Restaurants and nightclubs open and fold all the time, but the Morton family name has stayed in business for generations. But Harry Morton, the family’s youngest restaurateur, is working to make his way in the industry on his own merit. His father, Peter Morton, founded Hard Rock Café and opened the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas; he sold both. His grandfather, the late Arnie J. Morton, founded Morton’s Steakhouse and partnered with Hugh Hefner in the ’60s to open the Playboy Club chain. The young Morton spent his childhood playing in restaurants and touring kitchens. He dropped out of college to manage marketing for his father’s hotel. Today, he owns three restaurants: Pink Taco in Las Vegas and Century City, and Fukuburger, a Japanese-inspired burger joint in Hollywood. Morton is also owner of the Viper Room, a famous nightclub on the Sunset Strip. These days, 30-year-old Morton spends most of his time readying a building on the Sunset Strip for another Pink Taco, making it a chain of three restaurants. Morton sat down with the Business Journal recently to talk about how he got into the family business, the future of his restaurants and his favorite rock music.
Question: Why did you get into the restaurant business? Answer: I grew up in the business, and I think – by osmosis almost – I just sort of absorbed it. On the weekends I would go to lunch at the Hard Rock with my dad. We’d go and check on the business, walking around the kitchen inspecting stuff and talking to managers. Plus, my dad’s business, it was putting on Rolling Stones shows on the weekends, and had black-jack pits and the best-rated swimming pool in America. (That was at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.) I was naturally drawn in.
What does a typical day look like for you? I get up around 7:30 and I meditate. I’m big on transcendental meditation. I get into the office at 8:30 or 9. We do a lot of marketing in the company, so we always have team meetings in the morning, but generally my days are flexible. Occasionally I’ll have lunch at outside places, but I’m at Fukuburger and Pink Taco every day. If I’m at one for lunch, I’m at the other in the evening.
And the rest of the day? Right now, because I’m building out the Sunset venue, I have a lot of construction meetings, a lot of design meetings and a lot of on-site stuff. I usually take off at 5 o’clock for a couple hours to do yoga, play tennis or work out. I like to work out every day. Then I’ll go back to one of my restaurants and stay till 10 or 11 o’clock. Sometimes I’ll go out if I’m up for it. I love eating and going out to try new places.
How did you get into transcendental mediation? The most honest answer to that is Howard Stern. He’s the biggest proponent of it, and I listen to him every day on the radio in the car. He’s kind of a neurotic, crazy guy. I kept hearing Howard talk about how it calms him and turns the noise off in his head. I started researching it and reading up on it. My day is very full, and I’m constantly looking for new ideas, so the 20 minutes I spend meditating calms me and compartmentalizes stuff in my head. It really helps me focus.
Tell me about your new restaurant, Fukuburger. We came across a space we liked, and we were looking at a lot of different concepts to put there. I have my feelers everywhere, and over the last 12 months I had started hearing a lot about Fukuburger, a food truck in Vegas. I met the guys, and I loved the story behind it. They were very sort of anti-establishment, stick-it-to-the-man kind of guys. They started this truck and it just took off. It was big among clubgoers and late night. So I saw it, tried it, breathed it, understood it and it was awesome. I said, “Let’s do a deal.”
How have things gone so far? We’re new, only three months old. It’s always a challenge launching an entirely new brand. You’ve got to work twice as hard. Opening a new Pink Taco – it’s established, people know it. But with Fukuburger, you’ve got growing pains, and you’ve got to fix things and get the kinks out. One of the challenges is that it was a truck first. We didn’t bring a franchise out here, so we had to tweak things.
The name Fukuburger is a little provocative, don’t you think? It’s honestly not, and there’s such a basic explanation for it. Fuku in Japanese means “lucky.” It’s basically called Lucky Burger. Anyone who knows Asian culture knows it means lucky, and it’s an homage to the creator’s family. The creator of it and my partner’s name is Fukunaga.
I understand there was some controversy years ago with the name Pink Taco, too. The controversy came from one person – the mayor of Scottsdale, Ariz. She took a personal disliking to the name. But she was ultimately voted out of office because she put a lot of her personal agenda ahead of the political agenda.
So you think most people weren’t offended? People in Scottsdale told us they loved the name and were not offended. I would not expand the brand if I found that the name was offensive or that it would hamper our expansion. Did we stoke the fire? Absolutely. I don’t know a lot of restaurants that in their first expansion were on “Saturday Night Live” two weeks in a row and that had Jon Stewart do a 10-minute piece on. Ultimately, I could thank the mayor for the press.
When did you open the first Pink Taco? My dad actually opened the first Pink Taco in the Hard Rock Hotel in 1999. I was 18. At that point, I was only working summers. After he sold the Hard Rock Café, he had no interest in rolling out another restaurant chain. He’d done that for a long time; it wasn’t much of a challenge for him anymore. So he said to me, “Why don’t you take a look at it?” And I thought it made sense.
Does your dad invest in your restaurants? No, my dad’s not investing in my stuff. I brought on my own investors. A lot of investors that I have met with say, “Why doesn’t your dad just put up the money?” The answer is that I’ve made a conscious decision to separate my business from my dad. My dad is my dad. I don’t want him to be my boss, my banker or my lender. We keep it separate. I’d rather have my dad who I can go to and talk to and bounce ideas off versus being my boss.
Why didn’t you graduate from college? I didn’t pay as much attention as I probably should have in class. I was in the hospitality management school, and I was spending my summers working for my family in Vegas. Working at the casino gave me real hands-on experience, and going back to class to learn about how to run a front desk or learn how to calculate room rates was like going from sixth gear to first gear. I was just sort of sitting in class twiddling my thumbs.
How did you get started with your own restaurants? My father sold the hotel in May 2006. After he sold it, I went full time into my stuff. That’s when I started Harry Morton Holdings. From there it was off to the races with my stuff. Now that includes opening the new Pink Taco on Sunset next month. We’re looking at another deal in Las Vegas right now and then we’re looking at expanding Fukuburger next.
Did you ever consider getting into anything other than restaurants? I was always drawn to the music business. I thought about opening a recording studio when I was in college, but that’s when Napster came out. It changed everything. Sean Fanning (of Napster) was on the cover of all the magazines. Napster threw the biggest curveball ever at the recording industry. But also at that point, a real pop music wave came out, boy bands like the Backstreet Boys and all that stuff. That’s really what was selling. MTV turned from rock ’n’ roll to pop. I knew if I wanted to be successful, I would have to move with the market trends, and in my mind that meant I would have to sell out and record pop. I didn’t want to do that.
It sounds like you’re really interested in music, though. Yeah, music is the backbone of all my companies, and music is what built the Hard Rock. I grew up in a generation where MTV still played music. What actually drove me to start working was one summer I got up and watched MTV from 10 a.m. till 10 p.m. every day. My parents finally said, “This ain’t happening again.” They said, “Next summer, you’re starting work.”
Who are some of your favorite bands? Van Halen, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I have a really varied collection of music. I think I’m at 19,000 songs on my iTunes at home right now. I have very eclectic taste in music, and it kind of changes. Right now I’m on a big Cuban music kick. Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, that sort of stuff. I was on a Brazilian kick before. Frank Sinatra and Joe Bean’s album together is probably one of my favorite albums of all time. I’ve always been a big fan of Massive Attack. I love Jack Johnson. And I’m unapologetically not interested in pop music.
Who influences you? I study businessmen who interest me, but obviously my dad is my closest study. I look up to him first. He’s my sounding board. I’m going into the industry he did really well in. Otherwise, I’m a huge fan of Ted Turner and Richard Branson. I love what Tony Hsieh did at Zappos. Danny Meyer – many people say his book is the bible of the restaurant industry. He’s a guy I hugely respect. Those are the kind of guys I look to mimic.
What’s the best advice you ever got? I think business can throw you a lot of curveballs, and the key is to see the positive and learn from every situation. My father has really helped me with that this year. My father and my grandfather taught me that as long as you nail the basics, a lot of the rest really falls in place. Just serve great food at great prices and take care of everybody.
What’s an example of a curveball you learned from? The economy went to hell in the last few years. A lot of hospitality businesses were down 20 to 30 percent. Obviously, I couldn’t grow my business then as quickly as I wanted to. There was a point where we put the brakes on and said we’re going to make sure what we’ve got gets through this. I learned a lot of lessons through that period that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life. My father and I, we discuss this at length. There will be more corrections in the market. The lesson I’ll take from the curveball of the economy is you better be ready for that to happen again. Now that’s always in the back of my mind.
Harry Morton TITLE: Chairman COMPANY: Harry Morton Holdings BORN: London; 1981. EDUCATION: Studied hospitality management at New York University for three years but did not graduate. CAREER TURNING POINT: Leaving NYU to work for the family business in Las Vegas. MOST INFLLUENTIAL PEOPLE: His father, Peter Morton, founder of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. PERSONAL: Three siblings – one older and two younger; lives alone in Hollywood. “My work is my wife and my businesses are my kids, and I see it being that way for quite some time.” ACTIVITIES: Transcendental meditation, yoga, tennis and live music.
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