John Bullington and Jerry Reid are longtime industry veterans; according to their bio, they've been in the Austin restaurant scene for "about a million years." Bullington was previously executive chef of the Alamo Drafthouse, and Reid managed front of the house in restaurants like Lucy's Fried Chicken. A-OK Chinese is their latest venture, and their first as co-owners and partners.
The American-style Chinese restaurant opened officially on South Lamar two weeks ago, and has been buzzing ever since. Eater spoke with the pair about their crazy soft opening, putting Nixon on the wall, and the advantages of experience.
What have your first two weeks been like?
Jerry: We opened a week ago last Sunday, and that was beautiful. Initially, we thought we'd open at noon Sundays , but John said, Let's open at eleven. I thought, Who eats Chinese food at eleven on Sunday? But we had customers at 11:15.
We had a fairly raucous week of soft openings, so we weren't unprepared to have our collective asses kicked. The first soft opening on Monday the seventeenth, people saw the lights were on and so they came in. We expected 85 and got more like 300. It would have been easier had we said no a little more often.
John: Now it's dialed in. Lunch yesterday, we turned it over twice and the ticket times were all under 6 minutes.
Jerry: One of the first things we talked about was that a customer could order, pay, sit down and get food in a 7-12 minute window. It's not just turn and burn. I don't want to sound cocky, and I don't want to say we're going to take a vacation, see you later. But we've dialed in things and now we can move into specials, all the cool and groovy stuff.
What is it like to open a restaurant as a veteran, rather than as someone just starting out?
John: I knew I was going to work 130 hours last week.
Jerry: Having opened up a bunch of different places, I've gone in and tweaked and fine tuned. But opening is different, because it was all in your head and now it's out there. You let things develop and then you fine tune. You don't say on opening night, we just went through two hundred towels. It's little things that you know you can fix later and not distract your employees when they need to be focused on cooking food.
John: When problems come, we don't freak out. When we purposefully slaughtered ourselves on that first soft opening, I knew that the clock was ticking and it was going to end. That's what helps the most: you've been through so many different situations before, and you know that at some point you're going to get to sit down and have a beer and figure it out. When you're trying to make those decisions you don't have to soul search, you're comfortable going with your decision.
John: I was surprised it was hard to find dishwashers.
Jerry: This is the first restaurant we have opened collective that has our names affixed to the paychecks. That said, I felt far less pressure going into this than into any other opening. I'm not sure why that is. Earlier, it used to feel like a crushing blow when things didn't go exactly right, but now there's no doubt we were going to fix it. We have so much experience between us and have a friendship. I've eaten more with John than I have with my wife over the past few months. That gave us the intuitive understanding that we would fix the things that need to be fixed.
John: I was surprised that our Nixon photo isn't controversial. We thought it would be a big deal, who puts Richard Nixon on a wall in Austin Texas, but by today's standards he's a pretty liberal freak.
Jerry: Lucy's was the hardest opening I ever did. This was one was the easiest one to say, you know, here we are, very existential. All I can do is tell the register to give you free beer and wine. I knew John was getting his ass kicked, but there was no panic other than knowing we had to make this happen right now.
John: This I something I've told all my cooks at meetings for the past ten years: regardless of how good or bad it goes, you have to remember that all of your work is going to end up in the toilet, and the next day we get a whole 'nother chance to do it again. That's what makes a good restaurant person, the ability to move past the confrontation or issue you had, and talk about it an hour after your close. You have to be able to dump your mind fast and move on to the next thing. I think being older helps.
Jerry: Our muscle isn't what it used to be, but our brains are better, more facile.
John: He's just trying to make me feel better about being old.