There's SXSW insanity at downtown Austin restaurants, and then there's SXSW insanity at Parkside. The restaurant is an oasis of fine dining on Dirty Sixth, and they're one of the few restaurants consistently hammered throughout interactive, film, and music. Director of Operations Harlan Scott compares the adrenaline rush of the festival to the time he spent in a "military environment."
For the final interview of Eater Austin's SXSW Survival series, Scott talks serving both the high rollers and the drunk music fans, plus what he expects to encounter at new restaurant chavez's first year. Read on to discover what it's like to run what, for one week, is "the most important restaurant on earth."
Parkside is the only high-end restaurant on East 6th, right at the heart of the festival. How hard is it to survive the SXSW onslaught?
When Shawn opened in February of 2008, there were seven front of the house employees total and Shawn in the kitchen. During SXSW, they got annihilated. Customers were coming in and he didn't know where they were coming from, or why the restaurant was full at 3 p.m.
We're much better prepared for it now, but it's still insane. My first festival I was definitely washing dishes at 3 a.m. and coming back in at 8. You're running on adrenaline. I spent time in military environment, and it's very similar. When you go through something that intense with somebody, you're friends for life.
You know that opening scene of Saving Private Ryan? Everyone is in slow mo, someone is holding an arm and another person is on the ground crying? That's what it's like walking through the dining room during SXSW.
What is the crowd like during SXSW? Who actually makes it in?
The first half of SXSW is expense accounts. Record producers, stars. Everyone from New York, San Francisco, and Europe flies in and blows up Parkside. Monday is the eye of hurricane before Spring Break starts. Then we sell more cheeseburgers than I can tell you.
The end of SXSW, when it's just music, is when things get really tough. Everyone is on their 10th double, and the customers are drunk and not tipping. Some customer will come will put somebody over the top. Even my manager won't tell a customer where they can stick it, so the buck stops with me. We do our best to fix any real problems, of course. But wen you're doing 500 covers and someone complains about a perfectly good burger they just sent back for the second time, I get to say, "Screw you. Go Yelp about it. I don't care because you live in Boston."
What about staffing? Do you staff up?
Parkside is busy all the time, and now we have a restaurant group, so when SXSW comes we have a number of cooks and managers on payroll who can step in. That said, you take a restaurant not open for lunch and open for lunch, you don't double your staff. You just ask them work doubles.
Front of the house staff are hired under the condition that they cannot leave in March. We try to schedule so everyone had one day off so they don't break. Every year 1-2 people straight up go missing. You see someone with a thousand yard stare wandering down Dirty Sixth, that's probably a Parkside server.
During interactive, people try to slip you a $100 bill to get a table. During music, it would take five minutes to walk across the street. Four hundred thousand people were downtown during SXSW last year. The servers make about six months' rent in a week. The money used to be even better when we had less staff, but people were working themselves to death. Now everyone makes twenty percent less but nobody dies.
Do you guys change your menu at all? Do you ever consider raising prices?
We don't purposely raise prices for week of SXSW, that's not ethical. But if we know we need to raise them anyway to keep up with costs, SXSW is a good time to do it. We also get rid of our happy hour during the festival, though if locals come in and ask for it we honor that.
How often is the restaurant closed for private events?
Pretty often during Interactive, but not during music. Buyouts are great because they have a set number of customers and you're not actually doing table service. It won't be like Vietnam.
What about chavez at the Radisson? What's your game plan for your first SXSW there?
The hotel tells me being 6 blocks from 6th is like being in another city. West 6th is starting to get at taste of the festival, but even over on 2nd street, La Condesa isn't going gangbusters. Business will be nice and brisk because the hotel is at 100% occupancy and now there is a great chef-driven restaurant inside.
Managing traffic at a hotel is a different game in general. At 3 p.m. on a Monday whole bar is full and you have no idea why. You can look at occupancy, but what if there's an LDS convention in town? Unless you know the type of guests, there's no predicting whether you'll get murdered on a Tuesday or if Saturday will be quiet. I can throw a bunch of bodies at the restaurant, but if they walk out with only $25 at the end of the night, they will quit in two weeks.
What's the situation like at Olive & June? Is it completely dead or is it a destination for locals?
Locals stay away from town during Southby, so Olive & June is busy. It's also spring break, so kids are out of school, and in general March is our busiest month. The weather makes people want to go out.
So it's 8p.m. tonight, a Friday and the first night of Interactive. What's the wait for a table?
The same as every Friday: there is no wait. There are just no tables. We tell people to come back at 10:30 or 11.
We don't add extra tables for the festival, so it can't get any busier than any other Friday. What happens differently during SXSW is that we're just as busy at 11:45 at night, or 3:45 in the afternoon. You can't smoke or change your underwear because customers won't stop coming into the damn restaurant.
Shawn said best. He said "Harlan, you have to understand that for one week a year Austin is the most important city on earth, and this restaurant is at ground zero. For one week, we are the most important restaurant on earth."
· All Parkside Coverage [EATX]
· All SXSW 2014 Coverage [EATX]