The last couple of years haven’t been the easiest for Chef Richard Hales. The list of uncertainties include COVID-19, a stint with cancer and now labor shortages.
But with a new Hales Blackbrick location in Tampa, the second one for the eatery — which specializes in modern Chinese, bringing in Catanese flavors through dim sum-focused foods — Hales is working his way back. For one, he regained 90% of his sight back after complications from removing a benign brain tumor. Since then, another benign brain tumor has been discovered, but for now his doctors are just monitoring it. In addition, a close friendship with TV show host/restaurateur Guy Fieri has been an important ally in both the his personal health and the health of his business.
“I think this is the best restaurant I’ve ever opened,” Hales says of the Tampa location, which opened Nov. 15 in the Drew Park neighborhood right off Dale Mabry Highway. The debut Hales Blackbrick, in Miami, opened in 2013.
For Hales, who grew up in the Tampa area, the new Hales Blackbrick is a longtime homecoming: when he left in 1997 to pursue a culinary education in New York, the then 26-year-old promised his mom he’d be back in a year to open his own restaurant. Finally, 25 years later, after big-city stints he loved in New York, Miami, Hong Kong, he’s back.
Now with two kids he says, “Tampa suits me just fine.”
It apparently suits customers just fine, too: all the prime time reservations have been booked through December since it opened.
Hales has both put in a lot of hours and learned from some past mistakes to get to this point.
On the time, you can pretty much expect Hales at the restaurant from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day even though it’s only open 4-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, minus Monday, and 4-10 pm. Friday and Saturday. Mondays are closed.
After purchasing the property for just under $1 million, Hales put in cosmetic work redoing the kitchen, dining and outside areas for right around $600,000. He guesses the property is worth close to $3 million now. He expects the Tampa location to bring in nearly $6 million a year — triple what he makes with his Miami restaurants, which include the debut Hales Blackbrick and Hales Society BBQ.
On a lesson learned, Hales discovered the balance between sticking to an original vision and adapting to customer demand. To wit: the Miami Blackbrick location struggled at first as a modern Chinese restaurant with customers asking for items you’d find at a standard Chinese restaurant in America.
“I think it kept business stagnant and not exciting,” he says, noting he eventually gave in, adding items like honey chicken. “That’s no different than having Mcdonalds hamburgers. We want to offer something different that’s chef created.”
It was especially for a chef who had spent so much time in Asia learning. That includes backpacking through Asia to understand the foods and pick up new techniques. Whenever he ate somewhere new or something he enjoyed, he would ask to work there for free just washing dishes and learning the new technique or dish as he went. He would be gone a few months at a time before coming back to put what he had learned to work.
That being said, he’s not interested in creating Chinese American foods with the Tampa location — which he describes as relaxed but funky with graffiti artwork and pictures of his family lining the walls. “I will not make the same mistake here,” he says.
And if he has questions about the restaurant industry he can always ask his buddy Fieri.
Nine years ago in the Sakaya Kitchen in Miami, which Hales owned, Fieri walked in to film for a TV show.
They were already filming, though Hales wasn’t aware at first. When he realized, Fieri erupted asking if Hales needed him to clap an ‘action’ clapper board in his face. After that, Hales didn’t say a whole lot. Eventually, Fieri has the crew cut to commercial to tell Hales that if he didn’t start laughing at his jokes he was going to leave.
Hales retorts, “I will once you say something funny.” That was the start of what's now a close friendship.
When Hales was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2018, alongside the discovery of the benign brain tumor, Fieri offered positive support along with providing any connections Hales needed (jet, doctors, you name it). But Hales just asked that Fieri look out for his family if anything should happen. Fieri promised he’d always be there. Now he’s the godfather of Hales’ two daughters. “We’re like brothers,” he says. “He’s a huge force. He’s Guy.”