Interview with Restaurateur Bryan Caswell of Little Bigs, Reef, and Stella Sola - Houston, TX

March 2011

Caroline Hatchett: When did you begin your culinary career?

Bryan Caswell: I started working in kitchens immediately after college. I worked as a cook, line cook, bartender, and busboy. I found that I was much better at working than going to school.

CH: What did you study in school? Did you go to culinary school?

BC: I enrolled at the CIA in 1997.

CH: When did you open your first restaurant? How did you know you were ready to own and not just work for someone else?

BC: I opened Reef three and half years ago. And I still don’t know that I’m ready to own. I grew up with a father who was an independent business man, and risk was built into my psyche. I don’t think anyone can ever say “I’m ready.” No one knows what it’s like to sweat a payroll until it’s yours.

CH: What was the deal? How did you get the money? Do you have partners?

BC: I worked for Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] for six and a half years. And three years ago I returned to Houston to open Bank at Hotel Icon. It gave me the opportunity to come to my hometown with a big splash. While working at Bank, I met my partner, Bill Floyd, who has been instrumental in the success of our restaurants. He has a lot of characteristics I don’t have—he runs front of the house. Plus he’s on his 25th restaurant; I’m on my 10th. We each reached out to investors on our own and rounded up several more investors as a team.

CH: Who are your mentors?

BC: Jean-Georges and his second in command Danny Del Vecchio—I learned more from [Danny] than anyone else in my life. He taught me how to balance family and business, and I still call him with questions. Joe Abuso—a local Houston guy and restaurant owner—also was a mentor. He convinced me to go to the CIA.

CH: What was a critical inflection point in your career?

BC: In culinary school, you had to do to an externship and it could be anywhere in the world. I went to the school’s career office and got every name and address of every respectable restaurant in Europe. I wrote letters to each restaurant, begging for an extern spot in their respective language. I landed in Barcelona with Jose Muneisa at Via Veneto, a one Michelin star restaurant, and I saw waiters who only wanted to be a waiter—it was their career. Sous chefs wanted to be better cooks. People wanted to improve their craft. I saw guys who delivered just mushrooms or just fish. And it was unlike anything I had seen in the States. When I left, I knew I had to be in Manhattan, which was the closest I could get to this type of experience.

CH: What are your concepts?

BC: I have Reef, Little Bigs, and Stella Sola. Reef’s shtick is Houston food in all its diversity. We serve up to 33 different species from the Gulf—no other fucking guy has ever done that. Little Bigs is a hamburger joint with 30 seats inside and 30 outside. We bake our own bread and cook fresh-from-the farm fries. Stella Sola is Texas Italian. It has ruggedness. The charcuterie reflects Texas’s Czech and German heritage; we have seven different types of charcuterie—half are Texan and half are Italian.

CH: How do you inspire yet retain your employees?

BC: My partner and I have one simple rule: love what we do. We want to work with people we enjoy. We hire people we like. People are only going to take so much crap—we’re all busting our asses and sweating for food. But it’s food. People are much more important than food.

CH: What is your customer service philosophy?

BC: My partner and I want to create an environment that’s enjoyable. And there have only been two days when Bill and I both have been gone from Reef. We want to serve the best products, using best possible proteins and produce in an unpretentious environment. We don’t spend crazy money on china, glass, silver, and that shit. We don’t sweat the small stuff. I want people to say, “Man, I like that place.”

CH: What are your frustrations with the industry?

BC: I always say you can work for the greatest restaurant in the world, but you can never open one. I’ve seen men cry when their restaurants open—they can’t make it through the first week. There is no certainty in this industry, but that’s what I like.

CH: What decisions or projects do you regret?

BC: I don’t have any regrets. There are things I would have done differently, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call them regrets. If a mistake is big enough, you learn from it. One thing I won’t do again is go into business with a nonprofit—they don’t give a shit about making money.

CH: What’s your best advice for running successful restaurants?

BC: You have to sustain yourself. At the end of the day you can't lose focus trying to be cool. First, I have to make payroll.

CH: What’s your five-year plan? Do you want to conquer the city or maintain your empire?

BC: I enjoy opening new restaurants. We have four different concepts now, and we’re opening our fifth restaurant in under four years. Opening a new restaurant is the only time we can be truly creative.

CH: How many opportunities do you review per month?

BC: Three to 10. You always have to look—you review 50 and maybe one works. Running through problems and evaluations keeps your brain working. We’ve developed 15 concepts that we haven’t moved on.

CH: What is your next project?

BC: We’re currently building El Real. I'm very excited about it. It’s in a historic 1920s movie theater that we’re renovating. We’ll do vintage Tex-Mex—like tacos and masa, using real lard rather than hydrated fats.

CH: Tell me about your blog, Whole Fish?

BC: It’s a place for me to talk shit and show off what the Gulf Coast has to offer. What I do is about Gulf Coast style. And my entire life I’ve traveled from Apalachicola to Brownsville, trying to catch something on the other side of my line. In my career, I’ve had to deal with people who don’t know where I’m from or what we have here. I believe this is one of the most fantastic places on earth, and the blog gives people outside and inside of Houston a window into the products we have.