Michael Zislis is a Palos Verdes native who’s become a titan in the South Bay hospitality world. He started out as a homebrewer, and parlayed the success of Manhattan Beach Brewing Co. into a gig as one of the country’s go-to brewpub builders. He no longer brews in Manhattan Beach, but Brew Co. (as the establishment is now called) is still going strong, and Zislis has built a network of restaurants in Manhattan Beach and beyond, including Rock’n Fish, Circa and The Strand House. He teamed with Dave Furano and rock legends Gene Simmons + Paul Stanley on the burgeoning Rock & Brews chain. He features prominent Culinary Masters at The Strand House as part of what’s become a high-profile series. He’s also a hotelier, planting the Shade Hotel in Manhattan Beach’s Metlox Block, and another property in the works for Redondo Beach. We met in the lobby of The Shade on May 21, and Zislis illuminated his background and approach.
Was it a given that you would work in hospitality for a living, or did you consider other careers?
No idea. No thought of the hospitality industry growing up. When I was young I always said I was going to be a surgeon, just because my dad was a doctor, so you know, you always want to be like your father. Then my first mentor was a very famous economist by the name of Arthur Laffer. He designed this curve called the Laffer Curve which is better known as supply side economics. So I worked with him since I was 13 to about 18, then I really believed I was going to be in the economics world. Then brewpubs became legal and I opened a brewery, and then I was going to be a beer guy. And that’s what I was, most of my life, I was a beer guy. Which morphed me into a hospitality guy. So, when I opened my first brewery, I thought people just wanted some beer and maybe nachos and chicken wings. Well, what I’ve come to find out is they really want the beer, but they really want good food to go with it. So I got to learn the food business, and once I got into that business, I knew it was for me because I love to go to work, every day.
What was that very first brewery?
Manhattan Beach Brewery. It’s still there, right down on that boulevard. We call it Brew Co. now, because we took the brewing equipment out of it about 2 years ago after twenty years. We took the brewery out and just put 50 beers on draft.
So your first night working in a restaurant was there?
Yeah, 23 years ago.
What do you remember about that very first night?
I remember people pounding on the window yelling “Open, open, open,” I remember how drunk everybody got, because the first batch of beer I made, it’s not a linear formula, like when you make muffins for four people you use 2 cups of flour, then you’d think if you’re making muffins for 8 you’d use 4 cups of flour, it doesn’t work like that for brewing. The size of the tanks and the width of the mash tun floor are all non-linear, so what I ended up doing was making 9% and 10% alcohol beers my first time, that were supposed to be 5%, so everyone was just wasted.
So you actually brewed the beer?
Oh yeah. I’ve been brewing beer since I was thirteen years old. I love brewing beer and drinking it.
Do you remember the very first homebrew you ever made?
Oh yeah. It was a pretty famous one. I was in an orthodontist’s office and saw in Popular Science a homebrew kit, I went to the post office, bought a money order, sent in the money order and I got a homebrew kit, and we had an outdoor refrigerator in the garage where I lived as a kid. I told my mother it was a science experiment, and I made beer. I remember the color of it, it was kind of a coppery colored beer, a little cloudy, but got me drunk. And I didn’t get sick.
Where did you go to college? And what did you major in?
I majored in Economics at the University of Southern California. USC. I never graduated, I dropped out to start in the beer business. And I haven’t looked back. But I’ve been brought back a lot as a guest lecturer, so I feel good about that. I’m waiting on that honorary degree.
Palos Verdes to Manhattan Beach isn’t a very far leap.
Oh, no but when I built breweries I was a brewery builder consultant. I got to build them all over the world. I built 150 breweries around the world. So I was in the Midwest, New York, Florida, China, Japan, Croatia, Russia, I was everywhere. So I got to see the world for a good 10 years.
So they saw what you were doing and they wanted in?
It wasn’t that I was such the genius at it, I just knew more than anybody else at the time. So, like with any trend, if you’re at the front end you can capitalize on it, and I did.
What would your beer of choice be at this point?
You know, its kind of like wine to me. Depends on the day. So in the middle of an afternoon like today, if I was sitting outside, I would like a Pilsner or a wheat beer. If I was having dinner I’d want something a little more full-bodied like a red ale or a pale ale. Late at night, I’d end the day with either a stout or a barleywine. So, I like all beers. When I go into my restaurants, I say what’s new, what does everybody like? Because you know, they’re really immersed in it, the bartenders and the management, so they’ll say, “Try this new one.” And I’ll try it. For the most part I like them all. There are some beers out there that are a bit crazy right now, where they start putting in like, bourbon barrels and getting that whiskey flavor—I don’t like my beer to taste like whiskey. I’m not a whiskey guy. Other than that I like them all.
You have a lot of different ventures at this point, what is it that you look for in a business partner?
You know, I’m not a big business partner fan. I usually don’t have business partners. Rock & Brews is an exception. That’s why I did it, because it was a group of people that had a passion for rock and roll, and that’s why they brought me in, for the food and beer part of it. They understood the rock and roll, the poster art, the promotions, the traveling, the opening mass, they understood that part. They needed me to be the other part. So, to me it’s one of my most fun partnerships, to be able to fly in two weeks with Kiss to opening night on one of their jets, that’s, that’s crazy shit. I love it.
What does a chef have to be to work in one of your restaurants?
Passionate. Really enjoys food. There’s a big difference – I think the term chef might be thrown around too easily, just because a guy wears a white coat, doesn’t mean he’s a doctor and it doesn’t mean he’s a chef. So, a chef is somebody that really appreciates flavors, understands them, knows how to balance them – it’s like a master brewer or sommelier – in my opinion. So, a great chef understands those things. And I must say, in certain restaurants I have cooks. At the corporate level I have chefs, but at the restaurant-level I have cooks. And they’re lead cooks, we call them chefs but they couldn’t design a menu, they couldn’t cost a menu and couldn’t come up with new ideas. Some guys are just better workers — I think like society itself – some people are just better workers, some people are more creative. And for me, as a employer, I like to harvest everybody’s greatness. So again, working with one of my corporate chefs, he’s creative, really creative, and I’m using that part of him, but then I have the production guy, who’s better at chopping and prepping, to put it into reality.
Who is that corporate chef?
Currently right now, it’s a guy by the name of Timothy Hollingsworth.
So he has an overarching vision for…
All my branches.
Did that hiring come about as a result of the Culinary Masters series?
Yes it did. I met him when he came to L.A., and we’ve become good friends. He’s got his career started, he’s going into TV and restaurants on his own, and he’s just helping me for a while.
What do you look for in a chef for a Culinary Master series?