Brian Wilson & Steve Sears profile picture

Brian Wilson & Steve Sears

Co-Owners, Sam's Anchor Cafe, Tiburon

What’s the background to the business?
We met in the early 1970’s working in the Lafayette Refectory – Brian was a bus boy and Steve was a bartender. Shortly afterwards Steve started his own restaurant in Mill Valley called ‘Sid and Jim’s’. Around 1978 a customer mentioned that he wanted to buy a restaurant and asked Steve if he would manage it. Brian was also interested so we put together a limited partnership of 14 people – they each put in $6,000 for 5% of the business and we bought Sam’s. Over the years we bought out the other partners so now it’s just the 2 of us.

Sam’s was actually started in the early 1920’s – we don’t know the exact date as it was during prohibition – and it’s only had 3 owners since then. We’ve had the business for 36 years and we’re still loving it. The challenge is to keep it fresh and exciting with so many other restaurants out there. When Sam’s started, the food wasn’t nearly as important as the alcohol and initially we sold more bourbon and scotch than vodka and gin. That’s completely changed now and the focus is instead on quality food with excellent beverages. The recession did affect us a little but we’re more affected by the weather. We can do just 20% of our regular billings on a rainy day.

BUSINESS BRIEFING

Business goal for the next 12 months: Our goal is to always keep the business fresh for the customer experience. We’re always trying to improve customer counts and sales. We keep a really sharp eye on both the service and food and move with the times. For example, the focus now is on gluten free and organic which wasn’t the case several years ago.

We would say that the changing demographics are our biggest challenge. There used to be a lot of single people living and working in Tiburon, now it’s much more family oriented. Because of that, we see a bigger drop-off during the week. There used to be 5 or 6 bars on Main St that were open late but now we’re one of the few left and we close at midnight on week nights.

Advice you wish you had received: The restaurant business is a problematic existence – it can be exciting and it can also keep you awake at night. It’s like a play as the cast members (the customers) change every day. We can’t control who comes in so it’s important to keep the employees motivated so that each customer is happy. It’s hard to do, partially because it’s a very expensive community to live in so it’s hard to find long-term servers. We do have quite a few people who have been with us a long time though – our Chef has been here 28 years, our Sous Chef 29 years and our Day Manager 28 years. The average Kitchen Staff has been with us for 15 years.

Best business decision: Our best decision was buying Sam’s in the first place. While working at Refectory, we had seen how a family-run restaurant had been bought out by a big Corporation and it just wasn’t fun anymore. The food was more pre-prepared to create more volume and the focus was less on service and more on volume. When we bought Sam’s, it was pretty run down and didn’t do much business so back then it was hard to envision having a big successful business 35 years later. We paid ourselves minimum wage when we first started and realized that we were buying ourselves predominantly a fun job.

Toughest business decision: It’s always when dealing with personnel and when we have to let someone go, especially if they have been with us a long time. We are both so active in the business that we get to know people well and it’s always difficult.

Person most admired: We admire restaurateurs who have been successful over a period of time because they keep up quality and service. For example, Yoshi Tome, Thomas Keller, and Larry Mindel. When people go to a restaurant they have an expectation and the key is always to meet and exceed that expectation.

Like most about job: We love seeing customers arriving or leaving extremely happy. We want Sam’s to be a happy place where people come with an expectation and we surpass it. Everyone has a good time here. It’s also very rewarding seeing people grow up who have been coming in for years. It still has a family feel and we want to keep it that way.

Like least about job: Aside from letting people go, even as owners we can put in long hard days during the summer. As we have so much outdoor seating Sam’s can be very seasonal and that brings its own challenges.

Dream job: We’ve both been in the business since Junior High so this is what we want to do. If we weren’t doing this, we’d probably open another restaurant — maybe a smaller one …!

BEHIND THE SUIT

Birthplace: Brian: I was born in Long Beach, CA but moved to the Bay Area when I was a kid. I’ve been here all life. I’ve always been in the hospitality industry – I started as a dishwasher and worked my way up. I had to wait until I was 21 to be a waiter but eventually I became Assistant Manager then General Manager with Refectory Restaurants. That’s where Steve and I met.

Steve: I was born in San Luis Obispo and moved to the Bay Area in 1969 for graduate school in Berkeley. I didn’t get my degree though; I decided to start in the restaurant business instead. I had worked in a restaurant from very early on as my Uncle owned a hamburger joint so it was very natural to me. I met Brian at Refectory in Lafayette and we decided that wanted to have our own restaurant one day. I thought the best odds to do that were to learn the business rather than get an MBA so I dropped out. I never regretted my decision.

Favorite book: Steve: I like adventure novels, such as Clive Cussler’s ‘Sahara’.

Brian: My favorite is usually the last one I read.

Steve: I don’t get to go very often so I haven’t see anything too recently.

Brian: ‘Sleuth’ with Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier is probably my favorite.

Outside of work: Steve: I love to play golf and to fish. Living where we do, both of these are easily accessible.

Brian: I commute to work by boat and love being on the water. I also love to cook, eat, travel, and good wine.

Community: We do a lot of work with Sunny Hills Services, and support many local charities and fund raisers. Steve is on the Tiburon Peninsula Foundation Board, the Tiburon Fire Protection District Board of Directors and the Tiburon Peninsula Chamber of Commerce Board.

Family: Brian: I’ve been married for 42 years. Wow! I met Candy, my wife in the restaurant business and that helps a lot with understanding and keeping fresh this wild and stressful business.

Steve: I’m married with 2 step-children and 4 grandchildren – 3 of whom live with us. Our house is always busy!