A cross-county dash, drink and dine at five of the Kenny’s restaurants
It started with one innocent drink—Homage to “Sam”—Kenny’s personally selected Knob Creek nine year Bourbon with lemon, honey and ginger beer. What ensued was a cross-county dash, drink and dine at five out of the six Kenny’s restaurants. There was talk of business, Boston, travelling, cooking, dogs and drag car racing. There was food for days; literally, we took leftovers. There were drinks—2 cocktails, one adult shake, two beers and two glasses of wine to be exact. There were table side martinis too, but by that time we’d lost the ability to count. There was even impromptu an autograph signing.
We meet at Kenny’s Smoke House at The Shops at Legacy, and hit it off right away. Kenny grew up in Boston, and I went to college there.
“I’m a big dog person,” Kenny says as he reaches for his Homage to “Sam.” A seemingly random comment until I realize that the drink is actually named after his dog. “He was a Shar Pei, and he lived to the age of 16. My business partner wanted to honor him.” Pulling up a picture on his phone he reminisces, “That was Sam, he was my boy.” As the night progresses, Kenny’s love of dogs becomes a recurring theme.
It’s still early and we haven’t even had a bite of food yet, but as the conversation naturally progresses to whiskey, I glean a morsel of what makes Kenny’s so successful.
“Before we opened, we took a tour of Jim Beam in Kentucky. We saw a big pile of wood … staves from the barrels. They were going to trash them, so, we asked if we could have some,” says Kenny. That old “trash” now forms part of the Smoke House’s unique decor. Apparently if you lick them they taste like bourbon … but I’d need a few more drinks before I’d give that a try.
Lesson one of Kenny’s How To Open A Successful Restaurant: recycle, reuse and reinvent. It’s a principle Kenny has applied to the opening of every one of his six restaurants.
“We only use second generation spaces; we always have to take something and make it work. We do a lot of it ourselves. We do our deals for about $300,000 while most restaurants will spend upwards of a million. We don’t have these big bank loans to pay back, so they’re usually profitable pretty quickly.”
Lesson two: not good food, great food. Low start-up costs means there’s money to spend on the food. A good example is the Jalapeño Cheese Sausage.
“Making sausage is something that’s outside of our realm. So, we get it from Southside Market in Elgin in South Central Texas—the heart of Texas barbecue. We looked at all these other sausages that were a lot more cost effective, but once you try it…” He trails off as he takes a big bite and smacks his lips.
Other examples include: tiramisu flown in from Rome; Jalapeño Cornbread baked at Spigas Italian Bakery in Addison; Ahi Tuna Nachos made with sushi grade fish; and popovers lovingly baked at 4:30 a.m. every morning from a recipe Kenny tweaked from Neiman’s.
When it comes to his restaurants, Kenny is driven by an obsessive compulsion to either seek out the very best, or do it himself—over and over and over again.
It’s exactly how he came up with the perfect dough recipe for Kenny’s East Coast Pizza, which is where we head to next.
“I gained, like, 25 pounds [while perfecting the dough recipe]. For a year and a half all I did was drink wine and make pizza every night,” Kenny says as he grabs a slice of Hot Mess, a deluxe version of a meat-lovers.
You can taste his passion. The crust is perfect; doughy, crispy—and just a little charred.
Also on the table is a Philly Cheese Steak pizza, an oozing mountain of shaved ribeye, mozzarella, provolone, white American cheese, mushroom and onion. It’s out of this world, as are Kenny’s Original Oven Roasted Wings. They’re enormous, as big as my hand, perfectly crispy, juicy and topped with garlic, herbs, red pepper flakes and parmesan.
Kenny reaches for another slice of pizza. “If you want to include this in your article you can,” he interjects with a sly grin, “I just want to say that I am single and available.“
He’s wasn’t joking, ladies. He wasn’t hitting on me either.
Kenny continues, “I was thinking of wearing it on a shirt. But I was advised against that.”
On that note, we head on over to Kenny’s Burger Joint.
As he tells me about his new dog, a 118-pound British Mastiff named Sir Charles Bowers of the Royal Borough of South Kensington, our table is filled with beers, an adult milkshake, Bacon Wrapped Jalapeños, a burger and Kenny’s Loaded Cheese Fries.
By this point I’ve had so many jalapeños I’m starting to worry about the aftereffects. In the future I’ll take advantage of their unique “you can buy only one” policy. They don’t shout about it, but you can buy just one of basically anything on the menu: one Bacon Wrapped Jalapeño, one Lobster Deviled Egg, one Pulled Pork Tostada.
That’d be lesson three: be flexible. Because if I want just one of Kenny’s “Midnight” Meatballs, then why not?
As I take a dainty sip of the pink upside-down pineapple adult milkshake, Kenny decides to mention his drag car racing hobby. His top speed? Just shy of 200, 198.1mph. I’ve never felt less manly. Somehow the fact that he hates roller coasters was comforting—as was the tale of how he came to be at the head of one of DFW’s most successful restaurant groups.
Lesson four: What does every overnight success have in common? Years of hard work.
For Kenny, that hard work started as soon as he moved from Boston to Texas to work with his uncle and cousins in the insurance industry. Three years in, one of his regulars, a famous chef in Dallas—Jack Chaplin aka Daddy Jack—told him that he’d sold his restaurant and wanted to open a seafood place. Despite having no experience in the business, Kenny convinced Jack to partner with him.
“I got 40 percent of the business and we opened lock, stock and barrel for $20,000. It was the best deal I ever made,” Kenny told me.
A few years later, Kenny sold his share to Jack and over the next decade or so he opened two more restaurants: Lefty’s in Addison and Big Fish, Little Fish on Henderson in Dallas. He also returned to insurance and even tried to branch out into packaging.
Enter Randy Dewitt, current CEO of Front Burner Restaurants, and Bill Bane of Fish City and Half Shells, with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“They offered me $60,000 a year, a cell phone and a minivan. I didn’t have to work nights and they gave me some sweat equity,” Kenny tells me as I take a handful of cheese fries—which are also smothered in jalapeños, by the way.
Seven years later however he decided it was time to open his own restaurant again, Kenny’s Wood Fire Grill. “That was 11 years ago,” he says with a smile as he finishes his beer.
It’s an obvious question, but I can’t resist, “Which one is your favorite?” I ask.
“I love all my children,” Kenny is quick to declare, “but I have to say the Italian is my favorite. It’s not the food; it’s the red checked tablecloths, you smell parmesan cheese when you walk in. It’s this small, little, teeny place you know.”
As we walk into our fourth stop of the night, Kenny’s Italian Kitchen, I see his name lit up in lights. A flashback to our first stop makes me laugh out loud—a customer asking for his autograph. Kenny swears it wasn’t staged, but I’m not convinced.
That brings me to lesson five: branding.
By naming all six of his restaurants after himself, not only is Kenny a little bit of a narcissist, he’s also a marketing genius. I don’t think I need to explain why.
We end at Kenny’s Wood Fire Grill. “We had the entire Dallas Cowboys defensive line in here last night; there was 15 of them and their bill was only about $1000 dollars. So, they ordered nine shots of Louis XIII which is 140 bucks a shot.” He’s not bragging, he just thinks it’s really cool.
Kenny’s flagship restaurant is completely packed so we sit at a table in the bar. We order tableside martinis and snack on Ahi Nachos and Tenderloin Crostini. By the second martini, it’s a good time to ask what I really want to know. Is Kenny’s going national?
I start out slow, “When you were coming up with concepts, were there plans for scaling in the future?”
“No, we never wanted to expand, all we wanted was one restaurant,” he replies, as a waiter whisks away his martini glass, replacing it in one fresh from the freezer. Every five minutes or so, the staff provide new cold glasses to keep the drinks perfectly chilled.
“So, there’s no plans to make this national?” I press.
“No,” he says.
I’m still not convinced. “But if the inspiration comes, you might open up 10 more because you’re inspired by the right concept?”
Finally, he caves. “If the inspiration comes and a location comes that makes sense, we could definitely duplicate.”
He sits back and quietly sips his martini. Perhaps he’s pondering the future of Kenny’s; perhaps he’s thinking about Sir Charles; or perhaps he’s imagining the lady he hopes we’ll help him find.
Turns out it was none of the above. He was simply surveying his kingdom—a well-oiled machine buzzing away around us.
“That’s the key to our whole company— taking care of people. And I’m talking about to the nth degree,” he emphasizes. “We give away seven percent of what we sell. We do that if things are good and we do that if things are bad. If it’s humanly possible, we’ll do it.”
He has dozens of examples to prove it. “We don’t do espresso or cappuccino, but if you wanted one someone would run over to Starbucks to get it. Or if you wanted cheesecake, we’d run over to Jason’s Deli. When we first opened [11 years ago] some people wanted the Houston’s pork chop, so I ran over there to get it.”
The motto at Kenny’s is “Everyone leaves happy.” Not just the guests, the team too. “At the end of the night, if our staff doesn’t get tipped, we’ll give them cash or buy them dinner,” he says.
It’s the final lesson, and the most important: make people happy.
When Kenny sums up with “I’m a neurotic people pleaser”, I believe him—it’s the secret behind his success. It’s why I wouldn’t be surprised if Kenny does Kenny’s over and over and over again.
And that, ladies, is Kenny Bowers. Businessman. Dog Lover. Foodie. Restaurateur. Neurotic People Pleaser. Good Cook. Enjoys Car Racing. Hates Roller Coasters. Entrepreneur. Visionary. Single. Available. A Really Cool Guy.