How I Made It

Before Lazy Dog, years of toil

The gig: Chris Simms, 40, is chief executive and founder of the Huntington Beach-based Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar chain. The casual dining company, founded in 2003, has 16 locations, with plans to open three more by year's end. Simms employs 2,000 people and aims to increase profit and revenue about 25% a year.

Eating empire: The Los Angeles native often jokes that he was doomed from birth to go into the restaurant business. His grandfather Arthur and father, Tom, founded the Kettle Restaurant in Manhattan Beach, and his uncle Scott runs it. Tom founded the Mimi's Café chain. His brother Mike manages the Simmzy's group of restaurants and is a partner in the popular eateries Manhattan Beach Post and Fishing with Dynamite.

The brothers share "tons of ideas," Chris said. "But it's good to have our own successes, our own failures, our own responsibilities — it's important for our family dynamic."

Resistance is futile: "As a typical son, your first reaction is to not do what your dad does," Simms said. "I fought it for a while."

As a teen, he drove a golf cart and built guesthouses before becoming a snack bar attendant at age 15. "It was my first experience with taking care of people and making them happy," he said.

He attended Cornell University's famous hospitality school, where fellow students such as Shake Shack Chief Executive Randy Garutti dubbed themselves hotelies. After graduation, Simms nearly moved to Manhattan to pursue a job in finance. "But I visited friends in the industry and they were miserable, sleeping on their desks," he said. "It made me search my soul."

Practice makes perfect: Simms said he knew he wanted to someday open his own restaurant but "didn't know how to do it." He didn't want to learn at Mimi's, where co-workers might be afraid to correct his mistakes. Simms ended up spending three years as a manager at Asian-themed casual dining chain P.F. Chang's.

One late Friday night, soon after he started the job, co-founder Paul Fleming walked into the La Jolla branch where Simms was working. "There was a three-hour wait, all of the other managers had left and the place looks like a war zone," Simms said. Fleming took Simms for a walk around the restaurant, pointing out how to improve the customer experience. Simms said he learned that day that "guests at 10 p.m. are paying the same amount as those at 7 p.m. and should get the same attention."

Father knows best: Simms' father never pressured him to become a restaurateur. "He was incredible, always my rock, my mentor," Simms said.

When Simms was 26, Fleming asked him to interview for an operating partner position at Pei Wei, then a soon-to-open dining concept. Simms' father urged him to interpret Fleming's request as a vote of confidence in Simms' ability to run his own restaurant company.

So Simms left P.F. Chang's, worked at Mimi's for a year and then launched Lazy Dog. His father, who was guiding Mimi's through an initial public offering and sale at the time, lent his perspective of the restaurant industry.

"Major chains were becoming more efficient and diminishing their food quality with pre-processing and microwaving just as guests were starting to watch the Food Network," Simms said.

Jackson Hole dreams: Simms has spent every summer since he was 7 hiking, fishing and exploring with his family in Jackson Hole, Wyo. His company's vibe is designed to replicate the relaxed, genial feel of the region's lodges. The name is inspired by the sight of the family dog, a black Labrador named Mattie, lounging by the fire while Simms nursed a glass of wine with his father.

Money matters: Friends and family members helped Simms finance Lazy Dog's first dozen restaurants. The recession was "very stressful," Simms said. "People in the industry were doing really erratic, almost destructive things, like a ton of couponing, and it was very tempting at the time." But Lazy Dog didn't resort to layoffs or discounts and took the opportunity to snatch up prime real estate released by larger, suffering chains. Investment firms wouldn't touch the company until a decade in, when private equity firm Brentwood Associates placed a large bet on Lazy Dog.

Baby steps: Lazy Dog's menu is eclectic enough to satisfy Simms, his wife of 12 years, Keri, and his three young daughters. His favorite dishes are the High-Altitude Chicken Tenders with blue cheese dressing and pad Thai.

He loves downtown Los Angeles restaurants such as Wurstkuche and Bestia and said he aims to bring the "edgy, cool food from little urban places into the suburbs."

"A large chunk of America wants to be a bit adventurous, but there needs to be some comfort involved," he said. "Some translation needs to happen."

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

Twitter: @tiffhsulatimes

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