From classic speakeasies to a '70s house party and even a brand new carnival theme, the Houston Brothers know how to keep people entertained
Jonnie and Mark Houston reign supreme in the nightlife realm in Los Angeles. These fraternal twins do so much more than run ten successful nightclubs and restaurants, they are all about creating unique experiences that allow their guests to truly discover something new and they want their guests to always expect the unexpected. And now they are branching out to their first new city outside of L.A., Vegas, baby.
In conjunction with MGM, the Houston Brothers will open their newest speakeasy called On The Record, a nostalgic love letter to long-lost music venues, that will open at MGM on New Year's Eve. The entrance, which will surely feature one of their signature speakeasy twists, will also incorporate a fully functioning record store. Now, that sounds like a party for the ages.
This announcement, made to the Hollywood Reporter on June 19, came just days after the Houston Brothers opened up the exciting Madame Siam Sideshow Emporium, a nightclub with a carnival theme (perhaps with an ounce of political humor) with a full roster of A-list celebrities including Robert Pattison, Kristen Stewart, Billy Idol, Jeremy Renner and more.
Houston Hospitality properties have no cover charge. Most have live entertainment at least Thursday through Saturday and their properties (each with a different theme) Black Rabbit Rose, No Vacancy, Madame Siam Sideshow Emporium and Dirty Laundry are located next to each other in Hollywood. Cocktails run at around $15 and you can get something yummy to nosh on between $3-15.
While these clubs attract celebrities, Jonnie and Mark Houston want people to know that well-behaved people (who are dressed appropriately) and want to have fun are always welcome. However, the lines can be very long, so be sure to make a reservation.
The 39-year-old Houston brothers hail from Los Angeles. They started working at their aunt's Thai restaurant when they were very young and tried some other endeavors before discovering their passion for re-imagining the nightlife scene. They are known to be incredibly hands-on and are accessible to their guests, as well as to the more than 400 people who work with them.
The sky's the limit for Jonnie and Mark Houston who spoke with Michelle Tompkins for TheCelebrityCafe.com about their upbringing, their hands-on approach to building an experience, where they get their inspiration, how their family fits into all of this, why they believe it is important to treat employees like family, what are their recommendations for people to do for fun when they visit Los Angeles, what they like to do for fun, what makes their experiences so different and more.
Michelle Tompkins: Something I just saw is Madame Siam Sideshow Emporium. That looks really exciting. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Mark Houston: So it's new—we just opened. It's inspired by our travel to Asia and a little bit inspired by my mom, too. Some of her antiques I repurposed and use within the space, but it's because that was previously Rudolph Valentino's Speakeasy and we reintroduced it as this new experience with carnival games, carnival fair food and craft cocktails. We do sideshows as performances that happen there, but on top of it there's live music and we've been fortunate to have some really, really well-known bands perform on that stage recently. It's a place that we've been working on for quite some time. It's been three years in the making and finally, we're opening.
Michelle Tompkins: When will it open?
Mark Houston: It just opened. We did a party with Jeremy Scott, who's the designer from Moschino and that brought out Billy Idol. We had Emma Roberts, Robert Pattinson, Kristin Stewart. The list just goes on and on. Jeremy Renner. And they all came out through our opening party, which was last week Friday, and the opening and fashion kind of sideshow experience that really, really, I think, gave us a strong launch on it.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, as I'm a foodie, tell me about some of the carnival-inspired dishes.
Mark Houston: So all the food was inspired by my childhood favorites. My brother and I worked to bring your favorite carnival foods to Madame Siam—only elevated corn dogs, pretzels, popcorn...
Jonnie Houston: And homemade Cracker Jacks and stuff like that. It's just fun.
And then we have three or four cocktails with them too. We have a Cracker Jack Cocktail, where we crush the Cracker Jacks up and then we use that on the rim of the glass. And we have a Cotton Candy Cocktail.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, is it more like a nightclub or is it just kind of a loungey thing where there are performers or is it like an adult Dave & Buster's? I'm just trying to get the feel of it.
Jonnie Houston: I wouldn't call it an adult Dave & Buster's because we don't have video games, we have experiential games, so like ring toss and like--
Michelle Tompkins: So like Coney Island kind of thing?
Mark Houston: Yeah. Yeah. An adult sexy Coney Island [laughter].
Michelle Tompkins: Now, are there long lines to get in, how do you recommend people to get into the club?
Mark Houston: There have been long lines, but we recommend people making reservations. That's the best way. Making sure they get in and we're not running it like a nightclub per say, we want it to be like a neighborhood lounge and an experience. But to be honest, the lines have been so long, it's best to make a reservation.
Michelle Tompkins: And is it only for 21 and over?
Mark Houston: Yes. An adult playground.
How the Houston Brothers got their start
Michelle Tompkins: I'm going to go a little bit back in time. Now, where did you guys grow up?
Mark Houston: I was born and raised in Angelinos, I actually grew up in Korea Town in East Hollywood, Hollywood area. We went to school at Taft in Woodland Hills and then Fairfax High School eventually, where we graduated.
Then we did one year of community college in Santa Monica Community College and actually, my brother and I dropped out after a year because we started selling cell phones actually, out of the trunk of our car to college kids and we made an empire doing that. And we were like 19-years-old and making $4,000 a week each. So we started opening up cell phone stores left and right and that's actually how we kind of created our first empire.
And then eventually, when then business supply and demand started teetering down we kind of parlayed on into creating these experience with these bars and nightclubs and lounges that we've been creating over the years.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, did you guys always do twin stuff together or are you guys separate or always had the same interests?
Jonnie Houston: Business-wise, we did the cell phone businesses together. Then we kind of parted ways and I was doing music videos with a lot of different artists, everyone from Gwen Stefani to Busta Rhymes when I was working with Hype Williams, who's a famous director at the time. I did that for a few years and kind of got tired of it; I was doing a lot of traveling. I came back and we opened up our first bar. And it's just kind of from there on we created an empire of venues.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, do you have other siblings, as well?
Mark Houston: We have an older sister.
Michelle Tompkins: And is she involved in the family business?
Jonnie Houston: No, it's just me and my brother. My sister is the head marketing director to Microsoft.
Michelle Tompkins: Oh, wow.
Jonnie Houston: Yeah [laughter]. She's pretty busy herself and successful in her own way. And she has twin boys. We have twin nephews.
Michelle Tompkins: Oh, you do? Oh, that's funny.
Jonnie Houston: Yeah, they're five years old right now. They're amazing.
Michelle Tompkins: Now you touched on this a little bit, but what kinds of jobs did you guys have when you were young?
Jonnie Houston: Oh, our aunt used to own a Thai restaurant. Our first job was at nine years old, peeling shrimp in the kitchen and then we started passing flyers door to door for her Thai restaurant. So we did that for a while. And then for a period of time, we worked at Bad Boy Records doing a little marketing which was interesting. All-in-all it was a good experience. I think that was somewhat 16, 17, to 18, 19.
Michelle Tompkins: And how old are you guys now?
Mark Houston: 39
Michelle Tompkins: Okay. Now, what got you interested in the nightclub scene?
Jonnie Houston: To be honest, we don't really like to call our places nightclubs because for us it's more of an experience. But I think growing up in LA and trying to do all of the nightlife scenes, at the time there were only these really shitty dive bars or these big nightclubs that were like meat markets. And you didn't always feel comfortable or wanted or you couldn't bring a date to a dive bar because you might get into a fight with someone [laughter]. It wasn't easy to have a good time.
Mark Houston: I think partly when we went out it was either like we enjoyed a dive bar, neighborhood bar. And we never really kind of vibed with the nightclub model of service. So we developed something, we created something more for us that had live entertainment. Like a theatrical, Broadway kind of element to it with great cocktails. And we wanted to do a fun, playful twist on nightlife. Where even if you don't drink you still have a good time and enjoy yourself. I think what we did was fill in a void that people didn't realize was needed and in demand.
We created something for ourselves and crossed our fingers and people enjoyed it. We built a bar after our dad died. He passed away six years ago. And it's one of our best concepts because not only did we do an homage our dad, but to everybody who has a father.
Michelle Tompkins: Tell me all about the new MGM partnership.
Mark Houston: So with our partnership with MGM, we're excited about expanding out to Las Vegas. It's our first venue out in Vegas, and actually, outside of California, LA. And it's a pretty decent large-sized venue. It's over 11,000 square feet. And we've been given an opportunity to create our Houston Brothers experience that is a not a feeling of a typical nightclub.
It kind of encompasses great food and a great beverage program where we get to incorporate live entertainment, actual choreographed shows that happen throughout the night, and the space itself has multiple layers to it. It's like four rows that create this amazing, magical experience that you get to journey through each one and have different vibes, different moods, so that way it just feels like in some sense, in some ways, like you've been to four places in one club-lounge.
Michelle Tompkins: Oh! So it sounds there's something for everyone.
Mark Houston: This particular experience that we're creating is a journey through music, everything pre-downloadable MP3 music. It's more the tone of like when you had to work for it. You had to go out and buy a record. You had to buy a tape and play it. And it had that raw sound to it that resonated as it got used more to kind of have that raw sound. And what we're doing is celebrating the journey of it and incorporating not only the genre of the music but design aesthetics that have a nod to it. And the shows themselves are curated and sort of tailored to also give a nod to nostalgia.
And the experience also has a two-story record shop that you can walk up to and that itself creates a kind of nod to back in the days we used to go buy records. And this record store is something that was inspired by our youth. When I used to go out and wait in line to buy the new record and the new cassette tape and couldn't wait to run home and play it.
I wanted to give people that touch of nostalgic feeling, as you entered into that space. So our final record DJ player multiple in each room, multiple shows and multiple cocktail programs, which inspired my YouTube channel concept where music should be paired cocktail or drink or beer, how they go hand to hand. And that's what we're trying to encompass in this whole new approach to this might change the nightlife scene.
Michelle Tompkins: So, how do you come up with the names for your events?
Mark Houston: Many different ways. It just really just boils down to once we start designing and mapping out a space, it just kind of, either is inspired by the design or the experiences in our life, a keyword that always travels with us.
My brother and I, we do fight like cats and dogs. We both go head-to-head on them, and sometimes I win and I get to pick a name or sometimes he wins and he gets to choose the name, or we both collaborate and we fill in a word together and make it the final product. It's no typical, traditional way of doing it, it just more of like, just whatever's inspired the names. Feeling it, living it, really enjoying the whole process and that takes us on the journey of creating this space will help us come up with a name.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, how hands-on are you and Jonnie in the whole process?
Mark Houston: Oh, A to Z. We have won design awards in 2013 for AIA. We also won 2017,mAIA, architectural design awards, which, they're nominated across the country. Actually, across the world. We've won those, we're in design books. We're very, very detail-oriented when it comes to design including the fabrics. The interactive experiences that we create and the multilayered planning that comes into timing and it creating the entertainment and feeling that you get when you walk into the building.
Every seat that you sit in and what your visuals are and how you interact with people in social environments that promote interaction amongst each other. We've kind of mastered a unique approach to nightlife, encompassing all these things, and they're going to feel organic and not forced-fed, you know? And we also fill in a signature secret entrance throughout all our vendors. It kind of becomes a new thing, a new signature of ours.
The clubs have secret entrances, shhh, it's a secret...
Michelle Tompkins: I was going to ask that further on, but tell me about that. Tell me about the secret entrances.
Mark Houston: The entrances are so unique and different. Each one is its own kind of vibe that creates the tone for whatever that venue or whatever space you're experiencing, so my intent in creating that for to allow people, once you step into that door, it snaps you out of your 9 to 5 and it allows you to escape. We want to promote escape by letting your fantasy go wild. Allow yourself to be immersed in this experience and escape everyday life and take in this experience that you're about to journey into.
It helps when we set that tone immediately in our spaces. It starts with that first moment because you feel like a kid again. You feel like you've traveled somewhere else and you've forgotten everything else, you're just feeling at awe like, ‘Wow, that was cool.’ You let yourself kind of go on this journey.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, how many experiences have you created that are still around today?
Mark Houston: 12.
Michelle Tompkins: And let's kind of go back to the very beginning which was Piano Bar, what lead you to do that?
Mark Houston: Piano Bar was like our love and enjoyment for good piano, right? Like a good New Orleans based—because I didn't find it from New Orleans, Louisiana when Johnny and I traveled out there and there were some great piano bars that we went to. So when we came back to L.A., we found this space and it just felt organic to create a piano bar and…I don't want to say simple, because the name is straightforward the Piano Bar. And we were blessed to have some of the best musicians walking through that door and bless the piano and bless the room with good sound that really made it an L.A. staple, which, I'm sorry, that's not open today, but we're reopening it in two months down the street because we sold it to Tao Group.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, Good Times at Davey Wayne's is a little different especially on this Father's Day weekend.
Mark Houston: Yeah. I’m going there tonight. That spot was inspired by our father who passed away and the hardest thing for me. We wanted to rechannel that negative energy to a positive and celebrate his life. So what we did was go in the garage, clean out all my dad's memorabilia and stuff that he's had and cherished in life which are really tools and an old beat up fridge and just a bunch of-- to one man, might be junk, but to another man, it's a treasure. And what we did is create a speakeasy entrance, it's my dad's garage. You walk in that garage, we have a bunch of mechanics that people could buy, but once that fridge door-- oh, kind of gave away the entrance, but it's a fridge door entrance you've got to go down and it's fully stocked with beer. Once you go through that, you're transported back into the '70s and it looks like my living room growing up. And it just takes you back in time, the music, the vibes, the drinks and it just kind of feels like home to me. It always reminds of my dad. I will be having an Old Fashioned for my dad, that was his drink.
Michelle Tompkins: So your dad was the inspiration for this club, where do you get the inspiration for your other clubs?
Mark Houston: Travel or just experience. One was an experience for the Magic Bullet, the black leather rows, I was at Aaron Cole's house and he had a neighbor that was blocking a car and was complaining. I went and answered the door and was told to recommend someone to entertain them or to deal with it. This person did magic for them and they were so upset, but what happened was the magic wasn't in the trick, but the magic was when he changed their mood from being upset to being the happiest people and asking for more magic. That person that did that was David Blaine who's one of the world biggest magicians to that. He inspired me to want to create magic.
It wasn't the trick, it was being able to touch people and make their moods switch from being upset to the happiest people ever. And that took me in my journey into creating magic and understanding the culture and immersing myself in some of the world's greatest magicians, and award-winners, and actually, learning magic has then opened up this space, and celebrating whatever it is.
So a lot of it is that we get inspired by and then we're not good at. Or like I'm a person who immerses himself entirely into a concept where I eat, drink, sleep it. If it's jazz I start learning how to play. I'll go to jazz clubs, I will play it in my car. I will eat, drink, and sleep jazz. If it's magic, same thing. Become a member, understand the culture, immerse yourself in it. And those are the processes-- that's why I think come out so authentic and so unique is because we've gone through those levels of understanding it and it has a soul to it. It has a depth to it, not just something that you try and mimic or imitate.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, how do you find the performers and magicians and everything like that for your clubs? Do you have bookers, or do you scout in your crowds? What do you do?
Mark Houston: A lot of it comes from Jonnie and I. We found dancers trying to recreate some of my favorite '80s films dances and soundtracks. Jonnie was on a journey to find an iconic '80s rock star or pop singer. And it was on Hollywood Boulevard and he found a Michael Jackson impersonator [laughter] and threw him into the show with a couple of break dancers. And then he chose to do ‘When In Rome, The Promise’ song for break dancers to dance to. It was a mega-hit.
First of all, I'm a big fan of oddities and collaboration. But you ask yourself, ‘How did a pop like Michael Jackson pair up with someone from The Promise from When in Rome?’ Which is an iconic '80s—I don't know, it's not pop perse, but it is kind of poppy. It's like that weird tune, and then you throw in break dancers and you're like, ‘What is going on here?’ And I think it's a mixture of that raises the eyebrows, your ears are into it, and you're saying to yourself, ‘Whoa, I would never ever think of this combination but it feels and looks great, and it works.’
So with magic, I was like, ‘Yeah, I'm going to do Thai food,’ Thai Chinese food, ‘and I'm going to do magic.’ And that was just inspired by, first of all, my roots being Thai Chinese and me loving that food. But second of all, the magicians that made big names for themselves, who weren't even Asian they played Asian magicians because that was their way of becoming unique and different. The one guy was Scottish and the other guy was English, and they became one of the world's biggest magicians. And I thought, ‘Oh, I could definitely see this work.’
The masses walk in and they're like, ‘Oh, makes sense, it's great. Good food, magic, I love it.’ So a lot of it is just experienced-based and how he determines them fine, do you think?
Michelle Tompkins: Now, I'm guessing you're not able to say this, but do you have a favorite of your experiences?
Mark Houston: Like asking me which one of my kids is my favorite. It is impossible to ever choose, but I'll tell you I visit on the norm, maybe on one night, I'll go to all of them and I'm out. And it's just random on how I make those choices, but it's mood-based. ‘Oh, I feel like journeying into a Jazz bar tonight.’ I'll go to my place, Black Rabbit Rose. They have jazz and magic. ‘You know what? Tonight, I feel like rock 'n' roll. It’s whatever I feel my mood— salsa? I'll go to my salsa bar and do a little salsa magic. Or take home a cigar. Those are the journeys I get, and it kind of drives my direction and my choice for the night. But I love them all, equally and it's all magical their own right and their own way.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, you seem a little workaholic-y. Can you give me an idea what your schedule's like on any given Friday or Saturday night?
Mark Houston: Well, I'll tell you every day is a workday. And every day, it's like everything that we accomplish and create for the evening has a lot of daytime work and works behind it. And we're also working on seven projects here.
We're able to divide the work to keep each other on the winning track. But a day, for me, is like putting in at least 18 hours though. I only get a few hours of sleep, but it's all I really need. And as far as daytime versus night time, it's both enjoyable and I like them equally because my daytime is a lot of the design-build stuff, which I'm very passionate about and it's rare when you get to create something that you could go out at night and see it being appreciated with everyone else. You get to see people's joy and laughter and smiles. And I think that's the most fulfilling thing, and seeing couples that I've met there, I've been invited to like six weddings. [laughter] Attended two because oddly, some people meet on New Year's Eve and they want to get married on New Year's Eve and I'm like, ‘I cannot go to your wedding on the New Year's Eve. But I appreciate the thoughtful invitation, and I love that.
It definitely is beautiful when you get the thank you card for helping to bring people together. And bring smiles. It's something I don't take for granted. I'm very fortunate to do something that I enjoy.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, your experiences really seem to get a lot of celebrity interest, that kind of stuff. Do you have any favorite celebrity stories at any of your places that you'd like to talk about?
Mark Houston: There's so many. I think what's funny is, I've seen so much throughout the years, I feel like, to me, I'm slightly desensitized in terms of celebrities.
I think what's really helped us stay successful is that we make sure the people feel safe. They don't feel like their stories will be told. And I think they also appreciate that I never really call paparazzi. I never have paparazzi call me. We actually shoo them away.
Michelle Tompkins: So the celebrities can enjoy their experience and not worry about anything.
Mark Houston: Exactly.
Michelle Tompkins: Let’s talk about the recent unpleasantness. What happened?
Mark Houston: Well, I’m happy to have the opportunity to clear this up. I woke up one day and discovered that someone was trying to tarnish my reputation with lies. It was proven to be a false allegation. There was a statement made under oath that I am not an abusive person. No money changed hands. I’m happy that it is over and I’m excited about all of the good things coming our way. Now we can focus on taking our company, our hospitality group to the next level, and creating new experiences across the country.
Michelle Tompkins: Good. I’m happy for you that it is over. Now, what do you like to do for fun?
Mark Houston: I love doing outdoors and nature stuff. So first thing on making a decision to go to Vegas, I'm like, ‘Okay. Where am I doing my hiking? What outdoor stuff can I do?’ Because it's the balance of my life. I need to really balance it with grounded, me-time which is connected to nature and things that are like I could feel it, and touch it, and experience it, would maybe rock climbing, skiing, whatever. So when I went to Vegas, I'm like, ‘What do you guys do out here? It's all desert.’ And I found things that I think I can appreciate and things that I tried. And I thought it was good which you go rock climbing. You go hiking, And the desert offers a lot of sand dunes that you could do off-roading. And I thought, ‘Yeah. I could do this. I could really embrace this all.’ And there's the healthy stuff like maybe if it's yoga or whatnot, there's a lot of studios out there that offer the balance of what we have here in LA.
And besides that, I mean listen to music, and hanging out with friends, and going to dinner parties is a great thing. Board games, I'm loving playing board games, and family get-togethers, and stuff like that.
Michelle Tompkins: What's your board game of choice right now?
Mark Houston: I mean, I've played them all I would say from like—I mean, obviously, the traditional classics like Monopoly we've I mean evident from there's a thing called Dirty Minds and we're having fun.
Michelle Tompkins: Oh, that one's fun!
Mark Houston: To Heads Up.
Michelle Tompkins: Heads Up has been the game dominating the parties that I've been to this year.
Mark Houston: It has. Yeah, that's Ellen's game and it's been fun and stuff but they even have it like on your phone. But it's so simple and fun. But I'll tell you one of my favorite games is Uno and [laughter] I'm colorblind and can't see red and green. So it's so funny when I'm like, ‘Ellen, what color is that’? And I get them wrong sometimes because if you're doing it at night and its genuine and everyone's just having a glass of wine. The next thing you know like, ‘Oh, gosh, I'm really off here.’
Michelle Tompkins: And your nephews must like trying to beat you at that game.
Mark Houston: It's one of my favorite ways to have fun. You don't have to really think that much. It's just fun and just hanging out and a lot of conversation and good times.
Michelle Tompkins: Now you say you like to travel. Where's somewhere that you've not been to yet that you really want to go?
Mark Houston: That's a really good, good question there and I've traveled a lot. Well, I guess India might be a place I want to travel around. I've never gone to India. But if I was going to travel for inspiration, I’d go all around the world. I've gotten so much inspiration and brought back so many things from Asia. It's funny that I've not ever been to Tokyo. I've never been to Japan. But my brother has. So collectively, we've traveled all over the world.
Japan would be one I would like to go visit. And that looks like it's happening sooner or later. Like next year. And I would put that on my top list. Because I love sushi as well. There's an area in Japan that has, I don't know, maybe 150 to 200 bars centrally located. And they're small, tiny places where you can only sit four to seven people in the bar. So you can visit 10 to 20 bars and they're all little different, unique things that make me feel like a kid. Like you're going through all these things and experiencing it. It was probably a concept that I've always thought that would be really cool to experience. I would say Japan, Tokyo.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, is there any charity work that you'd like to talk about?
Mark Houston: Charity work; actually today I'm on the phone with my friend Adrian Grenier he has a charity called the Lonely Whale Foundation. It's two of them. He's a big advocate for the ocean. And what I'm doing at my venue Madame Siam is that I am dedicating the profits of one of the games of chance to a charity. And what we were talking about doing is creating something that gives back to the charity. And we do an event once a year that will help promote awareness and bring back more donations and more tradeable donations.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, you seem to be a guy kind of on the move, but do you have some favorite movies or TV shows that you don't want to miss?
Mark Houston: No. These days I don't really watch any TV or watch movies, except for documentaries. Occasionally I'll maybe browse on Netflix. Like today, I cut a little time and there was one on Tower Records, actually. Tower Records and the life and history of that. But at times, I mean, I'm inspired by all kinds of documentaries.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, what's something you'd like people to know about you?
Mark Houston: Wow. No one's ever asked me that question [laughter]. That's interesting. That's an interesting question, actually. Something that I'd like people to know about me? I think a lot of people have the misconception that I'm a bar, club guy, that I feed off of all of what nightlife is. And the truth is if it wasn't for the experiences of creating them and designing them, which is my true art and passion, and how it brings people together, I wouldn't be doing this business because nightlife takes a toll. You need that balance, right? And I'm not driven or mainly doing this just for enjoyment.
Obviously, I selfishly create things that I think are cool, and I cross my finger and hope that people enjoy it. And I'm building it for myself at times. But I do want, or hope, that people could look beyond the fact that the industry, it's hospitality, but it's nightlife, a lot of it, and that it shouldn't just be viewed as what I think people perceive, people in the nightlife business, as a guy that just likes to party all the time. I think it's way more thoughtful.
It's a good question [laughter]. It's a really good question.
Michelle Tompkins: You're so well put-together. Do you have a stylist?
Mark Houston: I've worked with stylists, I don't really necessarily have a stylist by choice every week. But yeah, by doing events or I have something that is going on for shoots, a stylist will come out and style us out.
Mark Houston offers suggestions of must-see places in LA
Michelle Tompkins: Well, let's have you share a little bit of love to other places in LA. What are some other places that you'd recommend to visit that aren't necessarily related to your company?
Mark Houston: I'll ask you a question, is that relating to just nightlife or what do I think is an authentic LA experience?
Michelle Tompkins: I'm going to say authentic LA experience. Nightlife is okay, too, but you're, Angelino, you're proud of it. What should people do when they go to LA?
Mark Houston: I think one of my favorite things, and my favorite place to visit, is Hollywood Bowl. It's this outdoor live music theater under the stars, it's romantic, it's beautiful. The weather that we have here, we're so blessed. I would say that's a must-do. I love the flea markets. I love going to the Rose Bowl or to the flea market on Melrose. I think you get to meet locals that are actually buying things that they're repurposing and using in their own personal lives. And you get to meet the people that are actually selling these things. And it just feels like all these beautiful things are from all over the country, yet they end up here in LA and they all have a story to tell for themselves.
I think finding good eateries, good restaurants, coffee shops, is a must. There are so many. I have a long list of things. Obviously, going to the beach, like Malibu. Beautiful. And I would recommend everyone to visit Malibu. And one particular restaurant-- I love sushi, and Nobu out there is just a great view and it's good food.
And there's Calamigo's Ranch which is such a very unique piece of property. It's in Malibu Canyon, and what's beautiful about it is you're in Malibu but feel like you're not on the beach. It feels secluded in this countryside, where next door is Malibu Wines and then you could do a safari zoo tour where you can drink wine and see all the animals and there's a giraffe from The Hangover movie that you can meet. It's really a cool, unique, Angelino kind of thing being that I think people view the city and the nightlife and the hustle and bustle of it all, but it's nice to be reminded that just a 30-minute drive out, you're in the country.
Or if you drive up to Griffith Park, the observatory, it's a beautiful view. And I think it's a must-visit. And it's got this nostalgic feel and vibe to it. It was recently in that Ryan Gosling film with Emma Stone.
Michelle Tompkins: La La Land?
Mark Houston: Yeah. And it just really has a romantic kind of nod to what old L.A. Hollywood and I think it's great to hike up there. I would do it where you hike from the bottom and get the view versus driving up there because we have really great hiking trails in nature as well. As far as nightlife or things to see, I mean, L.A.'s got so much going on, but Korea Town is like a bustling cool place and there's a lot to do there, unique foods, you feel like you're outside of L.A. even though you're in L.A. I think that's what we're blessed on, there's these cultural authentic pockets that are populated by the actual people that are either Korean or Thai or Ethiopian and I feel it's a rarity that you could be in a city and experience culture and food and experience without having to jump on a plane, which I think makes L.A. so unique. And I'm trying to think what else I would say.
I guess most of the masses do the typical Disneyland, Universal Studios thing, but it's never been my favorite. It's always been there and it's something to do, but I like doing what the locals would do on the norm or consistently versus trying to do a big touristy kind of map thing. I don't know, what else? Oh, Silver Lake is a great place. Yeah, I would say Silver Lake for checking out some live music at the EchoPlex, this divey feel that is just great.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, what would you like people to know about the experiences of the Houston group?
Mark Houston: I think all of them are so unique and different in their own experiences. And yet they complement each other. And I think some of the best people make a point to go to one of our spaces and really take in the uniqueness and the vibe of them. We encourage people to dress up and really evoke yourself into that experience. So if you're going to get dressed up in your 1948 suit wearing a fedora, and you're transported to Cuba. By all means, dress it up. If you want to go to our New Orleans style piano bar, and you want to celebrate that fashion and that statement, I say go for it. The '70s. People dress up all the time to go to La Descarga.
I love that people really are passionate enough to take it to that level because that's what we did when creating it. And we encourage people to embrace it and make it their own. And I want everybody to feel at home and feel that mi casa es su casa, our place is yours. And that's hospitality. When people go to someone's home, and you do a theme dinner or your invite them, they're in your home and now your home is theirs. And we try and translate that in every space that we have.
Michelle Tompkins: All of your places have dress codes. And they seem to all make sense, but I'm curious about one. What's with shiny shirts? Am I missing something? Is there something about shiny shirts that I'm missing? I like sequins.
Mark Houston: Well. No, no, no. So those are fine most of the time, and I think maybe we need to really maybe fine tune that actual word. But it's more about—there was an apparel line that made fashionable bedazzled shirts that really have these big logos that we deter people from wearing [laughter].
Michelle Tompkins: Thanks for the clarification [laughter]. Okay.
Mark Houston: But when women want to wear a sequined dress, that's beautiful. They want to wear-- if people want to wear a shiny shirt that really isn't a huge branding and conflict with our dress code, I think it's fine. I mean, I think shiny shirts should be actually maybe fine tuned.
What makes the experiences by Mark and Jonnie Houston so special?
Michelle Tompkins: Now, what's the greatest compliment you can get from someone who goes to one of your locations?
Mark Houston: I always get happy when people say, ‘Oh, I want to bring my parents out. I want to bring my mom or dad out.’ It kind of like when I meet a girl and she wants to introduce you to her parents, it's a big deal. So you loved it that much that your parents are going to approve, it's kind of cool. I kind of was touched by it. I'm like, ‘Oh, that's really cool that you would bring your parents in.’.
Michelle Tompkins: What advice would you give to someone who wants to go to one of your clubs that's coming into town?
Mark Houston: I would say definitely make a reservation.
Michelle Tompkins: Despite your celebrity clientele, I've never felt like you guys are exclusive. It seems like, if you obey our rules, anyone is welcome.
Mark Houston: You know what? We do take reservations and we welcome people to come. It's not like we want to turn away people.
I hate douchey clubs and I hate that's what their whole models are booked off of. And we just have certain things that help us kind of navigate towards that, which is dress codes and doing concepts that appeal to a good clientele.
Michelle Tompkins: In the research that I've done, I haven't seen anything about you guys turning down people because they're fat or because you don't think they'll fit in, provided they're dressed properly and behaving properly.
Mark Houston: Correct. Correct. That is our business model, and we're not about dehousing people and saying, ‘You need to buy a bottle to get in.’ We don't do that, either. Everything is driven by its seating capacity.
Some of those places get at capacity at 10 o'clock. I have had people wait in line for two hours to get in. And I haven't checked the Yelp!, but at one point it had its own Yelp!, the line did! Where people bragged about, ‘This is the coolest line to wait in ever [laughter].’ Based on the characters that walked in, embraced what you're going to see. I just think it's really great that people even enjoy the lines to get in.
Michelle Tompkins: Well, Mark, how do you like people to connect with you? Do you like people to come up to you at the bar and say, ‘Oh, my God, you own this place, this is so cool’?
Mark Houston: Oh, I love that. I love when people come up and they want to talk to me about how they've enjoyed their experience and they loved the place, or they thank me. They're like, ‘Thank you for bringing a cool nightlife out to L.A., like bringing back Old Hollywood.’ That's a compliment I get, actually, quite a bit, too, that I think sounds cool. People in the Hollywood community, because I restored a Victorian house. Another thing often said is ‘Thank you for bringing back Old Hollywood.’
So you want to work with the Houston Brothers? Word of mouth is key...
Michelle Tompkins: You guys have so many venues; do you have any idea how many people are in your employ?
Mark Houston: Oh, we have over 400 employees. I know because I just got the latest email update [laughter]. And I'm like, ‘Woah! Okay!’
Michelle Tompkins: Now, if someone wanted to work with you, what do they need to do?
Mark Houston: If somebody wants to work with us—we have a tight-knit little community. Sometimes, someone gets online or walks up to a door and says, ‘Hey, I want to work with you guys.’ And they might get a job, but the majority of it is referrals, word of mouth, recommendations. It is a family environment and a lot of the team and staff are very, very close and very bonded.
And I think that's one of the blessing things that I look up to every day. We take it as a huge responsibility to make sure everyone who works with us feels safe and appreciated.
And I'm approachable and it's easy to reach me. There are owners that are like, ‘Hey, you've got to go see my assistant. We don't run our businesses that way.
[JONNIE JUST GOT BACK]
Michelle Tompkins: Hi, Jonnie. Actually, I was going to ask Mark a question, but if you don't mind I'm going to ask this one to you. You are twins who work together. What are some things about you that are different from your brother?
Jonnie Houston: All right, okay, things that are different. He's an inch or two inches taller than me [laughter].
Well, one thing that's different is a lot of times Mark is very creative and thinks way outside the box, so which is a brilliant thing, and then I'm there to reel him back a little bit so that we can accomplish things. For example, he'll think of, ‘Hey, let's go open up a bar on the moon tomorrow.’ And I'm like, ‘Wait a minute.’
Michelle Tompkins: So you're more of the realistic brother?
Jonnie Houston: I just think I’m cautious. Maybe I overthink things, at times. But if something sounds too good to be true, then I'm always like, ‘Wait a minute. What's wrong with this picture?’
Michelle Tompkins: So, how do you guys complement each other?
Jonnie Houston: How do we complement each other? Let me just say that I'm the shyer one. He's more of the outgoing— he's great in interviews and meetings. And me, when they turn the camera on me, I kind of clam up. I'm just not that good in front of cameras and all that. He's really good at speeches and talking to people and whatnot.
When someone is cracking up, he still has one up on me. It levels the playing field a little bit more, but he's still good—he's a good people person. How do we complement each other?
Mark Houston: Simply put, I think how we complement each other is because we both have-- even though we're twins, I'm a leftie, he's a righty. I come with a different approach; he comes with a different approach. And I think we authentically, when we fight it out, like cats and dogs, then we end up with the best result. And I think that's when you realize how a collaboration or a partnership has a beautiful marriage of things of when two people can think of their own concept ideas and opinions, you actually challenge each other to come up with something united and elevate each other.
And I think we have a healthy competitiveness between us, too. And I think it strives us to do and see and create something over and beyond what we first think of. And what I mean by that is, I think we challenge ourselves just because we are siblings and we are partners.
Michelle Tompkins: And you obviously love each other.
Jonnie Houston: Yeah. We do. But you get complacent. And I think that's what complements each other and, totally, even though we might argue about things…
Michelle Tompkins: No, that's something that comes through, and that's important. Is that you guys are more than just siblings and business partners. You actually like and respect each other. That's important.
Mark Houston: Oh, for sure. Yes, we do respect and like each other and I think there's that thing that says, ‘Don't ever go in business with family.’ We went against the grain and we definitely proved that's super successful and have fun doing it. So we get into arguments at times, but we love each other and we end up hugging it out every day and making sure that we move forward in a positive light and a positive way.
Michelle Tompkins: Is there anything that either of you wants to say about your personal lives?
Mark Houston: I'll say this, my dad on Father's Day, God bless his soul—He inspired us and if it wasn't for appreciation in our lives today wouldn't have been existed and just being exposed to it really helped. Before this, I was very anti-the nightlife, bar business because my dad was an alcoholic, and he wasn't there for us. And alcoholism is a real thing, and it was the thing that broke our family apart, but I think it's so ironic since it's the one thing that's brought us closer together. It's something that I looked at as such a negative thing in and poison in life and has actually turned around and been a positive for Jonnie and I. And we lived and learned how to appreciate it.
Michelle Tompkins: Jonnie, do you have anything to add?
Jonnie Houston: Yes. I think we should praise our mom too. She was a single mom raising my brother and me, and we'd see dad on the weekend and, like Mark said, he was an alcoholic, so even though we spent the weekend with him, he was out in the bars. You hardly saw him. But our mom was a bartender, and that's how they met. My dad was an alcoholic. She was a bartender, and they fell in love.
The one thing is our mom was our strength and our rock growing up because she went through everything to kind of provide the best that she could for us, and we respect and love her for that. We were raised by our mom and our sister and so the female presence and respect for women was a strong thing in our life. It's one thing that kind of drives us and makes us realize that anything's possible if our mom and our sister went through everything they've been through and succeeded. My sister's the head marketing director for Microsoft.
There were things that my mom used to always tell us growing up like, ‘Don't use another person's nose to breathe,’ which means try to create your own destiny and your own path. And don't rely on people to give you anything for free or expect anything for free. And this one's kind of funny, but she would always say, ‘You could go to college and learn to work for someone else, or you could just get out there and learn to work for yourself,’ you know what I mean? Some of those things that we grew up hearing from her are kind of funny enough...
Michelle Tompkins: The fact that she's saying go out and work for yourselves is kind of amazing.
Mark Houston: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, she moved to America with nothing and she just worked really hard and even having broken English, she did a lot to exceed in her own right and give us a future to be able to succeed in ourselves.
But another thing I want to point out, maybe Jonnie doesn't want to share it, but he was in a car accident when he was 17, turned 18 and he was paralyzed from the waist down.
And I have to say, his courage and his strength— because the doctor was saying he was going to be paralyzed for the rest of his life. And for him to get up and work hard and then regain his strength and then go ahead and make an empire or work hard to strive to create things, says something. When you look back in life, you say, ‘When you get pushed down or when you get dropped or whatever, it's important to get back up and not give up and keep on going and striving.’ I feel like his reputation for being a fighter and achieving and striving for the best has subconsciously inspired me. That's the strength of, I think, both of us where one of us is down, the other one displays or helps and shares the strength and we both work that together.
Jonnie Houston: Yeah. I think, yeah, that's a beautiful story. Well, I was paralyzed from the waist down for two years until I got feeling in my legs again and everything. One thing I do have to mention is my dad, he's an alcoholic, those two years, he quit drinking and took care of me. My dad would catheterize me every four to six hours so that was a big deal and a big show of respect and love that he had for me personally, even though he wasn't completely around when we were kids, you know what I mean? It was a big deal.
Michelle Tompkins: I'm glad he did that. That sounds fabulous. It's why you guys can have an appreciation for him, is that no one's perfect.
Jonnie Houston: Yes. No one's perfect.
Michelle Tompkins: Well, Jonnie, I asked Mark about this a couple minutes ago, but I want to ask you the same one, is that, what do you get if they experience a Huston Brother's experience? What do you want their takeaway to be?
Jonnie Houston: Having a unique experience that they haven't had before. Something different. And also connecting with people. I think the number one thing we do do in our venues, because we provide such a unique experience, people, strangers, just connect to one another because they're experiencing it together. Whether it be people walk through a secret entrance, and they're so blown away when they go through the doors. We put random strangers together in one room and give them the experience together. So when they enter, the first thing everyone does is look at each other, like did that just really happen. And so intimately and instantly, strangers connect. They talk about it when they walk in our venue. Or when we do a unique show, and everyone experiences it together, it gives them something to talk about and to experience. I think that's the number one thing that we've been doing is, people have the misconception that we're in this business to sell booze and all that. We're really not. We're in the business to create a vibe and to create a social environment where strangers can meet one another.
We've had so many people come to our places who have fallen in love and gotten married and that's the most gratifying thing that's ever happened in our places. So I think that's something I'm working on. It really gives us a passion and drive to keep doing what we're doing, because it's much bigger than just us. It's bringing people together and creating a better world. Even though it's a small way to look at it, but it's something that's fulfilling for us. Does that make sense?
Michelle Tompkins: So what's next for you guys?
Mark Houston: A bar on the moon. I'm just kidding [laughter].
Michelle Tompkins: It's going to happen. I hope you create the first bar on the moon.
Mark Houston: But I think what's next for us is we're working on a concept right now, and we always want to get into hotels and doing a boutique hotel, so really create the experience that doesn't last for four hours of six hours, it lasts 24 hours. So we can curate and experience. Maybe even make it last a whole weekend. So we do have a concept that we're working on where it's an immersive hotel project, where from the minute you check in to the minute you check out, anything could happen.
And that's the next level of entertainment, creating a unique experience. The thing is this. People are so glued to their iPhones and internet and social media, people have forgotten how to go out and really experience the real world and life. And I think combining this is going to be the next level where people will want to get out of their hermit spaces or in their houses and get out and experience something new.
Jonnie and Mark Houston can be found here and check out one of their exciting ventures here. Their current experiences include Black Rabbit Rose, Break Room 86, Dirty Laundry, Harvard & Stone, La Descarga, No Vacancy, Good Times at Davey Wayne’s, Pour Vous, Madame Siam Sideshow Emporium and The Speek.