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A burger guy reveals how he built a mini Houston restaurant empire and defied the business odds

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Southwell's Houston August 2013 hamburgers
Southwell's hamburgers Photo by © Julie Soefer
Southwell's Houston August 2013 Lettuce Burger
The lettuce burger at Southwell's Photo by © Julie Soefer
Southwell's Veggie Burger
Southwell's veggie burger Photo by © Julie Soefer
Brian Southwell
Brian Southwell goes to all four of his restaurants every day. Photo courtesy of Southwell's
Brian Southwell
Brian Southwell learned how hard the restaurant business can be very early on. Photo courtesy of Southwell's
Southwell's Houston August 2013 hamburgers
Southwell's Houston August 2013 Lettuce Burger
Southwell's Veggie Burger
Brian Southwell
Brian Southwell

Sometimes a good burger is all you need to make your day better. Brian Southwell knows a little something about this.

He's been striving to put a smile on his customers' faces for 27 years at his four Southwell's Hamburger Grill locations. 

Southwell graduated from the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management in the 1980s — in the midst a shaky economy and a shortage of job opportunities. At the advice of his father, he made the decision to go into business for himself.

“I looked around to see who was making it during tough times, and Cliff's (Old Fashioned) Hamburgers was doing just that,” Southwell says. Inspired, he opened the first Southwell's in 1986. He recently sat down with CultureMap to talk burgers and business.

CultureMap: What’s the key to your success?

Brian Southwell: Success wasn't instant, or easy. When I started Southwell's, I was young and had no finances and no experience. I didn't make a dime the first 12 months. I learned to stick and make it work even when times are tough. I had no choice! I'd taken out a loan and owed money.

Aside from using only fresh ingredients, I paid attention to customer service — working the counter, waiting on customers, and going door to door handing out coupons and personally greeting our neighbors. I got to know them by name.

That attention to service still applies today. Even though Southwell's is a self-serve place, we refill drinks, clean tables . . .  and still know our regular customers by name.

 "I didn't make a dime the first 12 months. I learned to stick and make it work even when times are tough. I had no choice!"

CM: There are lots of ideas about what makes a burger great. What's your take?

BS: To me, the most important thing is that everything is fresh, especially the meat. Our meat is never frozen. Also, you can't overcook the patty. That's a common mistake.

CM: What's your favorite item on the menu?

BS: Right now, it's the Larry's Special with grilled chicken. It comes with jalapenos and I like the spicy flavor. Also, I  like the Veggie Burger. I've dressed it up and given it to people to sample and they're surprised by how much they enjoy the meatless option

CM: Can we look forward to any new additions on the menu?

Brian SouthwellYes, our Lettuce Burger. It's made with a black bean soy filet wrapped in iceberg lettuce instead of a bun. It's a healthier option, although you can still dress it up with toppings and condiments if you'd like.

CM: Are there any plans for expansion in the works?

BS: While I have no immediate plans, I would like to expand into either River Oaks/Greenway or Town & Country/CityCentre. I have no business partners, it's just me, so I open a store and pay it off before looking at opening the next one.

CM: Operating four locations — the Medical Center, Tanglewood, Memorial and The Heights/Washington — what's your typical day like?

BS: I'm in and out of all four stores every day so I'm on the road a lot. I go from 9 a.m. until after lunch, take an afternoon break and then go back in the evenings. Personally overseeing each location, by the way, is another key to my success.

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