Big Fish

In the eighties Tilman Fertitta’s seafood restaurants earned him millions while his hard-nosed business tactics earned him enemies. But these days the Galveston native is winning new respect in his hometown by standing up to the most powerful family on the Island.

Tilman Fertitta came home to Galveston last November to deliver the oratorical equivalent of a belly flop in the punch bowl. Speaking to the city’s business leaders at a chamber of commerce luncheon, the wealthy 39-year-old Houston-based restaurateur mesmerized them with his cut-the-crap rhetoric. “I’ve been to forty-four states in the last few years,” Fertitta said, adding that as a tourist center, Galveston was “definitely lagging behind all the other areas I’ve visited. We don’t have amusement parks. We don’t have golf courses … Our greatest asset is the beach, but it’s also our greatest weakness.” The beachfront motels were shabby; their signs were outdated—including, he noted, that of the Holiday Inn, which was owned by his father, Vic, who happened to be in attendance. The audience tittered nervously, as it did when Fertitta brazenly dismissed the Woodlands resort, owned by Galveston patron saint George Mitchell, as a lesser tourist destination “just sitting up there amongst a bunch of trees in north Houston.”

But the CEO of the $500 million Landry’s Seafood Restaurants chain saved his choicest broadsides for that mightiest of Galveston powers, the $500 million Moody Foundation. Perfectly unbothered that the luncheon was taking place at the Moody Gardens Convention Center, Fertitta belittled the Moody family’s civic spirit. “Remember, the foundation has to give the money away,” he said. Yet the Moodys’ latest project wasn’t a new park, beachfront restoration, or other needed endeavor. Rather, it involved the construction of a three-hundred-room hotel on the grounds of Moody Gardens and was a venture that was “doing nobody any favors,” other than Bobby Moody, whose company, Gal-Tex Hotel Corporation, would profit from managing the hotel. The whole deal reeked of greed—and, for that matter, unfairness, Fertitta insisted. The Moodys’ new “nonprofit” hotel, with its tax exemptions and favorable location at Moody Gardens, would cripple the taxpaying hotels, two of which were Fertitta’s. “We’re sending the wrong message to the rest of the United States,” he warned. “You’re never going to get major developers in here. We’re saying to them, ‘Stay out of Galveston.’”

The audience, as one, gulped. “I will not let the Moody Foundation compete unfairly without a fight,” Fertitta vowed. He was already suing the Moodys and the city over the matter, but he didn’t intend to stop there. Noting that a U.S. House Ways and Means subcommittee would be investigating tax-exempt organizations, Fertitta promised, “I plan to be right in the middle of it.”

The speech was classic Tilman Fertitta, brazen to the point of insolence yet impossible to wave off—and, in the end, rather breathtaking. The audience gave him a standing ovation. Afterward, a chamber member was heard to gush to the speaker, “How do you get your pants on in the morning with those big balls of yours?” Even Fertitta seemed dizzied by his performance. “I’ve never felt so right in all my life,” he told his father later.

It was an altogether new sensation for a surviving warrior of the eighties’ take-the-money-and-run amorality. During that decade, Tilman Fertitta was known more for his nerve and his artful dodging than for his principles. By the dawn of the nineties he would emerge unscathed with an empire as reflective of his day as insurance and energy were of the Moody and Mitchell era. Now he was a full-blown player, Houston’s most dynamic young businessman, a Wall Street darling, and a friend of President Bill Clinton’s. But he was nobody’s hero, nor would he be, until he came home to Galveston as an avenging angel, where he could be not only rich but right.

uring my ten or so visits with fertitta, I couldn’t help but notice how the electric braggadocio of his monologues would suddenly give way to some blasé slogan that would seek to remind me that I was in the presence of a good guy. “Do the right thing,” he would interject. And, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.” Beneath the gruff, predatory exterior lurks a man who very much wants those around him to think the best of him. Of course, since Fertitta built Landry’s into the second-biggest seafood chain in America (after Red Lobster), his life has become cluttered with unctuous suitors who will cut him all manner of slack. Fertitta became identified with the Democratic party not because of his political views, which are generally conservative, but, he says, because “the Democrats embraced me.” Clinton’s party saw in Fertitta not so much a kindred spirit as a clean-cut young family man who wasn’t a personal-injury lawyer. Here was a guy whose image and pocketbook the Democrats could exploit for decades to come. So far, Fertitta hasn’t complained. He has been Clinton’s guest at the White House four times.

If Fertitta, with his guileless patter and asymmetrical grin, were one of his signature restaurant’s marquee signs, it would blare out, “Work In Progress.” He is given to exclaiming in wonderment, “I’m so young.” But this apparent vulnerability is nothing more than a seductive front. For even as he molds himself into Citizen Fertitta, CEO Fertitta remains a shrewd hustler with business instincts that are chillingly acute. Ever since his days as a junior high school kid selling candy and gum to his classmates at a markup, Fertitta has known his calling. “I can’t draw a stick person,” he acknowledges. “I can’t play a musical instrument. But I’ve always had a knack for making money.”

He was never merely a wage earner, though. Even as a fourteen-year-old kid working the floor of his father’s Galveston restaurant, Pier 23, young Tilman could discern what made a business successful. Remembers Vic Fertitta, an affable lug whose voice assumes an almost worshipful tremor when speaking of his middle son: “Tilman would tell me, ‘Daddy, the food is taking too long coming out of the kitchen. It should all come out in eight to twelve minutes.’ One Friday night two waitresses got in a fight. He punched the clock for both of them, fired them, and took

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