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A Wynne win: Shannon and Sam Wynne flying high

Posted 9:37am on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014

Walk into Bird Cafe, the month-old restaurant in Fort Worth’s Sundance Square Plaza, and you immediately notice a couple of things: the bird paintings by the late Fort Worth artists Stuart and Scott Gentling that line the dining-room walls; the bright, spacious and welcoming bar with a view of the plaza.

Enter Lark on the Park, which opened last spring in downtown Dallas, and you’ll see the modernistic bar with its gleaming tap wall, the high-ceilinged dining room and the chalk drawings by local artists that are rotated every few weeks. Perfectly positioned in downtown, Lark diners drink in views of busy Klyde Warren Park and the Dallas skyline.

Both high-profile restaurants are sophisticated but not stuffy, elegant yet approachable — much like their owner, Shannon Wynne.

In fact, each of Wynne’s restaurants reveals another sliver of his personality.

At the Flying Fish, his casual seafood restaurant that has grown to eight locations, there’s the Big Mouth Billy Bass Adoption Wall, plus photos of anglers with their big catches. (Exaggeration, and a sense of humor, are encouraged.)

At Rodeo Goat, the year-old Fort Worth icehouse and gourmet burger joint that he opened with his son, Sam, a full-size, stuffed “Billy Goat Shaver” looms above the bar. Texas chic.

Meddlesome Moth, Bird’s cousin in Dallas’ Design District, is a much beloved gastropub that was named “Best Beer Place” by the author of The World Atlas of Beer in 2012 .

And at Wynne’s 16 Flying Saucer locations, which average sales of about 1.5 million pints a year, there are plates on the wall honoring the devoted patrons who have worked their way through the pub’s sprawling 200-beer menu. But the owner himself hasn’t touched a drop since 1988.

For Shannon Wynne, whose father had a hand in starting Six Flags and whose uncle helped found the Dallas Cowboys, restaurants and nightclubs have been his playground. And over the course of the last 35 years, he’s built a mini-empire, though he tends to downplay his accomplishments.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” says Wynne, speaking of when he started out by opening 8.0 in Dallas. He later moved the bar/restaurant to downtown Fort Worth, where it helped spur development. “I still don’t know what I’m doing. But I’ve picked up enough to do it. Truthfully, that ignorance — if I have any degree of success, being too dumb to know any better is the key.”

And now, at age 62, he’s sharing his restaurant savvy (or purported lack thereof) with his oldest son, Sam, who is a partner in the runaway success of Rodeo Goat and who is developing a brewpub called BrainDead Brewing, slated to open in Deep Ellum this year.

Though the differences between the two men can seem striking at first glance — Shannon is tall and thin, with a shock of white hair and an impish restlessness about him; Sam is burly with a thick beard and a laid-back demeanor — there are key similarities as well. Both have a keen instinct for developing restaurant concepts that strike a chord with DFW patrons, and both have a stubborn, rebellious streak that Sam says runs throughout the Wynne family history.

“My great-grandfather told my grandfather to be a lawyer,” Sam says. “He ended up going into land development. My grandfather told my dad, ‘Never go into anything where people eat or where people sleep,’ and my dad opened a successful chain of restaurants. My dad told me, ‘Always stay on the retail side. Never mess with brewing,’ and I’m going to open a brewery.

“So I’m gonna tell my kid, ‘Never be successful.’ 

For a Wynne, that seems highly unlikely.

A legacy of big things

Angus Wynne Sr. wasn’t just any lawyer — he was an East Texas whiz kid who earned the nickname King of the Boom Town Lawyers. And Angus Jr., Shannon’s father, wasn’t just any land developer — he was the force behind Six Flags Over Texas, Six Flags Over Georgia and Six Flags Over Mid-America. Bedford Wynne, Shannon’s uncle, helped found the Dallas Cowboys.

So, you see, the Wynnes cast a long and successful shadow.

But Shannon would end up blazing his own, very different trail. In fact, he says he got into the bar and restaurant game largely on a whim.

“The bar that we all drank at burned down, the Stoneleigh P,” Shannon says. “It burned down, and we didn’t have a place to go. … And I guess walking around with Dad at the [theme] parks and looking at what people were doing, I realized that it sounded like fun.”

So Shannon and two partners opened the 8.0, a Dallas nightspot that became an overnight sensation. (According to legend, he wanted to call it The ’80s, because he began planning it in 1979 and he wanted to be forward-looking. His mother told him that everybody would be tired of the ’80s in three months. “Why don’t you call it 8.0?” she said. “Then all the matchbook covers could say, I done ate there, and oh, it was so good.”)

Fueled by the club’s success, Shannon quickly developed more Dallas bars, including Nostromo, Rocco Oyster Bar, Neemo, The Rio Room, Mexico and Tango.

Wynne was riding high, but in 1985, during the savings-and-loan debacle, he found himself deep in debt to Resolution Trust Corp. He managed to pay everything back, but his bars, including the 8.0, started to fold.

“When you go through, in your early 30s, something like that and you’re just scratching for 77-cent TV dinners, I for one learned a lesson about not sniffing your own glue,” Wynne says. “You’ve got to be humble, and a little frightened that you’re not going to make the same mistakes.”

That was also when Wynne started to question his hard-partying ways.

“I was having a helluva good time,” he says. “I don’t regret having gone through to my mid-30s and doing alcohol and drugs. It was fun, period. I’m fortunate that I never got so inundated with drugs that they became a problem, but recreationally, I had a blast. But it takes a toll, and it gets harder and harder to go to work. If you’re self-conscious at all, if you have any introspection whatsoever, you can’t deny it. It was time. I had a kid.”

The next generation

Sam Wynne isn’t just a beer expert. He’s a certified cicerone, the beer equivalent of a wine sommelier.

The soon-to-be 30-year-old got certified in 2009. “I was the second one in the state of Texas,” Sam says. “At the time I got certified, I was the youngest in the country, but I’ve since been dethroned.”

Shannon says he didn’t encourage any of this.

“Basically, he didn’t really take to college very much, and this became his getting his MBA. He worked his way from bar back to manager and then to trainer and then beer guy,” Shannon says. “He’s taken it on totally on his own.”

A star wrestler and defensive tackle at Highland Park High School, Sam is several inches shorter than his father and sports a thick beard (which was even thicker before Shannon bought him a trimmer for Christmas). Sam fits right in with the burgeoning brewing culture in Dallas-Fort Worth. But for a kid who grew up going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with both parents, it may seem like an unlikely career path.

“When I was a kid, I was going to AA meetings with one or the other [parent],” Sam says. “Obviously not because I was drinking, but because it was something that both my parents felt was a good thing for me to be exposed to. It was kind of my church growing up. It made me really understand the dangers and the responsibility that I had in front of me, where if I wanted to be someone who was able to drink, I had to have a reverence for the alcohol.”

Sam’s mother, Patti, and Shannon split when Sam was still in diapers. Shannon, who has said that alcohol played a part in the split, has had custody of Sam since he was 3.

“He had the difficult task of being both parents for me, growing up,” Sam says. “I love my mom to death, but he was always the one doing the rearing. That’s a fine line to walk, but I think he did a good job making sure that I grew up a man instead of an overgrown kid.”

Cowtown calling

By the time Sam was school age, Shannon had become a big name on the Dallas nightlife scene.

In the early ’90s, Fort Worth came calling.

Ed Bass was looking to bring more nightlife to Sundance Square, which at the time was barely identifiable as a square, and to a downtown that — except for jazz club Caravan of Dreams and burger joint Billy Miner’s — all but shut down after 5 p.m.

Fort Worth has a long-standing rivalry with Dallas, but Sundance Square management wasn’t thinking that way — it was looking at busy Dallas areas such as the West End Entertainment District and Deep Ellum as role models for a downtown entertainment district.

“Quite frankly, I went after a lot of different club owners in Dallas back then,” says Bill Boecker, president and CEO of Fine Line Diversified Development, the development company behind Sundance Square. “Shannon was one of the ones that had some of the more unique, energetic nightclubs in Dallas at the time.”

After a couple of years of resisting advances, Wynne decided to sign a lease to open the Fort Worth location of the 8.0 Restaurant and Bar in August 1994. With its eclectic menu and huge patio, the 8.0 proved a hit with the lunchtime crowd and the nighttime see-and-be-seen set.

But Wynne said some Fort Worth residents perceived the 8.0 as maybe too snooty for their tastes. So he opened the first Flying Saucer Draught Emporium in the nearby historic Land Title Building. The pub offered upscale bar food, but its selling point was beer — about 200 brews in bottles and on tap. It also became a quick hit, and both bars helped fuel the downtown renaissance in Fort Worth.

“Shannon is very good at selecting locations that have a bright future, that aren’t necessarily at the top of the heap when he first gets there,” Boecker says. “And he’s a big part of helping them truly gain notoriety. So we wanted Shannon a lot.”

Keith Schlabs, Wynne’s longtime business partner, was working at a Dallas brewpub in the early ’90s and was considering opening his own place in Fort Worth. After a chance meeting at the 8.0 in late 1994, Wynne — who was enamored of Schlabs’ beer expertise — pitched his idea for the Saucer to Schlabs, and hired him to be the gastropub’s general manager. Since then, Schlabs has worked with Wynne on the openings of all 16 Flying Saucers, Meddlesome Moth (whose website lists Schlabs as “Beer Guru”), Rodeo Goat, Lark on the Park and Bird.

Asked to articulate why Wynne’s been so successful over the years, Schlabs says of his partner, simply: “He thinks like a customer and not like an operator. That’s very difficult sometimes in this business.”

Wynne also knows how to create buzz about his restaurants, Schlabs says. He recalls that the word was out about the first Saucer months before its opening. Wynne, Schlabs and their partners taped paper over the windows and doors so nobody could see what was going on inside, creating an air of mystery and anticipation.

“It opened with a bang,” Schlabs says. “We did the unveiling and opened the door, and there was a crowd around the corner, around the block.”

The Saucer proved such a hit that locations were added in Addison, then other Texas cities (an Arlington location, opened in 1999, closed by 2003) and eventually in other states. Shannon Wynne is involved with all of them, preferring not to franchise.

“You can sell it and make some money,” says Schlabs. “Or you keep it rolling, and grow with this beer culture and continue to make friends and employees and a good living.”

Even though Shannon has long since given up beer, it was Wynne’s idea to put plates on the walls at the Flying Saucers to honor the customers who’d sampled 200 beers. Wynne says he didn’t think anyone would ever get around once.

Sam Wynne says there’s now a guy in San Antonio who has at least 47 plates.

The Wynne bunch

While Sam was attending Trinity University in San Antonio, he took a job at the city’s Saucer as a barback, essentially a bartender’s assistant. Eventually, he became a bartender when he was 21.

“The whole world of beer got so exciting,” Sam says, “and I found out that I had a really good mouth and brain for it and started getting into the training side of things. It wasn’t that I necessarily set out to get into the restaurant business. I was learning about beer, found out what a cool thing it was, discovered the certified cicerone program, started furthering that, and finding that my place in the Flying Saucer Co. was spreading the word of beer, going and doing store openings, training staff and bringing beer to people who didn’t really know about it. That’s where my passion was.”

“He was a smart kid,” says Kimberly Wynne, Shannon’s third wife. The two married in 2010 but they have been together since 1999 and raised their children together. “[Sam] did not like high school, although he did very well in sports and in his classes. He was so smart, if they’d allowed you to take placement tests so you could skip high school, he probably would’ve been happy to do that and get started in the business world.”

Sam is a partner with Shannon and Shannon’s longtime business partners Keith Schlabs and Larry Richardson in Rodeo Goat, which is known for its adventurous hamburger menu — it won DFW.com’s 2013 Battle of the Burgers — but also has a busy bar with a selection of about 80 craft beers. In fact, it was conceived as a beer joint before it evolved into a gourmet-burger joint. Around the middle of last year, Sam went to his father and said, “It’s time for me to do my own thing.”

Shannon had his doubts, however, about Sam’s plans for a brewpub, where some of the beers would be made by Sam and his partners, rather than coming from outside sources.

“Being on the brewery side of the deal is kinda like being a mink farmer,” Shannon says, providing a lengthy analogy about all the work that goes into the farming side — the bills, the food, the slaughtering, the livery work. “Do you want to be the guy that’s brokering them to Neiman Marcus, which is the distributor — or do you want to be Neiman Marcus, selling them to the consumer? I like to be on the Neiman Marcus side myself.”

But Sam Wynne is riding a North Texas craft-brew wave that really started flowing around 2010. The Flying Saucer, which has a selection of North Texas brews on its international roster, has something to do with the expanding beer culture that led to this wave. But Sam says that running a brewpub is actually less risky than running a brewery.

“In a brewpub you’re not in a brewery where you have to have four or five flagship brews that you’re having to crank out, saturate a market with, brand, market, and put your whole emphasis behind,” Sam says. “We get a little bit more leeway on getting to experiment, have some fun and make what we want to make. Our brewer and I just had a meeting last week, and we’ve got over 50 recipes we want to try out.”

More than one way to Wynne

While Sam Wynne is embarking on his first solo endeavor, Shannon Wynne isn’t showing any signs of slowing down any time soon.

His restless nature is evident in the spate of restaurant openings in 2012 and 2013 — Rodeo Goat, Lark on the Park and Bird Cafe all debuted within a 13-month period, and a St. Louis Flying Saucer launched during that time. Bird opened too late for most year-end restaurant lists, but The Dallas Morning News and D Magazine both named Lark on the Park as one of the best new restaurants of 2013.

Wynne sometimes says the key to his success is he didn’t know what he was doing when he started out — and that sometimes he still doesn’t. But that often meant he’d make up his own rules along the way. He didn’t know how a business deal should be structured, so he just did one, and tried to be fair to everyone involved.

He’s had his failures, but he takes the lessons from the lumps and, as usual, keeps moving.

“I’ve always loved the line, and I don’t know who said it, that the key to success is the infinite capacity to grow bored,” Wynne says, trying to put his finger on things. “If I had to put it down to a lifestyle choice, I’d say it’s just getting up early in the morning.”

But he does have a few things he wants to be remembered for.

“I think I got Dallas out of the fern-bar revolution back in 1980 and made it more contemporary,” Wynne says. “I think I’ve been instrumental in introducing some stuff that possibly wouldn’t have come along when it did. … I’d like to think that design-wise, I’ve introduced some compelling interiors.”

Wynne says his next project is a Rodeo Goat for Dallas (he also recently bought a building at Lancaster Avenue and Currie Street in Fort Worth, but he doesn’t plan to do anything with it — it was a pre-emptive move against anyone opening another restaurant in the area). He says that with Sam working on his brewpub, he’s not sure whether they’ll work together on future projects.

“It kinda depends on how busy he is,” Shannon says. “This is his first solo enterprise, so I imagine he’s going to be pretty wrapped up in that. We’ll have to wait and see. I’m not counting it out by any means.”

Sam isn’t Wynne’s only child — he had triplets, with his second wife, Brycie, and has two stepdaughters with his wife, Kimberly. Two are in the business — Raynor, Kimberly’s older daughter, works at Meddlesome Moth, and Isabella, one of the triplets, is a hostess at Lark — but Shannon doesn’t know if they plan to stay in the restaurant world.

What he does know is that he’s trying to be a good father to all of them.

“You want your children to love you,” Wynne says. “I’ve got 17-year-old triplets right now, and I’m sure that there are times that my parenting is more firm than they would like. But I think that in the long run, they’ll appreciate it.

“My hat’s always off to parents who make their kids practice the piano. Because whenever you see a musician receive an award, more times than not, they thank their parents for having leaned on them to practice. So I think along the way, you’re not always appreciated, but in the long run, you hope that they see that your intentions were noble.”

Judging by what Sam, his oldest, has to say, they will.

“I remember when I was a kid and trying to figure things out, playing sports and talking to girls and all that stuff, anything just shy of dressing up like a superhero and going to school, he was supportive of that,” Sam says of his father. “He kinda taught me what I define as being comfortable in your own shoes, being able to step out there, do your own thing and not give a hoot what anybody else has to say.

“I think that’s been one of the most empowering lessons of my life.”

This report contains material from DFW.com archives.

Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872 Twitter: @rphilpot

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