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Food Fight

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."

 

At its most basic level, this is less a yarn about who did what to whom than a Texas-meets-Louisiana tale of two radically disparate business cultures. Billy, Floyd and the childhood friends and relatives they brought into their business operated Louisiana-style, within a complex and shifting web of relationships. Their growth pattern and mutating sets of partnerships, which changed with every new restaurant that opened, seemed to be governed more by the arcane rules of a southwest Louisiana family reunion than by orthodox business principles. Their Texas bankers despaired of making any sense of it. "Now explain that again?" they would beg. "Who owns what?" As Jim Gossen reflects ruefully, "Only a bunch of Louisiana guys would have done it that way."

In a group fraught with big personalities and big egos, infighting became a way of life. "There was a committee for everything, even little decisions," groans Gossen. Remembers Billy Landry, "We tried to live within some sort of lunatic structure. We either agreed or we didn't do it." At times it seemed that the seven partners were incapable of agreeing on anything.

They probably couldn't have agreed on, say, the instantaneous replacement of 200 light bulbs. Tilman Fertitta could. Fertitta springs from the Texan school of doing business: he's cut from individualistic entrepreneurial cloth, head of a clear hierarchy suited to the quick decision-making a rapidly growing company requires. Different light bulbs? "Do it right now!" That, as much as anything, explains why it is Tilman Fertitta who on this brilliant May Thursday is pacing the newest edition of what he calls, with exquisite linguistic shading and all the legal right in the world, "the Landry family of restaurants."

With its broad verandas and dizzying Gulf views, his baby is the best-looking thing on the Seawall, and Fertitta knows it. He schmoozes well-wishers from Mitchell's next-door San Luis Hotel. He gathers the wait staff, clad in the spiffy tux-collared shirts and bow ties that he has made a Landry's signature, for a pep talk. He joins his dad on the just-installed lawn as a cherrypicker prods to life the leaping neon fish atop the theater marquee, another Fertitta trademark. "That fish thinks it's dead," jokes Fertitta Senior, a craggily handsome hotel and restaurant developer who looms over his short son with the expectant, pleased air of a proud papa. When Tilman repairs with his father and uncle Anthony to an outdoor table, his filial foot taps nonstop.

If the antsy Fertitta is antsier than usual, perhaps it is because, with this restaurant, he has come full circle. He grew up in the modest neighborhood right behind the San Luis. Back when he was a struggling developer, he built the adjacent Key Largo Hotel and later sold it to Mitchell. Now he's returning as a conqueror of sorts. "I basically have the Island," he asserts, fiddling with the sunglasses hooked into the collar of his Ralph Lauren sportshirt, which is woven of the softest white cotton lawn. He means that with his original Seawall Landry's and his handsome weathered-wood Willie G's in Mitchell's Pier 19 complex, he's got a nice fat chunk of the local dining market.

And he's a player on a far bigger stage. "If I'd listened to my dad a long time ago, I'd still be in Galveston," he says, laughing in short, sharp bursts. "Every time I did another restaurant, my dad would say, you're making good money, why don't you just stop?" But Tilman was thinking like a Texan, convinced that bigger gushers and greater cash flow lay right around the corner. So he paid no attention. For today, in his sparkling new restaurant by the sparkling sea, he can afford to think he was right.

Mesh sacks of live crawfish seethe on the concrete parking lot outside Floyd's Cajun Shack. Three giant Harleys bearing members of the Bandidos motorcycle gang and their bleached-blond consorts snarl up to the curb. Atop a flatbed truck, a chanky-chank zydeco band flails away. And bopping theatrically through the hundreds of partiers lined up to receive their paper platefuls of boiled crawfish comes Floyd Landry, his arms shooting out rhythmically in an Egyptianesque Floyd dance.

 

Under a low gray April sky, Floyd is celebrating the second anniversary of his ad-hoc, bait-campy joint on a scruffy stretch of Durham in the Heights. It's his second restaurant venture in the eight years since the sellout; an earlier, fancier Floyd's on Richmond near Loop 610 never quite caught on. Tonight, though, dressed in a pink polo shirt, dirty apron and gold baseball cap, hard-partying Floyd is in his element: embracing his Bandido fans, laughing up a storm, talking animatedly in a virulently Cajun accent that makes Justin Wilson seem understated. Ask his loyal followers to point him out, and they'll caution, "You won't understand a word he's saying."

That's not exactly true. "Dey're all making money off us!" he growls succinctly when asked to inspect a list of the many restaurants that have sprung from the original Houston Don's. He points to the name of one non-family partner, then another. "He was our accountant," Floyd snorts. "He was a waiter at Don's." He gestures grandly at the crowded parking lot. "Dere's billions to be made out dere!" Floyd bellows. "Dere's billions to be made."

For 11 years, it seemed that if there were billions to be made in seafood restaurants, the Landry brothers and their partners would be the ones who made it. On tax day in 1976, when Billy, Floyd and Jim Gossen opened the Houston Don's with hearts in their mouths and a measly $10,000 in their bank account, it hit with a bang that exceeded their wildest imaginings. By day three a line had formed; two years later, Don's was doing more than $3.5 million a year in sales -- huge bucks at a time when seafood platters cost a mere $5.95.

Don's appeal was both familiar and exotic. The Landrys not only fried like angels, their feisty Cajun take on Gulf seafood was new to Houston; no longer did locals have to trek to Louisiana to enjoy red-peppery gumbos and bisques or engage in the ritualistic sucking of crawfish heads. The oil patch was booming, and Houstonians who had exercised their charge cards at the Landry family's Don's in Lafayette, Baton Rouge and Morgan City mobbed the new Post Oak edition. So did the expatriate Louisianans who had made Houston home to more Cajuns than Lafayette.

It was at the Post Oak Don's that Houston's crawfish cult was born. When Don's opened, there was scarcely a crawfish to be found in the city; Granny Harber would boil one lonely sack a week at his Westheimer spot, but he seldom sold them all. Initially, Don's customers weren't biting, either: Billy Landry remembers buying l00 pounds of crawfish for the opening and tossing 50 three days later. But slowly Don's boiled crawfish, fried tails, bisques and etouffees took hold. If the live crawfish business is huge in Houston today -- and wholesalers say demand here outstrips New Orleans' -- it is because Don's made Cajun cool.

Don's principals made Cajun cool, too. Billy and Floyd Landry and Jim Gossen (an All-South high school running back and Landry classmate) were textbook Louisiana guys: gregarious, voluble, down to earth, passionate about food and good times. In Houston, they quickly acquired the charismatic glow of success. This was the first serious money the trio had seen; Billy and Floyd had labored in the family's Lafayette restaurant as cooks and managers, and when Billy and Gossen launched the Morgan City Don's, they often made less than the waiters did. Morgan City was a rough, blue-collar town where their restaurant had metal doors because the previous owner had been thrown through the glass ones (he did not survive). Now here they were in a major American metropolis, with an adoring clientele, in sleek, paneled digs designed by Houston architect John Kirksey. Within a year they bought a company plane, a Piper Cherokee six-passenger.

Doing business became a pleasure. Together with their friends, the Landrys and Gossen would fly off to Louisiana to check on their seafood suppliers -- and, not coincidentally, to hunt and fish in Barataria Bay or the Chandeleur Islands. They hung with New Orleans' Al Copeland, the Popeye's Fried Chicken king, in his phantasmagorically airbrushed mobile home, cooked feasts at Gossen's Grand Isle fishing camp, entertained pals and clients at the annual Tarpon and Redfish rodeos. When they returned to Lafayette, they were accorded a kind of awed disbelief by townsfolk who had assumed these fun-loving wild boys would never amount to anything.

 

In Houston, Don's became a magnet for eager beavers looking to learn the trade. A raft of talent passed through the Don's kitchen. "Today I can go into every kitchen in town and see someone who worked for us, from Maxim's to Joe's Crab Shack," says Gossen. "We taught 'em all how to fry." The front of the business drew acolytes as well. Jody Larriviere, Gossen's quiet and intense cousin, hired on as a waiter in 1978 and rose to manager. Carey Boutte, a Lafayette friend, trained under Billy and went on to become a principal in the legendary Breaux Bridge Mulate's. Harold Albarado, Billy's virtual alter ego since the Morgan City days (they are known as "The Twin Tummies"), followed him to Houston as a manager. Waylon Whipple, whose Mr. Whipple's Oyster Bar is still remembered fondly, apprenticed at Don's and doubled as company pilot. Barry Childers, who later started Barry's Pizza, learned the restaurant ropes there. The Pappas boys, Chris and Greg, would stop by on refrigeration-company business and stay to ask questions; by 1981, they opened the first of many Pappas Seafood Houses, which owed a clear debt to Don's. And a high school kid named Tilman Fertitta waited tables briefly.

Business was good; life was sweet; and the tent, back then, seemed big enough to accommodate everybody happily ever after.

A pungent, briny sea smell permeates the Louisiana Foods warehouse in an industrial warren north of the Galleria. Jim Gossen, bespectacled and curly-haired, sloshes through water puddling the floor, stooping to tickle the bellies of some crated softshell crabs. Their legs twitch encouragingly; he selects two likely specimens to fry for lunch. It is the Friday before Mother's Day, one of restaurantdom's crucial hours. The place is popping; salesmen from food giant Sysco, which operates a joint seafood wholesaling venture with Gossen and Jody Larriviere, field phone orders. Tubs labeled "Landry's Gumbo Base" -- headed for Tilman Fertitta's new Little Rock restaurant -- wait outside a kitchen where hundred-gallon vats of gumbo simmer and red beans bubble in coffin-size troughs. In the semi-surgical filleting room, pearly farm-raised redfish from San Leon recline on ice, bound for some of Houston's best restaurants.

Propped against a wall in a barren conference room rests the historic specials board from the now-dead Don's, chalked in fanciful drawings and script. Near it hangs a cartoony poster of two monkeys astride a tandem bike, one peddling furiously, the other coasting with feet thrown wide. "Partnership," reads the ironic legend. Gossen eyes the poster and smiles wryly.

Partnerships -- overlapping, proliferating, based on such intangibles as who was mad at whom -- proved deeply divisive when the Landry's restaurant empire burgeoned in the '80s. Don's success made growth a given in boomtime Houston, where expansion was as normal as drawing breath. In laissez-faire Louisiana, with its reverence for cousinship, the Landrys had added to their restaurant holdings informally, depending on which relative was next in line. Indeed, jokes one Lafayette native, "If you were related to a Landry, or married a Landry, or even went to school with a Landry, you could open a Don's."

In Houston the Landrys grew in much the same spirit, collecting new partners while, in 1980, launching a low-key Landry's restaurant way out I-10. Tightly coiled and mercurial Denis Wilson dined at Don's one day and was startled to discover it belonged to his best childhood friend, Billy Landry. At Billy's invitation, he forswore the oil-equipment business and climbed aboard. Another running buddy from Lafayette's Cathedral High, the congenital merry prankster and raconteur Nathan Peck, quit selling insurance to join up. It was a volatile mix of talent. When the chemistry was right, it was as if the high times in Lafayette -- "our Animal House phase," Billy calls it, when Peck would drive them around town in his fire truck or his hearse -- had never ended. "When we were fishing and partying and drinking, we could steal the show anywhere we went," recalls Peck now. "But we didn't mesh as a business unit."

At first, they were too busy to notice. Billy, Floyd, Denis and Nat formed a company called Pirogue Management; Jim Gossen, who had drifted off for a year and a half in the throes of a divorce, was not included. Neither were Harold Albarado or Jody Larriviere. The resulting built-in caste system quickly became a source of discontent. In 1981, the Pirogue partners opened Willie G's on Post Oak, naming it for the Landry brothers' dad. This odd tin building with a primitive oyster-shell parking lot promptly became the kind of singular phenomenon restaurateurs pray for. Night after night, the bar was thronged with people happy to wait an hour or more for a table: oil-patchers and Houston Oilers, muckety-mucks and Joe Six-Packs alike. "It was a happening, a religious revival," cracks prominent investment broker Frank Crimmins, who in 1984 unsuccessfully tried to convince the Landry's seven to consolidate their partnerships and go public. "You saw all your friends there. It was like walking into a clubhouse." Extroverted Nat Peck and Floyd Landry made it seem like an even better party: Willie G's was the stage they had been waiting for all their lives.

 

And oh, the money that poured in as Willie G's ballooned into a $5-million-a-year monster. The seven Landry group partners began drawing $100,000-plus salaries, driving company cars and feeling like geniuses -- a common affliction in boom-era Houston. For a few, the temptations of success beckoned: company tabs at the next-door Rotary Table bar ran as high as $37,000 a year, and a hint of stronger stuff than alcohol clung to the outlaw motorcycle crowd that began hanging out at Willie G's. The fast living that was a byproduct of the go-go '80s became a source of dissension among the partners.

It was one of many. The theory behind forming Pirogue may have been, as Billy explains, "to be more of a management company instead of five or six guys flying off the handle doing anything they wanted," but in practice it didn't work that way. "Everyone wanted to be president. It was total disarray," says Wilson. "They all thought they could do it better," says Billy, the group's titular head. "You had some egos there," concurs Peck. "When we had a partnership meeting, if you didn't have a weapon, Candy, the secretary, would give you one at the door."

Walls were hit on occasion. Testosterone-fueled rhetoric about who was going to whip whose ass reared its head. Ancient hostilities flared and new ones were born. Nat and Denis had never gotten along. Denis, a do-it-this-way-or-you're-dead manager, clashed with Jim and Jody. Jim and Billy had fallen out over an influx of Landry relatives and in-laws at Don's; Jim's long sabbatical and prodigal-son return did not improve their relationship. Nor did their arguments over whether to build an off-premises commissary Jim favored, let alone Jim's status as a non-Pirogue partner, which left him with no equity in the group's major cash cow.

On the surface things looked fine. The cash flow generated by Willie G's papered over such problems as the weak performance of the far-west suburban Landry's and a drop in sales at flagship Don's, which was hurt by its exuberant sibling. Still, the restaurant group kept growing. The Magnolia Grill debuted in 1983 as a hamburger-and-beer joint, an idea that was quickly scrapped in favor of upscale, progressive Cajun fare; it was the first place in which Jody had a percentage. Creole Foods, the central commissary and seafood supply house rechristened Louisiana Foods, became Jim Gossen's baby. Each new place got its own name, its own identity, its own combination of partners -- and its own set of arguments. (Even today, the seven partners sound like a Cajun version of Rashomon on the subject of who thought which restaurant was a good idea and who was responsible for each one's success, or lack thereof.)

By 1985, when Jimmy G's opened near Intercontinental Airport, the fighting over partnerships had broken wide open. Cut out of the Magnolia Grill by Peck, Gossen and Larriviere, the alienated Denis Wilson had accepted an ill-fated offer to run Houston's Grand Hotel from developer/con artist J.R. McConnell, who later committed suicide in his jail cell. ("I've sure picked some nice partners," gibes Wilson.) Wilson declined to resign or sell his Pirogue shares and continued to draw a salary, which bugged everybody except Billy and Harold. The dissidents then froze Wilson out of Jimmy G's as well, and tried to prevent him from rejoining the company. Two factions crystallized: Billy, Denis and Harold on one side; Jim, Jody, Floyd and sometimes Nat on the other.

The rift was complicated by disputes over the cost of Billy's beloved side projects and schemes. Billy Landry is nothing if not a dreamer, forever full of ideas, forever sketching out his notions on any spare napkin. "We had a full-time architect and boxes and boxes of fully drawn plans of three-story floating restaurants," recalls Jim Gossen. Among the bones of contention were investments in a water purification company, computerized time clocks, Fort Bend County property and the gutting of a downtown cafeteria for a never-completed restaurant. Finally Floyd broke completely with his brother and sued to stop the spending. Although that suit was eventually dropped, Floyd and Jim managed to unseat Billy as president.

 

With brother against brother, friend against friend, nobody was having fun anymore. By mid-1986, the partners were looking for the exits and floating various proposals to buy each other out. That fall, Billy brought in an investor named Tilman Fertitta, who was fleeing the homebuilding business; Billy, still dreaming, thought the growth-minded Fertitta would be great at dickering for restaurant sites. But by the end of the year, Floyd had sold his Pirogue shares back to the company. The next day, on December 31, 1986, Billy and Nat sold their Pirogue shares to Fertitta for $375,000 each -- leaving him and Denis Wilson the sole remaining partners in Landry's and cash-cow Willie G's. That should have put an end to the misery. It didn't.

Cajun air conditioning!" announces Billy Landry in a rich, slow Louisiana drawl that caresses every vowel. He is sweating atop a ladder on the wooden deck of his soulful new plate-lunch spot, Mom's Cookin', jerry-rigging a Rube Goldberg arrangement whereby an electric fan will blow air across a block of ice. His big salt-and-pepper mustache has a weary droop to it: he was up till 3 a.m. last night, washing dishes and opening oysters at his relocated Saltwater Grill. Soon he'll leave for his third place, the Teche, to mow the lawn.

It's a far cry from the glorious future he and his partners imagined for themselves when they sold out to go their various ways. Today the Houston restaurant landscape is richer for the Landry diaspora; the original seven partners are not. None has achieved the bigtime success that seemed within their grasp at Willie G's. Indeed, for most of them, the years since the breakup have resembled, as Billy puts it, a kind of purgatory.

In 1987, with visions of a 600-seat mega-restaurant dancing in their heads, Billy and Nat headed north to Dallas. But their 18,500-square-foot Pontchartrain was trouble from the outset. "The Big E [as in ego] opened that place," sighs Billy now. He wanted to bread and fry to order in small batches, the way they'd done at 290-seat Don's. It sent the Pontchartrain kitchen into gridlock. Says Billy, "I figured if I didn't die there I might make it to be an old man." Not only were they bombing, he and Nat found that without the company perks and cash flow of yore, the $200,000-apiece cash they got from the sellout didn't go far. With the real estate market in a swoon, they were unable to unload their Houston houses. Worse yet, Fertitta, who still owed them on twin $175,000 promissory notes, suddenly exercised a discount clause that allowed him to pay off the balance early at 50 cents on the dollar.

That's when the Great Lawsuit War commenced. Billy and Nat sued Fertitta, alleging that they hadn't understood the discount clause -- the "screw you" clause, as Nat prefers to call it. Moreover, they claimed that during sellout negotiations they had thought Fertitta's lawyer -- his cousin Tilman "Skip" Falgout -- was acting as their lawyer, too. (While they were at it, they sued Falgout, Denis Wilson and even Floyd, who by now was suing them as well as Wilson and Fertitta.)

Falgout had done some legal work for Pirogue after Fertitta joined up, and Billy and Nat maintained they had no reason to think Falgout wasn't again acting on behalf of all parties -- "everybody together, nice friendly deal." This claim presumed an ethical breach on the part of Falgout (and, by extension, Fertitta) as well as a whopping naivete on the Louisiana guys' part. "In my humble Lafayette opinion, Skip Falgout was my lawyer," Billy insists. Back home "we did not use lawyers," he says, implying he wouldn't have known that an attorney could hardly represent the interests of both buyer and seller. "It was not in our nature. I mean, we had seen lawyers, but..."

Tilman Fertitta, a veteran of many lawsuits with a quintessentially Houstonian grasp of the need for sharp counsel, leaps right out of his office chair when the subject comes up. "Let God strike me dead if Skip didn't get up and say, 'I am not your lawyer!' " he says vehemently. "Don't make us the bad guys, because we're not. They're just idiots. They knew they weren't represented by Skip. They knew about the discount clause. I am the honest guy, I really am."

When the dust settled -- after several cardboard cartons' worth of suits and countersuits had piled up at the Harris County courthouse -- the court decided that Falgout had done nothing wrong. But Fertitta was required to pay Bill and Nat $180,000 plus interest; he also paid off a $100,000 bank judgment against them. Everybody had to cover his own legal costs.

 

Floyd got some money from Fertitta, too: $80,000 plus interest, which salved the irksome fact that he had unwittingly sold out for $132,500. Floyd's beef was that he had been kept in the dark about Fertitta's takeover; when Billy and Nat sold out to Fertitta the very day after Floyd sold his shares back to the company, he accused them of conspiring with Fertitta to squeeze him out. He never would have agreed to turn the restaurants over to non-family members, he claimed; besides, he wanted the Landry family name back. But as both he and his brother were to discover in due course, it was gone for good.

Meanwhile, Jim Gossen and Jody Larriviere were struggling to hold on to the remnants of empire. As non-Pirogue partners, they were left with Don's, Magnolia, the debt-ridden Jimmy G's and a boatload of bills for a new, unpaid-for commissary. When Wilson and Fertitta pulled Willie G's business from the commissary, the cousins lost a scary chunk of their wholesale seafood revenues. "It was a tough pill," says Larriviere. Their restaurants faced growing competition from a new generation of Houston Cajun seafood chains -- the Pappas family's Pappadeaux's and the Atchafalaya group now owned by Ninfa Laurenzo's Riostar. Gossen lived off his savings (he has only recently begun drawing a salary again); at one point the cousins' bank debt hit $30,000 a month. "I almost died from it," Gossen confides matter-of-factly.

Thanks to the joint venture with Sysco and a flourishing sideline in giant outdoor crawfish boils, Louisiana Foods pulled through. In a poetic bit of symmetry, the cousins are doing business with Tilman Fertitta again. Magnolia is thriving; Jimmy G's is hanging in. Don's, however, served its final meal last August 27; in its place stands a modern Louisiana mutant, the glitzy and fearsomely trendy Lagniappe. "After 17 years, we just sort of ran out of steam," says Gossen. Floyd came over to share the old flagship's last hurrah. "We were glad to get rid of it," admits Gossen, but the night was bittersweet.

Having lost their shirts on the Pontchartrain, Billy and Nat parted company. Nat opened a lively Dallas joint with a bar that could have been lifted straight out of rowdy Crystal Beach. ("It's the ugliest building in Addison," he says proudly.) "I suffered dearly, but I got what I wanted -- one little restaurant where I could make a decent living," Nat says. Significantly, he dubbed it Nate's Seafood in honor of the name he's going by these days. "Maybe," he jokes with some asperity, "I just wore the shock absorbers out on the old name."

Billy Landry returned to Houston, where he lived through his own name crisis. When he put the words "by Willie G. Landry" on the menu of his Saltwater Grill, Fertitta took him straight to court, brandishing the buyout agreement that specified none of the sellers could ever open a restaurant named Landry's or Willie G's. A judge ruled that even the use of "Willie G. Landry" on a menu could confuse the public; he ordered Billy to remove it. When Billy later put the name "William G. Landry" on the menu of his second ill-fated Pontchartrain (recently closed), the judge found him in contempt of court. Not so much as an ad or a press release was to bear his name, admonished the ruling.

Sitting at one of Mom's plastic-covered picnic tables, Billy nibbles at the edges of the name dispute in a resigned, quiet voice. "People think I've opened all these restaurants. He doesn't say Tilman Fertitta on his menu. He says the Landry Family of Restaurants. I think people do get confused. But that's okay," he finishes in a gloomy voice that suggests it isn't. Fertitta's take on the confusion, of course, is rather different. "Part of their deal is 'poor, pitiful me,' especially Billy," he says. "I didn't spend millions of dollars for that name -- over $2 million between him and his partners -- to have him put it where people would think his restaurants had anything to do with mine. I build big, beautiful restaurants. They're not dumps."

Billy, carving a garlic-injected turkey at neither-big-nor-beautiful Mom's, has regrets less tangible than the loss of the family name. "Those six guys... we could have been an unbeatable force," he says sadly. Some of the mutual bitterness has died down, but the friendships are forever altered. When the onetime partners see each other now, says Billy, "It's 'How ya doin'?' Nobody is talking heart to heart the way we used to."

"You know," he offers, "the way Don's worked in Louisiana, the philosophy wasn't to run the race and whoever has the most money at the end, wins. They wanted to make a living. They truly enjoyed serving people." For Billy, for now, that has to be enough. And he can still dream. Ever optimistic, he wants his Saltwater to become "the Outback of seafood." Maybe he'll finally do that barge restaurant he's always longed for. "Scratch that," he amends. "Because Tilman will do it! He'll do a hundred of them! I've already given Fertitta more than I wanted to!" But as he says it, Billy Landry is laughing his big Cajun laugh.

 

At Landry's on Westheimer, Tilman Fertitta occupies the catbird seat. To his right is his pretty brunette wife, Paige, several months pregnant with their second child; to his left is super-socialite Diane Lokey, the blue-chip John Daugherty Realtor. Around them, in a surreal swirl of Hawaiian shirts and beach clothes, surge partiers who have paid $100 each to attend a "Cabana Caper" fundraiser for the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation. Although this is but a tertiary disease party in the pecking order of Houston charity galas, Fertitta -- whose wife co-chaired the event -- is clearly the man of the hour. Hearty self-made types like diamond king I.W. Marks and independent investor Michael Saragusa aim a stream of loud banter at Fertitta's table; the joshing, in its way, is a subtle form of deference to a guy who has made so much money, so fast, that he can well afford to play the genial host. In their exotic tropical prints, the older men could be elders gathered at some tribal long house for a young buck's rite of passage.

Fertitta's journey toward this June evening has not been devoid of trouble. Initially, it looked as though the restaurant business would chew him up and spit him out. His two first restaurants were dogs. Lawsuit records indicate that he failed to pay a variety of debts. And his partnership with Denis Wilson quickly soured.

In July of 1987, the pair opened Landry's Shepherd between the Whole Foods Market and Bookstop. "Our deal was he'd run the office and I'd run the restaurants," maintains Wilson. "But then he'd be yellin' and screamin' in the kitchen." Wilson, the kind of passionate cook who'll test 75 kinds of pickles to find the right one for his tartar sauce, took umbrage when Fertitta brought in an automatic omelet machine. It got worse. "I was broiling one night and he started arguing with me," recounts Wilson. "He was in a suit. I jumped across a table and said, 'Get outta the kitchen.' I told him I'd whip his ass."

Small wonder that the two divorced before a year was out. Fertitta paid Wilson $250,000 and promised $600,000 more later. "Close to a million just to get rid of him!" exclaims Fertitta. "I would have paid anything." Counters an indignant Wilson, "It took him five years to start paying the balance. He used my $600,000 to build his restaurants. He screwed me! Of course Tilman doesn't call it that. He calls it good business."

Given Fertitta's disputatious financial history, one could argue that he juggled his debts strategically, countersuing some creditors, settling a claim or two at an advantageous discount. Among the creditors who won judgments against him or his companies in the late '80s and early '90s were a restaurant linen service ($100,000 plus interest and court costs); Mason Road Bank, which sued him for $63,000 after he defaulted on a note; and the FDIC and RTC, which won $165,000 plus costs after Fertitta's River Oaks house was foreclosed on in a complicated lien dispute. One could also argue that any Texas oilman would recognize Fertitta's impulse to bet on the come, assume ever-greater growth and cash flow, then scramble -- with the assistance of good legal counsel -- to keep his balls in the air when reversals set in.

Fertitta always managed to keep going, regardless. "I'm a fighter," he says implacably. He fought through his first two restaurant losers. In July of 1989 he walked the lease at Landry's Shepherd, which cost him a $158,000 court judgment. What went wrong? Too upscale, too dark, too formal, too little parking, says Fertitta. He also threw in the towel at Landry's Evangeline, and the restaurant filed for bankruptcy protection against its landlord. Too Cajun, Fertitta says dismissively.

What turned the business around was Fertitta's decision to expand outside Houston. "Pappas was on every corner, that's why I went out of town," he explains. In 1988 and '89, he opened Landry's restaurants in Galveston, San Antonio and Sugar Land. "All of a sudden I started building this Landry's name," says Fertitta, who had originally figured that the far more successful Willie G's would be his growth vehicle. "It just kinda happened accidentally." His next three out-of-town restaurants, in Kemah, Corpus Christi and Austin, were situated on the kind of inviting waterfront sites that has since become a Landry's trademark -- and which can make the restaurants' decent mid-priced food taste remarkably better.

 

The new Landry's restaurants and Fertitta's two Willie G's may no longer offer the transcendent culinary moments provided by the original Landry group's places, but Fertitta makes it clear that he's after something different. "We want to feed the masses, not the classes," he says cheerfully. Fertitta is big on the phrase "total experience": food has a place in his cosmology, but it is when he speaks of his buildings and grounds (each designed to be a little different from the others) that he sounds truly passionate. "Memphis is gorgeous," he'll say, in much the same rhapsodic way that Billy Landry or Denis Wilson might speak of a chicken etouffee they ate decades ago. Fertitta even eats in an entrepreneurial way -- with brisk and efficient dispatch, fueling himself between meals with pack after pack of cellophane-wrapped crackers.

His Landry-group predecessors love to Monday-morning quarterback Fertitta's food. Tilman serves lowly sheepshead under its more glamorous modern label of "bay snapper," snipes Denis Wilson from a table at his Denis Seafood restaurant in far west Houston. "He's the Cajun Red Lobster!" snorts Nat Peck. Yet it is Fertitta's food, Fertitta's restaurants, that are packing them in. To him, Red Lobster is not an epithet -- he knows that his Landry's food and atmosphere beat the pants off the giant chain's -- but a role model of sorts. "Red Lobster has over 700 units out there and does over $2 billion in business every year," he says, lingering lovingly over the words, "two billion." "They've proven that there's a tremendous market for seafood. And there's nobody out there doin' it!"

Except Fertitta, of course. He sees himself in the tradition of Houston's strong restaurant operators -- the Tony Vallones and Mandolas and Pappases who have made it so hard for national chains to do well here. But he also sees himself as shooting to the top of the restaurant-world heap. "By the end of next year, we'll be the second largest seafood company in America," he proclaims with the entrepreneurial bullishness that springs so easily from his tongue.

Unlike the original Landry's seven, Fertitta has no intention of letting an attachment to place, or to a way of doing things, get in the way of growth. "I've taken the Cajun out of the restaurants," he announces, noting that he's introducing a de-ethnicized gumbo, and that Landry's erstwhile crawfish logo has been denatured into a shorter-snouted, generic "seafood character." "I'm more of a fresh Gulf seafood house, or a fresh seafood house," he explains, editing even as he speaks. "The biggest mistake a chain can make," he says, "is to go into a market and say, 'God, everything we do is great and they're gonna love it.' You have to tweak your menu, regionalize your menu. You're only as good as what the people like."

Declaring this manifesto moves him to reflect on the men he bought out. "They should have been this great restaurant family, but they never changed anything," says Fertitta. "They were so far ahead of themselves in the '70s and early '80s. They let the Pappases learn from them and build a big restaurant company. Then I bought them out and built a big restaurant company. It's ironic."

The ultimate bigness of Fertitta's empire will depend on how the company handles the pressure of very rapid growth. "Remember I've got all this money I've got to spend," says Fertitta, referring to the $40 million raised in his two stock offerings. So far Landry's is making its 1994 target of eight new restaurants. But the stock that was so hot last fall and spring has cooled off of late, dropping from a high of 27 to around 18, and The Wall Street Journal has published low-level market rumblings that Landry's stock is overvalued. Fertitta dismisses the naysaying. "When you've got a stock that does as well as ours, you're always going to have people who sell it short," he maintains. As to the conventional wisdom that insider stock sales (such as Fertitta's sale of $25 million worth of his own shares) can be a sign of trouble, Fertitta told the Journal, "If I didn't sell a few shares every now and then and put a few million dollars in my pocket, I'd be an idiot."

"No matter what happens with this company, I'm secure for the rest of my life," he says. Not that he's going anywhere, he adds hastily. "For the next five years I'm going to focus entirely on this company." After that? He'd like to own a major-league sports team, a goal that seems considerably more feasible now than it did last year, when Fertitta's attempt to purchase the Rockets ended in an unpleasant round of lawsuits. He still owns 3 percent of the Rockets; he sat courtside for the team's triumphal march through the NBA Finals, and reports that the bad feeling engendered when he tried to enjoin former Rockets owner Charlie Thomas from selling to Les Alexander has abated. "Charlie asked me a couple weeks ago when I was going to buy a car from him," chortles Fertitta.

 

It's no accident that Fertitta is preoccupied with keeping score. Corporate badges of success seem to interest him more than personal ones. "I live in a big house in Memorial, I have two Mercedes, I have my own jet, and so I mean, what else?" he asks rhetorically.

Scoring in Red Lobster's league, of course. Surveying his new Galveston restaurant, Fertitta offers up a comparison with his Louisiana predecessors. "None of 'em are doing... even Denis, Denis has that one restaurant that's maybe doing $40,000 a week. He serves good food, but he's not makin' a bunch of money. I mean he's just earning a living." Realizing how this sounds, Fertitta crawfishes. "One day I might like to do something like that, operate one restaurant, and do that for fun," he suggests. But he does not sound for one Texas second as if he means it.


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