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Inspiring Conversations with Austin Smith of Party Fowl

Today we’d like to introduce you to Austin Smith. 

Hi Austin, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start maybe you can share some of your backstories with our readers?
Growing up in the Nashville area, I started in hospitality at 12 years old and very quickly realized I had an affinity and passion for entertaining. I had done everything from singing at the Mutton Hollow theme park to opening for the Rockettes. As I got more into the restaurant side of hospitality, it was the same thrill that came from being on stage. I got my degree in Political Science but quickly realized that was not my passion. I found out that was not what excited me and went back to hospitality; I was bartending, serving, and managing a wine shop at the time when I started applying to wine and spirit distributors. I was hired on at Athens distributing, which is where my passion for restaurants really took a turn. I got to see behind the curtain, working with owners, managers, chefs, and staff of about 125 restaurants. I got to see the ups and downs, wins and losses and began to create my own list of do’s and don’ts. After 5 years, I decided to open my own restaurant. 

My now-business partner, Nick Jacobson, and I had played on the Party Fowl softball team since ’06 and we always said it would make a great name for a chicken joint. One night in 2013, during a movie night at Nick’s, we were going to pick up some curbside and I told Nick that I was going to quit my job and open Party Fowl, and I asked if he would be interested in partnering with me. Shortly after, we finalized our business plan, got our approval, and we were off to the races. 

Next, I had to build a team, which was comprised of our now-VP, Tiffany Thompson, and Corporate Executive Chef Bart Pickens. We opened our first Party Fowl location in Downtown Nashville in 2014 and have grown to Murfreesboro, Donelson, Cool Springs, Chattanooga, BNA Airport, and Nissan Stadium since. 

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Hell no it hasn’t been smooth! Starting a new brand is so challenging. No matter how great your concept is, you have to get it in front of people and get a true perspective of what your restaurant and brand can do. It took me over a year to step back and see that, and it was about 2.5-3 years until the company was in the black and we realized that we could really do this. We had to fight every day and critique ourselves on everything. Owning a restaurant is not for the faint of heart. You can’t just dip your toe in; you have to be all in, all the time, being obsessed with seeing your business be successful, not only for the profitability but for living up to the potential to create a community and a culture that you saw and sought after from the very beginning. 

The biggest challenge for me was stepping back from being the General Manager of our first location. Giving the reins to someone else was the toughest yet best decision I ever made for this company. I gained a whole new perspective playing the part of owner, not just the GM, seeing so many opportunities for growth and improvement. It was hard to let go of at first, not being on the front lines, greeting every guest. I am so thankful to have such an amazing team, for I would have never seen that potential for our restaurant without their support in letting me take a step back to see the bigger picture. Now, with several locations, each day brings a challenge of its own, but we continue to fight through every challenge and work to spread our concept and bring the core elements that built our brand wherever we go. 

We’ve been impressed with Party Fowl, but for folks who might not be as familiar, what can you share with them about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
Party Fowl is known for three main elements: Nashville Hot Chicken, Local Brews, and Boozy Slushies. We are a scratch kitchen, with the entire menu built by Chef Bart Pickens, who is a New Orleans native, and you’ll find hints of New Orleans sprinkled into our menu as his playful twist. For example, we don’t do chicken and waffles. Everyone has chicken and waffles, but we do ours a bit differently. Chef Bart made our dish Hot Chicken and Beignets – boneless hot chicken breast on Texas toast with dill pickles served with Bourbon-Glazed Beignets. I love bourbon, and Chef is from New Orleans, so that is a bit of our personalities together in a dish. You get your hint of heat and sweet, and it’s basically the perfect dish! We specialize in taking ordinary dishes that most restaurants have and putting a playful twist on them. Whether it’s Hot Chicken and Beignets, Nashville Hot Loco Moco, or a Deconstructed Cobb Salad with hickory-smoked eggs, we take traditional dishes that everyone can enjoy and add our personal flair. We also don’t only offer Hot Chicken. We also offer Southern Fried (no heat) and grilled options, as well as other sauces such as Jamaican Jerk, TN Whiskey BBQ, or Memphis Dry Rub. 

We are also the first Nashville Hot Chicken restaurant that has a full bar, a full brunch, and that is full service. We have our signature Boozy Slushies and local draft beers, but we also have a cocktail menu, full liquor program, and a killer weekend brunch. One of our most signature items is our world-famous Brunch For Two – a 55oz Bloody Mary topped with two whole fried Cornish game hens, two scotch eggs, one whole avocado, eight fried okra, olives, and pickles – which has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Food Network, Southern Living, and more. We call it our Southern Fried Edible Arrangement. Other than our giant Bloody Mary, we also have a full brunch menu available on the weekends, which is popular with the tourists and locals alike. Party Fowl is also not fast-casual like many other Nashville Hot Chicken restaurants. We provide the full restaurant experience and Southern hospitality at all locations. We truly have something for everyone with a kid’s menu, local beers and wall-to-wall TVs for watching a game, a partnership with the Tennessee Titans, “Loaded” Boozy Slushies, scratch-made dishes, and so much more. 

We offer a lot for one restaurant, but I am definitely most proud of my team across the board. Without them, there’s no culture, and without culture, we’re just food and drink. Anyone can do food and drink, but we strive to truly be a family and to make Party Fowl a positive experience for everyone involved. I could not do this without every person working together to help this brand and concept succeed. 

Are there any important lessons you’ve learned that you can share with us?
The most important lesson I’ve learned along the way is to surround yourself with good people and listen. Being in this business is a team effort, and no one can do it alone, no matter how talented or smart you are. As I said before, critiquing yourself is so challenging, but listening to the feedback from others’ different perspectives is how you grow and change for the better. If your people are truly there for you, they will tell you the things that may sting in the moment but are necessary to succeed. If you have a solid team backing you up, it makes it so much easier to accept the needed adjustments, because you know in your heart that you’re all working toward the same goal and you all have the same passion for what you do. 

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