Trust the Tiki.
That’s the approach area restaurant executive Marc Brown is taking with his company's newest concept, a revival of the California-famous Don the Beachcomber brand.
Brown’s company, Tampa-based 23 Restaurant Services, plans to open two Don the Beachcombers in the next 18 months, one outside Orlando and the other in Brevard County, in Viera. The investment will be north of $6 million, Brown says “but hopefully not $7 million,” and come from a variety of capital from partners, investors and a little bank debt.
The company, which also operates 17 Ford’s Garage locations, including 10 on the west coast of Florida, in addition to a pair of other brands, Yeoman’s and Tiki Docks, plans to open 10-15 more Don the Beachcombers in the Southeast in the next few years. That includes potential locations in the Tampa region it’s currently looking at.
23 Restaurant Services, where Brown is president, acquired the brand and intellectual property for Don the Beachcomber last year. Don the Beachcomber traces back to Donn Beach, a swashbuckling entrepreneur and bootlegger considered the founding father of Tiki culture. A World War II veteran who died in 1989, Beach opened the first-ever Tiki bar under the Don the Beachcomber brand in the 1930s in California. Beach wasn’t even his real name — he was born Ernest Raymond Gantt.
Brown and 23 Restaurant Services bought the brand from a former Don the Beachcomber employee, who had owned it since 2003. Financial terms of that purchase weren’t disclosed. The last Don the Beachcomber restaurant, which, in its heyday, according to the company, was frequented by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, was in Huntington Beach, California. It closed in 2018.
Brown, 53, who has been in the restaurant industry since he worked at a neighborhood diner growing up in Rhode Island, is now primed to pump new life into the Tiki-themed brand. He notes that even when 23 Restaurant Services, founded in 2014, began plotting its Tiki Docks locations — one in St. Pete, one in Riverview — he was unaware “what tiki culture is all about.”
What Brown and the 23 team discovered in researching Don the Beachcomber is Tiki culture is both “delightfully escapist” and “rum-soaked,” while also being inviting, a bit eccentric and, of course, fun and relaxing. “Authenticity is what Tiki culture is all about,” Brown says. “We are excited to create and celebrate this Tiki brand.”
23 Restaurant Services will also incorporate Beach’s “Polynesian-inspired design and flamboyant, rum-based drinks that have become synonymous with Don the Beachcomber” into the new locations. (Beach, the company says, was a legendary bartender who created 84 mostly rum-based, Caribbean-inspired creations made with ingredients like falernum and fresh, local California produce.)
One key component of 23 Restaurant Services’ Don the Beachcomber strategy is to build a strong base of Tiki knowledge. That comes largely from an advisory board the company assembled. The list includes:
- Tim “Swanky” Glazner: a Donn Beach historian currently working on a book and documentary about Beach. Author of “Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki restaurant.”
- Martin Cate: Author of Smuggler’s Cove, as well as the owner of the San Francisco bar by the same name.
- Sven Kirsten: Tiki historian and author of four Tiki books, including “The Book of Tiki,” which is “touted as a veritable bible within the genre.”
- John Mulder: Tiki mug designer and owner of Eekum Bookum Tiki Mugs.
- Danny “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo: Designer of Tiki carvings, ceramic cocktail mugs and complete Tiki bar interiors.
Additionally, Marie King, former beverage director and general manager of Tonga Hut in Hollywood, California, has joined the 23 Restaurant Services team as director of beverage.
Brown says one of the biggest challenges, not just with Don the Beachcomber but in hospitality in general, is the ongoing labor issues nearly every business is fighting. Brown says he combats that through “working everyday” to make 23 Restaurant Services an employer of choice in its markets.
On the Don the Beachcomber locations, Brown says the company is in the final design stages and will soon look to get permitting approved. Then construction can begin by the middle of 2023, and one location could be open in the 2024 first quarter, with the second one the following quarter.
Like the old Don the Beachcomber locations — Beach decorated the insides with a collection of odds and ends from his South Pacific and Caribbean excursions, such as bamboo, fishing floats and grass mattings — few parts of the new ones will be templated. “There are so many different things we can do with the brand,” Brown says. “It’s not cookie-cutter.”