At Halls Chophouse, owner Bill Hall's usual station is alongside the door, where it seems like he's spring-loaded to clasp shoulders and shake hands.
When Dick Elliott owned Maverick Southern Kitchens, the restaurant group that includes SNOB, High Cotton and Old Village Post House, he was more likely to roam around the dining room, or settle onto a SNOB barstool with a copy of The Wall Street Journal.
Since Hall and his family purchased Maverick Southern Kitchens on April 28, the 68-year-old industry veteran has assumed Elliott's exact perch. But he hasn't picked up his reading material.
“I can't read The Wall Street Journal,” he explained during an hour-long meeting with The Post and Courier last week. “You're a USA Today guy,” his wife, Jeanne, interjected. “I'm USA Today,” Hall continued. “So they kidded me the other day, geez, you have Mr. Elliott's seat and you're reading the wrong thing.”
The Halls and their sons, Tommy and Billy, insist that nothing is going to change at the iconic restaurants, which may well represent the start of an acquisition wave.
Bill Hall grins when asked if he now has enough restaurants in his portfolio.
“Don't get him started,” Jeanne Hall says. “You know what he tells me? He goes, 'You know, Ritz Carlton has 160 hotels.' No.”
But they're making tiny cosmetic adjustments and very subtly tweaking the company to reflect their personalities, as orderly, conservative and cheery as the pages of USA Today.
For employees, that means a new health insurance plan. For customers, the ownership change means new paint on the walls of Old Village Post House and live jazz music and popovers at High Cotton's Sunday brunch.
“It's a process of learning and interpreting,” says Maverick Southern Kitchens' longtime executive chef Frank Lee, who has agreed to stay on with Hall Hospitality Group, along with operations manager David Marconi. “You're not being honest with yourself if you think there's nothing to improve on. We can improve in many ways. ”
Tightly interlocking his fingers in an inverted thumb war posture, he concludes, “It's a complementary acquisition and merger.”
Bill Hall took his first hospitality job when he was 13, using fake papers his mother provided to prove he was old enough to bus tables at an Italian restaurant in Sausalito, Calif. Years later, the forgery resulted in his prematurely being offered Social Security checks.
After Hall moved on to a grocery store, hotelier Richard Swig recruited him to become a cabin boy on his yacht. At the end of yachting season, Swig installed Hall at The Fairmont, where his duties included parking cars and polishing brass columns. Hall stuck around, working his way behind the front desk and then into management.
“The people, that's what I liked,” Hall recalls. The people who patronized Swig's hotel included Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio. “The Kennedys were always there. That made it fun.”
Fun, for Hall, is what happens at work. “He doesn't golf, he doesn't fish,” Tommy Hall says. “Dad works.” Hall still works 15-hour days, typically starting with a breakfast meeting at Rita's Seaside Grille and ending at Halls with a final round of greetings: “We try very hard: One member of the Hall family is to say hello to at least 80 percent of our guests.” (Only twice since the steakhouse opened has every Hall been out of town: once for Hall's mother's birthday, and once for the Halls' daughter's wedding.)
His dedication to work and uncanny ability for turning around doomed properties made Hall a star in the world of high-end hotels. He hopscotched from one tourist destination to another, running resorts in Napa Valley, Hilton Head Island, Vail and Pebble Beach. One of his stops was The Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, a Ritz Carlton-owned Spanish Mission Revival landmark that was on the verge of shutting down. When the Halls arrived, the occupancy rate was 5 percent; Bill Hall pushed the figure to an average of 85 percent, a rate he sustained for three years.
“We hired four or five female sales managers and they came up with an idea that it was not good to stay in downtown Los Angeles,” Hall says. “So I went out and bought a couple of vans, and we went down to the Bank of America building in downtown Los Angeles and we picked up single women who wanted to be safe. That's how we built the business.”
By that point, Hall could have his pick of managerial positions. Still, what he really wanted was his own restaurant. “I didn't have the guts to get away from the corporate world and make the break,” he admits.
The circumstances finally seemed right when his family helped make them so: Tommy, who was working at Del Frisco's in Dallas, suggested he and his dad partner up. And after 27 moves not of her choosing, Jeanne Hall insisted that the clan relocate to Charleston, where their daughter, Stacey, had attended college.
Charleston, it occurred to Bill Hall, needed a Chicago-style steakhouse. Halls Chophouse opened March 15, 2009, at the height of the recession. “The economy was tough,” Tommy Hall says. On some nights, the restaurant was populated by two dozen guests and four Halls. Now, it's not uncommon for the dining room to serve 300 people, including, at least twice a week, a man preparing to propose to his girlfriend.
“The place is run like a Swiss watch,” says Lee, who visited the restaurant's kitchen after the sale. “I want more of our crew to go over there and witness the organization, the cleanliness, the professionalism. You know, they calmly did over 350 the night I was there, and that was a slow night. Nobody in the kitchen raised their voice louder than a conversation.”
When Bill and Jeanne Hall arrived in Charleston for their current permanent stay, one of their first meals was at SNOB. Bill Hall ordered the shrimp and grits. “We went out of there and said, 'we're coming back,' ” Bill Hall says. “It was just the feel. It had that friendly atmosphere and good food and crazy decor, you know.”
Nodding, Jeanne Hall adds, “It's off the wall. Kind of different.”
Over the next few years, the Halls continued to patronize Maverick Southern Kitchens restaurants and forged professional friendships with Elliot and his wife, Dayna. Last November, Elliott asked Bill Hall to have coffee. Then a mayoral candidate, Elliott wanted Hall's support. Hall gave it, but asked whether Elliott planned to continue running the restaurant group if he won.
“He said, 'No, Bill. I'd like to sell it, so I can give the city 100 percent of my energies, but we do not want to sell to out-of-towners. We can find someone locally.' I said, 'Dick, I'm interested.'”
By the Halls' account, the transaction was exceptionally smooth. Bill Hall calls it “a great experience.” It was the second untroubled acquisition in a row for the Halls, who in 2013 bought Rita's Seaside Grille from the Kickin' Chicken team to satisfy Jeanne Hall's lifelong desire for beachfront property.
At Rita's, the Halls have made very few fundamental changes. Their goal was to maintain the restaurant's barefoot attitude, rather than artificially graft steakhouse swank onto it. But they invested about $300,000 in physical upgrades, including a bathroom renovation.
“We took the bathrooms from a truck stop bathroom to where a woman can go in there and it looks clean,” Bill Hall says.
At the Maverick Southern Kitchens restaurants, the Halls are contemplating redoing the floors at High Cotton. But Bill Hall says he appreciates having Marconi and other longtime employees on hand to advise him when he floats grander plans, such as constructing a hallway between SNOB's dining room and a vacant restaurant space behind it. They told him they'd considered the same thing, but concluded “why change a footprint that works so well?”
“And I agree,” Hall says. “SNOB is an institution, and so well-known. I did that a lot of times in the hotel business, when you get your occupancy up and you have a small restaurant, you try to make it larger, and a lot of times I failed.”
Hanging around SNOB also has given Hall a chance to glean ideas for Halls Steakhouse, a restaurant that has never made local-ingredient sourcing a top priority.
“Peaches were brought into SNOB yesterday for the peach cobbler that they do,” Hall says. “(Lee) introduced me to the farmer who brought the peaches in. I told him, 'Wait a minute. Stop.' He has a crate left over. I told him, 'Take it down to Halls, please.' That's where we're going to take advantage of Frank's knowledge.”
Now Hall is working with Marconi to streamline the liquor program at Halls properties, sorting out which spirits belong in the standard lineup.
“Halls has one back bar, SNOB has one back bar,” Hall explains. “David in this exercise saw he did not have a good selection of bourbons at SNOB or High Cotton, which we have at Halls, so that's how we're working together. We're trying to take the best of the best.”