ACL food: On the line with Frank

By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 10.11.13
UPDATED SUNDAY 10/13: Sunday's ACL Festival have been canceled because of flooding rains. A note from ACL: "Due to current weather conditions with flash flood warnings, The Austin City Limits Music Festival organizers have canceled the festival for Sunday, October 13. Our first priority is always the safety of our fans, staff and artists,” said Shelby Meade, communications director for C3 Presents, the promoter behind Austin City Limits Music Festival. “We regret having to cancel the show today, but safety always comes first.” Refunds will be issued automatically by check from Front Gate Tickets within three weeks. One-third of ticket price will be refunded to all ticket buyers based on original ticket price paid, and will be mailed to the billing address on the original order. For questions, please visit"
Gel insoles and Gold Bond powder. These are Daniel Northcutt’s words of wisdom to the group meeting at his downtown restaurant Frank for a pre-ACL briefing. I’m part of that group, because I’ve signed on for a shift to find out what happens under the tents at Austin Eats, the 37-vendor food court that feeds the 75,000 people who’ll hit Zilker Park today for the second weekend of the Austin City Limits Festival. My biggest fear is that I won’t be able to keep up. Because for all the times I’ve worked in kitchens for stories like this — P. Terry’s, Backstage Steakhouse, Pizza Nizza, Three Little Pigs — I’m just a tourist whose last real restaurant shift was 25 years ago.
The 10-year trip back to ACL
Northcutt and a network of friends opened Frank in July 2009, doing food he calls “upscale lowbrow”: hotdogs with artisan sausage, bacon-infused Maker’s Mark, waffle-fry poutine. Also: Schlitz. Northcutt’s cultivation of the urban hickster vibe has landed Frank in Food & Wine magazine and on TLC, Spike, Discovery and the Travel Channel, among others. But this is the first time Frank has worked ACL.
(Above center: Chuck Watkins runs a pre-ACL employee meeting.)
“There is a little bit of a gamble to it,” said Northcutt. “You’re putting up a pretty good amount of dough to get vested in that.” That dough puts Frank in front of thousands of people in a targeted environment, and a hungry one at that. “It’s a pretty fair deal all around,” he said. “If that gamble pays off, it pays off big.” Frank doesn’t advertise but leans instead on guerrilla marketing and events. They’ll also work Fun Fun Fun Fest in November. Northcutt and other people behind Frank — people like Geoff Peveto of Decoder Ring and Christian Helms of Helms Workshop — do album design, music videos, art and film. As such, having Frank at a national music festival makes sense, Northcutt said. “For us, this is our backyard, and what better way to get our brand out there?”
This might be the first ACL for Frank, but it’s not the first for Northcutt and his ACL showrunner Chuck Watkins(That's Watkins at left, clowning with Northcutt at ACL.) A little background. Watkins has worked at Frank for just a few months, coming off the sale of his Snarky’s Moo Bawk Oink trailer and a stretch at the Meat House. But he and Northcutt go back a ways. Ten years ago, they ran a sandwich shop called Punchy’s Subs near Highland Mall and helped run a bar called Pato’s where Cherrywood Coffeehouse is now. They worked together at the Renaissance Austin Hotel before that.
A few months into running Punchy’s, Watkins and Northcutt signed on to do sandwiches for the second ACL in 2003. At the last minute, ACL’s burger vendor backed out, and they asked the boys if Punchy’s could do a burger stand, too. “We were young and dumb, and we said, ‘Sure, we can do two booths at the second ACL,’ “ Watkins said. His hindsight trepidation was real, because the food court couldn’t keep up with the crowds for ACL’s hungry first year. “We got friends and Labor Ready guys and got through the full weekend,” Watkins said. “It was a great experience, but it was tough.”
So they’re ready this time. But ready for what is hard to say. Estimates ranged from 10,000 to 20,000 units per weekend, a “unit” being any of the four items on the menu: a chili-cheese dog, Frito pie and two hot dogs made with Frank’s signature Jackalope sausage of rabbit, antelope and pork, one with coleslaw, the other with cranberry compote and cheese.
Frank is hardly the only sausage vendor at ACL. Not even the only one doing antelope. Fort Worth chef Tim Love brought an antelope-and-rattlesnake sausage to his Woodshed booth, and the Mighty Cone has a venison wrap. Stubb’s, the Salt Lick and La Condesa brought sausage, too. Northcutt’s all right with that: “The more the merrier.” In fact, he waved off doing bratwurst in deference to fellow ACL vendor and friend Jon Notarthomas of Best Wurst. “He’s been out at ACL for years, and he is the Brat King,” Northcutt said.
It’s C3’s world; you’re just working in it
Last year, I asked Charlie Jones of C3 Presents, which produces ACL, if he was happy with the food-and-drink part of the festival. Yes, he said, but it’s a tough kind of happy: “I won’t deny that I’ve put people in line and timed restaurants. If they can’t turn it fast enough, they’re gone.”
The guys at Frank wouldn’t say a word about it, but being an ACL food vendor is ... complicated. No styrofoam, no single-use bags, no condiment packets. Compostable, recyclable everything. A minimum of three and a maximum of four dishes, mostly, and ACL wants to taste everything for quality assurance. And expensive. By the festival’s own application form, a 10-by-20-foot booth runs $16,590, and a 20-by-20 space goes for $26,590. Booths that sell only desserts, snacks or drinks get a break at $13,590, and the Hope Market vendors pay a low $1,000 fee for a 10-by-10 space.
The fee covers the sign out front, a tent overhead, the service counter, wooden flooring and basic electricity. The rest moves in like a scene from “Hell on Wheels,” a vagabond restaurant city under 37 tents. Four-burner stoves, reach-in coolers, deep fryers, steam tables, storage racks, warming bins. Hell on Meals? But it’s hardly the Wild West, where the deer and the E. coli play. The Frank crew is testing the sani-buckets with chemical strips, every booth has a health permit and the health inspector herself shows up in the middle of my shift, punching thermometers into everything. We pass just fine.
The people you meet in the trenches
Backstage at the giant teardrop tanks where we dump our dirty water a few orange buckets at a time, I talk to three students from the Escoffier cooking school in Austin. They’re working David Bull’s Second Bar + Kitchen booth as volunteers, paid only in experience and school credit. The crew at Frank is getting paid, and not just minimum wage, but a guaranteed hourly rate they can live with. And the fatter the tip jars, the more they’ll make on top of that. An incentive not just for smiles but for speed. And more important: a reason to show up for the grinding shifts to come. (Note: I did not accept pay for my shift.)
(Photo above, from left: Lori Kenyon, Julien Brooks, Chelsea Fadden and Jack-Ryan Hood.)
Watkins cherry-picked his ACL crew, looking for restaurant managers and high-volume bartenders. “The way to make money at ACL is to move those lines,” he said. He calls it “that crazy ADD restaurant mentality”: The ability to take orders, take money, answer questions, serve food and talk music all at the same time.
Most of the 18 or so people with whom I share the tent don’t work for Frank in real life. Kara Snyder is a working mom with the radiant smile of a cheerleader. In a photo from the day before, she and the counter crew are a picket line of exquisite dentistry: Laura Mac in her kamikaze bandanna, Spectra Stewart in her camo pants and wicked boots and Lori Kenyon, who showed up at the first employee meeting dressed like a steampunk princess. Sirens with smiles, drawing the odyssean masses.
They’re standing at first on milk crates to peer over the counter, a line of twisted ankles waiting to happen. Then Northcutt and his gang make a catwalk on the fly, with plywood, zip ties and the power tools no kitchen should be without. The front line is supported by two expeditors who move food to the counter. One of them is Joel Barker, a bartender at Hula Hut who starts calm and cool and somehow gets calmer and cooler as the crowd grows. He shares expo with Jennifer Broschofsky. She’s all business, so when she smiles and points at the kitchen crew, we know we've done something right.
Broschofsky is here with her brother, Steven. Together they run a Round Rock shop called the Yogurt Experience. Steven is running my side of the assembly line, and he talks in that truncated chef-speak: “Three Jackalope all day. Frito pie to my hand, please.” Across from him is Shane Jackson, who works at the Ace Mart restaurant supply where the guys from Frank buy their stuff. He’s a natural leader who carries his 20 years of kitchen experience in Dallas and Atlanta with wise-cracking ease.
Dan Robinson also works at Ace. When Jackson realizes Robinson’s a lefty, he switches our positions on the line and it starts ticking along more smoothly. Robinson has a handlebar mustache waxed like Wyatt Earp. He’s the guy still cooking when we break down the line at 9:30, doing an improvised field version of our already improvised festival kitchen.
The heat of the moment
We’re catty-corner from the AMD stage, and there’s a rush after big shows, like a medieval tower siege or “World War Z.” When the “Star Wars” theme blasts over the PA at 11 a.m., it’s time to put on our game faces. My main job is adding chili to Frito pie and chili dogs and moving dogs to the slaw and cranberry stations. Easy enough two or three at a time, but when the Fun show lets out, we’re moving 16 at a clip.
Special orders punctuate the clockwork. Veggie slaw dogs. Veggie chili dogs (the chili has meat, but whatever). And the most perplexing of all: the plain dog. Nothing but a Vienna beef sausage and bread. Perplexing until we realize our audience for that one is the picky kids who aren’t down with the whole artisan concession stand thing.
During the siege, the trick is speeding up and slowing down at the same time, making your hands do the same careful motions, just at Warp Factor 9. I’m holding my own until I run low on buns, and that’s when I drop a tray of them stacked two high. Thirty-two buns down the tubes. Kara Snyder comforts me with her story of spilling a thousand dollars’ worth of margarita mix at the Oasis.
Next to me on the line is Jack-Ryan Hood, who works at Hill’s Cafe. He has lightning hands, twice my speed, so we’re like a three-man team, just the two of us. During a lull, he mimics the Reignwolf guy in a perfect hair-band howl. It’s a moment of joy, the same joy that animates the food-service crews into a rapturous cheer when the first breath of a cool front blows through. There will be more service-side cheers, spontaneous war-whoops to celebrate $10 tips, birthdays, more cool breezes.
The coolest among our crew are the two people with the hardest jobs. Chelsea Fadden and Julien Brooks grill Jackalopes by the dozens, boil the Viennas, keep the chili coming and produce a fresh backup pot of cranberry compote that starts with whole berries. Fadden’s wearing a We Can Do It red bandanna, and Brooks has a Mario Brothers mustache and he moves just as fast. They’re celebrating the anniversary of when they started dating. In Oakland. Working at a hotdog stand.
Closing time: A survivor’s tale
As the Cure drones in the distance, the Freebirds booth next to us is footballing free burritos to the stragglers at closing time. I refuse to sit down or take a break through my 13-hour shift, so I’m finishing the hours in the dish pit. (That’s me, at left, on the assembly line; photo by Kara Snyder.) There’s a Rorschach Test of dried salt on my black T-shirt, and I’ve even sweated through my belt. When I catch Shane Jackson’s eye, I get a fist bump, the day’s most important feedback. The next day, the crew’s back at it like nothing happened, but that night I do the cowboy walk back to my car. There’s not enough Gold Bond in the world.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)