Tastemaker Profile: The Houston Bros
Owning a popular, beloved bar in Los Angeles involves an alchemy of elements and is no small feat, considering the short shelf life of most bars in the fickle metropolitan city. Being proprietors of ten legendary bars in a city that is the paradigm of picky is an accomplishment never before achieved--that is until The Houston Bros came along. 36-year-old Fraternal twins Jonnie and Mark Houston, have been redefining the LA night-life scene for nearly a decade, housing ten destinations that embody the LA scene’s most influential players--from rock stars, A-list actors, and supermodels, to trend players, Wall Streeters and the local hipsters. Their catalog of establishments peppered throughout LA include: No Vacancy, Good Times at Davey Waynes, Pour Vous, Dirty Laundry, Harvard & Stone, Breakroom 86, La Descarga, Piano Bar, Butchers & Barbers, and Madame Siam.
Their list-topping bars attract a little bit of everyone. Without the velvet rope pretense you’ll find at other fashionable Hollywood watering holes, you can spend the night at one of their establishments and likely bump elbows with anyone from Robert Pattinson and Thom Yorke along with a varietal of indie music ingenues and bleach blondes with disproportionate busts, or butts or both. It’s the delicately curated balance of concept bar meets mainstream party destination. You can find rare top-shelf Japanese Whiskey alongside boozy snowcones. All of it is a delicate symbiosis they somehow juggle. For the congenial Houston Bros, this symbiosis is all about décor, music and libations, each complementing the other. They appeal to the fringe culture dwellers, as well as attracting the up-for-it Tinder accessible singles looking to mingle without the other stinky-doings that have become synonymous with the Hollywood nightclub scene. Majority of their bars come with frill fanfare too--live jazz & indie bands, burlesque dancers, tight-rope walkers, fire-eaters, champion roller skaters, famous chefs, and renowned DJ’s. Not to mention they were the spearheads of the now prevalent ‘craft cocktail’ scene that’s become a staple of any successful LA drinkery. They are known for their welcoming hospitality as much as they are known for their prolific ability to create the quintessential drinking environment. Their takeover continues with a foray into hotels, stadiums and festival ‘pop-up’ bars. These empire builders give the dish on their inspirations, their aspirations, and what’s to come in their budding bar supremacy.
When building a bar, you guys are involved in every morsel of the concept, down to the architecture, the decor, the libations, the music, the theme. When you get together and start to conceive a bar, why is it important for you to be so hands-on with all aspects?
Jonnie: As creative individuals, we have an exact idea of what we want to do. In trying to do those things, people always tell you, ‘you can’t do it yourself, you gotta hire this person’. You’re trained to think, ‘Wow, I do need to hire this architect?’ At one point we tried to use a designer, but it was the most horrible experience. Creating these spaces for us is more about the experience and vibe that we’re trying to get, and a lot of designers don’t understand that. A lot of designers are trying to force you to design a certain way because they think it’s cutting edge. I feel like a lot of designers try to out-do and out-think too, or try too hard rather than give the clientele, the people, what they want. Every space that we have, parts of our brain splatter all over the place.
Mark: I feel like if we dream of it, we can build it, and that’s it.
Jonnie: People have the misconception that we’re in this business to sell booze and we’re not. We’re in this business to sell a vibe and energy.
Mark: The moment you walk into one of our establishments, we want you to leave all your worries and 9-to-5’s behind and start this escapism. Escape from everyday and get immersed into this experience. That’s what life’s about. We’re not ‘bar guys’. We’re creating an experience and a cultural movement. We’re bringing people together. I think that can merge with other beautiful things.
Generally speaking, your bars are fairly open to people. The people that are in a band, or in a film, aren’t segregated behind some VIP red tape. How does it feel to be the ones that really changed the vibe/scene of bars in LA?
Mark: I don’t think anyone’s asked us that. Maybe what sparked us doing what we do was a little selfish. We felt the LA nightlife was stale. We wanted something unique. We didn’t step in this for money, we didn’t step in with the thought that we were going to change anything… we did it for us. We wanted to create a hybrid of something that we would enjoy, and we would hope other people would enjoy too. We didn’t step in thinking we’re gonna change nightlife, what we’ve created has changed us. I think it’s maybe inspired other people. It’s elevating Los Angeles as a whole.
How does it feel to accomplish that?
Mark: It’s not something I’ve ever processed.
Jonnie: Yeah, it’s not like we’re thinking, ‘We’ve done it, let’s go to Disneyland!’ We’re so busy just getting inspired for the next thing that we don’t have time to process what we’ve already done.
How do you think you’ve managed to tow the balance between a bar that A-listers can co-mingle with regular patrons, without attracting unwanted attention and without the aid of the usual velvet rope VIP attitude?
Jonnie: People just wanna be treated like everyone else and I feel like that’s a beautiful thing. Doesn’t matter if you’re Joe Shmoe who works around the corner in a retail store or you’re a celebrity, everyone just wants to be treated the same. It’s beautiful when you put everyone in an environment where everyone can mingle with each other. It’s a pretty sterile world if you’re a celebrity and all you can hang out with is other celebrities. Who gives a shit, we’re all the same people who want to have a good time! That’s what we wanna create. Everyone’s got an interesting story to share. I think that’s what’s important. The diversity and mixture of people from all over the world…the people make it an experience. I feel like we were able to break those boundaries where westsiders, eastsiders, outsiders--everybody from all over the city could merge.
Do you think a lot of your success stems from the way you treat people and your basis of conduct?
Mark: Yeah, I think our longevity and what’s gonna keep us prosperous in the long run because we are we hospitable, we’re genuine to people. That’s the difference. The feeling I got when I went to nightclubs was that it was all smoke and mirrors and all fake. That’s something we strive not to ever do.
Jonnie: As successful as we’ve become, we have not changed. We are the same guys who went into dive bars to have a good time and buy Joe Shmoe a shot because we just had a good conversation. We don’t focus on who you are or what you do, it’s more like, ‘Hey, we’re having a great conversation, let’s hang out.’ That’s what life’s about.
Being brothers so intertwined in business, do you ever feel sibling rivalry?
Mark: First of all, it’s unique to even be able to work with family, we found a dynamic that works for us, and it’s beautiful. We’re brutally honest with each other. We’ve fought like cats and dogs at times. But we’ll go to a space, and our roles flip from time to time, one designs and the other focuses on another aspect, and then it flips back. I think what it’s done for us is we push each other to execute the best approach. We’re always challenging each other. Being siblings and being honest, we work through things--I can’t see myself ever working without my brother. We’re in it together. The beauty is we’re successful together, but if we even fall, we fall together. I think it’s a unique thing that I can’t really describe.
You guys were kinda the roots of the mixology movement in LA which now has spawned dozens of different branches. Why were special cocktails important for you guys as an element in your bars?
Mark: When we create experiences at our bars, enjoying delicious curated cocktails was another way of us telling a story. The house-made bitters, the infused syrups, the inspiration…being inspired by tropical, the caribbean, the exotic places we’ve traveled, was part of that layer. You have live entertainment and music, you have the bartenders and you have the cocktails. Those are like your senses. Your taste, your sight, and your ears. And now you’re immersed in this world, and you don’t have any way of having a lackluster experience. It’s all designed into it. We just launched a new menu for Break Room 86, and it’s inspired by childhood scratch n’ sniff stickers. So now you can smell your menu! It’s another way of immersing people in our experience and our world. We also recently introduced an ice cream truck that serves ice cream infused with spirits like bourbon. It’s an extension of the whole bar experience.
With so many bars in the same vicinity, do you think you’re competing with yourself at all?
Jonnie: Not really, most people’s attention span is about two hours, so bar hopping is enticing. My routine is maybe 3 or 4 bars a night. It’s nice to know you have several options. I think it’s going to be interesting to see the evolution of nightlife.
So what’s next?
Jonnie: We have five concepts that we’re developing now. One thing about Mark and I is we never repeat what we’ve done already. We have a passion for creating new experiences, not recreating what we’ve already done. We do this because we’re inspired. Mark and I wanna get more into doing hotels, in creating a 24-hour experience.
Mark: What’s really exciting for us right now, is we’ve done bars and hotel suites, but next we wanna do a full-on hotel experience, A-Z. For now, we’re involved in a sports arena. The first LA Football Club soccer team sports arena. It’s really taken us outside of that level of hospitality to a world where we’re thinking of sports, live concerts, 22k seated venue, and how we interact with that crowd. We look at stadiums and see how we can incorporate other unique ‘nightlife’ experiences into the stadiums. We’re not afraid that we’re branching out of our little bubble, it’s all just an extension of ourselves. We’re constantly changing and growing.