Odds are you hate him, but you have to give him his due: Nobody has made a bigger impact on the Houston restaurant scene in the last 15 years than Tilman Fertitta.
Based in Galveston, his Landry's entertainment empire includes 285 restaurants in 36 states with revenues of around a billion dollars a year. The company went public in 1994, and Fertitta's stock is currently valued at $200 million.
A former Shaklee vitamin salesman and home builder, Fertitta didn't get into the restaurant business full time until 1986. That's the year he joined the Landry's restaurant group as a real estate specialist. A few months later, he bought the chain. And he would spend years in court arguing with some of the Landry's partners, who contended that he screwed them in the deal.
"Those guys thought they had a good deal to begin with," observes Jim Gossen, who was also one of the Landry's partners. "My ex-partners were big boys; they could have said no. Tilman didn't have them over a barrel."
Landry's wasn't an instant success for Fertitta either, Gossen points out. In 1989 Fertitta walked away from a failed Landry's restaurant on Shepherd, which garnered him another batch of legal problems. "But eventually he figured it out," says Gossen.
The former Landry's partners were aghast at what Fertitta did to the food. Aiming for "the masses, not the classes," Fertitta jettisoned the authentic Cajun theme. And he toned down the seasonings to appeal to middle-American tastes. It's a formula that has served him well. Between 1996 and 2002, he expanded his empire with popular family-oriented chains serving middle-of-the-road food such as Joe's Crab Shack, the Rainforest Cafe and the Aquarium restaurants.
"Going out on the waterfront was the thing that turned it around," says Gossen. "When he took over Jimmy Walker's in Kemah, I was shocked. That took some big...guts." Jimmy Walker's seafood restaurant in Kemah had been damaged by a hurricane. Fertitta bought it and turned it into a Landry's that was so successful, he ended up "taking over Kemah," as Gossen puts it.
After a string of successes in waterfront settings, shoreline locations became a Fertitta trademark. But his 2002 acquisition of the nautically themed Chart House chain, whose restaurants were situated in spectacular spots on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, got him into the fine dining business.
Soon Fertitta had departed from his middlebrow culinary formula as well as his waterfront settings. In 2003, he picked a site next to Minute Maid Park to open Vic & Anthony's, which drew Best Atmosphere and Best Steak House awards in the Houston Press's Best of Houston issue.
Lately, Fertitta has started buying up Houston's most famous fine dining establishments. In 2003, he took over La Griglia in River Oaks and the Grotto restaurants from Tony Vallone. He also owns the upscale seafood restaurant Pesce.
But what Fertitta is really known for is the concept of building an entire entertainment district around his restaurants. In the once-sleepy shrimping village of Kemah he built a boardwalk, a Ferris wheel, a miniature train and lots of Fertitta-run restaurants. Although many residents despise the glitzy image their town has acquired, the venture is a huge financial success. And Fertitta has gone on to repeat it.
It was Fertitta who put the 90-foot neon-bedecked Ferris wheel in the forefront of the Houston skyline. His downtown Aquarium restaurant also offers amusement rides, including a train ride through a shark tank. The Aquarium is built on city-owned land, which Fertitta leases at an extremely favorable rate.
Critics have blasted the Aquarium and its gaudy neon-lit rides as "cheesy" and inappropriate to the architecture of downtown. Such criticism irks Fertitta, who insists there is nothing cheesy about it. He fanned the flames of the uproar by bringing in four rare white tigers for a display at an exhibit called "White Tigers of the Maharaja's Temple."
Houston's Sissy Farenthold, a former state legislator and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, is trying to stop a Kemah-like boardwalk that Fertitta has proposed in Corpus Christi, where she has long-standing family ties. Farenthold, who calls Fertitta the Donald Trump of the Gulf Coast, has brought a lot of pressure on Corpus officials to explain the benefits of such development. "People here are adamantly opposed to this deal," she says. "To me, it is the ultimate in privatization, everything for private interests and nothing for the public."
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But Fertitta also has plenty of supporters. Local governments love him because he not only makes money with underutilized city-owned real estate, he also creates jobs while he does it. The mayor of Galveston, Roger Quiroga, thanks Fertitta for the economic boom of late. The city also helped Fertitta finance the convention center he built adjacent to his resort complex.
Jordy Tollett of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau is another admirer. "I think Tilman Fertitta is an untapped resource. Because of his style, we haven't allowed him to do everything he could do to make this city a tourist destination," Tollett says. "A lot of people say he's hard to deal with, but they said that about Roy Hofheinz, too. And he was responsible for the Astrodome, the Eighth Wonder of the World. If it were me, I would go to Tilman Fertitta and ask him what he could do with the Astrodome."
Those who wonder what Fertitta might put inside the old dome might want to consider one of his most recent acquisitions: the Golden Nugget casino in downtown Las Vegas.
Fertitta tells interviewers he isn't lobbying for casino gambling in Texas. But, he adds, if it should arrive, he doesn't want to get caught sitting around while others profit.