In 1958, a Texas native named David Tallichet was managing a Long Beach hotel when he looked out onto the harbor and saw a spot he thought would be ideal for a restaurant.
The site boasted a prime view of the whole waterfront scene, perfect for the Navy town Long Beach was back then.
Tallichet’s dreams and that of his partners eventually became The Reef, whose Polynesian theme pulled hungry patrons away from the downtown.
Tallichet’s Reef soon expanded to other ventures and into a company called Specialty Restaurants Corp., which was founded in Long Beach and since the 1980s has been based in Anaheim.
The family-owned enterprise is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, a remarkable longevity for any Orange County company, especially one in the volatile hospitality world. Throughout its 60 years, it has owned and operated about 100 restaurants throughout the United States and Mexico. At one point, it ran 77 restaurants at once. It also went public for a period, trading on the American Stock Exchange.
As it were, Tallichet never cared for Specialty Restaurants Corp. being a public company and later regained control of the operation to keep it in the family. Now the company has 19 distinct restaurants, said John Tallichet, one of Tallichet’s children who now heads the company as CEO.
Tallichet, who died in 2007 at age 84, left behind a legacy as one of the pioneers of the themed restaurant. As if that weren’t enough, he was also well known as a collector and restorer of vintage aircraft, having as many as 120. During World War II, Tallichet was a pilot in the European theater. After his service, he continued flying, never losing his love for aviation even as his restaurant empire amassed.
Specialty Restaurants maintains an aviation division — perhaps one of the only hospitality companies anywhere to do so. Among its prized possessions is one of the B-17 Flying Fortresses used in the 1990 film “Memphis Belle.”
John now uses his dad’s old office. It has various memorabilia about, some of it aviation-related. Particularly noticeable are the dark hardwood floors with nails pounded in by Tallichet himself.
John likes to talk about his father and how Specialty Restaurants remains very much a family affair. At 15 years old, John himself started at the bottom: “salad boy” at the Reef. It was a notch above being a dishwasher.
“My dad used to pay us less than other people and expect us to work twice as hard,” John said with a laugh, adding that he eventually became the general manager. “The Reef was a place we all had to pass through in our leadership. It was proving grounds.”
Tallichet’s Depression-era mentality meant everyone earned their way.
“That’s intertwined in the thoughts that go into the company today,” John said. “It’s not about me or any one individual. It’s really about what we do as a family, what we do as a company with our restaurants and how they play a role in the community.”
Much of the Tallichet family remains involved. John’s brother, William, is director of development and aviation. David’s wife, Carol, still makes her way around the company HQ. John and Williams’ children have had roles at the restaurants, which, in Southern California, include Whiskey Red’s in Marina del Rey, Orange Hill in Orange and the 94th Aero Squadron in Van Nuys. The company also owns The Proud Bird, a food bazaar and events center near LAX.
Specialty Restaurants employs as many as 2,000 nationwide during peak seasons.
One aspect that makes the company unique is that all its restaurants are different and most are destinations unto themselves, boasting scenic views. Some are located on publicly owned properties that are leased.
“You have to be good enough to have people come out to you,” John said.
Specialty also does 40% of its business in hosting events.
“You could come for dinner for two and come back with 200,” John said. He added that people are known to have their first date at a Specialty restaurant, get engaged there and also have their wedding there.
“There aren't many places where you can go in and do all of those things in one place,” John said.
Specialty likes the number of restaurants it has now and plans to reinvest in all of them. Though it used to do design in house — Tallichet loved that aspect to the extent that people wondered if he was really running a construction firm, not a restaurant group — Specialty now relies on Costa Mesa-based Hatch Design Group. It also celebrated its 60th with 1958-themed specials.
As for the company’s future, John said it’s not necessarily trying to be a trend-setter, but it wants to stay current. It can’t hold on too tightly to the past.
“You have to make room for the things that people like,” he said. “Change is just part of a restaurant. Sometimes it’s upsetting to some people, but if it works right, you don’t upset too many people who go there. And you create an attractive restaurant for new people.”