Kevin Williamson

April 19, 2017

Ranch 616 has been an iconic restaurant in the heart of downtown Austin for almost 20 years. Owner and founder Kevin Williamson puts his heart and soul into his work. Whether it’s traveling the world to share his talent with others or promoting Texas Gulf oysters for the Texas Department of Agriculture, there’s nothing Kevin Williamson can’t do.

Kevin had careers in real estate and finance that helped prepare him for his future in the restaurant business. “I had a real estate license in Texas, California, Colorado and New York and I traded bonds in New York. So the real estate helped me with some simple things like fixing stuff. Like fixing rental property for my dad when I was a kid, into owning it and fixing it myself later on. But the finance part helped me become familiar with numbers. And drinking helped me by creating a bar menu [laughs].”

Before opening his own restaurant, Williamson worked at the renowned Ajax Tavern in Aspen, Colorado, which taught him everything he needed to know to open his own restaurant.  “It taught me the most and I refer to stuff 20 years later from my experience at Ajax. The operators are the best in the business and was able to work with them. I worked my ass off and I must’ve worked 16 to 18 hours a day. It was like going to get a Masters in the restaurant business. I was so grateful to be there and it helped me in everything. [Working at Ajax] helped me in the areas that I hadn’t had experience in like the front of the house, because I never was a server and it’s one of the biggest parts of my business. They’re tremendously accurate and on top of their hospitality, training, and knowledge of wines and menu items. So I really learned a great deal about being a better communicator from the kitchen to the front of the house. If you think about it, the kitchen is like a general store where we have all products.   What we create and put together are what the servers, who are like sales people. They come in and see what’s for sale and translate it to the floor to the customers. So that relationship is so important. I didn’t have that experience before that and it taught me lots”

Williamson says the happiest place since he was a little kid all the way through college was always going to the ranch; and that’s how the concept of Ranch 616 was born. “If we were going to the ranch it was exciting and all centered around hunting and cooking. That’s the brand that I wanted. I’m so grateful that it translated properly. The decorations inside such as the taxidermy my mother killed, the fish my daughters caught, and the photos on the walls are of my family. It’s like taking a living room of a ranch house and putting it in a dining room. To me it translates as welcoming and casual, and that’s what Austin is to me. It’s not a pretentious town; it’s really a place where people are friendly and for the most part humble and qualified. With the University here we have so many well-educated people. The film business here is huge, we have stars from all over the world here, and we have tech people that are the most important people in the world. For the most part everybody’s casual and friendly. To me, that embodies what going to the ranch is about. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from; once you get there you get to enjoy yourselves together. That was the concept for the restaurant.”

Some of Williamson’s employees have been working at the restaurant for 16 years. “I love being here, we have respect for each other. I work here, I’m a co-worker of everybody, and I don’t walk around here like the boss. We’re 18 years old this year and that’s a long time in the restaurant business. Restaurants have the highest failure ratio of any business in the country. They normally don’t make it for very long because it’s hard. With that said, you’re only as good as your last meal. What matters is tonight and what matters is tomorrow and the next meal, the next meal, and the next meal. Because if yesterday’s meal was fine but tonight’s is not, then we’re screwed. For me, it’s a good way to look at being in this business and keeping focus of what’s important because you can’t rest. There’s like 10 restaurants opening up every week and you’ve got to work hard to keep up.”

In addition to owning Ranch 616, Williamson also owns Star Bar and Rattle Inn, which are both next-door to Ranch 616. “When I bought Star Bar, I had a long friendship with the guys who owned and started it. Star Bar is an iconic bar and it’s the oldest bar on West 6th street. I drank there through getting this business started. I don’t drink at work, but I would go down there and drink; and they don’t drink at work, and they would come up here and drink. Because you don’t want to drink in front of your employees; so we had a good friendship and a good bond. I asked them early on, ‘if you guys ever sell this place, please sell it to me because this is really my life.’ Not thinking it would happen and 10 years after that conversation, both of the owners had gone through a traumatic experience at the same time and they wanted to live their lives. So they called me and sold it to me. Everyone in town wanted it, so I was really lucky, beyond lucky. So many bar owners wanted that business, but it was never on the market. And then I’ve had Rattle Inn for a long time. For 8 years I kept the building empty with the dream to do a live music venue. It was expensive to hold the property empty, but I knew the timing wasn’t right. I thought it was smarter holding it empty than going somewhere else to do a business because I wanted to be close. Just be mindful of the fact that if you can share your customers with yourself, it’s really a perfect world for me. People will have cocktails at Star Bar, then they’ll come to Ranch 616 for dinner, and then they’ll go to Rattle Inn till close. This is a nice block. With all the change that’s happening in the West 6th Street district, I think that we stand out. It’s been great to have all 3 of my businesses together. I used to joke and say I’d have my walker with tennis balls on it so I can shuffle all the way down here and back, if I’m lucky.”

On top of owning bars and restaurants, Kevin has served as the President of the Austin Restaurant Association, President of the Saveur Texas Hill Country Wine and Food festival for five years, is a spokesperson and chef for the Texas Beef Council and promotes Texas Gulf oysters and shrimp for the Texas Department of Agriculture. “I’ve been doing the Aspen Food and Wine Festival for 19 years and the Nantucket Food and Wine Festival for the past 14 years. Last year we did like 3,800 pieces of Texas quail. I’m lucky to have those birds and the idea to do something different that most people can’t do. I’m taking live quail to the island of Nantucket to release them for breeding. A couple of years ago I had that idea and everybody involved from the quail farm, to myself, to the Nantucket Island Preserve Group; they’ve all been talking about it because if we were going to do it we wanted to do it right. We want to release them at the right part of the island with the right type of grass where they can feed.”

Williamson also loves to continue to learn about what he does with the Texas Beef Council. “I have to take continuing educational classes at Texas A&M for Meat Science so we become better and quicker at butchering a whole animal and being able to explain to people what every part of the cow is that lands on the table. And then as the Texas Beef Council spokesperson I get to travel and teach other chefs how to do that. Recently I went to China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and did a big class of 200 chefs in Mexico City at the Hacienda de las Morales downtown with some of the biggest kitchens in the world, which was a great experience. I’m easy…if I’m invited to some place I’ll go anywhere, especially to deliver a message that I keep learning about. The Restaurant Association, The Food and Wine Festival, the Texas Beef Council, representation for the Department of Agriculture; they all have a mission and a message to deliver.”

When I asked Mr. Williamson which non-profits he works with locally, his response was, “we do everything in town. Meaning, anything I’m asked to participate in, I participate in. I really do enjoy all of it because you’re there for a good cause, but you’re also building your business. The things that I have personally enjoyed the most are The Coastal Conservation Association, Susan G. Koman, and the March of Dimes event.” For over 20 years he has been giving back these notable causes. “Even though it’s not a non-profit, one of my favorites is the Austin Film Festival because of the creativity that it brings to town. Over the past 18 years we’ve had different film crews come here for several months and all hang out here. I’ll keep the restaurant open for them after hours, not doing anything illegal, just so that they can be with their buddies and not be bothered. Everything from things that are sad and grab your heart from diseases to cancer to things that are Austin are all important to me.”

To learn more about Kevin Williamson, be sure to follow all of his businesses: Ranch 616, Star Bar, and Rattle Inn.


Photography by Marisa Valente

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