Thriving cities depend on the adventurous among us, who alter the urban landscape when they forge their own successful paths.
Each month, we ask an influential San Diegan: What was it like for you in the beginning?
Live: Golden Hill
Work: Mission Hills, South Park
How Long: Most of my life
What was the moment that propelled you to open Starlite?
There’s never really a moment. It’s really a giant snowball that started as a little icy nugget and then rolled downhill and ended up bigger than anyone could’ve imagined. I approached my friend, and now business partner Tim Mays, about acquiring an old bar and building on India Street. It was 2005 and we both knew San Diego was thirsty for a cocktail and dinner spot that could echo the quality and feel of places you’d find in San Francisco, Portland, Chicago and New York. San Diego only had a handful of businesses that were really trying to raise the bar and we knew we could build on that. That’s basically where we started. Next thing you know, we’re borrowing money, gathering other owners/investors and putting together a core team and staff. I’ve always been drawn to collaborative creative endeavors. I have a filmmaking background, so I was used to working with a variety of different people with varied input and perspectives. I also paid for film school working in commercial real estate and I still do, but that’s a whole other interview!
What struggles did you face when starting your own business?
All of them. People say the restaurant business is one of the most difficult industries you could go into – and they’re right for a reason. There’s so much risk and sacrifice with your time, money, and resources. The biggest struggle for me personally was being the point man for the build-out and design of the space. I was at the building 6-7 days a week on average for 8 months and then, before I can catch my breath, I’m the point man on a brand new bar and restaurant, hiring staff, directing traffic, and expediting our collective goals for the business. We opened in 2007 and the commercial real estate market was starting to look a bit anemic and I felt like it was a good time to challenge myself. I had worked in restaurants since I was 16 and I’ve always had some sort of restaurant job during my higher education as well – so I was comfortable with the idea of drinks, atmosphere, food, and service. But when you do a project like Starlite you don’t get time to assess if you’re actually ready before you open to the public. That was the scariest moment. And Starlite was a big project. One of the biggest and most collaborative things I’ve done.
What was the riskiest business move you made?
Opening a restaurant named Starlite on a dark stretch of India Street that people can’t find at night! But we’ve been open for 7 years so I guess that risk paid off.
If you could change the past, is there anything in your career you would do differently?
Yes. I’d take better stock of mistakes that were made and see them more as opportunities to focus our collective goals and my own personal goals. I know that may sound cheesy, but there’s some very basic truth to that. I’m trying to get better at it. I’d also take more time out for myself. I’ve been answering my cell phone almost everyday for 7 years. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, but it comes at a cost personally.
Could you ever go back to a “normal job” working for someone else?
Yes. I think about it all the time. I love collaborative projects. I started bands, then turned filmmaker, micro-developer, and now restauranteur. All those things require being part of a team that hurled themselves toward some crazy goal. But I’d welcome the opportunity to work within some specified parameters and pick-up a steady paycheck…but I don’t know if I could do it for a long period of time. Not everyone wants to be in charge or responsible all the time, and I suppose I’m built for it, and that’s how I ended up here.
What personality traits must a successful restauranteur possess?
Be a good listener. Listen to your community and what it’s looking for. Listen to your guests and customers. And listen to your staff and team. Oh, and also listen to the railroad tracks for the next train racing toward you trying to derail your efforts. And be ethical in everything you do.
In the beginning, if you could have had a glimpse into where you work is today, what three words describe how you might have felt?
Excitement – Fear – Gratitude (but not necessarily in that order)