Life is good for Chris Cusack. As one of the co-founders of the Heights-based restaurant group Treadsack, Cusack has opened three successful concepts since 2011 — highly regarded neighborhood restaurant Down House, craft beer ice house D&T Drive Inn and "bar ass bar" Johnny's Gold Brick — all while earning praise like last week's designation as one of the Houston Business Journal's 40 Under 40 honorees.
Perhaps even more importantly, the two-year process of building three highly anticipated new restaurants — Hunky Dory, Bernadine's and Foreign Correspondents — has almost come to an end. The contractors are finishing the final details, and city occupancy permits should arrive this week.
Currently, the plan is for Hunky Dory to open its doors to the public October 5. Foreign Correspondents will follow approximately two weeks later, and Bernadine's will debut in November. Cusack even celebrated his birthday at Hunky Dory on Monday night.
Before he gets buried in the openings, the time seemed right to catch up with both Cusack and Treadsack director of restaurant operations Benjy Mason about the process of creating these restaurants. To ask the important questions like, "What the hell took so long?," "Would you ever do this again?," and "How do you staff three high-profile restaurants at the same time?"
Thankfully, the always gregarious Cusack loves to talk about his work.
CultureMap: What the hell took so long?
Chris Cusack: The day we got permits was almost as if they had been synced; the deluge of rain that we got for months on end. I hate to give my contractors an excuse, because they have been a huge problem for us over the whole course of this project, but it's true. For at least a couple of months, it's one thing if you’re remodeling and the building has a roof on it, it's another if you have a plot of dirt that needs to have site work done to pour concrete for a foundation. There were weeks when they would get all the site work done, then it would rain and wash it out entirely.
Honestly, Michael Hsu's office has been really great. They really care about the finished results of the project, but their attention to detail, I think, to use it in its best application you need a contractor who understands architecture as well as building. The conversations between our architects and our contractors were not as productive as they could have been.
On top of that, it's a busy time for building in Houston. We'd have subcontractors sign up for it and say, well, we were going to come Monday, but we have another job. Today at noon becomes Thursday at 5 pm becomes, actually, we're going to be here Tuesday of next week. All of a sudden you lost five days on a project that could have been done that week. Times that by the scope of the project and you start seeing how it happens.
CM: Do you have any regrets about announcing so far in advance?
CC: Never in my wildest dreams did I think it was going to take this long. There have been so many times, when we talked a year ago, I was confidently saying that you should plan to have dinner for your birthday at Hunky Dory, which is in May. At a certain point at this, I realized I may not be having my birthday at Hunky Dory (September 28).
By the time we announced it, we were already eight months into the planning of the project . . . I always felt at the very least if you had permits in hand and you had a lease and you had closed on the real estate. Those kind of things ensured it was going to happen.
It's definitely cautioned me for future projects. I'm more comfortable with the idea of an open secret than I was before. The idea is someone's going to out the project, and I won't have control over what people say about it. I was really worried about it before, and I don't feel like it's as big of an issue to me now.
CM: Will you build from the ground up again?
CC: Absolutely. I'm not the kind of person who will be deterred by this experience. I'm going to learn everything I can from it and do it better next time. I would love to do it again, and hopefully, I would approach it differently.
CM: Do you have a Plan B for these spaces if one of the concepts struggles?
CC: I don't have a direct Plan B. Our mission, as it's been from the very beginning, is to listen to our guests and to pay attention to what's going on. When we opened Down House, we thought it was going to be a coffee shop and bar. The neighborhood was like, no, we want a restaurant. We want more substantial food options, we want traditional service rather than counter or more casual service. We were worked really hard at tweaking that.
Benjy Mason: I don't think any of us saw that as plan B. That was the extension of plan A. It's not like oh, if Gulf seafood doesn't catch on, we've got red sauce Italian ready to slot in. I think any restaurant is a conversation with your guests, and you make a statement and hope they get on board with it. If tweaking is needed, then tweaking will happen.
The idea is we've put together these teams we feel great about and these super talented people. I feel pretty confident that they're going to do great out of the gate and evolve over time.
CM: After all the construction, do you have the financial resources to be patient if one of them takes awhile to catch on?
CC: I'll tell you what. There's no way that we could be in any more difficult position than we're in now. We're seven months late for three big restaurants that have growing staff with zero income coming in. It would be hard to make it more difficult than that.
That's the beauty of scaling in some ways is you have a little give and take. We're willing to take the time to learn what works at each of these places in a way that's consistent with our values as a company, those restaurants individually and the way our guests want to dine in The Heights.
CM: How do you staff three restaurants at once?
CC: You don't, really. Chipotle I think just famously hired 4,000 people in one day. I wish I could have been there when they were planning to do that.
We're talking one market and not even one market but one neighborhood. We started this approach where we were doing these hiring fairs and bringing in as many people as we could meet and seeing what suited them best in terms of location and position. What we realized really quickly is that three restaurants that are a third staffed each is useless. We really needed to get one staffed and then go to the next one and then to the next one.
We've got just about every leadership position in all the places, because they could turn around and hire their own staffs. You just do it one at a time.
The larger conversation about hiring and the hiring quote-unquote crisis that exists in restaurants particularly in Houston. In the context of that, it is pretty fucking amazing the quality of the candidates we've gotten.
CM: What kind of people are you looking for, and what is it about Treadsack that's attracting so many high quality applicants?
CC: One thing that drives me crazy and that always has is people see the restaurant industry as a job versus a career or as something to do in the meantime. Or it's just something you end up doing because you can't get hired to do anything else. None of those sound really ideal to me.
To be honest, a lot of the ways we decided to run this business is based on a lot of what I feel is unexplored potential and also living the kind of life that I want to lead. I don't want to work with people who don’t care about what they do. I don't want to work in an environment or be responsible for an environment in which there are people who don't really care, who don't feel like they have a stake in it and don't want to take it seriously.
For me, restaurants are so fulfilling in so many ways. You get to serve a product that you're proud of and make people happy. You're responsible for something that (can be) the best part of people's day. We have a chance to do that on a daily basis. That's where it starts I think.
BM: We’re finally starting to get the critical mass where the good people go, 'Oh shit. Everyone who I respect just got hired there, so when I'm looking to make a switch, that's where I'm going.' We always knew that's what we were about, but it's become more and more clear to other people.
CM: Do you already know what's next?
CC: I do (laughs). Unfortunately, we'll have to save it for another interview. It will be fun, though. I'll tell you that.
Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.