"Survive and advance" are the words Chef/Owner Shawn Cirkiel uses to describe the situation at his downtown Austin restaurant during the 10-day stretch of South By Southwest. Situated smack in the middle of the madness on 6th Street, Parkside serves fresh oysters and fancy cocktails year-round, making it easy to spot in a sea of the neighboring rowdy college bars on any given night. During SXSW, however, the contrast is especially pronounced as it appears like a shining, calm oasis in the chaotic sensory overload, not to mention a clean place to sit. Business is certainly excellent and location prime but as one might expect, working a refined gastro pub concept on one of the most crowded corners in Austin can be some first-rate mayhem behind the scenes.
For starters, hardcore prep and organization for the festival timeframe begin about a month out and kick off officially a week beforehand with a three-hour staff meeting. The venue capitalizes on the perks of its central geography by adding lunch service when it's usually open for dinnertime only. Servers can earn five months' worth of rent in a week and do not partake much in the festivities, according to General Manager Harlan Scott. "Surprisingly, the day ends with very little drinking for the staff," he said. "Veteran staff warn the rookies: Go home, drink water, go to bed or you will never make it up in the morning."
During the event, Parkside runs like 7pm on a Friday night at all times and does about four times the usual business. The schedule is grueling. Most staff work only double shifts and the added influx of customers requires a 24-hour operation.
Around 1am each morning, the cooks and wait staff from the evening say goodnight and the third shift comes in: Dishwashers report for duty to clean and prep and the bakers arrive around the same time to make their pastry and bread for the day. The first year they opened, Cirkiel slept at the restaurant for four days while his wife and kids left town, and now they do every year.
Each go-round they refine the process and get a little smarter about the best way to problem solve, manage the experience, "survive and advance." To handle the pesky competition, like when the marketing people hired to promote the latest protein bar or energy drink camp right outside their door, there's a strategy in place.
"They used to just flood the street... and the kids just want to get rid of their stuff, " said Cirkiel. "So we would go out, 8 of us with trash bags, and they would just fill everything...We'd do stacks of it in the walk-in and throughout the day everyone could just eat and drink all the snack food...We always joke that you can see at the end which ones aren't going to make the shelves ...like the blueberry-root-beer protein bar is not popular because it's the last one left in the kitchen."
Survival tactics are many as are the "roll with it" moments, like when Mos Def came to his own after party at 5am. "We were still here, halfway asleep and prepping for the next day...He was coming back (from a midnight gig) for a post party with food and booze...and they're all like 'we're hungry!" It was not a good time to say 'no', so the crew put together a vegetarian meal for the Hip hop icon and delivered without giving it a second thought.
Each day is same-same but different - expecting the unexpected and doing whatever it takes to keep going. With the years of experience comes amusing insight on the crowd dynamics and transitions that take place during the conference, which also help them plan accordingly.
"SXSW interactive and SXSW Music are two completely different animals," says Scott. "Interactive (equals) New York, LA, Chicago, expense accounts...This is when we sell bottles of wine and everything excess...people are pretty!"
"Around Tuesday and Wednesday it's the eye of the storm as the Interactive crowd gets back on their Gulfstreams and the music festival/spring break party crowd trickles in...By Friday of Music it could take you a full minute to cross the street from our restaurant. A solid wall of flesh and some of the best people watching I've seen in my life. It's kind of scary that there's only a half-inch of glass protecting us from the apocalypse outside, " he reports, I think only half joking.
The territory comes with numerous bribe attempts, an inevitable toilet clogging incident and the occasional AC malfunction. It's a fun, rewarding shitshow with strong elements of glory in the ability to still deliver great plates, and by the end the exhausted team sees the effort as badge of honor. "Everybody takes a lot of pride in it, especially in the kitchen," Cirkiel concludes. "It's an incredible amount of work and exposure. Lots of Advil, lots of espresso and lots of positive energy."