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Bouncer to boardroom: John Augustine's story

Jan. 22, 1999

By Kurt Epps

His name is John Augustine, but it might as well be Horatio Alger. Because John Augustine, the driving force behind the beer bar appeal of all seven of The Office Restaurants in New Jersey, got his start with the company as a bouncer in a Charlie Brown's Steakhouse (the parent company of The Office) twenty-two years ago.

Today, Augustine is the Executive Vice President of Operations all the Charlie Brown Steakhouses as well The Office Beer Bars whose theme he created and refined. Twenty-eight restaurants are owned by the corporation, a new Office, the seventh, having recently opened in Keyport, NJ. And there will be more, if Augustine has his way.

Augustine's lanky exterior and easy-going manner (he never flinched when I accidentally picked up his beer and drank it) belies a quick mind that is constantly probing for ways to increase the sales - especially the liquor sales - of the restaurants he oversees.

His record at The Office is proof that he knows what he is doing. Starting with just the Ridgewood Office (there were six Offices in the state four years ago), he approached his boss with a novel idea. Let's make The Office a beer bar, building the menu around the beer, rather than just offering the beer as an accompaniment. Using a "reverse approach" to training, he made it a point to first educate himself and his managers about the history, ingredients and nuances of craft beer.

He took them on excursions to various bars and pubs in the Northeast (including Europe), and subjected them to a "grueling" (yeah, right) regimen of beer experiences. While that may sound like the type of school everyone would want to attend, Augustine was dead serious about it, even testing his pupils' knowledge before he would OK their positions--and their commensurate salaries.

The Ridgewood results were encouraging enough to convince Augustine's superiors that he was on to something. After converting six restaurants to beer bars for just $75,000, all The Offices were using the Augustine Approach, where beer was the star, not a bit player. Working late at The Office became a valid excuse for thousands of beer geeks.

Augustine, a stickler for educated waitstaff, recalled an experience in a major restaurant chain that will remain nameless to protect both its reputation and our legal backside.

"They were touting a new beer program that included something like 100 beers for sampling. I asked the server what the difference was between an ale and a lager. He told me that ales were lighter and lagers were darker."

That won't happen at The Office, Augustine vows. His education process starts at the top and flows right down to each server.

Today Augustine points to Office liquor sales that went from roughly 29% to over 40%. One Office (Morristown) does 50%. The Office Beer formula is relatively simple, combining both market-savvy and common sense flexibility. All Offices are required to have ten draft taps that carry the company-approved beers. Augustine has a major say in what those beers are. (Coors Light, by the way, is the only mainstream beer allowed on tap at any Office. All the other mainstreamers are available in bottles only.)

Then managers have the freedom to put on line whatever other seven beers they find in demand by their local clientele. That's seventeen taps in all, and don't forget the bottled choices - more than sixty in some Offices.

In fact, the success of Augustine's beer program has "trickled-down" (up?) to the Charlie Brown restaurants under his purview. The CB's used to have six beer lines; they now have ten each, and all lines in all restaurants get cleaned every two weeks.

All this may seem like good news for the craft brew makers and their fans. But don't jump to any false conclusions, because Augustine says that microbrews are fading in popularity. Imported beers, however, are registering a solid upswing.

Augustine also added a new wrinkle to the beer menu called "Retro Beers" where you could order up a Piels, a Schaefer or a Schlitz, just like your granddaddy used to do.

The inspiration for the Office's success downplays his role in it and praises his subordinates for making things work. (Talk about a reverse approach!). And Augustine contends he's happiest when he's out in the establishments actively involved in assessing what's selling and what's not, fine-tuning the individual restaurants to increase customer satisfaction - which leads to increased sales.

"Today's Offices are very much like the Charlie Browns I started out working in twenty-two years ago. They're fun places to drink in, eat in and just be in."

And John Augustine should know, having been on the inside from the outset.

®Kurt E. Epps 1999 All Rights Reserved

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Kurt Epps