The Flight of the Night Bird
Harry Akin and the Night Hawk Legend
By the time beloved Austin restaurateur Harry Akin died in 1976, the story of how he'd founded the very successful Night Hawk restaurant chain had passed into local legend. In the nearly 25 years since his death, all but one of the Night Hawks has closed, the population and personality of Austin have changed significantly, and few people remember Akin or his smashing restaurant success. These days, the population is too large and the city too diverse for all the people making crucial business and political decisions in this city to be making them over steak and coffee at the same restaurant. But that's exactly the way things were for more than 40 years at the Night Hawk No. 1 on the corner of Congress Avenue and Riverside Drive. Harry Akin was the guy who made it happen.
Always a master showman, Akin loved to tell the story of how he'd left the college productions of UT's Curtain Club to follow a traveling theatrical tent show across the country to California in hopes of breaking into the movies. By the time he reached the West Coast, talking pictures had become all the rage and the traveling tent show business faltered. Akin stayed on a while in Hollywood, picking up acting jobs whenever possible and making ends meet by cooking hamburgers and waiting tables. He eventually gave up on the idea of an acting career and returned to Austin in 1932 with the country firmly in the grip of the Great Depression. He found an abandoned fruit stand at the corner of South Congress and Riverside and turned it into a little burger joint with two booths, a counter, and eight secondhand stools. He opened for business on Christmas Eve, 1932, selling hamburgers for 15 cents apiece. In countless interviews over the years, he said he started the restaurant "because there weren't any jobs to be had in 1932."
Akin chose to call his new venture the Night Hawk because he intended for the new restaurant to be open late at night. He kept late hours, often referring to himself as a "night bird," and he wanted his restaurant to provide that service. In those days, most dining establishments closed immediately after the dinner hour and the Night Hawk's extended hours were a novelty that attracted comment and plenty of business. From the beginning, Akin encouraged his customers to make themselves at home in his domain. An early handbill flier borrowed Hardcastle's line from She Stoops to Conquer, declaring, "This is Liberty Hall, gentlemen. You may do as you please!" Early patrons of the Night Hawk were allowed to carve their initials into the table tops of those first two booths and, in spite of prohibition, often brought their own homebrew in jars. Free coffee was served from midnight until 6am, which made for some very interesting shoulder-to-shoulder company at that old counter.
The next year, Akin purchased a small cafe on Guadalupe Street for $100 and christened it Night Hawk No. 2. His dream of creating a chain of restaurants was beginning to take shape. No. 2 was an instant hit with UT faculty and students, becoming a neighborhood hangout for generations. In the beginning, it too was a small cafe with the kitchen visible from stools at the counter and a long row of cozy booths. The university crowd ate, studied, courted, and celebrated at the Night Hawk. Photos from as early as 1935 demonstrate another unique feature of Harry Akin's business: Long before anyone coined the term, Akin was an equal opportunity employer, hiring both blacks and women and promoting them throughout his organization. He was always a man ahead of his time.
Twice during the Thirties, flood damage made it necessary for Akin to rebuild or repair the No. 1, and each time the restaurant got a little bigger without losing its cozy personal charm. By the end of the decade, the national economy was in better shape, the restaurants were thriving, and Akin branched out to San Antonio for his next venture. In his constant quest for the best quality steaks for his restaurants, Akin began raising his own beef and built a butcher shop in the kitchen at No. 1 where beef could be aged and cut. Once the various steaks were cut, trimmings were used to form what would become the Night Hawk's patented signature dish, the Top Chop't steaks. The Forties brought WWII and subsequent meat and labor shortages to many businesses. Akin already raised his own beef and, in his typical fashion, he found a creative solution to labor problems, as well. He trained and promoted the women in his organization to take over whatever management positions needed attention. The Night Hawk chain survived the war years and sailed into the postwar prosperity period at full steam ahead.
The Fifties were a significant period in the Night Hawk chain's growth because those were the years when Akin began distributing his signature Top Chop't Steaks to the frozen food counters of local supermarkets. Patrons were also encouraged to order packages of frozen Night Hawk-cut steaks from the restaurants for special occasions. These early moves would become the foundation for the Night Hawk Frozen Foods division, ultimately the most profitable of all of Harry Akin's enterprises. Before the frozen foods business got off the ground, Akin opened the Frisco Shop in far north Austin (Burnet Road and Koenig Lane), one of the only restaurants in that rapidly growing area. UT was growing, too, and No. 2 was in serious need of remodeling and expansion. When the new No. 2 was built in the late Fifties, it was the most expensive building built in Austin up to that time. Many said that what it gained in state-of-the-art kitchen facilities and banquet rooms it lost in personality and intimate charm. The new building, with its swooping angular roof, was never as homey and comforting as the original, but students, faculty, and alumni alike still bellied up to the counter for Frisco burgers and Top Chop'ts.
From the beginning of his business life, Harry Akin's motto was "there's nothing accidental about quality," and that credo manifested itself not only in the food items he chose for his menus but also in the people he hired to work for him and the training he provided them. "He was a man of extremely high standards and he had high expectations of everyone who worked for him," recalls Lee Buslett, a former Night Hawk executive and Akin protégé. Indeed, Akin was known around the Texas restaurant industry as a tough but fair boss who evaluated each person on their individual merit and took good care of his employees. "He expected a lot and he knew how to get the best out of people," says Lawrence Baker, longtime Night Hawk employee and current owner of the Frisco Shop. "You just wanted to do your best for Mr. Akin."
At a time when the two biggest Austin employers were UT and the state of Texas, the Night Hawk chain developed the reputation as a good company to work for. They provided better training, better pay, and benefits such as profit sharing and retirement plans that many other local businesses could not afford. (They're benefits rarely found in independent restaurants even today.) A young person of 21 could enter the rigorous Night Hawk management training program, work hard, and be assured of a career in the restaurant business. In 1963, Austin native Gordon Fowler was so determined to get into the restaurant business that he lied about his age and entered the training program at 18. "It was like boot camp for running restaurants," he remembers. "They had you learn every position in the house, from busing tables and washing dishes, to cutting meat, tending bar, waiting tables, and cooking steaks in the broiler pit. It was hard work but you learned everything there was to know about how to run a restaurant the right way."
Because of its longevity and strict attention to the quality of food and service, the Night Hawks became the favorite haunt of businessmen and local and state politicians. "There were probably as many deals made over tables at No. 1 as there were at the Capitol during the legislative session," Fowler says, adding that "you could set your watch by what time certain businessmen took their places at the counter or specific booths every day." Indeed, since it was the best and most consistent restaurant in town, everyone went to the Night Hawk, including visiting celebrities and politicians, students, and locals. Fowler was at No. 1 the first time then-Governor John Connally walked into the restaurant after being wounded in the Kennedy assassination. "Big John came in with his arm still in a sling and the entire restaurant stood up in silence to honor him. I'll never forget that." In those early turbulent days of the Sixties, the Night Hawk was about to become famous for something besides politics and celebrity watching.
Because of his high profile in state and national restaurant associations and his long record of successful integrated hiring practices, Harry Akin was invited to Washington in the early fall of 1963 to join a panel of businessmen conferring with President John F. Kennedy about the desegregation of public facilities across the nation. Akin returned home and spoke to a meeting of the Rotary Club of Austin, urging them to "develop a conscience over racial matters," and to "think in terms of individuals rather than generalities" when faced with the need to provide services and accommodations to black citizens. Always a man ahead of his time, Akin's restaurants were the first Austin eateries to serve black customers and his pioneering efforts contributed greatly to the mostly calm and peaceful way integration was accomplished in Austin businesses. "The first time we served a black couple was pretty uneventful," says Lee Buslett about a day in 1963. "One longtime customer left in tears, saying she and her family would never come back but it went off pretty much without incident." As a result of his work for civil rights, Akin was highly respected by the minority communities in Austin.
The Sixties and early Seventies were prosperous years for Akin and the Night Hawk, with expansions in both the restaurant and frozen food divisions. For many years, the popular frozen dinners had been prepared in the commissary kitchen at No. 1 and frozen in the meat carry-out area. As the business grew, it became necessary to move the burgeoning production to another facility and the Night Hawk packing plant was built in South Austin in 1968. Revenue from the thriving frozen foods division soon outpaced the restaurants completely. The company also added steakhouses in Austin, San Antonio, and Houston during this period. Throughout the Sixties, Harry Akin and his colleagues in the Texas Restaurant Association lobbied each session of the legislature to overturn the legal ban on liquor by the drink and finally succeeded in 1971. It's difficult for today's restaurateurs to imagine building a successful restaurant empire without benefit of mixed-drink revenue, but Akin did it. After the law was changed, full-service cocktail bars were added to No. 1, No. 2, and all the steakhouses. The future of the Night Hawk empire appeared secure.
Harry Akin died in April of 1976 after successfully accomplishing his business goals for more than 40 years. Obituaries for the charming, dapper man lauded his creativity, his business savvy, and his tremendous contribution to the community of Austin as both a business leader and a one-term mayor. He was remembered for helping to build strong restaurant industry associations and his pioneering efforts in civil rights. Akin's widow, Lela Jane Akin, became president of Night Hawk Foods Inc., and despite initial enthusiasm for her leadership, the restaurant division of the company did not fare well in her hands. Within four years of Harry Akin's death, four of the company's seven restaurants had closed. Somehow, without his driving force and true restaurant genius at the helm, the company faltered.
In 1980, the company closed the landmark No. 2 at 1907 Guadalupe, with Mrs. Akin citing changing attitudes and tastes in the university community as one reason for the closure. "The big complaint at No. 2 was always that students would study at a table for hours, buy one cup of coffee, and then not leave a tip. That did make it real hard to keep waitresses," admits Gordon Fowler, who managed there in the early Sixties. Other longtime company stalwarts place the blame on the proliferation of fast food restaurants in the UT area, an upsurge of vegetarianism among students during the Seventies, and a big increase in the land lease for the demise of No. 2. Whatever the reason, almost 25 years after its demise, it's still difficult for many UT alums to imagine the Drag without the Night Hawk.
The Eighties saw the beginnings of economic diversification in Austin and a big growth spurt fueled by a boom in real estate prices. New restaurants were opening all over town, offering a wider variety of ethnic choices and an interesting array of menu items that reached far beyond the relatively simple fare at the Night Hawks. Still, the three Austin locations remained in operation and the Frozen Foods Division provided a strong financial foundation. Mrs. Akin celebrated the company's 50th anniversary on Christmas Eve, 1982, with a party for its family of longtime employees and loyal customers. More than one guest at that party recalls that they kept expecting to look up and see the inimitable Harry Akin working the room, greeting his friends and employees.
In 1985, tragedy struck at No. 1. A fire destroyed the entire restaurant and it was necessary to rebuild from scratch. Company executives chose to build a much bigger facility, tripling the size of the dining rooms and adding large banquet rooms. It took more than two years for the new No. 1 to be completed and by the time the restaurant reopened, Austin was a changed city. The steam had completely gone out of the real estate boom, both the local and national economies were sluggish, and restaurants were closing as fast as they'd opened a few years before. The new No. 1 never really caught on. Steakhouses were somewhat out of vogue at the time and wouldn't see a resurgence for several more years. Old Austinites didn't feel any affiliation with the new building, grousing about the cold, cavernous dining rooms and having to park in the hotel garage nearby. They reminisced wistfully about the cozy old No. 1 Bar where waitresses wore skirts that looked like whorehouse lampshades, and they stayed away in droves. Folks new to town had no connection to the Night Hawk mystique and an entire crop of UT graduates had left Austin without a Night Hawk experience to return to. Longtime employees such as Hoover Alexander and Lawrence Baker were called upon to help get the struggling No. 1 back in the game but nothing seemed to work. The company closed No. 1 in 1989 and the building has never housed another restaurant.
After the loss of No. 1, the Night Hawk empire consisted of the Frisco Shop, the Night Hawk Steakhouse at the corner of I-35 and 290, and the thriving frozen foods division. Night Hawk Frozen Foods was sold to a private investor in 1993 and moved to Buda, where it continues to be very successful. A partnership of former Frisco Shop manager Lawrence Baker and the company founder's nephew, attorney R. Harry Akin, purchased the Frisco Shop in 1994 and consider themselves the keepers of the Night Hawk flame (see sidebar). When steakhouses began to emerge as a force in the dining market again, the Dallas-based chain Texas Land & Cattle Company bought the steakhouse on the interstate in 1995 and have been so successful there, they've added two more Austin locations in the past two years.
What became of the Night Hawk empire? After interviewing scores of longtime company employees, it's obvious that there's no one defining reason and no one person to blame. Mistakes and miscalculations were made, certainly, and the company never regained its footing without Harry Akin's leadership. Austin changed, it grew up, and in some ways, for better or worse, put aside many cherished things from earlier, simpler days. Tastes changed, people celebrated their special occasions at newer, fancier restaurants. The business power breakfast crowd can be found at Las Manitas and legislators get their steaks and martinis at Sullivan's and Ruth's Chris. Life has gone on and Austin's current restaurant economy is as strong as it's ever been. My personal opinion about the demise of the Night Hawk empire is that Harry Akin was a natural restaurant genius and a man perfectly suited to his times. An impossible act to follow.