Passion for food and wine, love of the customer experience, and a meticulous attention to detail make up the recipe for the Randy Burleson success story
I will never forget the first time I worked with Aubrey Randolf Burleson about 20 years ago. I was a brand-new magazine publisher and had just arrived at Edison Park Steakhouse for a photoshoot. In my hand was my new digital camera, an Olympus that packed a whopping four-megapixel resolution. Thoughts of “fake it till you make it” were bouncing around in my head as I was admittedly nervous while unpacking the new Alien Bees strobes from their shipping boxes. It was literally one of my first real commercial photoshoots for the magazine, and we were attempting to make ourselves out to be a big deal in the shadow of someone we thought was a much bigger deal. We knew just how important it was to get this right; photos need to tell the story accurately.
I can remember Randy buzzing with enthusiasm for the restaurant lifestyle and the minutiae of details necessary for its success. Here was the kind of entrepreneur who dives in head first, ready to sink or swim, totally committed to being the very best he could be. I can still vividly recall feeling inspired by his tenacity and unflappable spirit, and to this day, he seems to retain that enthusiasm, despite the countless long hours the industry demands.
Fast forward to 2021, and I sit across the table from Randy in the Emory Road location. It’s early Friday morning before the lunch rush kicks in. This is when his work week truly begins, he says with a laugh.
We’ve sat across from one another countless times since that first meeting back in those early days of Cityview, and each time I do, that same feeling of camaraderie flows between us. It is inspiring to hear about his successes and how he has overcome his adversities. As a fellow entrepreneur, I relish the moments spent with someone with such a storied history of hard work and success; you can learn a lot by listening to the wisdom of experience.
Randy sits with a cup of coffee in front him. A coy smile reaches across his face. It’s amazing to think that here sits a man who has spent his life building a restaurant empire and somehow continues to exude humbleness and gratitude for the journey. I dive in to the interview in the hopes of learning more about what has driven him through this busy life as a restaurateur. Perhaps today I will learn the recipe to his secret sauce and just how important a little pinch of salt is to complete the perfect recipe.
If you’re unfamiliar with Randy’s story, let me fill you in on the fact that restaurant life wasn’t his original plan. Randy had been working in the restaurant industry on the side as a server at the former Stephen’s Italian Restaurant. He was an MBA student at the University of Tennessee, asked to go out and find an internship in the field. “I requested and got an internship with Grady Regas,” Randy says. “By far, he was the mentor, the one person who got me excited.”
I find it so ironic that Randy mentions Regas. The members of the Regas family were the original Knoxville restaurant moguls. Grady’s Goodtimes, which opened in 1982 and remained for a few decades, had the type of culture not often found in the restaurant industry up until that point. It was comfortable and fun, with great food and even greater customer service, oddly reminiscent of the place I’m sitting today.
When Stephen’s was going out of business, Randy was approached with an offer to take over the business. “We knew we had to close Stephen’s. Then we took that equipment and moved to a new location in Farragut,” he says. Somehow they were able to talk Horn Properties into building a new facility for them. “We knew we didn’t want to call the new location Stephen’s, so a friend suggested, ‘Why not name it after yourself? Use your first name,’ and the idea of Aubrey’s stuck.”
Six months. That’s how long the developer believed Aubrey’s would last, but after Randy and his team broke even that first year, Randy says he started thinking as an MBA student, about how they could run the business better and eventually make it successful.
“Attending the MBA program at UT trained me in the way I needed to think,” he tells me. “When I started thinking as an MBA student should—about how the restaurant process is built around the transportation and logistics of food, about how we need to get the meals to the table quickly and efficiently, about how we prepare food to be consistent in preparation and quality—it was the combination of those things that made it work. And Grady was the pinch of salt that gave me the desire to continue with this as a career.”
It wasn’t an easy year though. I ask Randy what seemed to be the biggest challenge as they dove in. “We didn’t have any previous experience with management,” he tells me. “You’re learning on the fly, everything was on the fly. I remember making pot roast completely the wrong way; we had never done pot roast before. We were serving it and listening to our guests to learn how we were doing things wrong. I mean, everything was learned on the fly, but listening to our guests made us much better.”
For him, it’s 30 years later, and I am shocked at how vivid his memories are of those early days. He was just 25 when he opened his first restaurant, something that helped him learn a lot of important lessons early on. “We were too young,” he admits with a laugh. “We did things that were things that 25-year-olds do.” Like making animal noises on the line and waking up to complaints the next morning, or pieing the employees in the face on their last day at work with whipped cream pies. “We missed one time and hit a guest…This is an apology to the couple that I hit.”
This is Randy. Candid and unassuming. Down-to-earth and open. Lighthearted and easy to get along with. And it’s not just because a camera is on him and the recorder is running. This is how he is with everyone, everyday, all the time.
I’ve heard so many stories from people in the community about how they’d see Randy start busing tables at one of the restaurants he was in if he saw they were swamped. I’ve watched him get drinks for guests to help one of the servers. I’ve also come to learn that Randy clocks in as General Manager of one of his restaurants every single day, pulling his shifts, boots on the ground. He was like this from the beginning and remains that way to this day.
Back in my interview, Randy tells me about those early years of growth, adding the second Aubrey’s location, and then a third which moved them in a completely new direction; they purchased Sunspot. But it wasn’t because the money was there and they were booming in patronage. It was because Randy had a vision and thought creatively about how he could reach it. “We really couldn’t afford to buy it, and so we went to the bankruptcy court since we were really one of the only offers they had, and asked the bankruptcy court to finance the purchase of the restaurant,” he tells me. “The Sunspot mentality of the tie-dies meet the neck ties, obviously pushed our culinary barriers. Sunspot definitely made Aubrey’s better.”
Innovation runs through this man’s blood. I can remember reading a few years back about “The Goats of Aubrey’s,” yet another one of those out-of-the-box solutions. You may recall the news stories about the Cedar Bluff Road Aubrey’s and the kudzu-covered hill next door. Well only at Aubrey’s would goats be the answer. And people loved it. I couldn’t wait to ask Randy about it.
“The goats were a practical solution to a problem, not a publicity stunt. But we ended up having a nearly constant circle of people going around or driving through the parking lot of the Aubrey’s restaurant to see the goats,” he says. “It brought people to the location.”
This transformative thinking is what led to Aubrey’s becoming a hotspot for nonprofit fundraisers, as I find out later in our interview. I’ve always known Randy to be a big supporter of the nonprofit community, but what I didn’t know is how it happened. I soon found out that in an attempt to bring business and awareness to new locations, Randy would offer the kitchen and restaurant space to nonprofit fundraisers. That’s how Aubrey’s Papermill took off.
“We started doing pancake breakfasts, primarily for the school system. We would provide the pancakes. We would provide the kitchen. They just served the food. And it ended up being that the students, in an effort to raise money for cheerleading, band, soccer, volleyball, whatever it was, were bringing their parents to the restaurant. And the parents would come in and go, ‘Wow. I never knew this was here,’ and ‘This restaurant’s so clean,’ and ‘It’s so much fun to do these.’”
They ended up winning a marketing award from the Blount County Partnership at another point for this unusual approach to get people in the door. And for Randy, it was another one of those win-win situations: the students were able to raise money for extracurricular activities and the restaurant found its patrons. These fundraisers continue to this day across all the locations.
As I sit and listen to Randy’s stories, it’s easy to forget that this man, so known in the community for his friendly nature and relationship-building skills claims to be an introvert. “They think because I’m out in the dining room and I’m happy and smiling, that I’m an extrovert, but really I’m a person that also enjoys peace and quiet. I enjoy my time in the restaurants, but I don’t have a problem spending an entire day by myself.” When he’s not taking those moments of peace, he’s found alongside his wife, Melissa, and daughter, Aubrey J.
When Randy married Melissa at the age of 44, she was working in Nashville, so on top of working around the clock, he was driving back and forth to the Music City. “After we were married, and I came back to Knoxville, I got to focus on work like I always did,” he says, adding that becoming a parent led to somewhat of a major shift in his life. “I figured out that I can’t be at the restaurant doing everything I did all the time.” Priorities changed, he says. “I still work every day of the week, but I like to be home in the evenings.” Randy never misses family dinner.
This jump into family life gave his team space to grow in their work, Randy says, and he relished the idea of opening doors for leadership growth in the company’s brands. “It’s been a win-win, and it’s been a cultural change for our company for the better.”
A culture change. Something we are all experiencing in some way, shape or form right now. I can’t help but ask him what that means for Burleson Brands; what does he have up his sleeves for the next chapter. “It’s an interesting conversation that we have a lot,” he says. “The safest bet is that we will build a few more Aubrey’s. Though I don’t think we will build the Aubrey’s chain too big. I think we’re at the point in time where we want to enjoy it a little bit.”
Constantly on his radar is what they can add to the menu. “We really want a bone-in pork chop. That’s what we want right now, so we’ll see if it can happen,” he says. And although I press him for more, he just smiles and nods, insinuating that I will need to visit to find out.
As we begin to wrap up our interview, I find it interesting that the things Randy cares to discuss aren’t about the big awards he is ready to win, or the accolades he and his family of brands have received, but rather the role Aubrey’s plays in this community. “There’s great respect for the downtown Knoxville restaurants—we call them the ‘cool kid’ restaurants—that are really doing some great things downtown. We used to be in that conversation way back in the day when we were opening up Sunspot and Bistro by the Tracks,” he says. “Right now, we’re really excited about providing the best overall restaurant experience for our customers. Aubrey’s might not be the coolest new restaurant in town, instead we’re focused on trying to take care of our guests today and being the best restaurant we can be.”
That’s the hallmark of Aubrey’s. A focus on customer service. Environments that make people want to keep coming back. Consistency in the food they prepare. And as I close up my interview, I’m let in on the secret sauce of that success: “Consistency is about people and about how good our kitchen managers are, about how good our staff is, from our managers all the way down to the servers and the cleaning crew. They are the people that make that happen. Consistency is always about having great people and treating them right and from that comes a superior customer experience.”
Those people are Randy’s family. Heck, even his real family are part of the foundation of these brands. He tells me his mom, Pat, clocks in frequently at Sunspot to make sure everything is in tip-top shape for the day, and that his brother, Andy, is the manager of Aubrey’s Cedar Bluff. Randy has encouraged this family atmosphere, and it has contributed greatly to the success of the Burleson Brands. “The people are what make it work,” he says, “And that’s what makes people come back.”
We chose Randy for this interview and our cover, not only because we love and respect him, but because you, our readers, do as well. I can say that with confidence, because for as long as I can remember, Aubrey’s not only wins more awards in our Best of the Best voting, but they receive more than three times as many votes as their nearest competitor in the Americana Restaurant category, which is the most voted category of all. Randy Burleson is proof that if you build a great and consistent brand, they will come, which they do in droves.