Three Dallas restaurateurs prove you can run a successful eatery even if your background isn't in the kitchen.
Whether it’s four-star or farm-to-table, there’s no denying that Dallas’ rich restaurant scene is as important to our economy as semiconductors or the oil and gas industry. Larger-than-life chefs do little to dispel that notion, which makes it easy to forget that behind every great menu there’s a great restaurateur taking risks and making deals.
The following three local restaurant owners—all of them businessmen-, not chefs, by trade—are the epitome of Texas-size risk-taking and deal-making. And even though their menus are as different as they come—Neapolitan pizza, regional Mexican, and chef-inspired bar and grill—their winning formulas are similar: Hire people who specialize in the skills you lack. Develop systems that allow for emotionless decision-making. And never, ever underestimate the value of a supportive spouse.
Man With A Plan
Twelve years ago, then-26-year-old bangladeshi entrepreneur Mike Hoque—along with partners Rickey Khan and the late Talal Mumith—made a name for himself as part of the driving force behind ALT Worldwide Chauffeured Services. The team saw themselves as “solutions experts” providing day-to-day corporate service, sports team event management, even private aviation. Business was robust, with Hoque’s brother and wife joining in the operations as the years went by.
So three-and-a-half years ago, when Hoque abruptly changed course and reinvented himself as a Johnny-come-lately restaurateur, it would have been reasonable to doubt his chances for success. After all, his background was in gears, not grills. Not to mention: Restaurants are notoriously risky. Trading the transportation business’s concrete timetables for unpredictable produce suppliers and temperamental chefs would require a steep learning curve and the good graces of lady luck.
Starting out ambitiously, with $300,000 from a family inheritance, Hoque opened Go Fish Ocean Club next to the Galleria in North Dallas in 2005 and brought on exuberant Top Chef darling, chef Tiffany Derry, to helm the kitchen. For two years, Derry’s reputation swelled and critics responded favorably.
Around the same time, Hoque’s attention was drawn to downtown Dallas, specifically the long-dormant, formerly blighted east end of Main Street. “In 2007 when we came downtown, it was like a ghost town,” he says. “But we loved it right away.”
If the next round of ventures were to be successful, however, Hoque had to learn how to successfully work with chefs. “They have a different mentality. They’re artists; they create,” he says. “When things don’t go their way, they don’t take it right. I don’t blame them. But we have to make money so that we can provide them with the canvas.”
As his first downtown venture, Dallas Fish Market, thrived, Hoque had the idea to expand from surf to turf. A real estate opportunity came open about a block away—a 5,700-square-foot space on the ground floor of the Comerica Building. Hoque leapt, and Dallas Chop House was born.
“When I signed the lease, no one was thinking to open a steakhouse in downtown,” he says. “We did 18 months of research all over the country. I didn’t want to copy the other Dallas steakhouses. At the time, everything looked like Del Frisco’s. The décor looked alike; the menu looked alike. We didn’t want to take that approach.”
His team looked to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, tracking trends and figuring out how to translate them to the Dallas market. “We wanted to be innovative and create something new.” Sure enough, Hoque’s approach differentiated Dallas Chop House almost immediately. “Right away we got great reviews,” he says, “and our numbers have never gone down even in this challenging economy.”
The trend repeated when Hoque announced his plan to open yet another restaurant downtown—this time, however, he reached into the Mexican hat. “At the time, there were already two other Mexican restaurants just one block from us. But it was the same thing; I didn’t want to do just Mexican,” he says. “I wanted to fill that regional Mexican gap. Until Tristan [Simon] opened Alma, there was no other regional Mexican around. All the menus looked exactly alike.”
So, again, Hoque looked elsewhere, booking flights around the country to find a business model and style that Dallas hadn’t seen yet—something straddling the line between Javier’s and Mi Cocina. The result was Wild Salsa.
“Business has been good from day one,” he says. “Now people don’t have to go underground to find a good restaurant.”
Up north, however, it was a different story. In mid-November 2010, Hoque shuttered Go Fish Ocean Club overnight, saying the restaurant was not generating the volume of business needed to sustain it. It was the same story for both locations of Fish Express, DRG’s more casual seafood venture.
“In those early restaurants, I made the mistake of investing money without a business plan and a clear vision,” Hoque explains. “I had a lack of experience in picking locations, and I trusted people instead of studying them.”
The closure drew criticism from the North Texas foodie community. But it allowed Hoque to concentrate his attention on his downtown projects and get Wild Salsa ready for its debut.
Chef Kelly Hightower, whom Hoque brought in during development, played no small part in the run-up to opening day. “I’m a hands-on guy,” Hoque says, “but I try to surround myself with smarter people than me. When we were doing our research, we had 10 or 12 local chefs cook for us. We fell in love with Kelly’s food. He had the same dream that we did.”
Part of that dream was to open a restaurant that banks on freshness—the kitchen doesn’t even have a deep freezer—and buys ingredients as close to home as possible. Hoque and Hightower bring in Caprino Royale goat cheese and purebred, Nubian, goat milk cajeta, and organic tomatoes from Waco; lettuces, herbs, and microgreens from Dallas dirt-master Tom Spicer; farm-raised redfish from Palacios; tortillas from Rudy’s; and organic chicken from Fran’s Fryers in Milford.
His best advice to non-chefs with restaurant dreams: “Take the time to learn before you invest your money. Money can fix the front, but if you don’t have knowledge and experience, you will fail. I got some of my best advice and inspiration from Danny Meyer’s book, Setting the Table. He took a part of Manhattan where no one wants to go, and now he’s all over Manhattan.
“Now a lot of people say I’m the Danny Meyer of Dallas,” Hoque says. “A couple years ago, downtown Dallas was a lot of empty buildings. Now people send me notes saying how our company changed the footprint of downtown. They’re selling buildings around us. The restaurant helped me, and now it’s helping downtown.”
The Don of Deep Ellum
'It’s a young man’s game,” says Jay Jerrier, owner of the cultishly popular Cane Rosso Neapolitan pizza den, a modest brick-and-steel hangout tucked under the expressway on the downtown edge of Deep Ellum. “I should have started this when I was 25, not 42.”
We beg to differ. Seventeen years is indeed a long time, but in Jerrier’s case, those years were the means that justified the end—the obstacle course that transformed Jerrier from a hobbyist with a dream to a canny culinary analyst armed with a spreadsheet, a picky Neapolitan certification, and some pretty awesome pie.
For seven years straight out of college, Jerrier cut his teeth in the corporate culture of GE Capital, an experience that ground the philosophy of, “What gets measured gets managed,” into his cellular anatomy. It was there that he learned to isolate the metrics of a project and that, whether it’s regulated utilities or roasted grape tomatoes, at the end of the day it all comes down to performance indicators and units measured.
Through Jerrier’s 17 years with Fortune 500 companies, he became a master of development and acquisitions, traveling the country assembling big, fun, $250 million-dollar deals. He loved the thrill of the chase, winning the contract, putting it all together. But then the economy started tanking, and the deals grew more scarce.
“I had a good couple years at Texas Outsourcing, but then came the vortex, the never-ending parade of upper management,” he says. “I think I had eight bosses in those last few years. It was just a matter of time before someone took me out back and shot me. Luckily my wife had a good corporate job with good benefits, which allowed me to go off and be insane.”
In Jerrier’s case, being insane meant constructing a mobile, Neapolitan pizza oven in his backyard based on the ones he and his wife fell in love with on their Italian honeymoon years before. In his off-hours, Jerrier ordered a certified oven from overseas, constructed a mobile rig, got certified by the stringent Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, and eventually tested out his new mobile pizza oven around town. For his initial investment of $30,000 he became a regular weekly fixture at Green Spot near White Rock Lake, Times Ten Cellars in Lakewood, and Veritas on Henderson, earning a rabid following one night at a time, one pie at a time.
Sure enough, in October of 2009, around the same time his mobile pizza enterprise started heating up—it would soon be grossing $10,000 to $12,000 a month—the higher-ups at Texas Outsourcing offered him an out. Instead of despairing, Jerrier took the severance as a sign and accelerated his search for a brick-and-mortar space.
“One day, when we had the mobile oven out at Times Ten Cellars, these guys sought me out,” he says. “They’d had my pizzas, and they had a building in Deep Ellum they wanted me to consider going into. Like everyone else from North Dallas, I thought it was Escape From New York down there with gangs and killings. But then I saw the space, and I got it.” The landlords offered him a sensible sweetheart of a deal. “It was ridiculously cheap and they were willing to do a lot of the buildout—new air conditioning, new bathrooms, new grease trap. They basically rebuilt the kitchen, then gave me flexible rent terms that made it less risky. I felt like the planets were aligning.”
After pumping around $125,000 into the space—he bought $10 chairs and $60 tables from Garden Ridge—Jerrier quickly realized that running a restaurant was exponentially more complicated than anything he’d done before. And that everything that could go wrong, would. “I made a lot of mistakes—the POS system, construction— and there was a point when I realized I can’t do this myself—wondering why the plumbing stinks, sorting through pest control people, trying to find someone to clean the vent hoot,” he says. “Then I realized that, just like in the corporate world, you succeed when you surround yourself with good, competent people. Making the pizza is the easy part.”
Jerrier returned to his winning formula: finding out what the metrics are and managing to those. “At the end of the day, it all comes down to units measured and developing key performance indicators. If I say we need to have $2,000 in lunch sales, then I have to have the data to support that by knowing what we sell a lot of, what we need to sell more of, and knowing what the sales-to-employee ratios are at different times of the day.”
Food costs are the perfect example. “I have this ridiculously detailed spreadsheet that shows me how much our ingredients cost per gram, how much labor will be applied to a margherita pizza, things like that,” he says. “That’s what GE will do to you. There’s a lot of science and data behind why we do what we do. Sure, some of what we do is just for fun, but a lot of it is driven by numbers. At the end of the day there should be no surprises.”
Now that Jerrier has a little walking-around money, he’s investing in modest upgrades to Cane Rosso, like adding a fireplace to the patio and bike racks out front. “I call it my hipster trap. I’m going to give a free pizza to the first guy with a beard who shows up on his bike in a fedora and size double-zero skinny jeans,” he says.
“Seriously though, people say I’m so brave to have taken this leap. Heck, it only took me 21 years. Truth is, I work harder on this that I did with acquisitions and IPOs. But it’s the training I received while I worked for all those ‘real companies’ that’s the biggest factor in why I’ve been successful,” Jerrier says. “We don’t make decisions based on emotion; we base them on the numbers. Sure, on a per-hour basis I don’t know if I make minimum wage yet. But it’s certainly more interesting than implementing IT systems for regulated utilities.”
Not so very long ago, 38-year-old Brian Twomey, the ambitious boy-next-door behind restaurants The Common Table, Marquee Bar & Grill, Village Theatre, and Loft 610, was a financial analyst—intellectually stimulated, but itching to do his own thing. He knew he had a choice: He could follow in his banker father’s footsteps slogging through a career in marketing and finance, or he could play the riskiest of hands—the restaurant hand—and in doing so run the risk of failing on Dallas’ most visible stage.
His background was not entirely devoid of restaurant relevance. Twomey majored in finance at Baylor and received an MBA in marketing and entrepreneurship from the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University. At his first career outpost, Citigroup, he learned to walk and talk like a commercial lending analyst. At his next stop, Pizza Hut Inc., he polished up his marketing chops, managing a $2.5 billion sales portfolio.
“At Pizza Hut, I fell in love with idea of taking care of people and designing products to meet a consumer need,” Twomey says. “Then, when I moved to Coca-Cola as a customer insights consultant, I suddenly had the world’s largest consumer insights database at my fingertips. It didn’t take long for ideas to percolate.”
Two to three years in, Twomey started noticing a macro trend. People were continuing to move to the suburbs for quality of life; unfortunately, independent restaurants had yet to make the outward move as well. So, with admirable vision, he opened Plano’s Loft 610, a concept centered around aspirational urban living in the suburbs.
“Loft 610 was successful for the first two years. But once the economy hit, it was harder and harder to have fine dining up there,” he says.
“There are a lot of rooftops up there but not a lot of single people going out.”
Around the same time, Twomey partnered with Corey Pond. The duo started layering their ideas—Pond is in the beer industry and Twomey is in food. Together they opened Common Table in Uptown in June 2010.
“It all happened a lot faster than I anticipated,” he says. “My business doubled in size in six months. Handling a second restaurant, faced with what would become the biggest projects in my career thus far, I knew it was time to sell and get out of Plano.”
Soon after the sale of Loft 610, a real estate agent told Twomey about an opportunity at Highland Park Village. Turns out the owners, Ray Washburne, et. al, had a grand vision to refresh the village and add three new restaurant spaces. “The Realtor said, ‘I can probably get you a meeting, but you’ll have to act fast,’ ” Twomey recalls. “It was the chance of a lifetime, and I wanted to make sure I could get at least one of my ideas developed, so I devised three different restaurant concepts for the spaces, as well as one for the theater.” The first was a sushi concept, the second a Japanese concept, and the third was a straightforward concept based around the talents of Loft 610 chef Tre Wilcox.
Twomey began seeking out funding and management partners. “I was lucky enough to get in touch with Pizza Hut president [and former COO of Yum! Brands] Peter Hearl,” he says. “I pitched him on the idea during the ride home from a ranch weekend. I told him that, if I was going to do this right, I needed help from an operational standpoint. By the end of the ride, we had a deal.”
As part of Hearl’s due diligence, he summoned his son Mark, a vice president with JPMorgan Chase, down from New York City to evaluate the situation. “Mark and I are about the same age and hit it off really well,” Twomey says. “On his last day he was here, we were hanging out at Mi Cocina at Highland Park Village, and I said, ‘You should come down here and be my partner, my COO.’”
It took a little leaning from all sides, but by June 2010, Mark was on board. “He’s my partner in all aspects of operating Marquee Grill and Village Theatre,” Twomey says “I’ve always been able to recognize the power and importance of having the best possible people working
with you. If you can get that right, it makes everything else a hell of a lot easier.”
After they got the green light from Washburne, Twomey and Hearl embarked on a year of development. Between the first architectural meeting in October 2009 to opening day in April 2011, the duo completely reconstructed the restaurant and the Marquee Theatre building—a tall order considering the theater’s spot on the National Historic Registry. “We had to get town approval for every single thing on the exterior that we wanted to touch,” Twomey says. “So we thought long and hard about precisely what we wanted to create. We built it so every part of the design is relevant.”
Then he set about assembling his dream team, bringing in Wilcox as executive chef and Justin Beam (whose pedigree includes both Fearing’s and Craft) as general manager. Beam then introduced Twomey to Jason Kosmas, and the cocktail menu—and Marquee’s talent core—solidified. Following an initial investment of $4 million to $5 million, Twomey says, the Marquee/Village venture should bring in better than $12 million this year.
“For a while, with the exception of my wife and children, Highland Park Village was the most important thing in my life,” Twomey says. “I put everything into that proposal. I left Coca-Cola to do my own thing 10 days before my second child was born. At the time, I asked my wife, ‘Are you sure you’re okay with me doing this?’ She said, ‘Brian, I believe in you, and if you don’t do this now, you’ll regret it.’ Let’s face it, her support has made this whole thing possible.”