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Der Chef-Burgerflipper von Island Famous

Der Chef-Burgerflipper von Island Famous

6 Min.
November 11, 2011

Fall 2011 issue -- When he graduated from college, Dennis Byrd did the unexpected: he negotiated a deal to take over a failing beachfront restaurant. Byrd was familiar with The Spot: four years prior he had worked various jobs there, including busboy, cook, dishwasher, delivery man, and cashier. “I knew immediately, [the restaurant business] is what I wanted to do,” he recalls. Since then the restaurant had fallen into disrepair. The kitchen was a cluttered mess of malfunctioning equipment, and even the menu board was in disarray, with paper taped over every other item listed.

The restaurant, located on Galveston Island, Texas, was bleeding $1,000 a day.

But where others saw a failing business, Dennis saw an opportunity. He had a vision of what the restaurant could be and he was willing to do whatever it took to make that happen. He had $10,000 in the bank from a student loan he hadn’t used, and the mortgage on the property was $8,900 a month. He told the owners: I’ll pay the rent on the building, and you don’t need to worry about losing money anymore.

Everyone told him he was crazy. Nobody in their right mind would do that, they said, “except the kid that was 22 and had nothing to lose,” Dennis adds.

Byrd transformed the failing restaurant: it’s now a thriving destination on the beach for bikers, spring breakers, families, and young professionals.

Over the years, he’s bought properties, led radical renovation projects, fired people when they told him his ideas were impossible—then hired inventive people who figured out how to make them happen. And Byrd always maintained control of his vision for each project—ensuring a specific outcome.

He credits his success to one main thing—he was willing to take risks.

Since childhood, Dennis has had goals. He’d keep them in his head or write them out, and he assigned a deadline for each goal. It didn’t matter what the deadline was—it could be a month or a year away—he’d always accomplish what he set out to do, his mother, Denise Byrd, says. He was a rambunctious kid, too, and the tidiest kid she’d ever seen. He color-coordinated his closet, laid his clothes out for the next day, and kept his room spotless. He also was a born moneymaker.

Dennis, now 31, is a tall man with a deep tan, chiseled chin, and ever-ready smile. His Texas drawl slips out every now and then. He exudes an air of confidence. He recounts a childhood turning point: when his father lost his job as a fork lift driver for the Thomas J. Lipton Company, makers of the famous iced tea. Dennis was 11 years old at the time—just the age when it begins to matter to you if you don’t have new clothes and shoes at the start of the school year. His father didn’t want to relocate his family to another city, so he took a job as a jailor, for half of his previous salary. Dennis began mowing lawns and spray painting street address numbers on curbs. He charged $8 for one set of numbers, $10 for two. “I realized things had really changed, but you can’t complain and you figure out how to make it better,” he says.

When he 18 and a freshman at Louisiana State University (LSU), Dennis got a job at a new restaurant on the beach called The Spot. It was 1998. Dennis was majoring in international business because that’s what his uncle, a successful real estate developer, had majored in.

“You work your way up in the food chain by working hard and working smart.”

For two years, Dennis commuted back to Galveston, driving 85 miles per hour to make it to work on time. In 2000, when he got a job with the track team at LSU, he worked summers at the restaurant until he graduated. His first job offer was from a soda company that offered him a $22,000 salary to sell their bubbly drinks—no gas mileage reimbursement was offered and he’d have to use his own car. Byrd declined.

Instead, he pitched his former bosses on taking over the restaurant. The idea was rejected–three times. Eventually, Byrd wore them down, negotiating a three year lease. The agreement included extension options plus an option to buy. The next few years were a nightmare.

After taking control of the restaurant, Byrd had his work cut out for him. “You would walk in, there were 10 air conditioners that didn’t work. It was 100 degrees. The menu board had pieces of paper covering the items with Scotch tape,” he says. “The kitchen was in disarray—forget someone getting sick because of poor food handling—you could get hurt by tripping over something.”

“It was tough to get anyone to come in here,” he says of his first year. “When it first opened [the restaurant] was great—four years later it was an eyesore. The staff wasn’t trained, the food wasn’t good. There was not a reason to come here except it was on the beach.”

Dennis moved into the office and set his mattress between the desk and the tiny shower stall. Over the next four and-a-half years, he never took a day off. He fixed broken equipment, cleaned every nook and cranny, changed the menu, scrutinized and changed vendors, and hired and trained new staff.

Within a year, Dennis took restaurant from losing $1,000 a day to breaking even. He focused on growing revenue, and threw every dollar he made back into the business. “Although the beginning included living in an apartment above the business and having no personal life, it was the foundation for what we have today,” he says. “We’ve had double digit percentage growth every year since the purchase [in 2005]. Profitability is the key to staying in business, reinvesting those profits is the key to growing a business.”

Dennis’ next strategy was to take the restaurant’s biggest asset—its location overlooking the Gulf of Mexico—and capitalize on it. He wanted to expand it into more than a restaurant. In 2005, at age 25, he exercised his option to buy the property he had been leasing. (Byrd told The Daily News that with no assets or collateral, he had been turned down by three banks. He turned to an old friend who financed the transaction.)

Byrd went on to turn the oceanfront property into a complex—called Island Famous —of four different venues, all with their own theme and style, and all attracting a varied clientele: families, bikers, students, and professionals. But he started with one project at a time. First came the Tiki Bar, which became a popular hangout featuring reggae music and plenty of flat-screen TVs for sports fans. Bob Bloomer became a regular.

Dennis credits his success to one main thing: he was willing to take risks.

Bob, 62, runs a commercial construction company out of his home in Galveston. At about 3 p.m. every day, he hops on his bicycle and pedals over to Island Famous on Seawall Boulevard. He keeps coming back to the Tiki Bar because he enjoys having a beer while taking in the relaxing ocean view, and he thinks of Dennis as an upstanding guy. When Hurricane Ike hit, Dennis opened up his restaurant and fed the people who were stuck nearby. “Everything else was closed, there was no electricity, and he opened up and didn’t charge for anything,” Bob recalls.

Earlier this year, when neighborhood kids broke in and stole whiskey, Dennis didn’t call the cops. He posted the surveillance videos on Youtube and Facebook, the kids’ faces in plain sight. “Instead of calling the police, he embarrassed them,” Bob says. “I thought that was pretty cool.”

Over the years, the Tiki Bar became so successful that Dennis decided to expand further on the property. In 2009, he added a classy martini bar called Drip, a year later a tequila and margarita bar called Squeeze. After Squeeze opened he got the idea to cut off the roof of the Tiki Bar to create a second-floor open air bar that specialized in rum and featured spectacular views. He began calling contractors.

The architect, engineer, and builder all told him it couldn’t be done; the structure wouldn’t carry the weight. He told them to find a way. “They did,” he says.

All of Dennis’ ideas carried risk. He never knew if they’d be successful or if he’d lose money or even ruin his business with the expansions. Now, Rum Shack—that bar that couldn’t be built—is as successful as the Tiki Bar. It had the best 30-day opening of the four bars. “You gotta be young with crazy ideas and convince someone to give you the money to do it,” he says. “You work your way up in the food chain by working hard and working smart.” His formal title now? “Head Busboy and Burger Flipper”.

In a few years, Dennis wants to open a 60-room beachfront hotel next to his bars. It’ll have that same laidback island feel, and he wants to install an infinity edge pool on the roof. Dennis enjoys the fulfillment of turning his creative visions into reality and gets satisfaction from knowing he’s creating jobs. “And I’ll keep doing it as long as I’m making money,” he says.

The summer waves crash against the ocean shore and from the patio of Rum Shack, people watch the water roll in and retreat. Bob Marley music pumps through the speakers; it seems nearly everyone has an icy mojito in their hand. The roof is made of palm fronds, and the floor of wooden slats. You can hear the local band playing music downstairs.

Dennis walks up the steps and heads straight for the bar. A young man in a slate blue T-shirt and jeans stops him and asks, “Hey man, you started as a busboy?”

Dennis looks at him and smiles. “Yeah,” he responds quietly. He turns to the bartenders, and orders drinks on the house for two young women. On his way to the door, he nods to his regulars and shakes a few hands. When he reaches the exit, he gives the bar one last, sweeping look of satisfaction, and walks down the steps. Everything is perfect—it’s just as he planned.

Island Famous

Sarah Perry is a recent graduate of the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. Sarah's work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, and Ten Spurs Literary Journal. She enjoys travelling, cooking, reading, listening to folk music, and writing bad poetry with a pencil in one hand and a goblet of Cabernet in the other.

Sarah Perry
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