Co-Owner: The Yard
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Interview Date: Tuesday, May 4, 2010
When I sat down with Sean Norris, owner of The Yard in Santa Monica, and asked him to tell me his story he said “how long do you have? I’m Irish!”
The Yard started out in the back yard of another Santa Monica restaurant, Warszawa. Sean and his partner Jeff Decker were looking for a location and since Sean’s mother and father in law own Warszawa, and since the restaurant is located in a craftsman-style house with a backyard, they opened an under-the-radar bar in the back yard.
With no signage or advertising, the bar quickly became popular, and operated successfully for 2.5 years until the building behind the restaurant was torn down, exposing the bar to city inspectors, who quickly closed it down. “The place was going nuts – it was really popular,” says Sean. “When the city found out, we lost all of the money we had invested into the location, and found ourselves without a location.”
The team spent two more years searching for another location while simultaneously raising money. Finally they found a Thai restaurant on Broadway and took it over. “We had only a very small percentage of the total investment that we needed,” says Sean. “But the location seemed right and we knew that we could do it.” The pair operated the Thai restaurant as-is for three months while they continued to raise money to re-open their own concept.
After renovating the space, Sean says they were still figuring out the concept, but decided that there was brand recognition for “The Yard,” which is what their former bar had been called. “In fact, while we were putting up the sign for The Yard, we had someone stop and ask whether it was the same as our old bar,” says Sean.
The Yard opened in 2008. The biggest challenge in the first few months was the chef. “The initial chef didn’t work out – it was too much of a stretch for him,” says Sean. So they let him go in November 2008, at which time Sean became the chef. “I’ve been exposed to a lot of good food, and worked in a lot of restaurants,” he says. “So I wasn’t clueless, but it was a lot of work.”
Eight months later, in June 2009, Top Chef Chris Jacobson, known as CJ, joined the restaurant. “Our concept is gastropub, but CJ brings a different twist to it, bringing a fresh, farmer’s market-driven approach that is more vegetable-driven rather than fried/meat-driven,” says Sean. “CJ is really creative, and he ‘gets’ the Santa Monica restaurant market. Our specials used to be hit-or-miss, but now they sell out all the time.”
Sean’s favorite part of owning a restaurant is working towards and perfecting his vision. “We’re getting closer to being really great at what we do,” he says. “I love being able to show up every day and do something fun – a work-in-progress.”
Coincidentally, that is also Sean’s biggest challenge in being a restaurant entrepreneur. “The hard part is having patience with the process – patience with myself – I have worked at some great restaurants, and I have to be patient with my learning curve and the natural development of a restaurant concept.”
Overall, Sean seems well-suited to the restaurant business. He says that he doesn’t mind the hours at all, and he enjoys the challenge of working through things that aren’t working.
Currently, Sean is exploring some additional restaurant concepts to develop in Santa Monica, while also considering whether and how to open The Yard in another location.