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Flynn’s Harp: Stuart Anderson admits challenges in his comeback effort at age 89

By: Mike Flynn Stuart Anderson, successful cattle rancher, restaurateur, author, television personality and entrepreneur, is finding that a comeback at the age of 89 is turning out to be more challenging than he had expected. It's not because of age so much as it is the economy and changes in the restaurant business.

The man who built Stuart Anderson's Black Angus from a single location near downtown Seattle in 1964 into a chain of 110 steakhouse restaurants across 19 states before selling the chain in the late 1980s was lured out of retirement by a shuttered Black Angus in Rancho Mirage, CA.

The appeal of reopening and rebranding a restaurant that he had originally opened in 1980 when his California expansion of Black Angus/Cattle Company restaurants was in full swing proved too much of a temptation, despite the protestations of his wife, Helen, who recalls saying: "Over my dead body."

"It was tough to see that restaurant go away, along with a crew we had come to know," Anderson says of his reaction when he learned in early 2009 that the restaurant he and his wife frequented had closed

"We thought we could help the economy by creating some jobs there," Anderson says. "And I thought Helen and I had the experience needed to reopen the restaurant."

But he concedes it has been more difficult than they had anticipated, originally convinced that "with my 60 years of experience, I felt we could overcome all the difficulties posed by this economy. But it's amazing how much you forget at the age of 89."

Helen, who has been Anderson's partner and spouse for almost 40 years and describes his comeback from a stroke three years ago as "miraculous," admits "we knew it would be costly, but it has been more of a financial drain than we thought it would be."

Anderson says "the restaurant business is more competitive and demanding than it used to be, with government regulations and additional costs we were unfamiliar with. It has been challenging," he admitted.

Many of those rooting for him to succeed again will be those from his home state. Not just Seattle, where the chain was headquartered as one of the most respected in America, but also Spokane, where Black Angus number three became the most successful in the chain, and Ellensburg where his 2,400-acre ranch sprawled along Interstate 90. It was the ranch with its black angus herd, as well as the signature mustache and cowboy hat, that made him the icon of cowboy country.

Over the course of nearly a quarter century, Anderson created a restaurant company with 10,000 employees and annual revenue of $260 million.

Shortly before Anderson's retirement in the late '80s with the sale of the company, industry publication Restaurants & Institutions, in a national survey, judged his chain the nation's best full-service restaurants three years out of four. And USA Today judged the chain best in the nation in the category of casual dinner

He tried his hand as an author when he produced Here's the Beef! My Story of Beef, a book he describes as "fun and informative" that sold thousands of copies in the Black Angus restaurants. The book was a follow on to the highly popular McDonald's commercial in which an elderly lady asks: "Where's the Beef?"

And his stint as a television personality was as spokesperson for Seattle's Senior Housing Assistance Group's low-income senior housing developments.

Part of Anderson's concern for the amount of time and effort he and Helen are having to invest in their restaurateur entrepreneurial encore is that she doesn't have as much time as she'd like for her commitment to Umbrella Ministries. The Palm Springs-based national 501c3 is focused on helping mothers who have lost children.

The two spend "three or four nights a week" greeting customers and making the rounds of the restaurant, Anderson says.

"I've seen tough times before and some of my restaurants didn't make it," says Anderson, noting the failures included the Tacoma restaurant that opened following Seattle.

While noting his conviction that "the general economy has to change around here" and "there are too many restaurants," Anderson insists he and Helen will make Stuart's Steakhouse a success.

To see previous Flynn's Harp columns, go to emikeflynn.com  and click on "blogs."

"Mike Flynn is retired publisher of Puget Sound Business Journal who now has a consulting firm, Mike Flynn & Associates LLC, and writes a weekly column called Flynn's Harp. Contact him at Mike@emikeflynn.com if you would like to be added to the list of those receiving it via email."

 

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