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One Year In with Ben Runkle of Salt & Time

Photo: Ashley Cheng/EATX

Restaurant and butcher shop Salt & Time has come into its own as one of Austin's favorite unique destinations. Over its first year in business, the East 7th meat heaven earned the loyalty of customers and chefs alike due to their expert sourcing and menus built on quality, local ingredients.

Eater spoke to co-owner Ben Runkle about his childhood growing up with restaurateur parents in Chicago, former life as a vegan and his humbling lesson in clarity after initially confusing customers about Salt & Time's model.

Does it feel like it's been a year?

In some ways, yeah. In some ways it's shocking how fast it went. But on the whole, yeah. We definitely feel like we've turned that corner of figuring things out more instead of having to figure it out every day. In that respect, it definitely feels like we've been around for a while.

How did you get into charcuterie initially?

I personally got into it after being a vegan for almost 10 years. I'm very curious about how stuff is made, and that was when I was living in California. That was what led me down the path eventually of apprenticing as a butcher and staging at restaurants that were doing charcuterie. Then I moved to Austin – that's where my wife's family is from. And that's when I started Salt & Time.

That was a long time ago. I've continued to work my way through learning, and then I met my partner Bryan (Butler), who's been a butcher since he got out of high school basically. He was working at Wheatsville co-op and decided to move on and wanted to do something a little more creative and do his own thing. We partnered up, and that's how this whole operation came together.

Is that still what each of your roles are now with you as the charcuterie guy and Bryan as the butcher?

Not exactly. Honestly, Bryan in the last year or so has taken on the lead with almost all the production side of stuff– whether it be fresh meat or charcuterie. The basic skills of fabricating meat apply to stuff that you're curing and finishing too. If you're cutting it to cook for someone or cook yourself or cure yourself, there's still the same basic understanding. He's taken on quite a bit of that role along with our staff, and I've jumped in as more of a general and operations manager – just trying to get everything else figure out.

I still try to find time to get back there and work and definitely have my imprint on a lot of our recipes or things that either I came up with or Bryan and I came up with together over the years, but on a day to day basis I have less and less of a role there.

Do you miss it now that you've evolved into a nearly full-time businessman?

I do. As much as it was not a long term, sustainable model – as something that was merely a means to an end – I really miss the quiet days in our old facility spending hours on end perfecting something, in practical solitude. Usually it was just Bryan and I out there listening to music. There were no interruptions. No customers. We were working for the weekend. But not like the song. For the farmer's markets.

I do miss that peacefulness of that. Not that I don't like having customers now – that's obviously the whole point of having the shop, but there is something about the serenity of just being able to focus on your work and work from start to finish on something in a different way.

But I love it here. This was a dream for me and Bryan. I derive plenty of satisfaction and pleasure out of having this happening.

You both started together from the beginning at the farmers' markets then?

I started Salt & Time about a year before I met Bryan, but I really had only been out there for a little. It took me about six months to sign a lease at our old place in Niederwald. Relatively shortly after I started it, Bryan came on board. We did farmers' markets for about two years together before we opened here.

Did you always envision that you'd have a brick and mortar and the farmers' markets were just your test ground?

Absolutely. I mean…I didn't know how we were going to make it happen. Neither did he. But that was absolutely the goal, especially for our partnership. It wasn't as clearly defined when it was just me. I wasn't sure what direction I was going to take it. There were a couple options. The other route would have been to go a totally wholesale route, where we would have been producing salami and selling directly to restaurants and stores.

But once Bryan came on board with his background, it was very much focused on getting to a retail butcher shop and selling our own products as well as fresh meat.

What are you doing for wholesale to restaurants now?

We can't sell any of our cured meats. That's the law. You have to be USDA certified.

Oh, is that what the Austin Food & Wine Alliance grant you recently received is for?

The grant is a great first step. We're very fortunate, but it's definitely a small drop in the bucket to the real process. It's basically given us the resources to do feasibility work to figure out what it's going to take. It's probably a million dollar project to build a facility and get it up and running.

I can't say if that's a year a way, five years away, 10 years away. It's hard to say for sure, but it's definitely something we're looking at.

We do wholesale raw meat to quite a few restaurants. We sell to Qui. We've been working with them since day one of them opening, which is great. I can't say enough about Paul. We didn't have wholesale meat as a part of our business model when we first opened, but he came to us and kind of forced us to figure out how to do it. He was so insistent on working with us and buying from us.

We did it exclusively with him at the beginning and then we started with Black Star Co-Op. Bryan and I had a long history with them. It's actually where we had met. Black Star kind of came out of Wheatsville in some respects, so Bryan knew a lot of the original people and was involved in it.

It's grown now where we sell to both of them and Justine's. We make sausage for Buffalina. We are working with laV. There are a few other restaurants. Porter Ale down south. So that wholesale side has grown for us, but it's pretty contained to our neighborhood, which is cool. We've been working with Contigo on some stuff, so that's all really fun.

We have the most incredible support from industry folks. You come in for brunch, and the whole bar is full with people who work in other restaurants. It's a great feeling, but it's even cooler to be able to take that up a notch and be able to source them things they can't really get elsewhere.

We did an ad in Edible Austin about four or five months ago with Paul Qui, Aaron Franklin and Andrew Wiseheart from Contigo, with them standing in front of our case, and it said buy your meat where they buy theirs. And in some ways we are competing with them. We're open for lunch, so we're competing with Franklin. We're open for dinner, so we're competing with Qui and Contigo. But none of them think about it that way, and we don't think of it that way.

I think it's a very Austin thing. I'm sure it exists in other cities, but it's really cool to have that supportive, collaborative nature. I used to have to go to events to see all these guys, and now we just hang out here.

There really doesn't have a day pass by where a chef, sous chef, a server or somebody from another restaurant that I love and respect comes in.

Do you have any events or collaborations coming up?

We're doing some stuff with the the Food and Wine Festival and LIVE FIRE as well. Those are the big ones right now.

We'll be rolling back into our beer dinners that we did last year. We did four last year with different breweries, and we have them tentatively scheduled out from April through October. That'll be fun. Those will be on Sunday nights when we're normally closed for dinner.

In your first year of opening, what would you say some of your biggest mistakes were? Any funny stories?

Any new business I think will have a certain amount of complications. I look back on it, and I don't think we could have made it more complicated than we did – or more confusing for that matter when we first opened.

We had the meat market part of the business pretty well figured out. Bryan has years of experience running meat markets. It was basically an expansion of what we were doing at the farmers' markets. It was more expansive and larger in volume, but it was still a pretty straight path from one to the other.

But everything else we really figured out as we went. Some of them I think we had some really great ideas that just didn't work. When we opened we opened with our friends at Cuvee coffee, and we had a little café at the end of our bar. And that came out of mutual admiration. I love them and what they do and our brand. I want them to associate that with what we do. I love coffee. I wanted people to be able to have good coffee here in the morning.

And we thought it was a no brainer. In reality, it was just completely confusing. Customers didn't know where to pay for what product. They'd want to sit down for lunch, and they'd have two checks. Cuvee was opening at 7 a.m., and we weren't opening until 11 a.m. Our butchers would be trying to get the case set, and people would be coming in and asking questions – totally natural. But our butchers were like, "but I'm not ready!"

It was sort of like…you know the road to hell is paved with good intentions kind of thing. It was a really poorly thought out good idea basically.

Both the owner of Cuvee and I came to the conclusion that we weren't accomplishing what we wanted to get out of it, which was to have positive associations with both our brands. We were actually making it so confusing to our customers, they were having negative associations with us.

So we just decided to stop doing it. There has been some confusion. Some people thought they had a lease, and we bought them out. When it was actually the opposite. We never had a lease because it was just a handshake agreement between friends. This was all our space. We wanted them here. It didn't work, so we just agreed to stop doing it.

And it couldn't be more amicable. We still sell their coffee. We are one of the only places who have their nitrogenated beer on draft, and it will always be here.

So that was a really obvious one for me looking back now. I mean it's like, "what were you thinking? How could you think that these two separate businesses could exist in one space without confusing the hell out of people?"

The other part that we did was try to open in phases. We sort of did a soft opening during the first two weekends and then tried to close during the week. That was confusing, but I think people could kind of get that. We had some construction stuff still going on. That was just a little confusing, but what we did that was really confusing was, we didn't really know anything we were doing when we were starting out. So, I feel like we just pumpfaked our customers.

I actually was reading looking back on the year and read this interview with CultureMap. I don't even remember where I was going with it, but I think maybe I was responding to some negative Yelp reviews of some frustrated customers.

I said, "We are doing food, but I need people to understand that we're a butcher shop, not a restaurant."

And that was because we hadn't figured out, especially the customer service side. We never had any negative reviews on the butcher side. I think that's one of the things people know us for the most actually, but we were getting some really negative feedback about the restaurant side. And it wasn't the people because I mean they were the same people. They're just as nice. We just didn't have any systems in place. We didn't really know what we were doing with it.

Was it counter service or table service? We opened with no seating out here originally. We opened originally with lunch only and then we started doing dinner two nights a week. I think what we did with that was we just now got to the point that customers know we're open for dinner. Because for the first six months they couldn't come here for dinner. And then it was two nights a week. And then it was a limited bar menu.

So that's one thing we'll never do again. I don't know that we'll ever open another location, but if we ever do, we'll know what we're doing and have it all open up on time. No more of this slow roll out.

Every time I think about that "We're not a restaurant," I kick myself. Because of course then we spent four months of trying to educate people that we are a restaurant and being completely dead on a Wednesday night, wondering "Hey, don't they know we're here?"

Well, of course not. We told them that we're not a restaurant.

So that was hard.

It took us some time to figure out staffing, but now our kitchen team is fantastic. Our chef Josh Jones was with us since the beginning. We opened with Alex Jackson, who is a fantastic chef as well, but him and his wife moved back to California. But we didn't miss a beat. It was really 1A and 1B when Josh was there with him. We are fully staffed with servers now.

So, you're a restaurant?

That's right! As well as a butcher shop now. We are absolutely a restaurant. I hope to be one of the best restaurants in Austin. Casual, not fine dining. I mean we want…actually…I better not even say that. I don't know who to compare us to or what we aspire to be like, but that's our goal. We are not a half-assed restaurant. We are a fully-committed restaurant.

And that really was genuinely confusing not only to customers but also to ourselves. And I really regret that. I wish we had figured that out earlier. But you know; you live and you learn.

And that's what the first year is for, right?

Exactly. And we're still here. I guess that's what really matters.

Any big plans for year two now that you know what you're doing?

Our menu is very much seasonal, so it's constantly changing. I imagine it will grow in scope, and I think that'll just be a natural progression. But other than that, we're just focused on making everything run great. Getting our systems really in place.

I think we have room to grow. We have a great craft beer program here, but our wine list isn't really up to par yet. That's something we're going to focus on. It'll be small tweaks like that.

It won't be any fundamental changes. Everything that we want to do, we are currently doing now. We just want to do it better.

Is there anything about Salt & Time that you wish more people knew about now?

I would say that it's still a challenge letting people know about our dinner service. Lunch is really steady and really great now, but it did take a while for people to know the difference between the two. Our lunch is very casual. It's all sandwich based. It's in and out, mostly work lunch we get here. Whereas our dinner is a little more composed. We still get people randomly coming in here wanting a sandwich for dinner sometimes, and we don't do that.

Other than that, I want more people just to know that we're here. We're still a little off the radar. East side is changing drastically, but we're still kind of the furthest east. There's all these restaurants opening just west of us – Hightower, laV and someday the Silo.* I don't know when. I'm sure there's a horror story behind that, and I'm sure they're great people. They started construction about six months before we did, and we had a running bet; are we going to be open before them? And now here we are at our year anniversary. So, I really feel for them. I know how hard it is to get a place up and running, and I hope they do that.

But that's all to the west of us. There's been a lot of in fill from here to 35, but we're still kind of the wild east over here on Seventh. On Sixth and Cesar Chavez there's a lot more stuff.

I think that's the main thing. Just letting people know we're here. And I think the other thing is that we'll still occasionally have people who come in and are like, "Oh, you're a real butcher shop." I think there was a thought that was just a branding thing for our restaurant. For people who were not familiar to us, they thought that we had the restaurant and maybe just a little bit of the meat. To me a real butcher shop means that we buy whole animals from respectable purveyors and farmers. And we definitely are that.

What was your initial source of inspiration for getting into the food business and the style of food that you do?

I did grow up in the restaurant business. My dad owned and ran restaurants in Chicago. I thought I never wanted anything to do with it, but sure enough as I got closer to 30, I got the food business bug. I've always been really drawn to food. And I've always loved meat. Even when I was a vegan, I was the guy making fake meat dishes. I'm a meat and potatoes kid from Chicago. That's just how I grew up.

When I started thinking about what I wanted to do, I thought a lot about the sustainability aspect and the whole Slow Food thing. Even when I started eating meat again, I still carried with me a lot of the knowledge from my vegan time – of how horrible factory farming is. I definitely wanted to be sourcing locally. And that kind of led me down that path.

But ever since I started, it wasn't even a thought about whether I'd always use the highest quality, local ingredients. And that's not just the meat. I absolutely feel the same way with all our vegetables that we use. Not just from an ethical standpoint, but from a quality stand point. I'm really intrigued by native and wild foods that have that history here. I'm much more interested in using a chili piquin in our salamis. And that's sort of our perspective. We pay respect to the traditions, but we're going to make it our own. We're not trying to do Italian salami. We're trying to do Texas salami.

And that definitely translates to our menus as well. Sometimes in a more playful way. We have the Texas cheesesteak, which is a cheesesteak with queso in it, but we make the queso here. It's all real – no Ro-tel or Velveeta. And on a more highbrow level, our chefs are going to the farmers markets to buy produce for our local salad.

Any last words of advice for anyone out there just getting started?

Austin has an amazingly vibrant business climate and food scene right now. It's fun to be a part of it. I feel really lucky to have started when I did. It's getting harder and harder to find a space, get funding and get people to pay attention to what you're doing. I definitely wish everyone luck who's doing it now.

It was about a four and a half year process for us from when we first started, and I'm glad we did it. For us, we never had the best business plan or that side of it figured out. We just really cared about what we were doing, really wanted to make it a reality, and we never stopped until we did it.

*UPDATE: the Silo is now open for business.

· All One Year In Coverage [EATX]
· All Salt & Time Coverage [EATX]

Contigo

2027 Anchor Lane, , TX 78723 (512) 614-2260 Visit Website

Salt & Time

1912 E. 7th St, Austin, TX

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