A Pleasure to Serve

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One longtime restaurateur has kept patrons coming back for more while upholding the values of community service.

On a bustling Saturday night in late September, 256 people enjoyed dinner at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar at the Domain. Amidst the frenetic pace of food runners placing strip steaks and wedge salads, busboys deftly refilling water glasses and clearing plates, and servers explaining the pertinent details of the menu, operating partner Darryl Wittle is an oasis of calm. That evening, Wittle personally spoke with about 200 of those diners individually, many more than once, in an effort to make a fabulous impression and to welcome them. Amazingly, he’s able to remember names, faces and key facts. Wittle’s forte is building and cultivating relationships.

“Restaurants become somewhat of a salon and the clientele becomes known to you,” he said. “That relationship becomes one of an extended family. You know them, you know their kids.”

Wittle tends to cook a good amount of fish on rare nights at home, he confessed, since the employee meals (two per day) are generally of the meat-and-potatoes variety. “My favorite item on the menu is the bone-in ribeye,” he said, explaining that with the bone attached, the meat cooks differently, staying tender and soaking up flavor from the marrow. “As you super heat that, it accelerates that process of the flavor flowing from the bone into the meat.”

Wittle, who began his tenure at Fleming’s in River oaks, Houston, worked there as a manager for three years. He’d worked as the general manager at Gilligan’s in the Ware- house district in the 1990s, closing it five nights per week. After Wittle took a 6-month break, a former Gilligan’s col- league called him to say he’d been on a 2-hour long interview at Fleming’s. Although they’d already hired management, Wittle was intrigued and impressed. So, he waited tables for a year and a half until a management position opened up.

Having just ended a 5-year partnership at the 2nd Street location, Wittle is thrilled to embark on a new journey at the younger location at the Domain. About 50 people work with him currently and his average workweek can mean six or seven 12-to14-hour days.

Wittle earned his degree in economics from UT in 1985. During that time, he worked at a restaurant called Shadow’s. He also worked as a waiter at Basil’s for seven years and at terrace as a food and beverage director. Prior to that, he attended Penn State before dropping out and living briefly in California. His exploration took him to Galveston, working on the docks as a longshoreman for eight months.

Galveston brought his first interaction with the LGBT community, via his bohemian, artist-loft lifestyle. He’d taken up residence in a vegetarian cooperative inside an old cotton warehouse, complete with 19-foot ceilings and old sash windows, on Mechanic Street, that was about a block away from a gay club called the Kon-Tiki. “I used to come home and sit on my second floor ledge and watch the comings and goings,” Wittle said, realizing shortly thereafter that some of his restaurant coworkers were also gay–including the first bartender who ever taught him how to mix drinks. “There were many artists there and a lot of them were gay. I had an awakening and awareness and it was an eye-opener for a kid from a small and somewhat sheltered upbringing.” these days, Wittle’s understanding is heightened and his LGBT co- workers are part and parcel of the finely tuned machine that the restaurant has become.

Wittle was applying for a range of different jobs in Galveston and initially went to a restaurant with the intention of making sure he was fed. “I was lucky enough to find a mentor,” said Wittle, who started at the captain’s Galley as a busboy and became the general manager within a year and a half. As his own awareness deepened, Wittle realized that his mentor was bisexual. When the restaurant’s owner sold the business, Wittle became discouraged and didn’t take a management job for 14 years.

His father used to tell him that it doesn’t cost anything to be nice. In this case, that ethos extends to a strong devotion to being involved in the community and being a champion for his industry and causes he believes in.

As the president of the Greater Austin Restaurant Association, a trade association, Wittle is involved in recruitment and retention of members, fund-raising, event coordination, public awareness and education or political action. He’s been a member for more than three years.

Wittle also serves on the board of the Texas Restaurant Association. Working since August as the chairman of its committee for social responsibility and sustainability–and exploring the possibility of a citywide restaurant recycling ordinance–has been a learning experience. He’s also wearing several hats.

“The challenge is to look at the work in terms of a solution that’s going to be good for everybody,” he said, noting that restaurants often lack commonality. For instance, styrofoam is not important at Fleming’s, but it’s critical at many fast-food restaurants. “We are trying very hard to find a solution that’s amenable to the city and the community.” Recommendations were originally due to the city council by the end of October, but were pushed back. More progress is expected to be made this year.

When you’re doing what you love, it’s easy to be fulfilled. Wittle would like to travel more, later in his life. “I’ve thought about going back to school to study public affairs,” he said. “There’s a good chance, now, that I could be looking at a career of another 20 years. I’m not even thinking about retirement.”

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