What began as a miniscule bar and sandwich shop in Hermosa Beach in 1976 has expanded to a restaurant empire that extends from San Diego to Las Vegas. Hennessey’s Tavern, Inc., an amalgam of 17 restaurants and 800 employees, is the handiwork of Paul Hennessey, a man who blends imposing presence with laid-back charm.
Reminiscing about the perils and pluses of the restaurant business, Hennessey, 65, talked last week about everything from having his trusted chief financial officer embezzle funds, to befriending a former mob lawyer in Las Vegas, to earning his gaming license, to coping with those early days in Hermosa when he did it all solo—literally.
Speaking of the space on the Hermosa Pier that he persuaded owners to sell him nearly 40 years ago, Hennessey said the first Hennessey’s Tavern “was a tiny place, 1,500 square feet … just deli sandwiches and a bar. It was totally under-financed. I borrowed some money from Household Finance on furniture I didn’t have.”
Aside from his slam-dunk sense of humor and sky-blue eyes, Paul Hennessey’s candor is one of the first things you notice about him. Yet, his ease in talking about his rise; his delight in his restaurants and employees; and the fun deal-making brings him make it all sound as if it were a waltz in the park.
In his first go-round as a restaurateur, he acted as bartender, cook, busboy and waiter. He listed prices of sandwiches in chalk on a wooden menu that had blackboard squares “so if I had to change prices I could just erase and rewrite.”
Some old bordello
The old menu now hangs on the wall of his big, cluttered office on South Elena Avenue in Riviera Village, right around the corner from his Redondo Beach tavern. Alongside the menu is an etched mirror, three originals of which reside at the Hermosa Hennessey’s. “There’s some old story that they came out of some old bordello in a gold rush hotel,” he explained.
Then there are the stacks of green shamrock T-shirts in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day, shelves of pricey liquor and everywhere photos of family, friends and employees—the people hired to serve food and drinks, yes, but also the sort of Irish hospitality Hennessey exudes.
A year after he opened in Hermosa, Hennessey said he realized he needed to serve hot food if he expected to get more lunch business. Plus, working 18-hour days, seven days a week “was starting to get a little hard.”
Once a cooking system and grill were installed and burgers placed on the menu, the restaurant “finally got busy enough, so I hired a cook and a waitress. And then it expanded after that.” Over the next 10 or 15 years, the tavern in Hermosa got a facelift, tripled in size and went up a level.
By that time, Hennessey had long since stepped into a management role and opened other taverns, including those in Redondo and Manhattan Beach.
It didn’t begin as you might imagine. “I was a stock broker and I became a busboy,” said the man who smiles easily and often. “I was probably the only one to apply for a busboy job in a three-piece suit.”
Born in New Jersey, he went from the New York Business College of Finance to trading stocks. During a down market in 1971, he decided to visit his sister in San Francisco. He took a job for the summer with a restaurant chain, Victoria’s Station, but declined their offer of a management job: “I said, 'No, I’m going back to trading stocks in New York.'”
Back East he had a revelation, however. He told himself, "I can’t live in New York anymore after (I’ve seen) this beautiful little California.” He returned to the coast and Victoria’s Station, where his management training ranged from bartending to cooking to waiting tables.
“They really were a great building block in teaching you the industry,” said Hennessey, who was asked to open a new Victoria’s Station in an old train car on Hawthorne Boulevard in Torrance. By then the chain was getting “very large and corporate,” he said. “They went from three restaurants, when I started working for them, up to 89.” Rather than stay, he decided “to branch out and do my own thing.”
Along with serving burgers and booze at his postage-stamp tavern in Hermosa, Hennessey offered “real simple” entertainment—a combo or guitarist. “Robin Williams used to come in all the time," he recalled. "That was when he was doing ‘Mork & Mindy.’ He was such a ball of energy … if he saw a stage he could not help himself.”
“You mind if I do something?” Williams would ask Hennessey, who would tell him to ask the band. “Of course, they invited him up. And we’d have to lock the door, because people would come by and see him and the place would be a mob scene.”
Along with opening new taverns, Hennessey bought The Lighthouse Café and jazz club in Hermosa Beach; the original Velvet Turtle (now H.T. Grill) in Redondo, and opened two Mickie Finnz (one in Las Vegas and one in Riviera Village).
The Wine Bistro in Dana Point is his latest venture. “It’s chef driven, a 5-Star very eclectic menu, full bar and wine and entertainment.”
Perhaps his most interesting industry experiences in recent years occurred in Las Vegas, where his original qualms about building four restaurants were soon banished. “I thought it was going to be a nightmare trying to build there, but everything was easier than building here,” Hennessey said.
The reason? “Vegas is a very small town,” he said. Within three or four months of wheeling and dealing he got to know all the contractors and many city officials. “Everybody knows each other. Everyone was totally helpful. The city was unbelievable.” Initial concerns that “people might have their hand out” (e.g. organized crime) proved nonexistent, he added.
Eight years ago, however, as Hennessey’s projects were underway, the economy was crashing. High rise construction all over Las Vegas was in default. Although “things have really turned around this last year,” he said, opening four restaurants at the time was a gamble greater than anything going on at Baccarat tables or roulette wheels.
The lawyer for the mob
“We were downtown in the redevelopment area, and the mayor was just thrilled that we would do anything down there,” Hennessey said, explaining that the mayor, Oscar Goodman, “used to be the lawyer for the mob. He played himself in the movie Casino, the lawyer for (the) Joe Pesci (character).”
Goodman, along with some showgirls, attended the ribbon cutting ceremonies for Hennessey’s Tavern and Mickie Finnz. The other two establishments, Las Vegas Country Saloon and Brass the Club, a pair of nightclubs, opened six months later. All are in the same downtown complex.
Another obstacle Hennessey encountered was obtaining a gaming license, which took six months: “In Hennessey’s and Mickie Finnz we have slot machines in the bar, so it’s a limited gaming license. I can’t have dice or things like that. But I was licensed by the (Nevada) Gaming Commission, which took forever. I had to bring them a two-foot stack of paper on my background. I actually had to hire a private investigator to investigate myself.”
On the other hand, he said, “The slot machine business is a great business. The machine shows up for work everyday. It never takes a break. You don’t have to give it a meal. It just gives you some money at the end of the month.”
Not all was copacetic at home, however.
While all the building was going on in Vegas, the head man was being ripped off to the tune of $1.146 million at his Redondo Beach headquarters. “My CFO, sitting in that office,” he said, pointing to an office next door, “was writing checks to himself.” Once I got back I said, ‘There’s something wrong. I didn’t spend all that money (in Vegas).’”
Turned out James Cram, a 54-year-old resident of Rancho Palos Verdes, was embezzling money via Hennessey’s personal accounts. “He was manipulating them so the auditors never caught it.” Hennessey had everything audited.
It took the police six months to put the case together against Cram, who worked for the corporation from 2006 to 2010. “They did a fabulous job, and they went and arrested him one morning, and now he’s got free meals and free lodging,” Hennessey said.
Cram eventually pleaded guilty to misappropriating the funds. He was sentenced in December to five years in jail.
Although coping with the vagaries of so many restaurants and employees would prove an unholy headache for most, Hennessey seems to thrive on it. But he gives enormous credit to his management staff: “I really spend time to train the regional managers, and they’re very creative and very responsible and they really run (the restaurants) for us.”
A huge framed cartoon of all the managers who worked for Hennessey and wanted to show their gratitude was presented to him as a Christmas gift in 1998. It hangs in his office.
He looks for enthusiasm first
In trying to “hire and train the best people possible,” he said, he looks for “enthusiasm” first. “It’s not so much experience; we can train them.”
Despite the glitter and glamour of Las Vegas, the South Bay is home to Hennessey. “I love all our places, from Manhattan Beach, down through San Diego; they are all in the beach communities," he said. "I just love the beach communities. I think the people who live in the beach communities are a little bit different. They are more casual, more laid back.”
That goes for Palos Verdes Estates, where he lives with his wife of over 40 years, Jennifer. The two have “three gorgeous daughters,” Hennessey said, beaming as he reeled off their Irish names: Erin, Devon and Shannon.
“We picked their names before we knew if it was a boy or a girl. When they were in school, they always had a boy with same name.” Two of the girls are married—Erin with two children, and Devon with three.
Like the Leprechaun that greets visitors at the third-floor entry to his office; the family crest that decorates his business cards; or the Irish Tenders and Shephard's Pie that adorn tavern menus, the Irish aspects of Hennessey’s roots, which trace back 200 years to Southern Ireland, are proudly on display.
He certainly never distances himself from his Irish pub personna. Although he never cared about cooking until he entered the industry, Hennessey is right at home in the kitchen and loves to entertain, whether family, friends or at employee Christmas parties. “We experiment with some of the new menu items (at home),” he said. “I like Italian food, so we do a lot of crazy pastas and things like that.”
The Hennesseys also support local schools, as well as Little Company of Mary hospital. Jennifer Hennessey, who is in private practice, is a rehab counselor.
“I fill ‘em up,” the former bartender said with a broad grin. “And she dries ‘em out.”
For more information on Hennessey's Tavern, Inc., or for restaurant locations or hours, visit the website.