Getting to know Randy Burleson

Aubrey’s owner reflects on education, service and sacrifice

“Maryville Aubrey’s has been so much fun,” says restaurant owner Randy Burleson.

“Maryville Aubrey’s has been so much fun,” says restaurant owner Randy Burleson.

There are two reasons Randy Burleson and his Aubrey’s family of restaurants caters to and appreciates the local schools in every neighborhood where there are restaurants.

One is the value he puts on his own education, even the MBA he didn’t quite finish.

The second, he says, is simple: “School Coupon Books saved Aubrey’s.”

Burleson and the Maryville Aubrey’s will be awarded the prestigious Starlight Award for Community Service Saturday, Feb. 21, by the Maryville Schools Foundation. He and five other award winners will be the guests of honor at a gala evening at the Capitol Theatre.

Although today Aubrey’s is known for its quality food and good service, the School Coupon Book story has to be told. It was late in 1992, and the Farragut Aubrey’s, Burleson’s first restaurant, the one he put everything he had, his mother and his brother had into, was struggling. Opened only six months, the food was good, but service and follow-through was inconsistent. Early visitors to the restaurant when it opened weren’t coming back and attracting new customers was difficult.

The turning point came when Burleson put a “Buy One Entrée, get the second for 40 percent off” coupon in the Knox County Schools coupon book.

“I know exactly when the turning point was that business went from so bad to being so good,” Burleson remembers. “It was the Knox County Schools coupon book. It gave people a reason to find Aubrey’s in Farragut, a reason to come back. We had worked out most of the problems. The food was good, the service was getting better, and the coupon got people into Aubrey’s. The Knox County Schools coupon book saved Aubrey’s.”

Beginnings

Aubrey Randall Burleson, 42, grew up in Knox County. His father, Randy Burleson, was an entrepreneur who started a collections agency but also had a talent for electronics and selling. He built televisions in the back bedroom as a hobby. And, as early as the 1960s, he was checking out something called computers, poised to be at the forefront of that industry.

A week before his older son’s 11th birthday, with his younger son, Andy, getting ready to turn 8, Randy Burleson was killed in a tragic accident on the interstate, at what was known in Knoxville as “Malfunction Junction.”

“If my father had lived, I probably would never have been in the restaurant business,” Burleson says. “My brother and I really wanted to go to the Naval Academy. Although my mom, Pat, was a disciplinarian, she is also genuinely nice and interested in people. I got that from her, and some say I am well-suited to this business because of that.”

There are traces of his father’s influence as well, Burleson says, and it filters out in how he works with his managers. “My dad was a unifier. That was his mission. During the holidays, he would go to all the relative’s houses to visit. I go to my mangers at their restaurants, they don’t come to me. I communicate with them in their comfort zone and in their time.”

Burleson graduated Knoxville Catholic High School in 1984. He graduated in December of 1988 from the University of Tennessee with a bachelor of arts in political science and economics with a minor in business.

When he was 19, however, he got his first job in the restaurant business, working at the now defunct Stephen’s Italian Restaurant, which was located in Knoxville where Stir Fry is now in Bearden. He then went to work as a server at Kotsis Restaurant, which is where the Chop House is now located.

Burleson went back to UT to work on his master’s in business administration. At age 22, as part of the an internship program for his MBA, he went to work with Grady Regas at Grady’s Goodtimes restaurant. It was under Grady’s tutelage, he says, that he learned the functional roles in a restaurant.

“I was interning with Grady Regas, and he was all about the culture of the restaurant - the good times. That was the Grady Regas’ attitude,” Burleson says. “He is the most positive person I have ever met. He taught and showed that it is all about attitude.”

Burleson also represented the university with a team of MBA students participating in an entrepreneurship business plan competition in California. They were developing a concept for a restaurant as part of their business plan -- a microbrewery. He was still working with Grady, and he was “chasing a girl.”

“I tell people I opened Aubrey’s because I was chasing a girlfriend who I was trying to impress. About that time, Stephen’s Italian Restaurant was going out of business and one of the partner’s in Stephen’s came and talked to me about leaving Grady’s and buying Stephen’s and running it.

“Instead, we developed the Aubrey’s concept and moved it to Farragut.”

While the business was starting, Burleson’s romance with his girlfriend was ending. “She soon left, fell in love with someone else, and I was in the restaurant business at the age of 25,” he says with a laugh. On Feb. 22, 1992, Randy Burleson opened Aubrey’s in Farragut. He was 25.

Tough times

That time was tough on Burleson and required long hours and plenty of sacrifice, not just on his part but also from his family.

“We were broke from opening the restaurant. If the restaurant failed, I was ruined. My mom and my brother and I were struggling in ‘91 and ‘92. We opened with no managers or money. For our first food invoice, I had to take it to the bank and finance it.”

Burleson had a business partner that first year, Larry Tragesser, a local dentist. He also had a dream.

“For the uniqueness of the restaurant and for the restaurant to grow, I needed single ownership,” Burleson says. “It was my dream, my concept. I started working toward buying him out.”

The hours were long, and success wasn’t coming easy or quickly. The long hours took a toll on Burleson, too.

“That first year was a nightmare. I got no sleep. On my 26th birthday, I was so exhausted that I slept in a booth, threw up three times in the restaurant, then threw up three more times on the way home,” he says. “I was so exhausted, I couldn’t go back the next day, which was a Saturday. My mom ran the restaurant that day.

Burleson said the first real manager he hired was Bill Adcock. “He had opened a restaurant in Nashville called Cottie’s and that was where I got a lot of the Aubrey’s recipes. A lot of people think they came from Grady’s, but Grady’s didn’t have chicken fingers, praline cheesecake or any of the side dishes like squash and creamed spinach.”

Adcock stayed at Aubrey’s that first year and then struck out on his own with a restaurant called The Mustard Seed, which eventually closed and Adcock moved.

“He was helpful. He brought a lot to the table to Aubrey’s get better,” Burleson said. “As far as managers, my brother, Andy, and John Cole were first to be hired when Bill left. I hired them, and they’re still with the company. Andy is with Cedar Bluff Aubrey’s and John is at Emory Road.”

His managers are like family, Burleson says, and he is close to many of them. “Some of the managers are my best friends. It’s a different relationship because I am their boss, but we still hang out and do things together,” he says.

The value of education

During the biggest part of his time in the MBA program, Burleson was working at Grady’s Goodtimes, and he knew he wanted to go into the restaurant business. For awhile, he couldn’t see how the manufacturing-oriented program was going to help him.

“Six months after we opened the first restaurant, I was using all the education and things I learned in the MBA program. My kitchen was the manufacturing process, and my servers were the transportation logistics system,” he said. “I have used my MBA education probably more than anybody else in the whole class in a business that didn’t seem, on the surface, to be a good fit.”

Once Burleson figured out that the kitchen was the manufacturing process, menu items came and went because they didn’t fit or had consistency issues. The front of the restaurant was all about customer service, and Burleson said he knew what was needed. “In the front, I wanted kids with smiles and positive attitudes. It’s a totally different theory from the kitchen,” he said. “Without that education, I wouldn’t have thought about restaurants in the same way, and I seriously doubt we would be as successful as we have been.”

After the school coupons, Burleson started doing anything he could to help the local schools, a philosophy he has kept true to as his restaurants have grown. In Blount County, outstanding athletes are awarded Dinner for Two coupons, which carry anywhere from a $50 to $80 value, through his partnership with Blount Today. Many parent-teachers groups, principals and coaches ask for and receive the same certificates to us rewards. He gives parent-teacher groups free dessert coupons to give to new members to help with recruitment. Aubrey’s feeds area sports teams before games for a very reduced price. Regardless of the reason, people throughout the community connected to education often eat for free at Aubrey’s. Burleson is just fine with that.

“It wasn’t done as a marketing tool,” he says of supporting teachers and students. “It was done more because my Aunt Carrie and Uncle Kenny Cheatham taught me that education is the only thing that change the quality of life in an area,” he said. “Being a political science major, you learn education improves the quality of life for everybody.”

And, Burleson says, the people in the educational system make it worthwhile to give. Burleson said Aubrey’s can make donations to other organizations and give the same donation to schools, and he will see an entirely different appreciation from teachers. “I will receive a mailbox full of thank you notes from teachers,” he says. “And they come to the restaurant with their families because they appreciate what we do for their schools. That’s good business.”

Burleson said helping teachers makes sense “Teachers have a great influence on your life, and they aren’t the highest paid people in society. Helping schools is a way for Aubrey’s to say thank you for making our community better.”

Burleson said schools in Blount County are different than in Farragut or in Powell because they are very organized in asking for what they need. “Alcoa city, Maryville city and Blount County schools are probably the most organized group of any of our schools. When we tell them to tell us what they need, they are more organized in their asking,” he said.

From a business point of view, helping education just makes good sense, Burleson says. When the Maryville Aubrey’s first opened, he had a hard time finding employees in Blount County because his managers didn’t have working relationships with the schools. “Now the employee base from Blount County is the most hard-working, the most loyal and largest,” he says. “We have lots of Maryville people who work at other restaurants too,” he said. “Blount County has been great.”

When the Maryville Aubrey’s first opened, Burleson spent a lot of time in the restaurant, as he does whenever a new restaurant opens. He got to know something about Blount County that he says he really appreciates.

“There’s a sense of community and cooperation in Maryville, Alcoa and Blount County,” he said. “You don’t get that sense of cooperation everywhere.”

Coming to Blount County

Burleson says it was always his aim to come to Maryville second after the Farragut Aubrey’s got on its feet. The only problem - expensive dirt, he says.

Looking for “dirt” he could afford almost got him arrested, he says.

In 1994 or 1995, Burleson says he was looking to open his second Aubrey’s location and often scoped out locations in Maryville. It was always late at night, after work.

“I had an old BMW, and I drove all over the city of Maryville looking for a good location. I kept driving around in circles trying to identify what would be the perfect corner I could afford,” he says. “One night, I got pulled over by police. They thought I was stalking someone. I told them I was looking for restaurant locations.”

Burleson ended up opening his second Aubrey’s on Emory Road in Powell. He later opened Little City, a more upscale restaurant in Farragut, and bought Sunspot, Barleys Tap Room and Pizzeria and Stefano’s Chicago Style Pizza restaurants.

He didn’t make it to Maryville until 2002. He now also has the Bistro by the Tracks restaurant and Aubrey’s restaurants on Cedar Bluff at Middlebrook, in Lenoir City and off Papermill Road.

“Coming to Maryville was a big thing for me. Maryville was relatively expensive, and, even in 2001 when we decided we were coming, it was the most expensive dirt ever. Why? Because the school systems are so strong and good, and everyone wants to live here. When we came to Maryville in 2002, it was a defining moment for the restaurant. It took us to new levels. Maryville was our best restaurant for long time,” he says.

Burleson said he and his managers were confident about coming to Blount County. “We thought there was a lot of name recognition. We had lots of people coming to Farragut from Blount County,” he said.

There were family ties, too. Burleson remembers riding around Maryville as a child with his grandfather, who lived in Rockford.

Maryville’s Aubrey’s also has another impact on the other locations - its design. “This is building No. 2 in the evolution of all the restaurants. Maryville is the base upon which the newer restaurants are designed,” he says.

A day in the life

Burleson said his day begins when he wakes between 7:30 and 8 a.m. He has his first meeting at 9 a.m. “By 11 o’clock, I’m at one of the restaurants. I slide out in the afternoon and go to the gym, do elliptical and lift weights until 5,” he said.

Burleson works until about 10 and then meets with the managers at whichever restaurant he is. “At 10, you then sit down and eat a good meal and comment about things happening that day and what’s happening in the future,” he said. “I make it to all the restaurants at least once every two weeks.”

The hard work by Burleson, his managers, servers, cooks, hosts and anyone else connected to the operation has been successful. “We have 10 restaurants with $22 million in revenues annually,” he said.

Burleson said the biggest blessing of the restaurant is the people he has met. “I still live ‘in the hood’ in a duplex, but I have met more wonderful and unique people and been given more opportunities than I could have ever imagined. If I was a Wall Street executive, I wouldn’t have met as many people with as interesting stories as I have,” he says. “I went to a World Series. The game got canceled, and I was flying back on a guest’s private jet. I never would have thought those kinds of opportunities would come from people you meet in a restaurant.”

Burleson said he enjoys riding his motorcycle. “I like spending time on a motorcycle. It’s peaceful and quite. I like to see the world from my motorcycle,” he says.

He also likes traveling to enjoy good restaurants. “I like going to the big city and eat a meal you can’t get in Knoxville. That is really fun,” he says.

Anyone who knows Burleson is familiar with his love of baseball, particularly his passion for the Boston Red Sox. “My lifestyle is 24 hours a day,” he says. “Baseball gets me out of town. It’s about the only time I sleep late, wear jeans and have no worries about the world,” he said.

Burleson said his career choice hasn’t been without a downside. “I thought I’d be married with kids by now,” he says. “But the restaurant business makes it tough to date. The sad part of being this involved in the restaurant industry is it’s hard to make a commitment, even to those who mean the most to you. The business is always there. But, I thoroughly enjoy what I do.”

When he does steal away for a date, Burleson said it often involves good food. “Some of the most fun dates I’ve had are eating sushi at Lemon Grass,” he said.

Dreaming and planning

Burleson said there are plans to upgrade the Maryville restaurant. “In the next 18 months we are hoping do a remodel here with new carpet and colors,” he said.

Burleson said if he “won the lottery,” there’s a lot he would do in Maryville. In his restaurant dreams for Maryville, “there would be a full-service barbecue restaurant in downtown,” he says. “It would be one where you could get Texas beef ribs, Kansas City spare ribs and Memphis baby back ribs with pool tables on the side so guys can tell stories and have a glass of Shiraz to go along with barbecue. They could listen to jazz or blues. Side dishes would be comfort food to go along with barbecue, such as macaroni and cheese and turnip greens and beans.”

Other ideas for Maryville might be a Sunspot concept, or a revamped Stefano’s Pizzeria.

“This community is so special, we want to spend more time here and get to know the people of Blount County better,” he said. “Maryville Aubrey’s has been so much fun.”

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