Business Prof Opens Popular Wilmington Restaurant

Steven Stovall: 'I want to be seen as someone that practices what they teach'

January 12, 2014

Steven Stovall takes time out for a quick photo during a busy Friday night at Austin's.

Steven Stovall takes time out for a quick photo during a busy Friday night at Austin's.

Steven A. Stovall recalled reading an article in USA Today several years ago about which octogenarian men looked back upon their lives. He was struck by a common denominator among their responses, the regretful comment: “I wish I’d taken more risks in my life.”

Those sentiments presented him with a heightened sense of urgency as he considered the timeline of his own longtime dream to open a restaurant.

“I want to be one of those persons that tried something — whether it failed or succeeded, I tried it,” said Stovall, Ph.D., an associate professor of management and member of Wilmington College’s faculty since 2002.

“I didn’t want to be at that point in my life when I wished I’d tried something. I wanted to roll the dice.”

Stovall followed that dream and in early September opened a downtown Wilmington restaurant, Austin’s Casual Eatery & Bar, which, after its initial several months, has been not only the talk of the town but is among the city’s most successful new business starts — all in the face of a community that is still emerging from an economic recession.

“I thought that, with good food, good service and a super clean restaurant, the economy didn’t matter,” he said. “I believe Clinton County people are sophisticated enough to appreciate real food made with love and passion.”

From the start, Stovall’s plan called for meals prepared fresh with natural ingredients. Indeed, most of the 32 items on the menu feature no more than eight ingredients — “and you can pronounce all of them,” he noted.

“This is food your grandmother would make. This is real food, not overly processed or frozen,” he added. “We don’t even own a microwave.”

(LEFT) Austin's Casual Eatery & Bar is located on S. South St. in Wilmington's historic downtown.

A sampling of Austin’s menu, which is designed to change every few months, includes Firecracker Shrimp and Apple Butter Chops from Austin’s Test Kitchen, favorite entrees like New York Strip, Grilled Salmon and Pan-seared Chicken Marsala, and signature side orders: Mashed Sweet Potatoes, Mac-n-Cheese and Dirty Rice.

Pita & Hummus and Margarita Flatbread are popular appetizers, along with chicken wings and salads, while the Cuban, Fajita Wrap, Fried Bologna and Philly Cheesesteak are among the top sandwiches. Dessert choices might include Austin’s (giant) Brownie and an apple crisp dish featuring fruit from a popular WC faculty member’s family orchard.

Stovall, who mentioned his chef enjoys “free reign to be creative,” hinted that the debut of a dish called Pesto Steak is in the offing.

Creative license aside, Stovall has long had a finger on the pulse of the industry’s best practices and proven success strategies. Even though he is new to the food and beverage industry as an owner, Stovall is a 20-year National Restaurant Association member and regularly writes management-related articles for trade publications.

“Being close to the industry, I saw what was working and where the trends were heading,” he said.
Stovall’s interest in all things food goes all the way back to his upbringing in east Texas as a seventh generation Texan. By the way, Austin is his middle name and Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas,” is his namesake.

His mother was well known in the Lone Star State for her culinary expertise — she won Best of Show at the 1987 Texas State Fair — and be it “canning, pies, jelly, cake, whatever there was, she won tons of blue ribbons,” he said, noting her success landed her guest appearances on both Good Morning America and The Today Show.

“I got my interest in cooking from her,” Stovall said. “I’m a foodie, always have been.”

The self-described gourmand is taking his family heritage to new heights, but Austin’s eclectic menu, attractive fixtures, competent staff and sparkling clean facility didn’t happen overnight.

Stovall said the concept was “in my head” for 10 years and he worked on his business plan regularly for the past three. The “green light” occurred when the building on S. South St. became available last spring.

“Suddenly, it was a reality,” he said.

Stovall put his ambitious timeline to open in late summer on a fast track, as the fulltime faculty member only had a few short months to complete the building renovation, obtain the necessary equipment and licenses, assemble a qualified staff and open for business by the start of the College’s fall classes.

“I worked 12 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, this summer to create this,” he said.

Those not-too-distant memories make seeing the lines of customers spilling out the door waiting to get a table on Friday and Saturday evenings all the more satisfying. Indeed, Austin’s has become a popular spot for lunches and dinners seven days a week, and is enhanced with a pub section with sports on television.

“We’ve been packed! It’s a relief, it’s exciting and sometimes scary — but it feels good, really good. It’s probably even more powerful for me after literally spending the summer here,” he said. “In a way, it’s also vindicating. It’s vindication that, with effort, thought, time and physical labor, you can be rewarded.”

Stovall’s business students also are being rewarded, as he can offer the benefit of his newfound personal insight and experience into such courses he teaches as Human Resources Management, Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship.

“It’s been a decade since I’ve been in the workforce. This venture has made me a far better professor,” he said. “I don’t mind pointing out (my) mistakes and successes. It makes my classes that much more real.”

Stovall laughed as he mentioned, in his Entrepreneurship classes, he previously recommended entrepreneurs add a 10 percent contingency to the predicted expenses of starting a new business.

“When I teach this course in the spring, I will change that to 20, even 25 percent!”

That’s especially true when the venture involves renovating an old building whose previous iterations included being a hardware store, restaurant and video arcade.

One thing Stovall definitely will not change when teaching that course is how the successful entrepreneur must be willing to do all those little things that lead to a new business’ success. He’s been seen performing everything from ductwork to cleaning the bar, clearing tables and filling cole slaw dishes.

“To be an entrepreneur, you have to be prepared to do anything,” he said. “I have a Ph.D. and I don't mind doing those things. I want to be seen as someone that practices what they teach.”

During the business’ early weeks, Stovall was present for literally every meal served at Austin’s, but, as his staff acquired experience, he gained confidence in their ability to get the job done without his constant supervision. That translated into the restaurant running almost like clockwork with him in Texas for a week over Christmas.

“I needed to be here to get it started — it’s my baby,” Stovall said, noting that the progression of sharing responsibility and building a loyal clientele is right on schedule. “I’ve got such an incredible team that I’ve been able to step back from time to time.

“Sometimes I enjoy just coming in and not managing — just enjoying being here.”