Dale Augenstein never dreamed that his stint filling in for an absent frat house cook in 1979 at Western Kentucky University would lead him to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, and then back to Bowling Green. Augenstein parlayed his college experience into a successful Hilton Head eatery that led to a financial commitment of $1 million to the university and the naming of the new on-campus Augenstein Alumni Center.
As a student, the Owensboro native volunteered to cook a few meals at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house when the regular cook was out for a couple of weeks due to illness. Augenstein was the fraternity’s treasurer, so he was well aware that 40 brothers had prepaid to dine there. He was none too eager to return their money when they learned their cook would not be returning.
“I had no choice,” he said. “I wasn’t about to give the money back. One of the brother’s grandmothers was a lifesaver. She told me exactly how to do it. And, of course, my mother would give me recipes over the phone. I learned everything from scratch.”
Augenstein embraced his new role. Meals were served family style five nights a week, and before long, he agreed to be the man in the kitchen for the next two years, earning the $15 per day salary paid to the former cook.
But how did he find time for it all?
“You just do it,” he said with a laugh. “I was an officer in the fraternity and a cheerleader, too.”
After graduating in 1981, he was armed with much more than a business administration degree with a minor in marketing. He also had kitchen experience.
When no jobs turned up for him back in his hometown of Owensboro or Bowling Green, he headed to Lexington with a handful of résumés.
“The first place I went was the chamber of commerce, and I bought a city map for 50 cents,” he said. “They told me to go to the Jerrico Corporation [parent company at the time of Jerry’s Restaurants and Long John Silver’s], but before I left, I gave them a résumé. And believe it or not, the chamber called me at Jerrico’s and asked me to come back and talk to them about working for them.”
After a brief time, Augenstein became the new marketing director for the Lexington Chamber of Commerce.
“I was there four years, and when I left, I was a vice president,” he said. “I worked for the Webb Company for a couple of years, and then in 1987, I got a call from a chamber person I had met earlier from Hilton Head.”
That call led to another “timing-is-everything moment” in Augenstein’s life. He went to the resort island town to work for its chamber and before long was promoted to president. A happenstance dinner in March 1991 with a friend in nearby Beaufort, South Carolina, turned his life in yet another direction.
“We were at a dumpy, concrete-floored, casual restaurant called Steamers Oyster and Steakhouse,” he said. “It was the ‘in place’ in Beaufort, and it made an impression on me.”
It must have, because when Augenstein got back to Hilton Head, he quickly told a friend about it. “He had inherited an old ocean-front motel that needed a boost,” Augenstein said of his friend. “I told him he needed a restaurant. So I went back to Beaufort and sold Steamer on coming to Hilton Head.”
Two months later, however, the restaurant’s owner decided the distance between Beaufort and Hilton Head was too great and offered to sell the Hilton Head restaurant to Augenstein. “I had written a full marketing plan for the place,” he said. “I knew what needed to be done, so I bought it.”
On Sept. 1, 1991, he became the owner of a 100-seat oceanfront restaurant on Hilton Head Island.
Augenstein wove the strong social skills honed from his days as a fraternity house cook into his new life. At that point, his life experiences thus far seemed to make sense. What also seemed reasonable to him—from the beginning of owning a restaurant—was reaching back to his roots and hiring some people from back home to work at his new eatery.
“I decided the summer of 1992 to get some Kentucky kids down here,” he said. “I figured our business in Hilton Head was really busy for three months, and that’s when they were out of school. I went back to Owensboro first, where I knew their parents and families.”
Wendy Wilson was the first Kentuckian Augenstein enticed to head south to work at his Steamer Seafood. “I grew up in Owensboro down the street from his family,” Wilson said. “I had gone to Southern Methodist University in Dallas and had worked as an intern for him when he was at the chamber, so when he bought the restaurant, I was on board. When I graduated college, I moved to Hilton Head and got a job with Marriott. For two and a half years, I continued to work at night for Steamer.”
Wilson enjoyed a 17-year career with Marriott that included moving to Orlando, where she is now “just a mom.”
“I’ll never forget what Dale did for his first staff at Steamer,” she added. “He took us all on a cruise. I mean everybody—from the back of the house to the front.”
For the next four years, Augenstein’s Steamer Seafood was a popular gathering spot for both tourists and locals. However, in 1995, the owner of the motel and the restaurant building decided the property was a more valuable site for a condo and sold.
Without missing a beat, Augenstein moved the business across the street into a shopping center, and the restaurant expanded from 100 to 300 seats. As business grew, so did his need for more Kentuckians to work the summer months. He contacted his fraternity connections and, with his network of friends in Bowling Green, Owensboro and Lexington, set up summer internships for students to work at Steamer—a plum job.
The summer of 2009 was a significant experience for Bowling Green’s Chris Austin. “It was a great time,” he said. “Everyone ought to wait tables once. It’s a lesson in life. You learn to talk to people, listen and engage in general conversation.” Austin recalled that he didn’t even have a car while there. “Seven of us lived in one house. We’d ride our bikes to the beach in the morning and to work in the afternoon.”
In 2007, Brittany Kelley, a friend of some Owensboro natives who also attended WKU, headed to Hilton Head between her sophomore and junior years of college. “I worked as a hostess one year and the other two years as a server,” she said.
Brice Steele, from Knob Lick in Metcalfe County, had fraternity associations at WKU who helped him land an internship at Steamer for three summers, beginning in 2010. “Dale let me do it there. He embraced my education by letting me work and learn the business. I have stayed with him and am now full-time.”
Joey Gorman thought he wanted to be a basketball coach, but that all changed last year when he became a bartender at Steamer in Hilton Head. “It opened up a whole new world to me,” he said. “It was a humbling experience … one that caused me to make a career move.”
Gorman jumped in with both feet, learning not only the bar business but also the food. Now he is utilizing his business management education from WKU in overseeing the bar operation Augenstein’s latest venture, a Steamer Seafood in Bowling Green.
As a WKU student, Austin Disney spent two summers in Hilton Head as a server. A few of his Sigma Chi brothers applied for the jobs and, according to Disney, it “was the best two summers of my life.”
“We lived in a condo right across from Steamer. It couldn’t get much better than that,” he said. “I made money, and equally important, I made friends.”