Owner: Barney’s Beanery
8447 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA
Yelp: 3.5 stars
Interview Date: Friday, August 27, 2010
“I’m really not a food guy or a restaurant guy,” says David Houston, owner of Barney’s Beanery and Q’s Billiard Club. “I sort of got into this business by accident – it was very haphazard like a lot of things you do – things just come up, opportunities show up.”
David is by far the most relaxed restaurant owner whom I have met, and I really appreciated his low-key, realistic view of the business. “This is the restaurant business – not heart surgery,” says David.
“I had a DJ business in the 1980s, and one night my buddy and I went out to drink and play pool,” says David. “We couldn’t get a table and said ‘hey, we should open a pool hall.” The two went out the next day and found the location for Q’s Billiard Club, and thus began David’s career as a restaurant entrepreneur in 1989. “We didn’t really think of it as a restaurant business, it was a pool business,” he says. “But obviously whenever you serve food you have to become comfortable with it.”
In 1999 Barney’s Beanery, originally opened in 1920, came on the market. David and his partner, Avi Fattel, recognized an opportunity to expand their business using the Barney’s Beanery brand. Barney’s is obviously a restaurant, but it also has the bar component, and it also features pool tables. “We were happy to expand more into the restaurant arena rather than just another bar/pool hall,” says David.
The business has been entirely self-financed, with a few bank loans to help them make new acquisitions. In 2002 the partners began expanding the Barney’s Beanery brand, opening a second location on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. (I have to admit that I’ve been there many times and had no idea that it was only six years old, since it definitely has an “established” feel to it.) In 2006 the third Barney’s Beanery was opened in Pasadena, and then the fourth in Burbank in 2007 and the fifth restaurant is scheduled to open in 2010 in Westwood.
“Eventually we will open more,” says David. “We just keep plugging along. Having these different restaurants is like having kids – they each have a mind of their own in some ways.”
“The hardest part is following all the rules and regulations and making sure that we comply with all the agencies,” says David. “And then of course we want to keep a fun, friendly atmosphere here.” The goal at Barney’s Beanery is a casual, laid-back place where “you can get a beer, watch a game, and hang out,” says David. “It’s like a couch. People come back because it’s casual – they never feel like anyone is better looking or richer than they are.”
“The best about owning a restaurant is that you’re around people when they are happy,” says David. “People come in a good mood – all we have to do is facilitate that good time.”
Barney’s Beanery employs about 400 staff members and has a managerial staff comprised of HR and Regional Managers to keep everything on track. “Some weeks are great, others don’t feel so great,” says David. “When the seas are calm the skipper can relax a little bit, but then one store will run into a ditch and we have to get in there and try to get to the bottom of it. Sometimes it takes 1-2 years to get a store back on track.”
As for whether he recommends becoming a restaurant entrepreneur, David is pretty clear. “Unless you really love it and can’t help yourself, don’t do it,” he says. “There are better business models out there that don’t have so many employees, so many customers, and no central location. I was happiest when I owned just one restaurant – it was more controlled. When you start growing it gets harder.”
“I especially don’t recommend the restaurant business if you are a foodie,” says David. “The food becomes such a small part of the business, and your love for food can get crushed under everything else – the payroll, rules, etc.”
A restaurant model that David admires is In-N-Out. “It’s a simple menu, a simple formula,” he says. “They buy the land and grow slowly. They don’t have to answer to shareholders and have resisted all the classic temptations of the restaurant business. To stick with it the way they do requires being very disciplined.”