Two weeks before graduating from Cal Poly, Bill Hales made a life-changing decision.
He turned down a sales job in Orange County and instead asked his boss at Bull’s Tavern in San Luis Obispo whether he could work over the summer to ponder his future.
“I never looked back,” Hales said.
Although he was attracted to the people-focused nature of the bar and restaurant business, most of all, he wanted to stay in San Luis Obispo, a town he says represents the small-town values he was raised with in Missouri.
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Hales is now co-owner of Bull’s Tavern — where he worked during his college years as a janitor, door guy and eventually bartender — as well as eight other bars and eateries. There are plans for additional projects, including a small, boutique eatery in the Village of Arroyo Grande. The Mason Bar, at the corner of Mason and Branch streets, will feature shareable food, beer and wine. He recently talked with The Tribune about what it takes to succeed in the bar and restaurant business.
Q: Who or what was instrumental in helping you get your start?
A: After a year or so (at Bull’s Tavern), I took a job at Brubeck’s, now Novo, to learn the restaurant side of things. At the time, Brubeck’s was the kind of place where a lot of bar and restaurant owners would hang out, so I really got to be a fly on the wall and absorb all of their successes and failures. I couldn’t have asked for a better class in the business.
Q: What was your first business, and what initial challenges did you face?
A: I owned a bar before I owned a car. It was the Frog and Peach Pub, which had been an English pub that had closed. We actually just celebrated its 20-year anniversary. I raised money from two managers who worked with me at Brubeck’s. They put up the money — I think we started with just under $75,000 — and I worked off sweat equity. It was then that I saw the value in partnerships, where everyone brings something to the table. I wouldn’t want to be alone in these things. We wouldn’t have had the success we’ve had without the collaboration of a great group of friends.
Q: What is ASH Management, and how does it operate?
A: We honestly have learned as we’ve gone along. There was a core group in the beginning, all of which are still involved. But as the focus of the business evolved away from bars to restaurants, we’ve definitely had to adjust how we do things. Still, at the core of it, we bring our managers up through the ranks, and when new opportunities present themselves, we have people in key positions that we make partners. It’s very organic, and it’s been a truly amazing experience.
Q: So, with the structure of ASH Management, who ultimately makes the decisions about how the bars operate?
A: With management, I try to put key people in positions where they can grow. The more responsibility the person can handle, the more I put them in a position to win.
We try to structure things where people who invest can get their money back over a certain period of time. When they get their money back, we invest in another business.
Q: When do you decide it’s time to start a new venture?
A: It’s really case by case. When I was married and lived in A.G., I always felt there was a niche for something there. Now, the Village is turning into a fun food destination place. We’ve turned down a lot of opportunities, too. You can’t do it just to do it. There was a time in history when we did do things like that. Now, we think everything through, and then we think it through again to make sure it’s the best decision for the company.
Q: What decisions didn’t work out so well?
A: We started Blue, and we got ahead of ourselves. We weren’t ready for the high-end restaurant business, and so we cut our losses and sold it to the Koberls, who have done a great job with it. At that time, we were predominantly a bar business. We had done restaurants, but they were built around the bar rather than around the food. As we’ve gotten older, we’re more restaurant-minded. We all have families now and kids.
Q: With all of the bars and restaurants in the county, how do you make sure each is successful and profitable in its own right?
A: When it comes to San Luis Obispo, you have to keep each one just different enough, and you do have to know your customer. Each bar has to have its own focus, and the managers all have their own style of how they manage and drive customers. You hope each one has a different look, feel, environment and menu. I leave a lot of that up to the managers and try not to step on their toes. A lot of the restaurants have younger staff, and some of the bartenders are in their mid-20s and early 30s.
But again, it’s really about doing your best to have happy people working there. Customers can sense when people are happy in their jobs. As far as restaurants in South County, in addition to having great people, we’ve been blessed with good timing and made a commitment to constantly improving our product.
Q: How do you go about making those improvements?
A: We touch base with every manager in every place every week. We try to stay on top of it, listen to customer feedback and employee feedback, and try to never have a closed-door policy. I try to drive home that this business is constantly changing, and the moment you pretend to know it all, you know nothing. The newest employee may have the greatest idea. You have to keep your mind open all the time. If you don’t, you’re really going to shoot yourself in the foot. One example is the Creeky Tiki, which had been a furniture store. Because of customer and employee feedback, we are recessing the front of the business about 12 feet to create a patio on Higuera Street to give it more of a restaurant feel.
Q: How do you combat the perception that your bars are responsible for the rowdy behavior of college students?
A: This is the toughest one to answer. Over the years, we have done business in many towns and even in a couple of other states. While each town has its own challenges, the perception of our business in San Luis Obispo has always been a complex one. Some people believe there are too many bars, which is odd because there were more when I came to SLO in 1986 than there are now. The fact is that the dynamic of this town has changed. Yes, we are a college town, but we are also a place where people come to retire, and thankfully, we are slowly becoming a town where new industry is coming to flourish.
In the past, my partners have had people say that we are out to do nothing but profit from drunken college students, which really drives us crazy. Taverns have been a part of this country from the outset, and San Luis Obispo is no different. Yes, we sell alcohol, but we also create jobs, pay taxes, raise more money for charity than most organizations I know, and yes, “we the evil peddlers of the devil’s tonic” raise our families as well.
Q: What has ASH Management done specifically to address the concerns of those who have complained?
A: We do outreach through the Downtown Association’s Food and Beverage Committee, and we do our own outreach. We, at our expense, put porta-potties around town, and we pay for the streets to be cleaned up in addition to what the city does. We’re constantly doing charity events. Our big one is for the Autism Spectrum Center. We don’t do it for the accolades; we do it because it’s the right thing to do.
Q: What is the most important characteristic for success in the bar and restaurant business?
A: The single most important thing to our business is the people. I truly love walking into any of our businesses and hanging out with our crew. You have to hire good people. With good people, good things happen. It’s that simple.
Q: How closely do you watch trends to stay up to date?
A: I have a brother in New York City who I’m very close with. He travels the world, and I try to pay attention to what he says. Things start in the bigger cities and work their way here. Going back to when we opened Blue, the idea of small plates was something that was driven by what was going on in bigger cities like New York. Here, we always had massive portions, so when we had Blue, we did lounge portions. Also, the tapas style is more of a European idea, and that’s a benefit of having a brother traveling extensively in Europe. They’re usually five years ahead. I enjoy travel, and I’m always keeping my eyes open when I’m in a different city. On the Central Coast, you have to have a pulse on what’s going on with wine. Craft beer is king, especially in California right now.
Q: What inspires you most?
A: Without a question, my heart and soul are my kids (ages 12 and 7). They are the reason for everything. I enjoy the fact that my hours are flexible, so I rarely have to miss anything with them. I’m also blessed to have amazing friends, and most of them are tied to the business in one way or another. I’d have to say one of the coolest things for me is when one of my partners or employees has a big moment in his or her life — the birth of a child, a marriage, the purchase of a home or even a new car. They say if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. I’m living proof of that.