Entrepreneurs find fertile ground amid the dunes of Galveston. Plus Galveston real estate, and Galveston summer recipes.
By Jan Johnson
Photos by Yvonne Feece
Galveston journalist Christie Mitchell (whose oil-magnate/developer brother, George, named the restaurant Christie Mitchell’s Beachcomber after him) once observed that anyone could go to Houston and make a million dollars, but it took a genius to earn a living in Galveston. Small-business entrepreneurs do seem to be a dying breed on the Island. If you look closely enough, however, you’ll find several unsung, independent businessmen successfully building a life here, hard at work in various industries, from traditional to cutting-edge technology. They have risen above the special interests and beyond the Causeway to change niches into riches, proving the Beachcomber wrong.
Oh, and they all happen to be part of Galveston’s gay community.
Home-Grown and Firmly PlantedComfortably reclining on couches that face each other, Don Clark sips peach tea while David LeBouef cuddles with Baily, his standard poodle who fancies herself a lapdog. Despite their ease during this pleasant interview, their success didn’t happen randomly or overnight.
In 1978, Don refreshed his Island Cuisine by Clark catering company when he purchased a down-home country diner, the Busy Bee, in Santa Fe, Texas. He met his life partner, David, two years later at Galveston’s favorite Christmas fête, Dickens on The Strand. Together they grew the cafe into a countywide chain.
The two invested in historic Galveston in 1984, buying a quaint corner restaurant at 8th and Postoffice. They updated the kitchen, menu, and decor, then changed the name to Schutte’s Corner after the old grocery store that had stood there from 1885 until it became an eatery. Success of their new enterprise soon demanded more parking, so they bought the rest of the block. Reluctant to sacrifice all of the 1890s cottages and realizing their potential, they moved three to Ferry Road, where they restored them and sold them, using the proceeds to complete the new parking lot for Schutte’s Corner.
For 14 years, they worked “like maniacs,” quipped David, with a twinkle in his eye, literally side by side with their employees to ensure the success of their diners. In 1994, they sold their chain of Busy Bees but kept the Postoffice Street location. With reliable management in place at Schutte’s Corner, the two took time off to travel.
By this time, they were living in Hitchcock in a new Victorian home out in the country. Rested and ready for another challenge, in 1998 Don and David reinvested their profits in Galveston’s Leticia Rosenberg Women’s Home on 25th Street, moving into the third floor the following year to begin their first major renovation.
The 1895 mansion had been uninhabited for 30 years. In 1983, Hurricane Alicia ripped off the roof and front south corner. Between that, termites, and vagrants, very little of the original interior remained.
After reconstructing the foundation and load-bearing walls, the partners began restoring its 18,000 square feet.
To date, they’ve finished the front 5,000 on two levels. Complete on the second floor are the entry, living room, dining room, and kitchen, as well as a sunroom, which overlooks lush gardens that David planted. Three bedrooms on the third floor conclude their presently habitable space. Their current project is the Leticia Rosenberg Media Room, as they’ve dubbed it, an entertainment center featuring an extra-large, wall-sized plasma TV. With its lavishly unique decor, the mansion’s future as a boutique hotel is evident.
To give back to their community, they opened their home for charity on April 1, 2006. Between the well-documented history tours of the home, a garden party, and the silent auction, the partners raised over $65,000 for the Jesse Tree, a faith-based social service organization that aids the impoverished in their various needs.
But they weren’t done yet. In 2002, Don and David quietly bought Galveston’s landmark restaurant, Miller’s Landing, and immediately updated the kitchen. Keeping the cook and most of the famously friendly staff, they combined the best of its menu with that of Schutte’s Corner.
But merely expanding the dining area wasn’t enough. In February 2008, Miller’s Landing got a total retro makeover based on Don’s vision of old Victorian Galveston on the Seawall. Architect Greg Lewis relied heavily on Don’s sketches of steeply pitched peaks to update the 1960s building. Sacrificing three table tops, they added a smoking foyer and remodeled the restrooms to meet ADA requirements for the needs of handicapped patrons. However, the vintage is truly in its detailed decor. Hand-stenciled beams crown darkly stained, salvaged bead-board, while large beveled mirrors reflect opulent light fixtures from the Texas capitol. To give the new Miller’s Landing a distinct Caribbean, almost-Key-West, beachy feel, they decided on a chartreuse color combination for the exterior. Texas Monthly loved the new facelift on what they describe as a “Seawall standby.”
Everything they undertake becomes a labor of love for Don Clark and David LeBouef, who are always doing something. Whether at the diner delivering meals or learning woodworking to create something wonderful at their Leticia Rosenberg Home, these complementary professional and personal partners define their secret of success as taking care of their customers with old-fashioned, hands-on hard work.
Self-Made Lone Ranger
Born in New Jersey, Thomas J. Schwenk is a dynamic, natural-born public speaker determined to capitalize on his skills to maintain a lifestyle that centers on spending time with and providing for his domestic partner, retired banker Jack Bell.
Tom received his degree in Business Administration in 1978 from St. Bonaventure near Buffalo, the only Franciscan college in the United States, and immediately set out on a career in sales and marketing. Tom has successfully sold everything, from space on cargo ships to office equipment, which led him into New York City’s famous garment district. Here, he fashioned an interest in architecture and interior design industries with a business perspective.
Scoring a sales job with Schumacher, he was transferred to Houston in 1984, where he capitalized on his Jersey accent to distinguish himself. Not only did he prosper, but more importantly, Tom gained great nationwide contacts through his work. Coincidentally, he met life partner Jack within a month of his Houston move.
Along his career journey, he never forgot two important principles preached at St. Bonaventure: community involvement and periodic self-reevaluation. Growing bored and stagnant in the corporate world after attaining VP status, Tom reasoned that, with the corporate climate at that time, the only way to achieve his preferred lifestyle was through independent entrepreneurship. When those he volunteered with declared they would pay him for his skills, he took the plunge into self-employment.
In 1999, he formed his first company, Jordan Thomas and Associates. To arrive at this distinguished-sounding name, he combined his middle name with his mother’s maiden name; Jack is his “and Associates.” As a strategic planning consulting firm, Jordan Thomas helped creative people become more business minded and profitable. Its clients knew where they wanted to go without a clue how to get there; Tom mapped out strategies for their long-term success.
Two years after launching Jordan Thomas, Tom partnered with Donna Vining, FASID, to found Seminars By Design. Recognizing a need for new ways to fulfill necessary continuing education requirements among interior designers, architects, and their suppliers, they filled that niche. Each year, they research and write eight courses on health, safety, and welfare issues, as well as effective business practices. In addition to marketing their presentations nationwide, which include four workshop cruises, the company is hired directly by many companies, associations, and organizations throughout the United States and Canada.
Inherent in these ventures is a flexibility that allows Tom and Jack the freedom to live anywhere. In 1987, they chose Galveston Island. They began as weekenders, restoring a Southern townhouse on Avenue L, which they made their year-round home in 2001. Jack retired from 30 years in the banking industry the following year. He now volunteers at the University of Texas Medical Branch as a standardized patient, which means that he role-plays illness to help educate medical students in diagnostic and communication skills. Tom works quite comfortably from their home’s second floor. The third member of this contented family is Gus, Jack’s 14-year-old West Highland Terrier.
Community service continues to be an important part of Tom’s life. He serves on the boards of the Downtown Rotary Club and the AIDS coalition, but most of his time is spent working with the Galveston Historical Foundation (GHF). He will be sworn in as their honorary president on July 25 at their annual meeting at the Garten Verein.
In this capacity, Tom recently conceived a new role for an old house. The foundation closed the 1839 Samuel May Williams Home at 36th and Avenue P, making its future uncertain. He first proposed, and then facilitated, using the house as a Spring Designer Showhouse for GHF, which was unveiled during their annual Historic Homes Tour. As a service project for the Texas Gulf Coast Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers, 12 design teams from the area collaborated in making one area of the 19th-century house a livable and sustainable residence in the 21st century. Its “First Impression” a success, the Williams Home opened on the weekends in May, as a fundraiser to pay for the project. Afterward, its show-house furnishings were removed,
making way for a new resident curator.
“I felt that the foundation took a tremendous leap of faith in me,” said Tom. “I did my best to bring people together and provide the way for all involved to succeed.”
In 2006, his volunteerism led yet again to a new profession. Recognizing another niche that needed filling on Galveston Island, Tom moved into the real estate industry as the only certified Eco Broker on the Island. Associated with Tramonte Realty, he refers and consults on maximizing energy-efficient, sustainable, and healthier design features in both new and old houses and buildings.
Tom Schwenk believes that the secret of his success is not to worry about what you don’t have . . . and lives to treasure what he does.
Forward to the Future
Casually dressed in T-shirts and shorts, Lee Roane and Jim Cordell, life partners since 1991, looked more like surfers than business men as they sat in the boardroom of their 24th Street office. Dominating the room at the head of the table, a computer flat screen screamed for attention, and the two proud papas showed off their progeny—Galveston.com. Bringing the World Wide Web to Galveston Island was Lee’s brainchild, and Jim helped nurture the fledgling, growing it into an innovative destination-marketing company within six years.
Working at NASA afforded Lee a connection to the cutting-edge technology of cyber space. In 1994, he invested in its potential when he bought the domain name of Galveston.com for $100, writing that check with quivering hand. His growing hatred of alarm clocks prevailed, and he literally quit his day job to work for himself. The two moved to the Island, buying an 1894 cottage on Ave K to restore. Here, Lee started his first business venture in a closet on a Mac laptop, learning the technology step-by-step.
At this time, Jim was perfectly content to work in Houston for a large wholesale foods distributor as senior copywriter/video producer. When he saw his partner’s somewhat graphically crude website, he realized that his “boy needed some help, and fast!” In his spare time, Jim helped Lee give a more sophisticated and professional look to Galveston.com.
Anything or anyone who might bring visitors across the Causeway and keep them here was offered a free member page, thrusting old Galveston into the new age of all Internet-connected destination travelers. Special events like ArtWalks, Mardi Gras, and Dickens on The Strand were considered headline newsworthy, with story and photo coverage following. Online banner advertising was also made available. However, the Internet in general and Lee’s website in particular was a hard sell to the suspicious and somewhat provincial Island business community.
“It’s like we were Martians or something,” Jim observes. Two years later, Galveston.com moved out of the closet when members of the hotel/motel industry, led by the bed-and-breakfasts, bought into their online reservation system, which met with nearly immediate success. Restaurants and the larger attractions like Moody Gardens soon followed.
With business booming, the two became professional partners in 1998, when Lee signed on as webmaster of Galveston.com. Their venture came of age two years later when they formed a private/public partnership with the Parks Board of Trustees to become the Island’s offi-cial tourism website.
Coincidentally, that was the same year that cruises to the Caribbean began sailing from the Port of Galveston. After attending a presentation by Carnival in 1999, Lee and Jim jumped at the opportunity and established Galvestoncruises.com. Totally devoted to their firstborn, they hired Clair Johnson to manage their second business, which has since added a call center for other visitor services, from airport shuttle service to reserving theater tickets.
With every innovative component of Galveston.com, Lee and his programmers developed and built software specific to each task, insuring exclusivity and control. Most importantly, they designed it to be user-friendly so that their sales staff could easily update information. Their never-ending quest to improve the website has led to weekly pod casts, virtual videos, popular Web cams, and interactive blogs about various tourist topics. Their latest business venture, DestinationNext, customizes the software they have developed for their own business and leases its suite of services to other visitor destinations.
In 2006, their company received national attention when the American Business Awards bestowed the coveted Stevie for Best Website Design. Being recognized as #1 in the U.S. business world was a huge win, considering that Island-born Galveston.com was up against mega-companies like Ralph Lauren. While they scored another Stevie in one category last year, their company was named finalist in both the “Website: Video & Film” and “Video & Film: Tourism & Travel” categories in 2008.
What are the secrets of their success? While Jim credits his obsessive “work is play, play is work” attitude, Lee ponders the question more philosophically. In a mellow, deep-throated accent that hints of his Louisiana-bayous beginnings, he thoughtfully answers, “I’m proud to have hired the right people to create a good team that works, because Jim and I try to be the bosses we never had.”
In these small businesses, you won’t find arrogant supervisors “cracking the whip” over their workers or endless, unproductive meetings. Instead, what succeeds in the business world is an atmosphere of mutual respect, fair pay for hard work, and a focused goal to get the job done. And isn’t this truly the American Way?
Freelance writer Jan Johnson is a fifth-generation Galveston native. Look for her new book this fall, Walking Historic Galveston: A Guide to Its Neighborhoods.