Success on Tap

Kathy Strong Restaurants

Steele Platt, founder and CEO of Yard House restaurants, no longer accepts being described as a risk taker.

“I am not a risk taker anymore,” he says. “I have money now, so today I worry about losing it instead of making it.”

In August 2007, Platt, a part-time La Quinta resident who launched his restaurants with clever negotiations with landlords and loans from a few friends, watched his bank account grow from $200,000 to $38 million when money was wired to his account after he sold a majority stake in Yard House equity to
a private investment firm.

“I kept hitting the refresh button,” he says, remembering the day he finally knew he had made it. “It was like winning the Lotto, but I didn’t feel any different. I was the same person. I showed up for work the next day.”

Last summer, the 52-year-old Platt paid $3.5 million cash for a 5,000-square-foot, Spanish-style villa overlooking a waterfall and stream in Madison Club, where his neighbors include Sylvester Stallone and Fred Couples.

You are the son and grandson of naval officers. What made you want to go into the restaurant business?    
Those were post-Vietnam days, so I had no interest in following in my family’s footsteps. My goal at 18 was to own a restaurant, so I got a degree in hotel and restaurant management from the University of Denver. I found I was very creative, thinking all the time of new ideas.

Yet, after some success in Denver with a restaurant and a bar, you ended up closing the business over a dispute with the landlord. What happened then?
I had a small inheritance from my father’s death and an idea and a business plan for a new restaurant concept, but I couldn’t interest anyone and ended up declaring bankruptcy. I asked my mother and brother for gas money, and they declined.

What changed your luck?
I saw a “for lease” sign in Long Beach’s Shoreline Village that at the time had lots of vacancies. I asked three friends to invest, as well as the landlord of the building. [By 2000, the first Yard House was ranked by Los Angeles Business Journal as No. 3 in sales for restaurants in the county.]

What is your formula for success, with 33 Yard House restaurants and more coming?
Our niche is a large space, hundreds of beers on tap, good basic food, great music and lighting — and landlords that have to invest in my restaurants. … Music at the Yard House is really what makes us different.     

What led to your opening in 2001 of the Yard House at The River at Rancho Mirage, the third in the chain?
I was always going to the desert to golf, and it made sense geographically to connect the dots from the beach and L.A. to the desert. We had to convince Jerry Snyder [The River’s developer] that the 11,000-square-foot space would work better as a restaurant space than a retail space. I also said he had to give me at least $1 million before I would take it.

Has it been a successful location?
Ever since the location opened, business has been consistent. It is right above average for other Yard Houses, although I can’t compare it to our higher-volume restaurants. The River itself has a lot to do with our success [in the Coachella Valley]. I remember we were packed on opening day. We would never consider closing in the summer. We stay busy year-round. Jerry promised me he would never put in a Cheesecake Factory, and then he did. After a few weeks, it did not affect us. It is all about being in the niche. I just signed a 10-year extension on the lease.

How do watch over your operations?
Most of the employees have no idea who I am, which is fine. When I go in [to one of my restaurants], I know I can’t quality check 140 items [on the menu]. I’ll peek in the kitchen maybe; but, mostly, I look at my customers’ eyes to see their expressions when they take their first bite … and check on the volume of the music. I spend about 45 minutes each morning designing the day’s song list for all the Yard Houses, as a digital text file, to coincide with the time of the day guests are dining. No one has touched the music in Yard House but me for 15 years. If you know the song, you make a connection. You can tell if I’m in a good mood or a bad one or heartbroken by the songs that I play that day.

What is your No. 1 rule for selecting music?
If I don’t recognize a song in the first five notes, I don’t use it.

How does Madison Club fit your lifestyle?
I’m a casual guy. Madison is laid back and never crowded. People who live here don’t want to be crowded.

Why did you choose a villa away from the golf course?
When I’m here, I’m at the golf course all day, so why come home and look at a golf course? I plan to buy a lot and build a house at Madison Club as my retirement home, but that takes two years. I look forward to designing a house with a mini Yard House bar in it.

What is most important to you in your home?
The entertainment center with a 60-inch, flat-screen television. There is also a control room for three satellites, six televisions, and the Internet system. It can all be controlled from any location. I paid $110,000 for the wiring system [a mini-version of the one in his $10 million house overlooking the Pacific’s Crystal Cove in Newport Beach].

Your name sounds more like a Hollywood moniker. Is Grafton Steele Platt Jr. your given name?
Yes. My grandmother’s last name was Steele, and Grafton was my mother’s middle name. I’ve always gone by Steele, but we call my son Grafton or GP3. It is a better time for unique names like Grafton than when I was a kid.

Your 8-year-old son lives with his mother, whom you never married. What is your relationship like with him?
I’m not a soccer dad, but we spend a lot of time together. If I had married, I might not have taken the business risks I did early on. I want to watch my son grow up to be whatever he wants. I have a three-bedroom house at Lake Havasu and a 98-foot boat called Your Beer Money. Grafton and I like to spend time there.

Are you a confirmed bachelor?  
I might marry or have more children one day. I just need to meet the right person.

How would you describe your personality?    
I guess I’m a voluntary introvert who chooses to be quiet. But I can jump into a crowd at the snap of a finger. I was the class clown in school. I have a dry sense of humor. People don’t always know when I am kidding. I’ve been small-talked to death in business. It is nice to be mellow and nonconfrontational.

Where do you see yourself in the next decade?
I will still be a part of the Yard House operations and continue adding five to six locations a year.

Might you ever start another restaurant in the desert?
I want to start a little restaurant of my own — not a Yard House — close to here, probably in Old Town La Quinta, called Steele’s Dive Bar. I’ll serve and rotate 12 of my favorite things [on the menu], play my play list, have some billiards and darts, and put 20 pictures of people diving on the wall — diving, dive, get it?

How about retiring one day?
Three years from now, I hope to live at Madison Club six months of the year. It is like golf heaven without having to die. Since this will be my retirement home, I’ll just call the concierge to change my oxygen.