Russ: Welcome back to The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. Coming to you today from Monument Inn right next to the battleground where Santa Ana lost the war and Texas gained independence. And I’m here at the Monument Inn with the owners and operators Bob and Ann Laws; Bob, Ann, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show and thanks for having me.
Bob: Hey Russ, thanks for being here.
Ann: Thanks for coming.
Russ: You bet. Tell us about Monument Inn.
Bob: Go ahead Ann.
Ann: Monument Inn; we’ve owned it for 25 years; it’s on the ship channel by Houston, Texas. We’re in the shadow of the San Jacinto Monument and we’re near the Battleship Texas which fought in 2 of the wars. We’re by the Lynchburg Ferry crossing which has been around for over 100 years.
Bob: Over 100 years.
Russ: Okay, and it looks like you have quite a few tables here too.
Ann: We do, we do. We have our dining room upstairs and we’ve got our banquet room is downstairs so we seat 350.
Russ: I mean, you actually fill this room up pretty often, right?
Ann: Yes, yeah.
Bob: Lunch crowd’s normally very, very busy.
Russ: Okay, you actually do more lunch business than dinner business?
Bob: No, it’s kind of a good – an even mix. This where people around – in this neck of the woods do their business meetings, take their clients and things for lunch.
Russ: And I think everyone can see from the décor I would say that the menu leads towards seafood.
Bob: Seafood, fresh gulf seafood.
Russ: Okay fresh gulf seafood.
Russ: So you’re pretty close to the source of a lot of this too, right?
Bob: That’s correct.
Russ: Okay, so when you say fresh it really is fresh.
Bob: Normally it is.
Russ: Okay, all right. So you’ve been owners and operators now for 25 years, take us back to the beginning.
Ann: We bought a restaurant down the street a couple of miles and we bought it in June of 1990 and it burned to the ground January 1st of ’91.
Russ: Okay, so were you there when it happened?
Bob: No, we were about to go skiing the next day and we get a phone call from the manager saying that we needed to come down to the restaurant right away and we said well how come and he goes well there’s a fire. My first thought was well go put it out, we’ll be down there when we can.
Ann: Small grease fire which is not uncommon in the industry.
Bob: And he said by the time you get here there’ll be nothing left. And so of course we cancelled our ski trip and we had to deal with all that.
Russ: Oh my goodness, and so, I mean that set you back I assume?
Ann: We were terribly under insured, we had a million dollar, um, insurance policy and we had borrowed a million dollars from the SBA. So basically it was a wash once we paid it back and we were…
Russ: So you didn’t owe anything but you didn’t have anything?
Ann: Correct, correct.
Bob: Just like we did when we started
Ann: So we were back to square one.
Russ: Well, I love stories like this. So that just put you back to zero?
Bob: Back to zero, back to ground zero.
Russ: Sometimes zero is good
Bob: And the building that we’re at now was an old, abandoned restaurant; used to be called the Lynchburg Ferry Crossing Restaurant. It was abandoned a few years before that and it was vacant so we approached the landlord and asked if we could remodel and remodeled it and cut a lease and
Ann: We were able to open in March so we were open; oh, it was about 12 weeks later as opposed to building a free-standing building from the ground up and taking a year, year and a half and borrowing another couple of million dollars and going further into debt.
Russ: Okay so – but all this was 25 years ago, right?
Russ: All right, really impressive. Okay, so from what I understand too this isn’t necessarily your first food business operation, you both had a history once you both moved to Houston from where?
Ann: Upstate New York
Bob: Rochester, New York.
Russ: What motivated that?
Bob: I originally moved down here to go to law school so I was going to get my residency, live here for a year then go to law school. During that year transition time worked in some restaurants, started making some money, sous chef in a couple places and she was working a couple different restaurants, next thing you know we were let’s put off the law school thing and see what happens. And so that all worked out well and we saved out pennies and a couple years later I started a catering business and we started catering motion picture locations so that was exciting. It was a lot of work
Russ: Okay, what motivated that?
Bob: Just happened to know the right person at the right time, but we had a small little catering business, they asked us if we wanted to do catering, motion picture catering at some odd location where they film commercials here in Houston. Well the same people that worked the commercials also worked the movies when they come into town and we had a good reputation and next thing you know we started getting phone calls from all over the country for – to do movies; and so we went from basically having a small little truck with sporadic business to 3 18 wheelers with full kitchens in them doing movies from Los Angles to Massachusetts.
Russ: Wow. Okay, so does that make this business today seem boring compared to that?
Bob: Yes. Yeah, the catering business in the movie business is a difficult job. The money’s worth it but it’s very physical, demanding, long hours.
Russ: Okay, but from what I understand about restaurant operators, and we’ve had probably 8 or 9 now on the show, it’s not an easy business either.
Ann: No it’s not. No, catering isn’t and neither is the restaurant business. You just know that every day is a new day, you never know what’s going to happen, what, you know, the refrigeration can go out, the plumbing can have issues, you can have servers that don’t come in, you know.
Bob: It is a challenge. We’re fortunate in we have – we have a very good staff, our managers have been along been – they’re great, they’ve been here for a long time. Our kitchen staff, they’ve all been here for at least 10 years. The place doesn’t run itself but it…
Ann: We’re blessed.
Bob: We’re blessed, yeah.
Russ: Okay. Well I’ve always thought just the inventory challenge could be overwhelming. I mean it’s terrible if you run out of something and it’s terrible if you have too much of something; how do you do that?
Ann: We kind of have it – we have it down.
Russ: You’ve got it down?
Bob: We’ve got that down.
Ann: They pretty much know how many pounds of catfish on a Monday we’re going to go through which, you know, is different than how many pounds on a Wednesday, how many on a Friday. Last Friday because you I think people took it as a holiday for the 4th of July we were on a wait at noon and we didn’t go off the wait until 8:30 at night.
Russ: My goodness.
Ann: So the managers that we talked to that were here that day said that that was a challenge.
Bob: That was a little unexpected
Ann: They just said it was crazy.
Bob: You start running out of something you just pick up the phone and next thing you know it’s here so.
Russ: Okay so, I mean the scenery here is just spectacular. We’re looking out over what?
Ann: The Houston Ship Channel.
Bob: The Houston Ship Channel.
Russ: That’s it? I mean do you see ships coming by here?
Ann: So basically all of the… oh yeah.
Bob: Yeah, there’s some barges going by now and the gulf is out further south and then you come on up all the way into Houston where the big ships turn around, then they go back out; fill up, drop off, whatever they’re…
Russ: Okay, so it can be entertaining?
Ann: It’s really – oh it’s very. You see, um, ships from Yugoslavia, from Russia, from China, you know, bringing in cars, Japan, all of that and they have to pass right through our windows.
Russ: Okay, all right. So but before I let you go tell me what you think is your best dish on your menu.
Ann: How about our most popular?
Russ: Okay, okay, I’ll let y’all start.
Bob: Our most popular is our fried shrimp for sure.
Russ: Fried shrimp, okay.
Bob: You know, the thing is is that nobody wants to fry food at home. It makes the whole kitchen smell so when you go out they eat the fried shrimp and we – that’s our number one seller by probably 2 to 1. My favorite is probably the blackened red fish with like the monumental sauce. That’s just my favorite.
Russ: The monumental sauce?
Ann: And a lot of returning customers come for our big basket of cinnamon rolls which are complimentary, so they start asking for the cinnamon rolls with their salad and then they have another one with their entrée and then they want that instead of dessert so it’s kind of something that’s been our signature for all these years.
Russ: Cinnamon roll – complimentary cinnamon rolls? My goodness.
Ann: Uh huh, yeah.
Bob: It’s kind of like tortilla chips when you go to a Mexican restaurant
Russ: Oh yeah, oh I know but cinnamon rolls, man that’s kind of over the top. Okay, so what’s it like? Husband and wife team, you’ve been together a long time, do you have different responsibilities here or do you just both kind of do everything?
Ann: We decided quite a while ago that it would be better if one of us didn’t work so much as the other and so I, um, when our children were born and younger then we decided that I’d be more of a stay-at-home mom. So I still come down for Mother’s Day and work and when we do some remodeling at the restaurant or we’re, you know, working on our manuals and things like that I’ll be involved but otherwise I leave it to my husband and he does a wonderful job with it.
Russ: Okay, was there a period of time that you both were here?
Bob: Yes and what happened was is she put her desk butting up to mine so that I looked to her like I’m looking at you every single day, like this far, and I’d say well let’s do it this way, no let’s do it and that’s what blew the deal right there.
Russ: Okay, so it’s worked much better the way that you do it today.
Ann: It has, it has; yes, it’s great.
Russ: Well good, well congratulations on your success and this is the 25th anniversary of you owning and operating Monument Inn, right?
Bob: It is.
Ann: And our son that was born the year that we bought it, he started working here – he started a couple of years ago – so it’s kind of a generational thing, he’s a part of our management staff.
Russ: All right, a real family-owned business, wow.
Ann: It is a family owned business.
Russ: Well that’s really cool. Well thanks a lot and for having us here and for sharing your story with us.
Ann: Want a fried shrimp?
Bob: Thank you so much.
Russ: You bet – absolutely! And that wraps up my discussion with Bob and Ann Laws, the owner and operators of the Monument Inn. And this is The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.
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