from running a restaurant as a couple to their enthusiasm for a location others consider "tough." The Boston transplants are tell Eater they're looking to open a second restaurant.
What's been the most surprising thing about the past year?
Jenn: We had no idea how hard it would be to staff. We have a great kitchen, and most of them have been with us since the beginning. But the front of the house staffing has been really tough. There's more jobs than people looking for them at this point, so it gets challenging.
Chris: I think our other challenge has been exposure. We constantly have people saying, "We didn't know you were here, it's hidden." We're on a major street.
Jenn: People ask us about that all the time, "How's the space been? That's a tough spot," and we keep thinking, "It's an awesome spot!" We're right downtown across from the lake. We have these gorgeous views.
Chris: I think there's a change coming with Shawn Cirkiel going into the Radisson and Seaholm being developed. I think Cesar Chavez will get to be known as a dining destination. We now have great neighborhood customers. The Austonian, The W, the Amli properties, that's our core customers. Someone came in with gifts for the entire staff at Christmas. It really makes you feel validated. And our regulars see us because we're here all the time, which is great and is what we want.
You both moved down here from Boston to open a restaurant. How did you end up making that decision?
Chris: We tried to open a restaurant in Boston from about seven years, and we couldn't get anywhere. It's really unfriendly to business. Liquor licenses cost about half a million dollars
Jenn: And that's if you can get one. Because there's a limited number, first you have to find one before you start bidding.
Chris: A friend invited us here to visit, and we loved it and found it much more business friendly. We've had great experiences with the city and TABC. Everyone is so friendly.
Jenn: But we come from Boston, where the answer is no the moment you walk in the door, and you have to dig and dig and dig and find the right questions to ask. Before we went into any space in Austin, we sat down and talked with the health department, we talked with TABC, and did as much legwork as we could to understand the ins and outs of a place we didn't know much about.
How different is The Bonneville from what you originally envisioned?
Chris: The concept and what we're striving for is pretty much right on from what we wanted to do. One of the biggest challenges we had on running it on a day-to-day basis is were new in town. In Boston, I knew all the fish guys, the best meant purveyors, we knew the farmers. Here's it's just been a huge learning curve.
Jenn: We didn't have a definite idea about the space. When we started it was very dark and dingy, it had been a wine bar with lots of dark wood, red and brown and mustard. We thought it needed to be open and light and bright. This is pretty reflective of the food, simple and straightforward with a contemporary twist.
The seasonality thing must have been a challenge as well. Texas seasons are really different from those in the Northeast.
Chris: Right. There's multiple tomato seasons. Strawberries come in March.
Jenn: By the time we opened we'd been here for a few years and got a sense of what's in season. But that was really mind-blowing. In late June, it was tomato seasons, and then it went away, and then it was back again.
What do you wish you'd known a year ago?
Jenn: I wish we'd understood the value of having PR prior to opening. It's almost necessary here in this town.
Chris: We worked for a lot of high profile chefs and top restaurants in Boston. We knew a lot of customers and had our own following, but here no one knows us.
Jenn: When we realized even food trucks have PR, we realized we need to get on this bandwagon.
What it's like to run a restaurant as a couple?
Jenn: This is how we know each other – this is how we met. We're both career-changers. I was an ad exec and Chris was in accounting. We both came to this from different places, knowing that this was what we wanted to do.
Chris: The major thing about being a couple running a restaurant is trust. You know you have someone who 100% has your back. When I'm the kitchen, I know things are taken care of out front, and when I'm out front, I know things are 100% taken care of in the kitchen.
Jenn: It's also just the two of us –we don't have any investors. We knew it would be insane hours. We met cooking together, we've run a catering company together, we've run restaurants together both front and back of the house, this is how we know each other and who we are. It's weird when we're not here together.
How did you each decide to switch up for a career in food?
Chris: I was a short order cook in high school. I got a job as a dishwasher, and I came into work one night and the manager said, "The cook just got arrested for armed robbery so you're the cook." I loved it, I absolutely loved it, and it was so hard. I went and got my degree and worked for ten years as an accountant and hated every minute of it. So I just decided I wanted to go to cooking school and loved it again.
Jenn: I paid my way through the university as a waitress and bartender. I was always the family cook, too. There were six kids and both parents worked so I was the cook. When out of school I took a job in advertising, I did really well, and I got to a point where I said, "Man, I hate this, I'm just a used car salesman."
What is so compelling about the restaurant industry in your opinion?
Jenn: It' structure without structure. There's structure to the dance or performance on the floor, but people are allowed to be who they are. And you can still make good money doing it.
Chris: I think it's the energy in the restaurant industry. Saturday night when you're just going nonstop, you feel like you're at the center of the world.
Jenn: Also the camaraderie. People really need to lean on each other and depend on each other. Everyone has their moments of bitching, but when the team runs smoothly there's no better feeling.
You've been putting Canadian dishes on the menu – do you look to childhood food for inspiration?
Jenn: We do go back to our roots, but we like to have fun with food. Dishes that are seemingly fairly conventional and we like to flip them on their heads. We reconcept something traditional into something lighter or brighter.
We read cookbooks like fiends. We have a huge stack in the office and at home. We tell cooks who come through or who we meet, just read. You never know where that inspiration is going to come from.
What has been the weirdest moment of the past year?
Chris: This is not really weird, but on our first night, we had a proposal. As the fireworks went off on New Year's, he took her outside and went down on one knee.
Jenn: There was a Segway incident. Before we put the patio up, they'd come blowing through by the door. At one point somebody was sitting on the bench and they ran over his foot. So the police show up and the fire department and the ambulance, and the tour can't go anywhere. And they're all doing this weird Segway jousting and circling each other.
Fourth of July, the entire restaurant ended up on the street. They all just got up and left. Nobody said anything. Except for the Australian guy. The fireworks finish and we were panicked. It's hot, so there's no jackets or purses, just empty tables with carnage. Are they coming back? And not only did they come back – they brought people in with them so it was standing room only.
Where do you expect to be a year from now?
Jenn: Opening our second location. We've got a couple ideas and we're looking at some spaces. It will be a different concept. We've got a couple of ideas we're playing with, and when you look at the Austin scene there are holes we can fill here and there.
What's your advice for people who are about open their first restaurant?
Jenn: Do your due diligence. Talk to everybody in every department who could have something to do with you. City, TABC, city hall, everyone.
Chris: Fixed costs are the most important part of being successful. Variable costs you can adjust, but if your fixed costs aren't in line when you open the doors it's going to be rough.
Jenn: Be prepared to fill any position. You never know when it's going to happen. Someone will no-call no-show or they'll walk out in the middle of a shift.
Chris: It's incredible that people still view this as a glamorous business. It's not sitting around at the bar drinking good scotch with your friends on Saturday night, it's being on your hands and knees snaking the floor drain.
Jenn: But that's something that goes back to the fact that we're in this together. Nothing hits us both at the same time, so we can balance each other out. You never know what you're going to be doing when you walk through the doors that day. But that said we wouldn't trade it for everything.
· All Bonneville Coverage [EATX]
· All One Year In [EATX]