Interview: Mike Simms, Third-Generation Restaurateur

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Restaurateur Los Angeles

The Simms family’s entree into the restaurant world started at the intersection of Olympic Boulevard & Vermont Avenue, long before that corner qualified as Koreatown, with Arthur J’s Coffee Shop. Since that opening in the ’50s, the family’s been on a hot streak. Arthur’s son Tom founded the Mimi’s Cafe chain, and in turn, Tom’s son Chris now owns and operates ten Lazy Dog Cafes. In 2009, Mike Simms spearheaded Simms Restaurant Group expansion in Manhattan Beach, partnering with brother Chris on Simmzy’s and Tin Roof Bistro. Last year, they teamed with chef David LeFevre on M.B. Post before turning their attention south for another Simmzy’s. We met on June 19 at the new Simmzy’s in Long Beach’s Belmont Shore neighborhood, and Mike Simms better explained what motivates him.

Did you work in your dad’s restaurants growing up?

I worked briefly in my dad’s restaurants. On the weekends I might go wash dishes or bus tables, when I was in grade school, and in high school, I actually worked in the high school that I went to, in the snack shop. I’d get there early and make lots of bacon and burritos, nothing fancy, but just working the grill, eggs and that kind of stuff. Then students would come in and buy burritos and I helped serve as well. Then during summers I would help work in restaurants, all through high school and college, other people’s restaurants. When we were growing up, we were in the Valley, and the closest one of my dad’s restaurants was about a half-hour away. I kind of was never close enough.

Where in the Valley?

We grew up in Studio City and Hollywood.

Was it a given that you would work in restaurants for a living?

Pretty close. For a heartbeat I thought I would be a professional pilot and pursued that after graduating college. I actually went and got my pilot’s license in California after I graduated college and thought for a heartbeat I’d be a private pilot, but then talked to a bunch of pilots and found out it’s more like driving a bus every day, and had a ton of fun working in restaurants, so thought I would continue working in restaurants.

Do you still fly ever?

I don’t. After opening restaurants and having a couple kids, something had to give, so I don’t currently, but will probably get back into it when I have time. My dad’s a professional pilot as well, so when he flies, I get to go up with him, every once in awhile.

How much more can you take on?

You know, that’s the question of my life. When it comes down to it, the food’s got to be great, obviously. The atmosphere’s gotta be awesome. What it comes down to is the people who work here, and work with us. We’re going to be growing, and do it steadily, and do it just as well as what we feel is special about Simmzy’s, and maintain what we think is special about Simmzy’s. Dorothy, who’s a manager here, started as a server at Tin Roof, and we think will be a GM in the next year or two, with the next Simmzy’s coming up. So it’s all about developing our personnel ourselves until they’re conditioned. In the past year, Chef Anne [Conness] and myself and our Director of Operations have thought about the culture that makes Simmzy’s so successful. We’re trying to figure that out to.

Do you project more Simmzy’s?

Yeah, two more in the pipeline. Venice. We don’t have a date right now, but we’ve got a lease signed there. We have a tentative lease in Hermosa.

Still all beach cities?

For now.

How do you and your brother divide up the duties?

Chris has a four-year head start on us, so he’s got a very well-established office, a whole accounting team, all the back of the house stuff that has to be done. H.R. and Payroll, and developing all the financial analysis…He controls all the financial planning and projections. He’s the general partner and the managing partner for those Lazy Dogs. He’s up to his eyeballs in Lazy Dogs, and I’m the managing partner in Simmzy’s, Tin Roof and M.B. Post. I’m up to my eyeballs in that. In general, we kind of share all the back of house systems. He really focuses on the financial analysis, see what’s selling, what’s not selling, what time of the day we’re busy, and when we’re not, and make adjustments in purchasing. All the boring stuff, how about that? [laughs] So he’s definitely in charge of that. Here, I would say I’m in charge of making sure the life of Simmzy’s continues.

I imagine your father’s a pretty good resource when it comes to operating restaurants.

As he says, he’s made all the mistakes that we’re going to make already, so he’s great. He’s kind of the guy that sits at 40,000 feet and looks down while we’re running around and can kind of see the general direction, and how we’re doing.

In what ways is he involved in the restaurants?

I’d call it the big picture, so real estate selection, leadership – he works with us on leadership – interpreting different data and passing that along to our team. He’ll work with us on real estate. He’ll come out and look if we think we have a great site, or he’ll come in and tell us what’s great about it, or what’s not great about it. Pitfalls to avoid. He’ll also help with design. He is a very creative person. This building used to be all walls, a wall of mirrors and a wall up front. My thought was to open up the front, but my thought was never to open this side of the building because I didn’t think you could. He was sitting at a design meeting one day and said, “Why don’t you open this wall?” Everybody was like, “Okay.” He’s very creative in that regard.

Was Tra Vigne the first restaurant that you worked at?

Yup. Full-time. I was a barista for about three months. There was a company that had a group of restaurants in San Francisco called Real Restaurants and I wanted to get a job with them, so I ended up taking a coffee shop job until I could get an interview with them. They said the only position they had open was a managerial training position up in St. Helena at Tra Vigne. I said, “Okay, I’ll check it out.” I remember driving up there, harvest was just getting into swing, it was absolutely beautiful and I go in for the interview and talk to the chef – [Michael] Chiarello at the time, talked to the owner, talked to the General Manger – got the job on the spot, and moved up and started working 70, 80-hour weeks. They start you out in the kitchen for a month, and it was great. I was one of the managers that actually knew food there and actually had culinary experience. I worked a station, helping out, rather than what they traditionally do, which is look. Truly unbelievable food, and just total scratch. They always had a huge chicken stock going in back, for braising, for reducing, for sauces. There was so much chicken stock. I really learned tempo. It was a really busy restaurant. It was great to see you could do high quality food at a fast pace. Especially during harvest season, it got insane.

What brought you back to Los Angeles?

Family, and girls. While Napa’s awesome, it’s a small farm town, so the big joke up there is that you don’t break up with your girlfriend, you just lose your turn. Being 24, I was like, “Oh, I’ve got to get back to Southern California and start spending time with the family.” Having gone to school on the East Coast, I hadn’t been home in close to eight years.

Where did you go to school?

Cornell School of hospitality management. I moved straight to New York and then to San Francisco, so it had been about eight years. It was great, but I was ready to get back to my roots and start working with the family. I learned a ton about operations after leaving, but never the financial side, nothing about real estate, nothing about finance, the kinds of things you only learn on the ownership side. I knew I could learn from my family. They’re an open book.

Did you always plan to start in Manhattan Beach?

I moved to Manhattan Beach because I wanted to live there, but I bought a condo in downtown L.A…My dentist was in Manhattan Beach, so I drove down there, walked out, there was a billboard for Tin Roof Bistro, “Restaurant For Sale,” and it had a beautiful courtyard, there was a whole history, beautiful roof, beautiful building. I started doing research and signed a lease.

So you signed the lease for Tin Roof before Simmzy’s?

Probably 10 months before Simmzy’s. So we started doing development on Tin Roof and submitted our plans to the City of Manhattan Beach. In order for us to get our permit from the mall – which is a different owner than our piece of property – they had to sign off on our project. Well, the signature took 14 months because our landlord and them weren’t getting along at the time, so that delayed the process. Chef Anne and I looked at each other and said, “This could be a year. We’re not going to sit around and do nothing for a year.” So I went and walked up and down Manhattan Beach Boulevard, looking for a small little space and found the Simmzy’s spot. We literally sat down with my brother. We signed documents and were in escrow and had no idea what we were going to do with the place. So we just started going through what everybody loved. Anne’s like, “I’ve been cooking a bunch of fun food at home, real simple, burgers, salads and sandwiches, but using the breads from BREADBAR and a bunch of other higher end ingredients.” My brother and I had brewing beer at the time. We were brewing beer and our wives were all over us, “Get this stuff out of here.” Then also there’s no wine bar in Manhattan Beach, so I’m like, “We’ll just do a bunch of wines by the glass.” So we threw on 24 taps, had like 30 wines by the glass and Chef Anne had this menu, and we opened in April. Literally as soon as we opened, we found out we had our construction permit for Tin Roof Bistro. So not only did we open a restaurant, we also started construction on the next restaurant. Luckily, we had great people.

So you were homebrewing. Did you or your brother start that?

I did. I always wanted to do it.

What was the first beer that you homebrewed, and how did that turn out?

We did a hefeweizen. It was super easy, and it turned out well. My philosophy is, you don’t do something unless you can do it better than you can buy. How do you brew a beer that’s better than all these killer beers on the market? From winemaking, I learned you obviously have to start with great ingredients, for blending your grapes and brewing your quality product. You need water. We also knew that temperature and sanitation are top, top priorities…It turned out great, fresh, zippy.

So when do you open the Simmzy’s brewpub?

That’s funny. I actually met with a gentleman at Yard House and asked him that question. Why didn’t Yard House open their own brewery? He had the same line and was like, “It’s tough putting your name on something when there are so many great beers in the world.” People making that beer, that’s their sole passion, to make great beer. For us, to do it as well as they do it, I’m a little skeptical. I don’t think it will ever happen. It would be funner than heck, but I’d just be afraid we couldn’t give it the same energy that top brewers do now, and you’d just have a secondary product.

What’s your favorite part about owning restaurants?

Eating. That’s the best. Once Simmzy’s opened up, I’ve never had to have a bad meal, whether it’s in our restaurants or a friend’s restaurants. Whatever. Good food is always around. Having people working with us and starting relationships is so much fun. For our beer dinner [at Tin Roof Bistro], a quarter of the people there were employees and staff members, signed up, because they love being together and having fun.

What’s the biggest challenge about having four restaurants now and more on the way? How do you prioritize and find a balance?

My biggest fear is that I don’t keep their jobs interesting enough. That’s my job, is to make sure they wake up in the morning and have a big smile on their faces because they’re going to Simmzy’s. The jobs I’ve had, I’ve loved doing and never dreamed of going anywhere else. At the same time, provide them the opportunities to grow into, so you can go from being a server at one store to an assistant manager at another store, and a general manager at a third store. If you don’t provide those opportunities, they’re going to find it elsewhere. That’s probably the biggest challenge, providing opportunities for key people who are looking for challenges themselves.

And the unknown. The unknown is the fun, interesting part as well. Every time you open a restaurant, you’re going to go, “Oh, I’ve seen it all.” At Mimi’s, I opened five restaurants with my dad and I’ve opened four on my own now. “Oh, I’ve seen it all.”

Can you see opening another restaurant with David [LeFevre]?

Yes, reason being is that Chef Dave is now manager #4 at M.B. Post. When we opened up, Chef and I had been friends for 10 years. We met each other at a bar in St. Helena, 10 years ago. He was still working at Charlie Trotter’s, and he had a cook who’s actually now the winemaker at Joseph Phelps…I knew Ashley. She’s like, “Oh, we’re going out to a bar. You should come over.” Literally, it was her, Chef Dave and me. We were drinking beers and telling dirty jokes. Chef Dave and I were like, “You’re funny.” “You’re funny.” So we ended up staying friends for a long time. When I decided to move back to L.A., Ashley’s like, “Dave’s moving to L.A.” Funny enough, he moved to Hermosa, I moved to Manhattan, and our friendship really took off from there. So when he wanted to do his own spot, I had these going and my brother had his own company. The deal was to help him get started, but we have our own companies. My brother has his, and I have mine. “One day, this is going to be your company.” He’s outperformed every goal that we set, every benchmark that we set as a group, he’s exceeded with his team. If he wants to do another restaurant, we’ll support him 100%.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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