This episode is focused on hospitality. Though our guest is not from Mobile, he has been an integral part of rejuvenating the hospitality of downtown Mobile. Mike Cowart with Cowart Hospitality Services discusses bringing 3 hotels (the Hampton Inn, Candlewood Suites, and Hilton Garden Inn) to the area and a new feature we're excited to try out: the Backlot food-truck court! Mike talks about the unique history behind some of those sites and leaves us with some great business knowledge.
Mike: I'm Mike Cowart. Cowart Hospitality Services in Birmingham. We own and operate the Hilton Garden Inn and the Candlewood Suites and our newest addition, The Back Lot. Mobile's first food truck court.
Marcus: I'm excited about that one. Welcome to the podcast.
Mike: Thank you.
Marcus: Yeah and it was great to have you here ...
Mike: Good to be here.
Marcus: As you mentioned, you're not from Mobile but we felt like it was important to have you on because you are extremely involved in business downtown and the hospitality industry and stuff like that. How did you come to be involved in that capacity here in mobile? Like you kind of outlined that, when we were talking a minute ago but how did you become involved in Mobile?
Mike: Well, I have been a hotel appraiser for years and I worked on the hotel appraisal of one of the hotels down here back in 2004. And I drove around and got intrigued by the city and how beautiful it was and how it was just an awesome opportunity to build a hotel. This look like it was underserved, just like it needed some new hotel space, so then that's when we did the Hampton Inn.
Marcus: And that is no longer part of your portfolio as they would say ...
Mike: Right. It's owned by a friend of mine, but I ... I sold it to him ...
Marcus: Sold it to him.
Mike: And does very well but it's still part of the family ...
Marcus: Sure. And so you decided, I guess then at that point to go ahead ... And was Candlewood next and then ...
Mike: Actually I felt like there was a need for three hotels downtown ...
Mike: Newer hotels, all of the hotels were older, large ... The Battle House had recently been renovated at that time and did a remarkable job but I felt like smaller hotels that had different amenities and price points was what was needed. So, we thought there would be a limited service mid price hotel, a extended stay hotel, which the Candlewood is and then an upper scale corporate hotel that was more boutique in nature, kind of personal and intimate as opposed to a large convention hotel.
And so that was what, the plan was basically is to develop these three hotels and once we got into the Hampton Inn, which was a great hotel and still is. Got it going. Pretty soon we found a lot for the Candlewood Suites and it was not on the main drag but that was really an asset for residential type of hotel and so we were able to get that hotel up and get it designed and then we looked for a long, long time in a lot of different lots for this Hilton Garden Inn.
The lot that we're own now, actually all of these are leased lots. People don't really want to sell 'em, so we got a long-term ground leases. Kind of just fell in my lap, we'd looked at it forever, it was locked into a long term parking lot lease. A lot of other people had tried to buy ...
Marcus: Which seems like just a really weird, because I'm having a hard time remembering what it was before. So, thank you for reminding me but seems like a really weird place to have a parking lot right off of Bienville Square.
Mike: Well, it used to be a hotel.
Mike: It used to be one of the two fine hotels the Battle House and the [inaudible 00:04:03] hotel in the 70s when people were exiting downtown Mobile and had been for years. The quality of the buildings in that hotel had deteriorated to the point where they just tore it down ...
Mike: And there was no demand, nobody wanted to be in downtown Mobile so the only use was to pave it as a parking lot. And they made such an attractive deal to the parking lot company over a 40 year time period because nobody ever thought anything would happen in downtown again. The parking lot company didn't want to give it up and so when people would come try to buy to put a building of some type they wanted this enormous fee to buy out their lease and it just made it were it wasn't feasible and so fortunately the lease came up for renewal about a month after I started talking to them. And we were able to put together a more attractive lease to the orphanage that owns it. It is owned by Wilmer Hall ...
Marcus: Oh, really?
Mike: Through a real estate company. It was donated to the Episcopal Church Wilmer Hall and it's actually owned by a corporation but the benefits go to ...
Marcus: [crosstalk 00:05:26] Wilmer Hall is a client ours ...
Mike: Oh, is it?
Marcus: We know Pratt Paterson and some of the guys over there. That's really cool I did not realize that.
Mike: Yeah. We were able to give them twice the ground lease that they were getting, which benefits them.
Mike: Put a hotel on it so they're pretty sure we are going to make the rent payments and it just, I mean it was almost providential because it had never been able to happen and we just walked in and worked the deal out and so ...
Mike: We were really pleased with that.
Marcus: Okay so, go back because one of the things that we like to know about the people that come on the podcast is, what's your background? Who are you? I mean you're not from Mobile but you live in Birmingham still?
Marcus: Okay. So you live in Birmingham, where did you go? Because a lot of people are from Birmingham that live in this area, where to go to high school? Did you go to college, if so what did you study? Kind of tell us a little bit about who you are.
Mike: Well, I grew up in Birmingham, lived there all my life. I live in Vestavia, a suburb of Birmingham but I've lived in other suburbs around Birmingham. I married a girl 38 years ago, still my wife, we had five kids, we grew up, went through the Vestavia school system. All five of them actually live in Birmingham and are married. We have six grandchildren, one on the way ...
Mike: One of my kids Adam, children Adam, works with me in the hotel business and is actually the one managing the food truck court and has helped me. He's a partner in the hotel. My daughter Rebecca does the social media for the food truck court. We're a very close family.
I went to Briarwood High school, it's a very small high school at the time, I went to Auburn University for one year, academic failure, had to leave go back to work. Started in the hotel business in the bookkeeping department. I've worked at every aspect of the hotel business from kitchen to housekeeping ...
Marcus: So you literally started at the bottom and work your way up and now own several properties ...
Mike: Two hotels, yeah.
Marcus: Yeah. That's important and thank you for sharing that. I mean, we have a lot of people on ... Like [Chrissy Oakley 00:07:58] who is, an episode a few episodes before yours, dropped out of high school got his GED and went to college. Abe Harper, who's a friend of mine went to AMS, graduated from there and could have gone anywhere in the state for university, decided to go to Florida and ended up dropping out because it just wasn't challenging enough.
There are different like, I guess the story that we want people to hear is that there are different paths to business ownership and entrepreneurship, gosh say that three times fast ... There are different paths to it. It doesn't always mean, I'm extremely good at school, graduate with honors from high school, go and get a degree from a prestigious university and then everything lines up and magically I own a business one day.
Oftentimes, it's a long and meandering path. Like yours sounds like it's been, where you end up working in many different facets within the industry and then finally are presented with the opportunity to own a property. When you, and so was the Hampton Inn here your first property or ...
Mike: First property in Birmingham. I mean, in Mobile.
Marcus: In Mobile. Where was your first property?
Mike: Well, a long time ago I would buy a hotel that was in trouble, turn it around, sell it ...
Mike: And that worked for a few of them. The last one it didn't work at all and we went back to square zero.
Mike: Later, then I started as a consultant in the hotel industry doing appraisals and feasibility studies and that's how I wound up in Mobile but after a period of time I got into the development were I would develop for other people ...
Mike: Hampton Inns and like Florence Alabama and Jasper Alabama. But I was doing them, I put the deal together and the financing, the franchise and then that I'd get paid a fee and not get out of it. And then Mobile, when I found out the Hampton Inn there who did the same thing and then I got a big fee and paid a huge amount of tax. Didn't have anything hardly left over and so I said I'll never do it ...
Mike: That way again but I earned enough money to go into the Candlewood Suites and get that property started and then I brought a partner in who actually I'd been developing, who owns Hampton Inn to help with the financing. We got that going. That's been a very successful thing and then now we're at the Hilton Garden Inn and I own 75 percent, my family and me owns 95 percent of it.
Marcus: Sure. I guess where I was going with that was, when you look back on the first venture where you were kind of a business owner, what are some of the lessons that were learned whether it was ... You said you bought a couple of distressed properties and then sold them. So you're literally like flipping hotels, I mean that's what it is, right?
So you're flipping hotels, what are some of the lessons that were learned out of that? One of the things that I find from business owners is, it wasn't a failure, you learned something out of that, that has obviously made you a better businessman today. What are some of the lessons that you learned out of them?
Mike: I would say the biggest lesson is to pay attention to what's going on around you. It's not just your business, it's the market conditions. All of the problems I had were when the market changed and had nothing to do with what I could do but when interest, well back, we don't have that anymore but used to have bad inflation and high interest rates and things like that could happen that were external to your business or somebody could build a hotel down the street that was better than yours that could put you out of business.
The lesson I learned was to be, to really pay attention to the market and make sure nobody put a business right down the street from you that you know a [crosstalk 00:12:45] It's different with restaurant because a restaurant, two or three restaurants will actually attract more ...
Mike: Sometimes two hotels with the same power.
Mike: And that was a huge lesson and that's one of the reasons that I like Mobile is that it's, high barriers to entry. It's hard to find a good site and build a hotel in downtown Mobile. It's the hardest thing I've ever done. This one has been harder than the other ones ...
Mike: And so it's a five year process and just paying attention to those external factors is probably the most important lesson and not to, when it doesn't work, don't count it as a failure, count it as "Okay, I've got one more thing that I won't do again"
Marcus: Yeah. It's in, you got to take your licks at times with being a business owner for sure. If you're, and not somebody that's thinking about starting a hotel but just in general, if you were talking to somebody that had an idea or was starting down a path to owning a business, what's the one bit of wisdom that you would impart to them?
Mike: Well, it's kind of hard to say it in one bit but here's a, is a one thought. To understand what you're doing and get people that are not in the business to where you can explain it to them, because so many times you get to where you really think you understand it and you understand it deeply but you forget the average person. You build this restaurant or something but then you didn't, you forgot that people can't come down your street at a certain time ... If the average person on the street that's not in your business, can't buy your vision then don't do it.
Marcus: Yeah, it's got to be marketable to the masses ...
Marcus: Otherwise, you're slicing the pie a little bit too thin. You have a restaurant, is it Eugene's monkey ...
Mike: Eugene's Monkey Bar.
Marcus: Where does Eugene's Monkey Bar ... I mean like, was there a bottle of tequila involved in the naming of this restaurant or what?
Marcus: Where did Eugene's Monkey Bar come from?
Mike: Got involved with Chris Rainosek who has The Noble South Restaurant.
Marcus: Yeah, we know Chris.
Mike: And Chris and I got to talking about, what do we do with this? We wanted to make something, we're overlooking Bienville Square, we're trying to do something historic and Mobile like and really wanted to have a cool, upscale cocktail lounge. Not really a restaurant but a cool upscale cocktail lounge that had great food. Which you have to have.
Mike: How do we do this? And Chris and I went back and forth and one day my wife and I were in New York City and we got snowed in and we were stuck in our hotel and Chris sent me a, email, he said "Try this" I had never heard of the guy and he wrote the story out and I said that's perfect.
And so Chris came up with this concept, with the idea and then I started investigating more and more and asking people and I found out a lot of people met him and knew him and liked him ...
Marcus: So Eugene is a real person?
Mike: He was a real person. He died in the late 90s, lived here in Mobile, he's buried in Church Street Cemetery ...
Mike: He was born here, he moved off to Rome and Paris and New York and was in movies, silent movies and I don't think he was ever anything great. He was just somebody that could be in anywhere and he could get in and he was not a con man but he was a bullshitter. He was one.
Mike: He had just such an interesting character and we saw it as a real opportunity to pay him ...
Marcus: Pay homage to kind of ...
Mike: Yeah, I mean.
Marcus: A great character if you will from Mobile's history.
Mike: We're still trying to form the restaurant, it's only two months old. We're still trying to get it there but we're committed to that.
Marcus: I wanted to talk about the truck, food court as well but with the Eugene's Monkey Bar, are they open for lunch, dinner? Is it mostly a cocktail lounge with food or can get a meal there? How would you describe that to people?
Mike: It's open at four every afternoon till 10 or 11. It's kind of happy hour all the time but they have a very good menu. And you can eat dinner, it's just ...
Marcus: Is Chris involved?
Marcus: Because, if Chris is in it ... Okay, I was going to say because he's, I mean, we love him. We love his food and I know he's involved in a number of different ways but ...
Mike: I mean he's, helped, consulted with us but we developed our own menu and I mean, it's really quite frankly a very good food ...
Marcus: Very good.
Mike: It was not our intention to be a restaurant but it's very good food. You could get a meal but it's more catered to small plates to go along with the cocktail hour. Every morning for breakfast we have a really good breakfast but that's primarily hotel guests ...
Mike: And so then we see The Back Lot being more of a lunch and dinner option.
Marcus: Yeah, so when we moved down here it's been a year and a half, almost two years. When we moved down here at that point in time they were doing Friday food truck lunches or something like that around Bienville Square and I have to tell you I was really excited about that because, I've been to Portland, I've eaten at the food trucks there, New York City, eaten out of food trucks there.
You can get some really good food out of a food truck and the opportunities that, that provides to a restaurateur that is looking to start something but maybe can't afford the physical space is important to a city, I think. Why don't you kind of give us a glimpse into what is going to happen there? Because I know that's kicking off either this week or next week and by the time this is released it will already be going on so ...
Mike: Well interesting story behind it is that we had a garbage can plan there because we went to the Planning Commission and we had to get a variance to put a dumpster for the hotel there. A friend of mine Cliff [Lynch 00:19:42] bought The Steeple and we were talking about ways to maybe make it, that street look a little nicer and then he had Robert McCann architect and Tom [Cole 00:19:54] and the four of us were sitting out there trying to figure out how we could improve that little area and it just kind of came out as in the conversation, "Well, let's put a food truck there, court"
Then I after a while started thinking "Well maybe we should do that" And so the idea is to have three food trucks. We put electrical plugs so they can, don't have to run the generator ...
Marcus: Run Generators, yeah.
Mike: [inaudible 00:20:25] squat, we have a pergola with seating, ceiling fans, string lights, garbage cans. We wash it down with the pressure washer and keep it really first class.
Mike: And then we're going to have three slots a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. So a food truck, for example, the first Friday [Crepe 00:20:48] Crusaders just come in and they have registered with us, we've checked out their credentials and they are approved. So they can go in and they register for Friday lunch and dinner. Then we're talking with Smokin Gringos and they want to do a Taco Tuesday ...
Mike: So they would come every Tuesday there. We gradually hope to fill this in with a mixture of food trucks so that you would know Tuesday, you go to our website and it tells who's going to be there and we were going to initially open Tuesday through Friday for lunch and dinner then we'll expand it to Monday and then the weekends and we would see special events, you know, if something happens [crosstalk 00:21:33] Steeple ...
Marcus: Steeple or something like that. Yeah.
Mike: And just as much as it can go but having a good mix. We don't want three taco trucks or at a time but having a place where any of the local food trucks can come and get a slot. We're not really trying to make any money on it ...
Mike: I mean it was just kind of a whim idea. We have no idea whether it's going to make a dime. It's very reasonable, we're renting out the space and we're doing the marketing for 'em and having the website and so I think it's good. Part of it was, the motivation was the neighborhood. When our hotel guests walk out, we want them to walk around the neighborhood and feel good and they've had a great stay. If they walk around the neighborhood and have trash cans and things like that ...
Mike: They're going to say was a nice hotel but it's, bad location.
Marcus: Yeah. You want people to walk around, like the Downtown Mobile Alliance does a great job of keeping the streets clean and the flowers out and stuff like that. And they, I'd forget what Carol said because it has been like two years since she sat down with us. But it's like 77 square blocks that they manage. I mean, it's a incredible effort that they ...
Marcus: That they do, keeping it clean. And so. I think, it was, they own a fairly good size of the pie for why Mobile is kind of changing, why people feel comfortable moving back down here, why businesses are relocating down here, is because it's clean. People want to come down now because they're not having to walk around trash or smell horrible things like, I don't get over to New Orleans often but the last time I was over there, I remember just walking out on the street and just being like "[inaudible 00:23:29] it just stinks so bad" [crosstalk 00:23:30] in a way that a New Orleans can only stink, right?
Mike: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Marcus: And no slight to you that maybe from New Orleans but man sometimes your city gets a funk on like no other so ...
Mike: It really does.
Marcus: Yeah, so I mean, it's important in attracting people downtown and really the vibrancy of a downtown is like a bull's eye to a region, right? So the more vibrant our downtown is, the more we're going to see additional businesses grow from that epicenter and success begets success.
Mike: Absolutely. Well in that same light, we work with the city to do the community garbage can on our lot ...
Mike: That is, we built a walled compactor corral or whatever. It's got a six eight foot concrete wall that looks very nice with brick and just like the hotel.
Marcus: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Mike: And inside is a compactor unit and all of the restaurants in the immediate vicinity now take their garbage cans put them in the compactor and they haul it off and if you look there's very few garbage cans off the street right now. The Loda BierGarten they used to have lots of garbage cans ...
Marcus: They used to have like 10 or 12 garbage cans on the side [crosstalk 00:24:53] right next to Saenger Theatre, which just blows my mind like you're all dressed up and the last thing you want to smell is bar trash ...
Mike: But go down there today, there's no trash cans, he's got picnic tables. He took the trash cans away and now he's got more seating and so it's just so much more appealing to walk around that area ...
Marcus: Yeah, well thank you for ... I didn't realize that you guys were the motivation or the reason why that was happening. So thank you for doing that because ...
Mike: The city did it. We just gave them the land and ...
Marcus: Well, it's not ...
Mike: They put that up ...
Marcus: That's not a small part of it, right? You have to have some place to put that kind of thing.
Marcus: Tell us if there are a couple of books or resources that you have found useful over in the, maybe the last five or 10 years that have really kind of influenced your thinking as far as being a business owner or an entrepreneur.
Mike: I'd say the Book of Proverbs.
Marcus: Okay. [crosstalk 00:25:51] That's legitimate. Yeah, I know that's [inaudible 00:25:53] legitimate ...
Mike: That's the source. I haven't read much in some few years because I've been so busy with this ... There's a lot of good books, Good to Great is another one that just really stresses excellence but I get more from Proverbs on anything because those principles ...
Marcus: They're timeless.
Mike: They're timeless and they work.
Marcus: Yeah. I know, it's awesome. And what do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?
Mike: My wife and I like to go travel and we go out West and outdoor things. We haven't had a lot of hobby time in the last three years.
Marcus: It's been a little bit busy.
Mike: I hope to get back to that. But we prefer the outdoors ...
Marcus: Hiking, skiing and stuff like that, or yeah.
Mike: We don't ski but we, the last thing we did we went to the Grand Canyon and hiked down and stayed at Phantom Ranch ...
Mike: And then came back up the next day. That was a fun trip. We like to go to Utah parks and Arizona.
Marcus: The vast lands out there. Well, where can people find, I mean you have, you not named a couple of different things. Give some information about the hotels as far as like maybe website or Facebook but also the food truck. You said a website, is it specifically for the food?
Marcus: Okay, so what's that ...
Mike: It's called The Back Lot dash Mobile dot com.
Mike: And that shows the complete schedule and that's really all the website is. It's just the schedule, there's a section where the food truck vendors go on and buy their schedules and as soon as they buy a schedule then it shows up on the public schedule.
Mike: So, that's the best place for it. There is a Facebook, an Instagram page for it.
Marcus: for The Back Lot?
Mike: For The Back Lot.
Mike: Eugene's, we have a Facebook page, Mike [Short 00:28:02], he's our Eugene ...
Marcus: Dressed as Eugene? [crosstalk 00:28:06]
Mike: Dressed as Eugene. He's good.
Marcus: What's the drink of choice at Eugene's for those that might be going over there?
Mike: [inaudible 00:28:15] margarita I think is one of the most popular ones and the other one, I'm may have to say, it's not the [Moscow meal 00:28:24] but it's their version of it.
Mike: I don't drink that. I remember the name of it but it's very good.
Marcus: Very good. And I had stopped you before you got there but the information for the hotel ... I'm gathering if they just do like a Google search for Candlewood Suites Downtown Mobile or something like that ...
Marcus: Because those properties tend to have fairly long URL addresses.
Mike: There's nothing special about those but it would be, if Candlewood Suites Downtown Mobile it would show the website through the [inaudible 00:28:57] chain and same thing with the Hilton Garden Inn.
Mike: They don't have pictures of them but they're not as active as the food court.
Marcus: The Back Lot. Well, will definitely push some people in that direction when it gets going because I, if there's one thing I love it's food. And so, it's exciting to see that you're providing opportunity for folks to get a start in that manner. Thank you for doing that. Well, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to make?
Mike: Thanks for having me. I hope people in Mobile will recognize the opportunity that's here and as I told you before, I don't think that people in Mobile appreciate how much the history of Mobile intrigues people that are outside of Mobile. It's such an interesting place with the Delta, the beautiful trees, the architecture and you see it every day but people from outside don't see it and are very interested in it. And that's the opportunity for people to do something.
Marcus: It's indicative and so like we're sitting here on Dauphin Street. We've got our blinds up on the doors on the front of the office and almost every 15 minutes. Maybe every thirty minutes a duck boat goes by full of people and those people for the most part are not from here ...
Mike: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Marcus: They're people that are visiting ... And Scott [Tendal 00:30:35] was on the podcast last season and kind of coined the term, I don't know if he coined it or if it's just something that he's kind of grasped onto but the [entrepretourism 00:30:46] kind of aspect and I think what you're alluding to is that Mobile has the opportunity to do something really cool in that realm whether it's attracting conventions to have their events here or people just wanting to come over for the day or an overnight stay or even a long weekend, to kind of walk around downtown eat at some of the restaurants, see some of the historical sites and stuff like that.
I mean, it's starting to really kind of grab hold and grow in that respect.
Mike: And Scott's on the cutting edge, I mean he's way ahead of the rest of us on that.
Mike: But yes that and I think that's a good term entrepretourism ...
Marcus: It's a mouthful.
Mike: It really is. There's really more opportunity in tourism Downtown Mobile or in Mobile I think than any other area.
Mike: And it's people like Scott that are showing that it works but it's the people outside that, they really would like to hear about the history of Mobile. I mean it sounds kind of boring but it's really fascinating 1702, the [Bienville 00:31:59] brothers and all that type of thing.
Mike: The Civil War, the whole package is really very intriguing and I think more people like Scott come, somebody's going get it.
Marcus: Yeah. It will be good for all of us in this area. Anyway I do appreciate your willingness to sit with us and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur. It's been great talking with you.
Mike: Thank you.
Marcus: Appreciate your time.
Mike: Good talking to you.