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How Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel Created Hit Restaurant Birdie’s

Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel and Arjav Ezekiel’s award-winning Birdie’s in Austin is disrupting the traditional restaurant with new approaches to service and employee relations. This week, it even disrupts itself, with another pop-up of its Italian-American alter ego, Aiello’s.

Arjav Ezekiel and Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel

Arjav Ezekiel and Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel at Birdie’s in Austin. Photo: Mackenzie Smith Kelley

Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel settles into a booth at Ludlow House, seemingly relieved to take a break from running around Manhattan. She and her husband and partner at Birdie’s in Austin, Arjav Ezekiel, have returned briefly to New York City, where they each started successful culinary careers, and where they met, to accept an award for 2023’s Restaurant of the Year from Food & Wine. They also use the opportunity to catch up with old friends and colleagues at their restaurants, such as Brooks Headley’s red-hot Superiority Burger. 

Since moving to Austin in 2018, the young couple hasn’t had any time to rest. They opened Birdie's in 2021, had a son, Remy, and started gaining national attention as word of their restaurant began to spread. Not only for Malechek-Ezekiel’s crowd-pleasing cooking or Arjav’s inventive beverage program, but for the sustainable business model they set up to ensure that employees can earn enough to live, and have enough time off for a positive life-work balance. Add to that an occasional pop-up that transforms Birdie’s into an Italian-American restaurant called Aiello’s, in homage to her late grandfather, and you have one of the more dynamic small businesses in America, let alone the culinary world.

meatballs
Birdie's occasionally transforms into Aiello's, an Italian-American restaurant and homage to Malechek-Ezekiel's grandfather, where meatballs and other specialties are served.

Aiello’s, it should be noted here, given Appetito’s focus on Italian food, is back again starting this week and next, with meatballs, house-made pasta, chicken piccata, and more, Oct. 3-7 and Oct. 10-14. Malechek-Ezekiel says that the concept has become a top-grossing initiative, with lines stretching around the block the previous two times Aiello’s has appeared. Asked how Austinites have reacted to Aiello’s, she says, “they freaked out, complete meltdown, like obsessed.” She adds that she finds it funny, because the idea started not as a stunt or business idea but as a way to honor her late grandfather, Phil Aiello, whose family moved to Brooklyn from Calabria when he was 12. He lived to 96, and before he died, she sought out his advice about leaving New York’s fine dining scene to open a restaurant with her husband, to which he replied, she says, “Kid, what have you got to lose.”

In truth, the Ezekiels probably did have a lot to lose. Tracy and Arjav met while working at Union Square Hospitality Group’s now-closed Untitled at the Whitney, and both had built impressive resumes at places like Del Posto, the Michelin-starred Italian restaurant where Tracy met Headley and worked under acclaimed Italian chef Mark Ladner. In other words, they had bright futures in New York City. One night, she tells me, she and Arjav were having post-shift Negronis when she told him, “‘One day, me and you are going to open a restaurant together.’ And then, without missing a beat, he was like, ‘One day we’re also going to get married.’ I said, ‘Excuse me? You’ve never even taken me out on a date!’”

Both of their words proved prophetic, and, besides getting married and then honeymooning in Rome, they formulated a plan to move away from Manhattan to follow their restaurant-opening dream. Mainly because they had no money, which is not a good way to start a business in New York City.

Malechek-Ezekiel says that they narrowed the choices to two more affordable destinations: Austin, because it’s a fast-growing, business-friendly city and because she was originally from Houston, about two hours away; and Portland, Oregon, where Arjav’s family moved from New Delhi when he was 12, and where “the soil, with all that rain, is just magic.” At a stalemate, she says, while seated on their sofa in Brooklyn, they decided to flip a coin to make their decision. “It was heads, so we moved to Austin.”

Still, there was the matter of funding their endeavor. “We initially thought we were going to open like an Italian trattoria or Gramercy Tavern–type of wood-fired thing. And then we get [to Austin] and we're like, ‘Okay, we're broke as a joke coming from New York restaurant jobs, and we’re not independently wealthy. How are we gonna get money for this thing?’”

pasta with pesto
Pasta from Birdie's in Austin. Photo: Mackenzie Smith Kelley

She credits Arjav, “the hustler that he is,” with finding investors outside of Austin and notes that they kept the budget tight—about $300,000. They locked in a corner restaurant location in East Austin, already a well-traveled dining destination in the fastest-growing city in America, and then set out to create what became Birdie’s.

Despite their fine-dining backgrounds, the couple scrapped most of the trappings of a luxury experience. The thinking was, she says, “How about we just serve the food, the ingredients we want to use, the wine, and have those hospitality points that we really value in fine dining, but then remove everything that we don't need? No white tablecloths, no captains, no front waiters, no back waiters.”

That means a slightly different sort of dining experience, in which you simply walk up, join the line (if there is one), and order at a counter. No reservations are taken. “You place your order, grab a flag, sit down, and then it kind of transfers to a full-service restaurant where you have a server checking in.”

The menu is updated daily, and reflects both Malechek-Ezekiel’s simple-yet-elegant approach and the fact that she and her team have a small kitchen. She notes that Birdie’s can only have one pasta on the menu per day because of the limitations of the cooking stations.”It feels European inside in terms of how we cook. We’re not cooking sous-vide or anything like that. It’s just kind of back to basics, trattoria-style cooking.”

Tracy Malechek Ezekiel
Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel at work at Birdie's. Photo: John Davidson

The scaled-back approach has proved successful, not only at Birdie’s but at Aiello’s, which Malechek-Ezekiel hints is a blueprint for an eventual second restaurant. This has allowed her and Arjav to craft an especially welcoming environment in which to work. Every employee makes between $28-$35 per hour, with health benefits covered at 50 percent, and two-week closures in August and during the December holidays to allow everyone some time off. (She adds that the average pay rate during Aiello’s past runs has increased to nearly $40 per hour.)

Arjav Ezekiel
Arjav Ezekiel is co-founder of Birdie's, overseeing its beverage program. Photo: Matt Conant

“We’ve created something we’re truly proud of,” she says, adding that her husband’s creative wine and beverage program allows diners to order anything from a non-alcoholic drink to a Miller High Life to a $2,000 bottle of wine (though great bottles can be found for much less). Then, she offers a variation on what has become a refrain even at the food media world’s top publications, saying that Birdie’s is “the neighborhood restaurant that I hope people would want in their neighborhood.”

Aiello's Poster
Aiello's will pop up at Birdie's again for two weeks in October 2023.

Birdie's, 2944 E 12th St Unit A, Austin, TX 78702, no phone, @birdiesaustin, birdiesaustin.com

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