First-time restaurateurs Curtis and Lahua Greenman, a mother-and-son duo from California, took a big risk opening an Asian-fusion restaurant in Dripping Springs, a small town about twenty miles southwest of Austin. They took an even bigger risk hiring twenty-year-old Matt Lawson, a Dripping native, as Koi Lantern’s executive chef. But the all-rookie team has found success in the unlikeliest of places. Two months after their grand opening, sales have doubled every week. But will it last? Texas Monthly talks with Lawson about what it takes to keep customers coming back.
How’s business so far?
Sales have been going up every single day, and they’re doubling weekly. And the crazy thing is, we haven’t really advertised. We don’t have any Grand Opening or Now Open signs—it’s all word of mouth. On Friday and Saturday nights there’s a line out the door.
How did you get the job?
I was working in a sous-chef training program at Disneyworld when I heard about Koi Lantern. It took about nine interviews before they hired me.
Is it hard to be the twenty-year-old boss of mostly older employees?
It is hard, sometimes. I’m pretty much the youngest guy in the place. Everyone respects me, although most people don’t know my real age. I think they’re starting to catch on, though. The bosses hand out beers to the staff at the end of the day, and they give me an Izze water.
Did you create all the dishes yourself?
All but three, yes.
What’s the best thing on the menu?
My favorite is the spareribs. They’re slow-cooked for five hours, and the meat literally falls off the bone. But General Tso’s Chicken is a close second.
Why Dripping Springs? Is it an undiscovered hub of Asian-fusion cuisine?
Well, it’s growing at an amazing rate. The town used to be itty-bitty—maybe a couple of fast-food places and a high school. But it’s tripled in size in the past year. We went from about 1,500 people two years ago to 12,000 people now.
How do you keep customers coming back? It seems like a new restaurant closes its doors every day.
Every time I visit a table, I don’t ask, “How did you like your food?” Half the people are going to lie to you because you’re the chef. Instead, I ask, “How can we improve for next time?” Whether it’s the first comment I’ve gotten about something or the eighteenth comment, I always go back and reevaluate what we’re doing to see if we can improve.
It’s nice that you know most of your customers.
Yes, but it’s hard to get things done sometimes. We’ve got an open kitchen, and so people I know are always calling out to me, “Hey Matt!” And I have to go say hey.
Koi Lantern, 333 U.S. Hwy 290E, Dripping Springs; 512-894-0707. Open Mon—Thur 11—8:30, Fri & Sat 11—9:30, Sun noon—8:30.