Food Fight

The Landrys came to Houston with good food and good ideas. But a good family squabble let Tilman Fertitta step in and carve himself an empire.

It's 50 minutes and counting on Galveston's Seawall Boulevard. Frantic hammering rings from a freshly minted stucco-and-red-tile building; sumptuous tropical plantings that have sprouted overnight strain against their moorings in a stiff breeze. Across the street, May sunshine glints off the Gulf of Mexico. At precisely 3 p.m., Tilman J. Fertitta, Houston's newest junior mogul, will open his 17th Landry's Seafood House, a monster 500-seater that is the latest link in the restaurant chain with which he plans to conquer America. But first there is the matter of 200 screwed-up light bulbs to contend with.

"I can't believe you put floods in here!" expostulates Fertitta, every hair of his boyish brush cut seeming to stand at alert. "Let's go get 40-watt bulbs and change every one of these out. Do it right now!" He cuts off excuses from a clot of staff and electricians. "No, I don't wanna wait. I don't wanna wait! There's no reason to wait!" he insists, hands shooting ceilingward, voice climbing in exasperation. "Let's go get ladders, and start two people on two ends!" People hustle to do his bidding. He shakes his head, turning his nervous energy back down to its usual low simmer, his blunt features slightly flushed behind his tan. "They want to argue," he says, "but I've been through this before."

That he has. Since taking Landry's public last fall, with two wildly successful stock offerings that put $25 million in his pocket, Fertitta has been racing to keep the pace he promised Wall Street. Lately he's been opening a restaurant nearly every month. New Orleans' French Quarter, Little Rock, Memphis, Galveston and Pensacola came on line this spring. Biloxi and Oklahoma City are soon to follow. Denver and Scottsdale -- Fertitta's leap from the Southern market -- are next. In June, Landry's bought two Joe's Crab Shacks, a potential new growth vehicle, from Houston's Safari Inc. At the age of 36, Fertitta finds himself a minor Wall Street darling; that's what happens when your stock price doubles and makes bags of money for institutional investors. And he's the buzz of the restaurant biz: last month

The industry bible, Nation's Restaurant News, gave Landry's big play as one of this year's nine "Hot Concepts," and Business Week just ranked it number 26 on its list of the best 100 small companies in America.

Fertitta has shouldered straight to the front of Houston restaurateurs' recent power drive into other cities, other states. The Mandola clan is busy cloning Carrabba's; the ubiquitous Pappas family has been moving into Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Chicago; celebrity chef Robert del Grande's Cafe Express fast food outlets are expanding regionally; even the exalted Tony Vallone is scouting Dallas for a site. But with restaurants in ten states and counting, Fertitta is Houston's most aggressive player yet.

It is a heady turn of events for a man whose bumpy career has included incarnations as a Shaklee vitamin salesman, a supplier of video games and a custom homebuilder. Documents in two civil lawsuits indicate that he was connected with several newsstand/adult bookstores. And when he jumped into the restaurant business, his first two places bombed. Now, in a sweet reversal, big guns like Galveston tycoon George Mitchell, Fertitta's landlord here on the Seawall, are eager to do business with him. He is, as he puts it, "on top of the world."

But beneath this archetypal Houston success story, with its clean mythic arc, lurks another business saga: one as richly complicated and tempestuous as a Cajun soap opera. Its cast of Louisiana characters built one of boomtime Houston's most successful restaurant groups, a mini-empire that, at its height, included Don's, Willie G's, Jimmy G's, the Magnolia Grill and Landry's on I-10. The talented, fractious men who coalesced around the nucleus of Billy and Floyd Landry -- products of a famous Lafayette-based restaurant family -- left an indelible stamp on Houston's food culture. Along with the freres Landry, Denis Wilson, Jim Gossen, Jody Larriviere, Nat Peck and Harold Albarado launched the city's enduring crawfish craze, elevated the frying and stuffing of seafood to a fine art and introduced Houstonians to the joys of serious gumbo. But when their partnership flew apart in a traumatic snarl of lawsuits and recriminations, they sold out to Tilman Fertitta -- and became the guys who were left behind.

Back in the early '80s heyday of Don's and Willie G's, Billy Landry, a jovial and well-fed walrus of a man, dreamed of owning 25 to 30 restaurants in markets as far-flung as Chicago and San Francisco. That it was Fertitta who took the Landry family name to the moon rankles Billy deeply, particularly now that he has been forbidden by a judge to use his name in connection with his own restaurant projects. (His business cards now read "John Deaux.") Others of the original Landry's seven, who went separate ways and encountered hard times after the sellout, nurse resentments of their own. They track Landry's stock price with keen and wistful intensity. They grind their teeth when Nation's Restaurant News credits Fertitta with starting Landry's and Willie G's. They blame each other for their fall from grace (epithets like idiot, moron, smart-mouth and King of the Frozen French Fries zing through their conversation, which is rife with allusions to screwing and ass-whipping). Some blame Fertitta, too. They depict him not as the "tough trader" he cheerfully admits to being, but as a ruthless operator who outfoxed them at the bargaining table. Denis Wilson, the angriest of the bunch, paints Fertitta as a "liar" and -- in a burst of Cajun eloquence -- a nutria. "They're just chefs, they're not good businessmen," retorts Fertitta. "I've made so much money I'm sure they hate my guts."

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