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Nation's Restaurant News 2023 Power List Davonne Austin Outback Steakhouse
Twelve years after starting at Outback Steakhouse, Davonne Austin has been managing partner for seven.

Outback Steakhouse’s Davonne Austin ties superb performance to team

Managing partner of Oxon Hill, Md., restaurant relies on developing people

When he was 18, Davonne Austin passed by a brightly lit Outback Steakhouse after football practice and saw waiters carrying Bloomin’ Onions to happy customers.

Austin recalls wanting to be a part of that. He filled out an application and met with the managing partner.

“I remember sitting down at the table during this interview and conducting an interview — but honestly it just felt like a normal conversation,” Austin said. “He was a huge Baltimore Ravens fan and I was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and we sat there and we talked about sports for about 20 minutes. And the conversation was just so authentic.”

Twelve years later, Austin is managing partner and general manager of the Oxon Hill, Md., Outback Steakhouse, the casual-dining concept owned by Tampa, Fla.-based Bloomin’ Brands. He’s been with Outback all those years, seven as a managing partner.

Since moving to Oxon Hill in April 2019, Austin has increased sales by nearly 30% and restaurant profit by 25%. Austin’s restaurant is one of the top performing restaurants for the brand. The restaurant is fully staffed, Austin said, and has between 130 and 140 employees.

Brett Patterson, president of Outback Steakhouse, said Outback has had managing partners’ names above the front door as proprietor since its founding in October 1987 in Tampa.

“To be a great proprietor … it all starts with people,” Patterson said. “It's how he treats others. It’s the vision that he creates for his people. It's the resources he provides for his people. It's the sense of community he provides for his Outbackers.”

Patterson said Austin shares the restaurant’s progress with his team. “When you take people on the journey with you and share your vision … the art of the possible will become reality,” he said.

Austin said he gets great satisfaction from developing leaders, from kitchen managers to front-of-house managers.

“It's the people,” he said. “It’s believing in the people, which is training your people [and] wearing so many different hats — being the coach, the cheerleader, the drill sergeant sometimes — but it all gets back to the people portion of things.”

Outback’s domestic system demands a large number of managing partners, Patterson said.

With more than 570 company-owned stores and franchised units, Patterson said, the brand requires a management pipeline and said it's a lot of work to find great leaders for each restaurant.

“It really does start with a couple things,” he said. “One is leaders like Davonne understanding part of their role is developing future leaders and developing talent.”

Besides business acumen, leaders need to embrace the Outback culture, he added.

“One thing is very obvious to me when I visit restaurants,” Patterson said. “Our best restaurants start with the culture, and you can feel it and sense it immediately. Those partners have embraced Outback. They've embraced the heritage. They've embraced what we've gone through the past few years. They take care of their Outbackers. They live up to our promises.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting impact on restaurants posed one of the biggest challenges, Austin said.

“There was no playbook to that,” he said. So he sat down with his management team and certified trainers to draw up a plan. “We’ve had a lot of success in the off-premises dining department throughout the pandemic, but honestly it came from listening to my people,” he said.

Work-life balance remains an important goal throughout the restaurant industry, Austin said.

“So my first two weeks at the restaurant,” he recalled of his move to Oxon Hill, “I closed the laptop. I put the cell phone down. And I sat down with my managers. I had one-on-one conversations with them. In that the conversation, I said I don't want to talk about Outback right now. I don't want to talk about operations. Talk about yourself: What makes you happy?”

One grandmother replied that it was picking up her grandchildren and treating them to a homecooked meal on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Austin said he made sure she wasn’t scheduled on those days.

“I said, ‘If that's what you love to do, I have to make sure you're doing that. Because I want the best version of you.’ She just looked at me and she was like, ‘Wow,’” he said. “I said I have one requirement: You said you love making pot roast, so one time each month just bring me some pot roast.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

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