Six months before Hereford House main man Rod Anderson torched the iconic downtown steakhouse I bumped into him somewhere and dropped in an innocuous item about him combating the recession with a slate of happy hour promotions.
Little did I realize.
Because for local reporters and media types Rod Anderson was a font.
A likeable, good natured guy with a sense of humor who, as the Hereford House’s former accountant, had ridden to the failing eatery’s rescue in 1987 and morphed himself into a “restaurateur” the old-fashioned way – lots of hard work and on-the-job-training.
Anderson quickly learned that when it came to advertising and marketing cash was not king.
Presumably because he had so little of it in those early days he learned it was a lot cheaper to buy radio spots with restaurant trade marked at full retail than cough up the actual hard cash.
Suddenly every ad rep in town began taking their clients to lunch and or dinner with Hereford House script. It was a win-win for Anderson because he effectively bought the ads wholesale and influential locals who hadn’t dined at the Hereford House in ages began rediscovering the place.
Face it, the days when old time meat markets like the Hereford House ruled the Cowtown’s steak roost were long gone even by 1987.
Plaza III and other upscale local eateries had left Anderson’s joint in the dust and most of the customers I saw were bluehairs and out-of-towners with wide waistlines. Long before the likes of Ruth’s Chris and the Capital Grille laid the pipe to Plaza III.
Which reminds me of an anecdote longtime Plaza III main man Joe Wilcox shared towards the end of the Nabil Haddad restaurant reign on the Country Club Plaza.
That you can have 10 restaurants with nine of them making money and the one that isn’t will lose more than all the other nine combined.
At the time I gave Anderson that column schmooze in 2008 he was neck deep in running seven area eateries including at least three that were fairly suspect as far as profitability – the main Hereford House that he soon burned, Pierpont’s at Union Station and his miserable failure in Lawrence that opened in 2000 .
Today there are but four area Hereford House locations and “sister restaurant” Pierpont’s.
They’re all part of what’s known as the Anderson Restaurant Group an umbrella management organization established in 2004 that was to prove to be his downfall. More on that in a minute.
There’s also a Hereford House in Wichita – which is now taking reservations for Thanksgiving.
“We’re not part of the Anderson Group, we’re a franchise,” says owner Mike Issa. “We operate on their recipes and have the rights to the name, but we’re a separate organization.”
Issa’s Hereford House is three years old and operates out of space rented from a local country club with a view overlooking a golf course. A far cry from the original Hereford House.
“We’re doing wonderfully,” Issa says. “The name is great – the Hereford House has followers all over the whole Midwest – and the food is wonderful.”
Far better than the food Anderson’s likely to encounter in the slammer but still not in the league of the bogus description the Lawrence Journal World‘s lawrence.com wrote of the failed Jayhawk edition of the restaurant:
“In the Kansas City area, the Hereford House has long been synonymous with the very best place to get steak.”
Fifty years earlier maybe.
What I’ll remember best about Anderson is his knack for making the most of a PR opp.
Like when I asked him about the irony of opening Pierpont’s in Union Station’s original women’s smoking lounge and waiting room:
“We’re going to allow men in it, ” he said dryly. “And name it after J.P. Morgan, who was probably the ultimate male chauvinist.”
On the Hereford House’s 40th birthday Anderson waxed nostalgic.
“We had the bull heads stolen, the water main break, a fire, ” he told me. “We had Elizabeth Taylor, Neil Diamond.
“But the funniest thing, when I first got here, was when Paul Newman ate here when he was filming ‘Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.’ When he left, everybody started taking ketchup bottles, salt and pepper shakers, the knives he touched, the forks. Somebody took the plate. I wish my bus staff was that efficient.”
Illegally, I might add.
“Her limo driver came to the back door and we took her into a private dining room, ” Anderson told me guardedly, knowing it’s a health code violation to bring pooches into a public restaurant. “Her dog was supposed to stay in the car, but I’m not sure that it did. I think she brought it in under her coat or something.”
Server Joyce Hulett waited on Taylor’s party of four, which included Beverly Hills hairstylist Jose Eber.
“It was the best time I’ve ever had, ” Hulett told me. “I was in awe the whole time.”
Did Eber kiss her hand, I asked. “Yes, he did, ” she told me. “I was stuttering I was so nervous. I couldn’t even say Jose. All I could say was Eber.”
Taylor and her pooch had worked up a fair appetite, I reported. She ordered a 12-ounce filet and a 14 ounce KC strip, ate about half of each and took the rest with her.
“She said she could afford to get both, ” Hulett told me. “I thought, `You bet. You can afford anything you want, darling.’ ”
Tricia Beatty , a motel clerk for Best Western in Kansas City, Kan., tracked Taylor to the restaurant’s ladies room.
“She washed her hands and the paper towels weren’t coming down so she hollered for that Jose Eber dude outside to open the door, ” Beatty told me. “But he didn’t hear so I said, `Wait a minute, I’ll get it for you.’
“She was gorgeous. She looks younger than me and I’m 44. I called my mom in Florida and said, `Guess who I went to the bathroom with?’ ”
My first journalistic hang with Anderson went down in the early days when Rush Limbaugh‘s stock was soaring.
That’s when Anderson converted a separate 50-person dining area into a Rush Limbaugh radio show listening room from 11 am to 2 pm weekdays.
“We’re not saying we agree with everything Rush says, ” Anderson told me. “But he…provokes a lot of thought. We thought it would be fun.”
There’s little doubt that Anderson’s overall intentions were good, but he spread himself way too thin with seven restaurants and made some really bad decisions when his financial back was to the wall.
The most haunting part of the story of Anderson’s demise was the revelation that his downfall was ensured by a secret security surveillance system hidden locked away in the closet in his corporate office.
A decoy VCR system had been set up by the security in the restaurant to fool burglars.
Apparently it fooled Anderson too when he appeared surprised when his financial officer James Stanislav informed him he’d given the digital recorder to police the morning after the fire.
That’s when Anderson knew pretty much for certain he was busted and said, according to testimony that “he might have to go to jail.”
Yeah, Rod was a nice guy, but ripping off an insurance company – and indirectly the public – is inexcusable.
Sad but still inexcusable.