No pie for you

Rumor no more: Popular Houston restaurant group announces surprising new owner

Popular Houston restaurant group announces surprising new owner

Star Fish restaurant interior
Star Fish has a new owner. Photo by Julie Soefer
Michael Sambrooks Steve Breaker
Michael Sambrooks and Steve Breaker.  Courtesy photo
Lee's fried chicken and donuts neon Lee Ellis
Lee's Fried Chicken & Donuts will be rebranded.  Photo by Eric Sandler
Star Fish restaurant interior
Michael Sambrooks Steve Breaker
Lee's fried chicken and donuts neon Lee Ellis

The saga of Cherry Pie Hospitality has come to an end. The restaurant group announced on Tuesday, September 4, that it has sold its three remaining concepts, Lee's Fried Chicken & Donuts, Pi Pizza, and Star Fish, to Michael Sambrooks, best known as the proprietor of Montrose barbecue joint The Pit Room. Sambrooks will keep the restaurants operating as part of Sambrooks Management Company, a company he owns with his parents, David and Lisa Sambrooks, and his brother Laine. 

That Sambrooks would purchase the restaurants isn't a total shock. His application to assume control of the liquor licenses at Star Fish and Pi had been sussed out last week. Still, it's a surprising new direction for both the restaurants and Sambrooks. 

“We have been highly interested in expanding into select, high quality concepts, and we love all three of these new additions," Sambrooks said in a statement. "We are very excited to work with the talented folks at all three restaurants, honing the menus and the businesses to take them to the next level.” 

The company's plan begins with changing the names of both Pi and Lee's to disassociate them from the previous owners. Other changes will include updated branding, new menus, and improving service. To assist with the growth, Sambrooks has brought on Houston restaurant veteran Steve Breaker (Uchi, Reef) to serve as director of operations. 

Sambrooks tells CultureMap that Pi will be his first priority. He intends to expand the menu with more wing flavors, more sandwiches, and the addition of a deep dish pizza. At Star Fish, the short term plan is to improve the current menu, but at some point in the next couple of months, the restaurant will close briefly to install a completely new menu. Of course, his experience at The Pit Room will play a role, too. 

"You're going to see smoke and barbecue popping up on all the menus somewhere," Sambrooks says. "We've already talked about a barbecue pizza. [At Star Fish] we're gonna have some fun with it by smoking some fish." 

The purchase means the end of a company, Cherry Pie Hospitality, that had seemed to be flying high as recently as a few months ago. 

Cherry Pie evolved out of California-based celebrity chef Bradley Ogden's failed attempt to build a restaurant empire in Houston. Partners Lee Ellis and Jim Mills left F.E.E.D. TX (Liberty Kitchen) to join Cherry Pie, bringing with them Lee's and Petite Sweets. From the time of its founding in the spring of 2016 until the summer of 2017, the company opened three new restaurants: State Fare, a Texas comfort food restaurant in the Gateway Memorial City development; Pi Pizza, an evolution of the popular food truck in partnership with its chef-owner Anthony Calleo; and Star Fish, an upscale seafood restaurant with a significant raw bar and extensive beverage program. 

All three proved popular with diners and critics. State Fare won the CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Best New Restaurant in 2017; Star Fish earned a nomination for the award in 2018. 

Signs of trouble first started to emerge in March, when Ellis suddenly departed the company. Mills and CEO Chris Vestal would follow in the coming months. Calleo left Pi and is currently working on opening a new restaurant with Presidio chef-owner Adam Dorris. 

Cherry Pie has also been in trouble with its landlords; one locked out Star Fish and Pi Pizza for a day due to unpaid rent, and another sued the company for violating the terms of a lease it signed to open an ice cream shop on 19th Street (the project has been cancelled). All of that drama made last month's announcement that State Fare had been sold to an entity associated with the local Star Cinema Grill chain seem inevitable. 

Whether Sambrooks and Breaker will return all three concepts to those glory days remains to be seen, but it's hard to argue with the success Sambrooks has had in The Pit Room. The barbecue restaurant, which blends Central Texas tradition with Tex-Mex touches, has earned wide acclaim, including CultureMap's best new restaurant of 2016 and a spot on Texas Monthly's list of the state's top 50 barbecue joints.