Western wear. Women’s western wear, specifically: shirts, jeans, jackets. That’s where this convoluted journey really began for Bill Lenox, the man who runs the Bob’s Steak & Chop House franchise. He grew up in New Jersey, two towns away from Queens. He had a cousin who lived in Dallas, so after graduating from college and teaching school for a few years in Florida, Lenox decided to move to Texas.
“I had no job,” he says now. “Nothing really.”
He found work as a fabric salesman at a time when Dallas was a clothing manufacturing mecca. He sold well enough to put away a little money, and in 1981 he and his then-girlfriend (now his wife) saw what he calls “a void in the market” of women’s western wear. They started a company that grew into a $25 million-a-year business. At its biggest, he says, it was the largest maker of women’s western wear in America.
In 1993, he started going to the original Bob’s when it opened on Lemmon. He says he lived close and, well, he likes what he likes. He liked the steaks, served simple, with a giant glazed carrot and a potato. He liked the drinks. He liked the leather-and-wood ambiance. And he liked Bob Sambol, the place’s namesake, who always seemed to be there talking with customers and making sure everyone was having a good time. Lenox had been to the restaurant a half dozen times when Sambol asked if he wanted to invest.
“The restaurant was losing money, and he was desperate to find an investor,” Lenox says in a slow, methodical voice. “He put it on paper and I showed it to my financial advisor, and to my lawyer, and to my CPA, and none of them liked the idea.”
From the first time the notion of investing in the restaurant came up, though, Lenox tells me he wanted to do it. So he took a slice of his western wear money and put it into Bob’s. He didn’t have grand aspirations of a nationwide chain and a partnership with Omni Hotels.
“I liked the restaurant,” he says. “I knew I’d like to keep it going. I knew we needed to get it turned around in a hurry, and we did.” He credits “a combination of my business acumen and Bob being a great restaurant guy.”
I meet Lenox for lunch at Tei-An in the Arts District to talk about his winding career path. He says this is one of his favorite lunch places, and he quickly suggests I get the tea, made from the broth of soba noodles.
“It just tastes therapeutic,” he tells me.
Lenox prides himself on being a purveyor of fine food from around the world. What he’s generally looking for, he says, is a simple menu, a warm atmosphere, and a wine list he recognizes. His favorite restaurant is Splendido at the Chateau in Beaver Creek, Colorado, a modern-American fare lodge with a piano. “Everything about it is unbelievable,” he says.
We are tucked into a side part of the restaurant, near the bar. When the first round of food comes out—a seaweed salad—he’s upset that he spilled some of the dressing on his shirt. He also asks the waiter to ask the chef if he can fry the bones of a fish for him. It turns out the chef-owner of Tei-An, Teiichi Sakurai, is in the kitchen today. The waiter assures Lenox that Sakurai will make him something special. When his sashimi sampler comes out, Lenox forgets all about the stain on his shirt. (He also tucks a napkin into the front of his collar.) The plate is a colorful mix of mackerel, fresh octopus, caviar, salmon, tuna, and hamachi yellowtail.
As we peck our way through lunch, Lenox briefly describes how he and Bob Sambol parted ways—before Sambol pleaded guilty to felony theft in an incident unrelated to Lenox. Sambol got the original location on Lemmon, which has since changed hands. Lenox got the brand, and eventually sold half of that to Omni in 2009.
After Lenox tries the seaweed salad, the scallop carpaccio, a shishito pepper or two, that incredible sashimi plate, and a bowl of kobe bolognese, the bill for the two of us totals more than $150.
Before we leave, Teiichi Sakurai comes over to say hello to Lenox. They’ve known each other for a few years now—and the chef knows Lenox likes what he likes. Sakurai says he has something for us and holds out his hand. He gives us each a worn, old Japanese coin. He says they are about 300 years old. And they carry something you need a lot of in the restaurant business: luck.