Amber: Hi I’m Amber Ambrose and this is The BusinessMakers. I’m here with Jake Rainey of La Grange which is where we are right now, but also of Cottonwood in the Garden Oaks area and Liberty Station which is on Washington Avenue. Welcome to the show.
Jake: Thank you, appreciate being here.
Amber: I’m going to shake your hand like I haven’t met you before, just in case; but anyway. So Jake first of all give me just a snapshot of your 3 bars and restaurants.
Jake: Well our first one was Liberty Station, which was an old gas station on Washington Avenue – we like to say we’re on the good part of Washington Avenue now – and that was opened back in 2010. So we’re about 6 ½ years old. Then we opened Cottonwood on October 27th of 2012 and we went into an old drive shaft repair shop in the Garden Oaks district. That is a patio bar with really kick ass live music, chef driven food, craft beer and craft cocktails.
Jake: And tons of games, yes. We’ve got everything from Foosball to Jenga to Cornhole, all the good stuff.
Jake: And then La Grange was opened in May of 2015. This was an old bar called EJ’s that was open for 40 years. It started to get a little bit dilapidated and run down and my partner found an opportunity to take it over. Bought it, ripped everything out of it – literally just raised it – and opened it up to a Coastal Mexican place in May.
Amber: And that’s where we are now.
Amber: So I see a thread between these 3 things and that is that they were already established buildings that had some sort of a history to them and is that something that you guys do intentionally?
Jake: Very much so, absolutely. My partner Harris, he’s a developer by trade and really, really good at finding different buildings and kind of seeing them for their potential. No one ever really thought about this being able to be a hotspot again but it very much so is and I can’t even imagine seeing a drive shaft repair shop and thinking it would be a bar of the magnitude of Cottonwood; so he’s really, really good at that. And that’s kind of one of our focus is just to make sure that we reuse, repurpose, recycle the things that we can rather than new build.
Amber: Sure and make it part of the new concept’s personality.
Amber: Taking elements of the old and fitting it in with the new.
Amber: Because I know you said there was like a spot on the patio out there where it still has the EJ’s logo.
Jake: Yes, out on the patio there’s in the cement ramp that walks up there’s still something that says EJ’s which is 40 years old. We also have a pond out there and we even have the same fish from when EJ’s was open. So we rehabilitated the fish, put them in a tank for about 3 months, and when we refilled the pond we put the fish back in and they’re still kicking.
Amber: So La Grange is really I know one of your special babies to say the least; that you came in before the concept was I guess initialized but you have a very big hand in this place.
Jake: Yeah, this was the first one that I was involved in from its inception so there’s a special place in my heart. I even office – there’s an apartment above La Grange and my office is up there; so I can stomp on the floor and they’ll hear me downstairs. So I spend more time here than any other place. But being part of its inception is something very special to me and I feel like I had a little bit more of an influence on the design of it and the culture of it.
Amber: Sure and what were those elements? I’d love to know.
Jake: Well the one I’m most proud of is a very physical one and it’s right when you walk in the door, it’s a painting of Marvin Zindler.
Amber: I didn’t even notice it.
Jake: Yeah it’s really cool. I got it from probably a common friend of ours, Josh Martinez, and he had it in his old restaurant which was The Chicken Ranch. And I remember seeing it at his place thinking gosh man, I wish I had thought of having a Marvin Zindler painting at my place. And so I asked him if I could buy it from him and he agreed. And I was actually hanging it in Liberty Station one day and somebody was asking who that was and said well that’s Marvin Zindler. And I told them the story of the chicken ranch and how he busted that story. And someone said well where did that take place and I said oh it happened in La Grange. And I kind of said well I’m probably hanging it in the wrong place right now.
Amber: Light bulb.
Jake: Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and take this down and move it to La Grange. So we put it front and center at the front door and it’s pretty cool. You can see on any Friday or Saturday night there’s people taking pictures with it and if they don’t know who it is they usually ask.
Amber: Sure and it’s a chance for you to give them that story.
Amber: And then how La Grange ties in to the whole thing because I actually didn’t know that La Grange was the location of the chicken ranch, that’s great.
Jake: Correct. So it all kind of tied together, it was too perfect; so that’s one thing I’m really proud of.
Amber: And you came from a beer background but this place is more focused on I guess cocktails and margaritas?
Jake: Yeah, I would say this is definitely more craft cocktails and margaritas. We had someone that’s really, really good at their job, Linda Salinas, helped develop a lot of the drink menu and I put our cocktails up next to anybody’s in the city. I really think that the key to what we do – and Linda taught this to us – is just fresh juices for everything. We use nothing that’s premade. We spent a lot of money on a really fancy juicer and we have people prep it every day and we go through a ton of citrus fruit.
Amber: How is that a switch for you coming from a really heavy beer background into more cocktails?
Jake: Well I had to educate myself. And again, Linda was really vital in kind of teaching me a lot of that stuff. I’ve got a great General Manager here named Matt Bradshaw who came from El Big Bad and El Gran Malo; obviously a heavy tequila background so he taught me a lot too. But it’s a change, I mean I’ve done beer for the past 20 years and so there’s definitely a different culture behind it. And I think the common thread is that people that appreciate craft beer are people that appreciate craft cocktails; they both appreciate well made products.
Amber: Sure, there’s probably a large overlap there too.
Jake: There is, there absolutely is.
Amber: Which makes sense. You were mentioning a manager and how good he is, but I know that’s one of your philosophies is in having a successful service concept. I’d love to hear more about that philosophy.
Jake: Absolutely. Well I think – the Houston restaurant and bar market is really competitive and I think some of the things that make us successful are good service and good product. And I think the only way to make sure those two things occur is in having really good people. Our managers are some of the best in my opinion that I’ve ever had or had the opportunity to work with and they’re the ones that on a day to day basis keep the ship running.
Amber: Right. Well on top of that, last words of advice for anyone looking to get into this business because I feel like there’s a lot of people that fantasize about opening something.
Jake: Well one thing that I think we’re very good about is not trying to open something just to open something. I think that you have to show some kind of prudence to make sure that – there’s a lot of guys out there that want to open a lot of different things and are very aggressive and ambitious and that’s great but we try to take the opposite approach where we’re very selective, we go very slow and try to find just the right fit for us and I think that helps us be successful.
Amber: So make sure it’s the right thing, not just because it’s an idea that you want to get there. Make sure everything is in place.
Amber: Well I don’t know how we can get any better than that so thank you so much Jake; I really appreciate you being here on the show.
Jake: Thank you, I appreciate being here.
Amber: And once again I’m Amber Ambrose and this is The BusinessMakers, thank you so much for watching.
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