Antonio Swad just built his newest restaurant.
And by “built,” we mean he actually built it. He was Porch Swing’s general contractor, a skill he developed while founding Pizza Patrón and then perfected as he built the pizza chain’s locations along with another concept he founded, Wingstop.
“I built the restaurant myself,” Swad said in an interview with Restaurant Business. “But let me tell you, building a carryout wing place or a pizza store is small potatoes when compared with a 10,000-square-foot restaurant with 280 seats.”
Photograph courtesy of Porch Swing
Swad is a native of Columbus, Ohio, who had worked for a restaurant in Watertown, N.Y., in the early 1980s. The restaurant included a carryout pizza business on the side that catered to solders at nearby Fort Drum.
“It was an old building—built before electricity. They added electricity later,” Swad said. “So I honed my construction and maintenance skills there prior to coming to Dallas.”
He also lived upstairs at the restaurant and saved his money, moving to Dallas where he had friends with $11,000.
Swad wanted to open his own pizza place, but that was not enough money to do it. He did a lot of the work opening that first Pizza Patrón location himself, using skills he learned at the New York location. “My father once told me necessity is the mother of invention,” Swad said. “I learned a lot about commercial construction.”
Acting as his own contractor saves the 15% fee such professionals can cost, but Swad said he ultimately spends it all, anyway. “I certainly spend it on making things nicer than they needed to be,” he said.
But he does have more control over the construction process, and he won’t cut corners. “It’s efficient,” he said. “I make the final decision. We keep moving. There’s no, ‘Ask the owner if he wants this.’ I know exactly how I want it to be.”
And Swad was particular with Porch Swing, his biggest project yet. Since selling Pizza Patrón more than two years ago he’s been planning the restaurant in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, Tex.
The restaurant features a menu of classic, Southern dishes such as grilled meatloaf, pork loin, shrimp, chicken-fried steak and pie—labor-intensive, slow-cooked items “usually reserved for Sundays.”
He felt that people would flock to the restaurant if they were given “food they were familiar with” served in a “really nice environment.”
In addition to the menu, the restaurant has a pair of “sub-brands,” including an in-house pie shop called Pie Company that offers pies whole or by the slice. And outside there is a live music venue and a large patio area.
“It’s more than just a place to have dinner, even when there’s not live music,” Swad said, noting that he has carefully curated the restaurant’s music soundtrack, with music videos appearing on the television screens in the restaurant every fifth or sixth song.
“There’s a level of energy to the restaurant,” he said. “The stage is set up at all times with guitars so people can take pictures of themselves.” The concept even has a program in which customers can make up a fake band name that appears on a marquee above the location.
“I don’t want the stage to be forbidden,” he said. “Get up on the stage! Have fun with it!”
But there’s a method to Swad’s madness.
“Every time somebody takes a picture, that’s a branding opportunity,” Swad said. “A free mention.”
The pie shop is another key element. In the early days, pies have made up for 11-14% of the restaurant’s revenue. Most of that has been in slices, but a number of them have been whole pies.
The restaurant itself features a lot of custom furniture. “Nothing is off the shelf,” Swad said. He calls himself a “fabrication advocate,” noting that though it costs more early on it lasts longer and gives the restaurant more uniqueness.
Swad’s plan is to build a second location in the Dallas area and then find another market outside of the city to prove the concept. But he’s highly confident in its future.
“It’s got a lot of moving parts,” he said. “I tell you, it’s highly scalable. The reason I know that is I feel the vibe. It’s packed, when it’s full and operating.”
Porch Swing also keeps Swad in the business he has come to love for so long.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s not work for me. It’s that old adage: Find something you love and never ork a day in your life. I haven’t worked in 47 years if you look at it like that. It’s my sport.”