To Robert Williams, being in the restaurant business is a lot like being in the music industry.
“A song is very much like a recipe, and a band is like your kitchen staff — your drummer may be your sauté guy — it’s like a line,” he explained. “A group of musicians is like the connection you make working a line with a group of guys and gals. When you make that recipe, you’re trying to duplicate that song. When you’re doing that plate, you’re hoping you’re pulling that song off the same way every time. To me, a lot of those things are very similar.”
It’s not surprising for the owner of Roux’s Catering and The Foundry to make that analogy. Next to food, music is one of the passions of his life. It’s a passion he shares with a few other big names in the downtown food scene, who often travel together on what they call “summer tours.”
This past summer they spend their collective vacations in Chicago seeing a series of shows. The year before, they watched Widespread Panic perform multiple nights at the famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado.
And while music is the reason they and their families make these trips, food is never far from anyone’s mind.
“Sean (Wight, owner of Frog Hollow Tavern, Craft & Vine and Farmhaus) and I, when we travel, we will have a food plan really before we plan anything else,” Williams laughed. “We will know two months in advance, ‘Okay, this is where we’re having dinner, this is where we’re having lunch, we’ll do this for breakfast.’ My wife and I are the same way, whether we’re traveling together or with a group of friends. Natalie and I will explore the different things we want to do and it gets to be afternoon and it’s like, ‘Let’s just go someplace and have a drink and a couple of snacks.’ Instead of going to a theme park, we may go belly up to a bar and have a couple of glasses of wine and some small plates. That’s how we kill time.”
Call it continuing education. Call it recon. Whatever it is, Williams always comes back with a ton of ideas and pictures, many of which make it into journals full of ideas he keeps at home.
“That’s as important to me (when traveling for shows): seeing new things, trying new things, eating foods in other parts of the country and, somehow, finding ideas that we can bring back and use in our own businesses,” he said. “My head is so full of all these things that we’ve seen traveling on summer tours, as we call them.”
The challenge, he says, is finding what works for a catering company. A restaurateur would have an easier time taking an idea that he found in another market — whether it be for presentation or a dish with new ingredients, adapting it and placing it on his menu, where 30 people may order it in one night. Williams, on the other hand, has to think about what would happen if a catering client ordered 500 of this new dish, or even 1,000.
“As much as I think about food all the time, and eat food, and try food in different places, it’s trying to find what makes sense for our market,” he said. “The biggest challenge for me, coming from restaurants, is, ‘Could I do a thousand of these? Is it feasible?’ You may get lots of great ideas, but you have to look at it in away that you’re not setting yourself up for failure if somebody orders them.”
That means certain fan favorites will always be available for order on a Roux’s menu, dishes like chicken sticks, quesadillas, and inventively presented versions of childhood favorites like banana pudding and pecan pie. And though catering clients often want to order these tried and true dishes, Williams says he is encouraged by how forward-thinking many of his clients have become. And many are the younger clients, like a more spontaneous bride who has thoroughly researched social media before coming to him and often communicates solely through technology.
It’s the “millennial effect,” and Williams says he sees it everywhere, from the increase in foot traffic downtown to the need for many of his clients to know what exactly is going into the dishes they’re ordering to their desire to have an event in someplace that doesn’t have the impersonal feel of a ballroom in a hotel or conference center.
It’s one reason Williams is so pleased with the public’s response to The Foundry at Rae’s Creek, his new event venue on Boy Scout Road. Open a little more than a year and a half, The Foundry is a mix of industrial and farmhouse looks. Guests open the door to what looks like a clubhouse, which then opens into a large event space. In the back is a covered patio with an outdoor fireplace, which is becoming more and more popular with brides.
“The covered patio is a huge asset. It’s one of the things we were adamant about with that design. We wanted an outdoor space but we wanted it to be covered because our weather here is so unpredictable,” he said. “It’s a beautiful setting. Even in the spring or fall, having the fire going on the back patio makes it such a nice, inviting space to sit, whether it’s raining or not raining. And even in the winter, we have those big heaters so it’s still comfortable.”
Williams and his wife live near The Foundry, so he knew firsthand of the need for an event venue in that part of town. Still, his heart remains in downtown, where Roux’s has been headquartered at the Marbury Center for 18 years.
“At the time it really was a pretty big leap of faith for us, although it was a little bit more interesting then,” he admitted. “Coco (Rubio) was doing what he was doing at the Soul Bar and Mike (Schepis) was doing his thing down at Pizza Joint. Pizza Joint was still in its original location, so, when we moved into the Marbury Center, there was really nothing here except for Sunshine Bakery. Barry (Blackston) was doing his thing with Nacho Mama’s, so there were a few things bringing people downtown, but nothing like it is now.”
Williams has seen downtown come a long way and is optimistic that it will continue to grow with the construction of two new hotels. He has plenty of ideas for helping that growth along, from more parking to making concessions and restrooms more accessible at the Jessye Norman Amphitheatre when events like Friends With Benefits’ recent Gov’t Mule and Galactic shows were being held there. He even wants the James Brown Arena replaced with something more modern at the same location, something that includes a James Brown Museum on site.
Williams, however, would settle for people just appreciating what their town has to offer.
“I am so not a part of this Disgusta crowd. It annoys the fool out of me,” he said, shaking his head. “When you think of the way we’re moving with all the cyber and NSA stuff, all the growth we’ve had, and the continued growth of the university, some of the acts that have come to town, the great restaurants we have, Augusta is becoming somewhat of a destination place. It may not be a place you go for a week, but I think it’s a hell of a good place to come for a weekend and eat at some good quality restaurants. There is a lot that Augusta offers now. I’ve always been proud to say I’m from Augusta but I’m even more proud now because I think we are moving in the right direction.”
And just like Augusta, Williams says he getting to the point where he’s ready for a little growth of his own in the form of his own restaurant.
“I think about it all the time, and I think I’m closer now to doing it than I have been in 20 years,” he said. “I’ve finally gotten to the point where I think I’m ready for that next adventure when it comes to the restaurant side of things. I haven’t completely jumped in whole hog yet, but I’m closer mentally than I have ever been. It is something I miss. First and foremost, I’m a line cook. I’m not a fancy chef, I’m a line cook and that’s where I’m most comfortable: on a line with a group of guys and gals on Friday night just getting our ass handed to us. That’s what I found great pleasure in. I miss it to this day.”
One of the reasons he feels that now (or soon) may be a good time for opening a restaurant is that he sees many diners moving away from chains and toward locally owned neighborhood joints. Which is great, except that the sameness and consistency of chain restaurants can’t often be duplicated by locally owned restaurants.
“And this kind of goes back to my analogy of a band,” he said. “You could go see Widespread Panic every night for a month. No two shows are going to be exactly the same. They’re going to miss a note here and there, one version of this song is going to be better than another version of the song they play later on in the tour, but, all in all, it’s still a good experience. I’m not going to stop because something was off. Every restaurant I’ve been to in town, at one time or another, has had an off night. It just happens. It’s the way life is. It’s hard to be perfect all the time.”