Sunday Conversation: Restaurateur Bob Basham

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It's difficult to envision a poncho-wearing Bob Basham, replete with a scruffy beard, cowboy hat and boots, hand-rolled cigarette dangling on his lip and a six shooter wrapped around his waist. It's also a bit of a stretch to see the restaurateur pulling a .44 magnum revolver out of a three-piece suit and posing a rhetorical question about life and luck to a would-be criminal.

But Basham, an Outback Steakhouse founder, does draw a parallel with a famous actor-director when asked what keeps him going in the business after more than 40 years of work with some of the nation's most profitable restaurant groups.

"It's like Clint Eastwood said, 'I never let the old man in,'" said Basham, one of the partners in MVP Holdings that's fueling success for PDQ and Glory Days Grill.

Less known is Basham's charitable spirit. He's long supported Metropolitan Mininstries, a nonprofit that services the poor and homeless. When the nonprofit wanted to move its Inside The Box cafe from a downtown Tampa spot to the new Armature in Tampa Heights, Basham didn't rush to fill the space with a rent-paying tenant.

Instead, he talked to Metropolitan Ministries vice president of social enterprise Cliff Barsi about a different concept. Now, Dough Nation, an edible cookie dough and ice cream shop will open on N Tampa Street in downtown Tampa. And again, the nonprofit won't pay a dime in rent.

Basham recently spoke to Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper about his charitable heart, his love of restaurants and why he keeps going after all these years.

How did you strike upon the concept of edible cookie dough?

I had seen and read about a concept in New York. They talked about lines around the block and people waiting 2 1/2 hours. I casually mentioned it to Cliff: Check this place out. Maybe we can do one of those. And I just left it at that. Then one day, samples of edible cookie dough show up in my office. I passed them around the office and people were going crazy. I called Cliff and he said, 'I just went online, got some information, came up with some recipes and made some cookie dough.

"He proceeded to tell me he sold it at the Gasparilla Music Festival and people were going nuts over it. They had 1,100 orders of edible cookie dough. I agreed to help him on that.

What moves you to continue to help Metropolitan Ministries?

I'm on the board and I'm a big believer in their mission. I'm very supportive of that and they have an incredible group of people. I have that property and it was available and when they were doing In The Box, I said, 'I'll donate the space to you.' The idea is to do social enterprise, create some jobs and give an opportunity to some clients who come through there. It's really Cliff and (CEO) Tim (Marks) leading the charge, it's been very seamless and it's been very rewarding what they've done down there.

I was told you would deflect praise to Cliff and Tim.

It's like (MetMin Foundation president) Morris Hintzman once told me: "It's easy to write a check." The hard part is spending time talking to people and finding out what makes them tick. When someone comes in homeless or living in a car, compassion they show them a lot of compassion. Morris and Tim and Cliff — if you're looking for heroes, those three guys need to be high on the list.

I've heard people say if you give, it will come back to you. Is that your philosophy.

I've always said, "to whom much is given, much is expected." I've been very blessed in my life. I do the best I can, but I know I can always do better. If we had more people do that, this would be a lot better place. A lot of people do give, but a lot more people could do more to make this a better place.

You've been in the restaurant business for more than 40 years. Why haven't you kicked back and slowed down.

It keeps you engaged, it keeps you active. If you're doing something you don't like, you should stop doing it. But I love the restaurant industry. We have a lot of young people and they're very high energy. I like providing an opportunity for them to grab a piece of the American dream. That's what Outback was all about. It's fun when you see people at the unit level work hard and then they elevate and we have them running multiple units and making income levels they just dreamed about. It's all about the hard work they've done. To me, that's personally rewarding. We have great people in our company. I steal a lot of energy from all the young people.

With Glory Days, you're getting a chance to work with your brother Richard. How much fun is that for you?

We learned the business from my older brother (George Danker). That's how both of us got into the restaurant business. So now, it's coming back all the way around. We're working together with a concept he co-founded in the Washington, D.C., area, and being a franchisee, I'm developing it down here. It's come full circle and it's fun.

How much has the restaurant business changed?

I think it's changed a lot. it's a lot more competitive and I think even when we started Outback in 1988. There are a lot more seats in the market and its why you see so many restaurants open and so many restaurants close. There are a lot more regulations you have to deal with ... from labor rules to all the other stuff government likes to regulate. It's a lot more expensive to get in this business.

I know you continue to develop PDQ and Glory Days and Wow! That's Fresh. What's next for you?

We also have a restaurant up in Tallahassee called Spear It. But right now, we're just working on the expansion of PDQ. We'll open the 60th one next month in Phoenix, and then shortly after that we'll be in Chicago. That's my main focus and Glory Days, we have seven and we'll continue to develop those in Florida. Wow is something that's developed from within, so we have enough on our plate to keep busy, but we always have our eyes open for opportunities in the business.

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Ernest Hooper at [email protected] Follow @hoop4you.

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