Hussong’s Saved My Life

hussongscottfrost

 

vegas.eater.com

The president of Titan, which owns Hussong’s Cantina at Mandalay Place, was paralyzed after a motorcycle accident eight months before opening. “Paralysis is 20 percent physical and 80 percent mental. If I was doing nothing but staring at the ceiling, I wouldn’t be here,” he says.

Scott Frost likes to say that Hussong’s Cantina has been pouring fun down people’s throats since 2010. The Mexican restaurant, the first franchise of the Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, bar that opened in 1892, seemed like a smooth transition when Frost and his company Titan signed the contract to open the first U.S. outlet. Then Frost was in a motorcycle accident that paralyzed him. That didn’t stop him from moving forward with Hussong’s, which opened eight months later at Mandalay Place. Frost even kept his promise to walk at the opening for the bar that claims to have invented the margarita in 1941. Now Hussong’s has a second location in Reno and plans to open more off-Strip by the end of the year. Here Frost talks about how Hussong’s came together, how Hussong’s helped him recover from his injuries and why the restaurant is like a family to him now.

How did Hussong’s Cantina come together?
That’s a funny story. My partner Jeff Marks is from So Cal. We were sitting here in 2008, the economy had tanked. We just had a big deal fall through at New York-New York. The week we signed the lease the stock market dropped 2,500 points. He thought we should go after Hussong’s, this little dive bar. I thought it was a super cool story.

Ricardo Hussong, founder Johan grandson, owns and runs the bar. I met with Ricardo in San Francisco. The deal came together rather quickly. Everyone wanted to do one in Southern California. We wanted Vegas, and that peaked his interest.

Chocolate Swan was going out of business at Mandalay Place. They made handmade fudge and the owner was getting too old to make fudge, so she was giving up the space. It was in immaculate condition. Every piece of machinery had the owner’s manual taped to the front.

That was in May 2009. Hussong’s is a bar, and not a restaurant. The brand identifiers are the red bar, an eclectic mix of photos and the eland head. We knew what it would look like. We didn’t know what kind of food we would have.

I was out motorcycle riding and I break my neck right smack in the middle of the lease negotiations. I say, “Don’t stop. I’m the same guy from the shoulders up.” I had no brain damage. I set up an office in rehab and slide my Blackberry into my neck brace.

Paralysis is 20 percent physical and 80 percent mental. If I was doing nothing but staring at the ceiling, I wouldn’t be here. I proved I had something to contribute. Eleven days into therapy and I’m going through the last details. I send the final agreement over and looked at Megan [his fiance at the time] and said, “I’m back. When I get out of this place, I’m going to open a restaurant.”

The last thing I was working on before the accident was an RFP for a nightclub at Wild Horse Pass Casino that was due the following Wednesday after the accident. We got a contract to open a nightclub at the same time.

I should break my neck more often. It seems good for business. That was a big part of my recovery was keeping busy mentally.

What have you learned in the first five years of running Hussong’s?
I learned that I could no longer be a micromanager I couldn’t do everything. Even when I got out the hospital, I tried to micromanage and I couldn’t do it. Let your team do their jobs. That was one of the things we struggled with in the first year — me letting go and letting the team do their jobs. The team stepped up. I managed the expectations instead.

What were you thinking about in terms of design of the restaurant?
Jeff Marks, my partner, is a lawyer by trade. Little did we know, Jeff has an interior designer inside him screaming to get out. We had a shoestring budget and we had to make it look like Hussong’s. An interior designer came in and said it would cost $67,000. Jeff said he could decorate this place for five grand. He went down to Hussong’s and took pictures of all the original art, the charcoals and stuff. He went on eBay to buy all this kitschy Vegas stuff. He bought the eland head on eBay. He made the Hussong’s logo out of poker chips. He came up here and for two weeks he was drilling, putting stuff in frames, and going to Goodwill. The total bill was $5,400. He’s the guy who decorated Hussong’s. The key is make it look lived in for a while. Too orderly and it looks decorated. It’s got that randomness that made it look it had been there for years.

What was the menu testing process like?
We were really fortunate. We decided to go to the best Mexican restaurants — Pink Taco, Dos Caminos and Diablo’s Cantina. We went out there and started talking to everybody and this name kept coming up — Noe Alcala. He came on board and loved the concept and what we were trying to do. He was our first hire. He’s a funny guy. He’s a good culture fit. We have a set of core values. As we’ve grown to 170 employees now, we live and die by a set of core values. The fruit is starting to bloom for the seed you planted back then. It’s a culture void of drama. People enjoy coming to work. We promote from within. We have a bunch of people who’ve been with us for five years.

Do you get a lot of locals in the restaurant?
We actually do. We have a good set of regulars. We’ve been approached to open more restaurants in Las Vegas, Southern California, Arizona, Minnesota and Tennessee. You’ll see a lot more Hussong’s in Las Vegas. I think we were a tourist place but people were coming down to Mandalay Bay to check out a show. We’ve grown into the food. The menu’s gotten better. I think they will embrace us more when they don’t have to come down to the Strip.

What changed over the years?
I’m balder.

To be honest, our food has gotten better. I think we really hit our stride with the food. We have an excellent bar program. I’ll put or margaritas up against anyone’s. We’re approachable on the menu side but we’ve been able to branch out and be adventuresome without being pretentious. If we try to get too fancy with the food, it wouldn’t fit with the decor.

What’s the most unexpected thing that happened over the past five years?
I think the most unexpected thing that happened is we set out to open a restaurant and we really created a family. That sounds cliche but I did’nt expect that to happen. There are people I really care for at this restaurant. I didn’t expect to get attached. They’ve been with me every step of the way, pun intended.

How about the craziest thing?
That happens every night. I have seen some of the craziest stuff, both bad and good. When we’re creating memories. When you know somebody is doing something they can go back and tell their friends about.

We had the mariachis in town. We had about 50 Mexican nationals from Ensenada who knew the place, and they tore up the place. It was like a quinceañera broke out in the back of the restaurant. They were singing and dancing, drinking their faces off, taking their clothes off. Someone transplanted this Mexican bar in Vegas and that’s what we set off to do. That’s when we knew we’d done it right.

What’s the must order dish of the moment?
The one thing that blew me away is the barbecue pork quesadilla. It eats like a meal. It’s not an appetizer, it’s an entree.

What’s on tap for the future?
Your going to see an off-Strip location in the second quarter of 2015 with a second location possibly by fourth quarter 2015 off-Strip.

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