On a recent Wednesday, Harry Morton sits at the head of a conference table at the Pink Taco offices on Sunset Boulevard. To his left, a bookshelf displays framed photos of Morton in Vanity Fair and Men’s Vogue along with articles on how at 27 years old, he decided to buy the Viper Room.
Now 33, he may best be known as a member of the Morton family of hospitality tycoons. His father, Peter, co-founded the Hard Rock Cafes and Hotels, and his grandfather, Arnie, founded Morton’s The Steakhouse. He doesn’t look like the typical CEO of a major company, wearing jeans and a crisp white oxford with the sleeves rolled up to reveal a tattoo that reads “karma,” but he is sitting atop a Los Angeles food and beverage empire he’s building himself, one taco and margarita at a time.
In Los Angeles, Pink Taco has become a destination for people looking to party on the Sunset Strip with Mexican food, good music and plenty of tequila. But Morton is looking to expand his empire with two more Pink Taco locations in Los Angeles by the end of the year, and 80 to 100 restaurants internationally in the next 120 months.
For his Wednesday morning meeting, Morton sits with his chief of marketing officer Azadeh Hawkins to discuss a social media plan and the latest round of Pink Taco restaurant promotions. His assistant has just brought him his daily round of morning wellness shots containing wheat grass and a variety of other vibrantly colored liquids and a protein shake.
He takes a Sharpie and draws on some mock-ups of the promotions. Unsatisfied, he crosses them all out. Then he demands a better artist.
“When you’re at a casino we have you for two to three days, and in a restaurant it’s more like two hours,” says Morton. “To me it’s not about Michelin stars, it’s about giving people what they want.”
After the meeting, Morton ducks into his corner office to check his email. He clicks away on a Hooter’s mouse pad with two breasts serving as the wrist rest -- something he says he’s had for the past 10 years. His desk is covered in stacks of magazines with everything from Conde Nast Traveler to Bloomberg Businessweek.
“I keep track of all the news,” says Morton. “All the serious stuff and all the TMZ stuff for my businesses."
Pink Taco attracts its share of TMZ coverage with a celebrity clientele that includes everyone from “Pretty Little Liars” star Lucy Hale to comedian Russell Brand and actor Johnny Depp. Morton is also an investor in Beacher’s Madhouse, the variety show frequented by celebrities and socialites in Vegas and at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood.
Around 10:30 a.m., Morton sifts through a pile of boxes in a corner of his office containing the new line of denim and shirts he’s developed to sell at the Viper Room. In another corner of the office there’s a desk covered in blueprints. When he has time, Morton is overseeing renovations on his L.A. home.
After inspecting the clothing, Morton returns to the conference room to reconnect with Hawkins and discuss a Pink Taco VIP loyalty app. He and his partner Brett Markinson have created a smartphone app that will allow certain clients special perks at the restaurant. It will tell the restaurant when a member has arrived, their favorite order and provide special offers. Wanting to stay involved, he asks to be copied on all emails to and from every member.
Morton, who attended but didn’t finish business school at NYU, taught himself the hospitality business by working summers at the Hard Rock Hotel in Vegas, eventually becoming vice president of development. He’s hired a new team to help standardize his brand, and devoted the last year and a half to figuring out a way to turn Pink Taco into a winning commodity, where food is important, but also part of a bigger picture.
“There are 2,000 places to get a chicken taco in L.A., and we’re never going to have the best,” says Morton, juggling an iPhone in one hand and a Blackberry in the other. “Our goal is we balance all the little pieces of the puzzle. The music, great ambience ... there are 1,000 other ways to win the game.”
Part of that game is a new Pink Taco tequila, a brand of salsa and co-branding and licensing deals for a slew of other products.
Morton gets on a conference call with the company he may hire to make the liquor. He’s just sold off his investments in DeLeon and is looking to make a lower-end brand for the restaurant.
“I want to go up against Fireball and Jagermeister,” explains Morton. “I don’t want to be talking about agave, the oak barrels ... I want to be talking about the party.”
After the call, Morton jumps into Hawkins’ Mercedes SUV to drive over the Hollywood Hills to Studio City. He’s meeting his real estate agent to check out a location for a potential Pink Taco. He navigates, telling Hawkins when to turn, speed up and even reaches over at one point to honk the horn at a slower driver.
At the space, on a corner of Ventura Boulevard, Morton walks around the old gutted restaurant and grunts, trying to picture a lively Pink Taco amongst the crumbling cement and wood on the ground. When he and his father opened the first Pink Taco at the Hard Rock Hotel in Vegas and began getting franchise offers, Morton, who never intended to be in the restaurant business, saw it as an opportunity to build his own brand and opened locations in Los Angeles.
“It would have been different if my family owned like Holiday Inns in Cleveland and I probably wouldn’t have gotten as much into it,” jokes Morton.
Just before 2 p.m., Morton is back over the hill at the Century City Pink Taco location to meet with David Ficklen, his director of operations. Morton goes through the employee and manager daily task checklists and proceeds to edit each one carefully with a pen. He then turns his attention to guacamole quality control.
“I think I like the one with the smaller pieces of onion it in,” says Morton after a bite.
An hour later the Stanley Cup playoffs cut Morton’s work day short. Normally he wouldn’t head home until late in the afternoon or evening, and he still needs to visit the Pink Taco Sunset location to check on Unbreakable, a new gym he opened on top of the restaurant.
“We had the extra space so we went really super high end with a private member gym,” explains Morton, who is working with powerhouse trainers Jay Glazer and Chuck Liddel. “Jay trains Puff Daddy,” he continues matter-of-factly. “It’s a good blend for the space.”
The Sunset location visit will have to wait until tomorrow. He leaves the office to meet with his brother and father at the Staples Center, but he isn’t done for the evening.
He makes plans to meet Hawkins later that evening with some promoters before leaving the office. “You know, if you want to be successful, you have to kind of do the necessary steps the big boys are doing.”
The next morning he’ll wake up early for either a yoga session or an early morning workout before work. He’s training for an IronMan.