Restaurateur Profile: Russell Barnard
Owner: Rusty’s Surf Ranch
256 Santa Monica Pier
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Yelp: 3 stars
Interview Date: Thursday, September 23, 2010
Russell Barnard, owner of Rusty’s Surf Ranch, fell into the restaurant business as a natural evolution. “Other than the fact that my mom worked at the drugstore (food) counter when I was a kid, I had nothing to do with the restaurant business until early in the 1980s,” he says. He and his brother owned a design firm and some of their clients included restaurants. When his friend opened a bar in Malibu he found himself naturally extending his design input to restaurant operations. “I was spending a lot of time with him talking about how to run a food business,” says Russell. “So I thought that maybe I should give it a try. In the mid-1980s I opened an espresso bar/café on Main Street in Santa Monica.”
A few years after that in 1987 he opened The Tavern on Main. “My concept was to offer a piece of the East Coast here in the West,” says Russell. “It wasn’t much from the outside but there was a great patio and kitchen inside.” The restaurant is still in operation – he sold it to one of his managers, Rick, who renamed it Rick’s Tavern.
In 1994 Russell found out that a restaurant on the Santa Monica Pier, the Crown & Anchor, was going out of business. “It was basically a Fish & Chips place, and at the time the city really wanted the Pier occupied because the World Cup was coming,” says Russell. “I picked it up and kept it as-is for about a year before I did a full remodel and update. My idea was to blend seafood and BBQ. Of course, then I realized that on a pier people typically are not looking for BBQ – they’re looking for some form of seafood. It took about six years, but our menu adjusted based on what people wanted with a heavy focus on seafood. Interestingly, the Crown & Anchor’s No. 2 best seller was fish & chips, and guess what ours is?”
Russell’s original idea of creating a fun restaurant based around entertainment and good portions has stayed true. “As a large working class family one of the most affordable group activities available to us was road trips,” says Russell. “One of my father’s favorite road trips – which quickly became mine – was to drive from the far corners of the valley to the Santa Monica Pier. In those days, before the 101 and the 405 freeways, it was a long haul for a family of six stuffed into a Chevy station wagon for the hour and ½ trip over the pass for a day of fun. But it was always well-worth the trip.”
Approaching his 20-year anniversary, Russell recognizes that Rusty’s Surf Ranch has evolved over the years. “The first 5-6 years I was just working with the cooks to develop recipes to suit my palate and appeal to our customers,” he says. “I’m all about listening to the customer, but there are also some quirks – like I’m allergic to bell peppers, so for the first 10 years there were no bell peppers on the menu at all, and even today bell peppers have a low presence on our menu.” About eight years ago Russell worked with Danny Harold to revamp the menu, and it has remained relatively stable since then.
“My passion for the restaurant business really revolves largely around the people,” says Russell. “Carlos Avelar, our chef, has been here for 10 years and now he’s a partner in the business. Cindy Pfeifer came with me when I first opened this place as a floor manager. Today she does all band bookings, private parties, marketing and special events. She is also a partner. It just feels better to everybody when you have people who care about you and like working with you.”
Operating a restaurant on a pier provides some unique challenges and opportunities. “This place is largely out of sight, out of mind,” says Russell. “We don’t have local customers eating here three times per week, but we do get locals, so we work hard to be a place that is fun and interesting to tourists without becoming a crappo tourist place. Most tourist places care only about the one-time business – not repeat business, but we care. Sometimes we’ll have tourists come back here 2-3 times while they’re here.”
Russell says that he is interested in another location, but that right now his focus is on renewing his 20-year lease on the pier. “The Pier is a gem, and the people who work and visit there turn it into a teeming microcosm of the world around it,” says Russell. “Listen closely on almost any day and you can hear virtually every language and dialect. Look around and you’ll see the faces of a thousand cultures and observe the customs and courtesies of a world of seemingly unrelated people. Yet the more often you enjoy this experience the more strongly you feel the real connection that keeps us all together as one on this planet.”