Scales & Ales Podcast
Elliot Nelson – Founder of McNellie’s Group Talks Future of Tulsa | Tulsa Podcast
On today’s episode of Tulsa podcast Scales & Ales recorded from SnugStudio at the Marshall Brewing Taproom, we are sitting down with Elliot Nelson the founder and CEO McNellies’s Group… what is going on? CHEERS!!
- So you are the man, the myth, the legend behind some of Tulsa’s (and My) favorite restaurants. Marshall, let’s go over this list. This is like basically a list of the only places I eat in town: McNellie’s, El Guapo’s, Fassler Hall, Dilly Diner, Yokozuna, The Tavern, Dust Bowl Lanes & Lounge, and Elgin Park!
- Walk us through what was going on downtown when you decided you were going to build Mcnellie’s?
- Where did you get the inspiration and drive to pick that spot where nothing was going on and decide to bet the future on it. Knowing it was going to tough and a long haul. What kept you pushing forward?
- Had you ever run a bar or restaurant at this point?
- I read in a Tulsa World Article where you said “El Guapo was the one where I had all the screw-ups. But it also made us better.” What are a few of the lessons you learned from the El Guapo experience?
- How many employees do you currently have?
- To any business owners listening out there, how important are the people that work with you to your ultimate success?
- So talk about how you know Eric Marshall. When and how did you guys meet? Can you tell us any insider information into the great mind of the brewmaster himself?
- What are a couple of the things that you have accomplished, either business, personal, community, whatever, are you most proud of?
- What do you see as the best thing about Tulsa over the past 5-10 years?
- Where do you see Tulsa heading over the next 5-10 years?
- Are there 1 or 2 limiting factors that you see as holding Tulsa back from what we believe is huge potential?
- Do you have a favorite one of your restaurants or would that be like trying to pick your favorite kids? You know, where you actually do have one but you still love the others and don’t want to hurt their feelings?
- What is something that you like to do outside of work?
- Is there something that you are working on that you are particularly excited about?
Marshall Morris: Today we sit down with the founder of McNellie’s Group, Mr Elliot Nelson. Here we go! We are back with another episode of Scales and Ales where we talk about music, business and beer. We’re bringing this episode to you from Snug Studio at the Marshall Brewing company taproom. Today I’m joined with Mr. Eric Chupp and founder of Marshall Brewing Company, Eric Marshall. And we are interviewing a guest today who is given back so much to the city of Tulsa. He’s founded the McNellie’s group, which incorporates a number of different establishments like Yokozuna, McNellies, Dust Bowl, Fassler Hall, Bull in the Alley, The Tavern, and so many more other properties. Mr. Elliot Nelson. Let’s start off with a cheers here and I want to get into it, Elliot. How did you start getting into the real estate development, the restaurant development. You have, all these concepts? What was it like when you were just getting started? Did you always have this idea or where you’re interning somewhere or how’d you get into it?
Elliot Nelson: That’s right. And interned at a law firm summer before my senior year of college is I’m man, I can do this the rest of my life. So, I ended up writing a business plan for McNellie’s. I’d spend a semester abroad in Dublin, Ireland, just loved pubs and felt like Tulsa needed a good pub and so set out kind of looking for a place to do it. And for me it was… Downtown was important to me because there was nothing going on down there. You know, I’m fourth generation Tulsan and I’d heard my parents, my grandparents stories about always being downtown. So I was looking for a place to build that pub down there because I wanted it to be a part of revitalizing it.
Eric Chupp: There was nothing going on there. Right?
Elliot Nelson: Yeah, that’s right. And, and it was weird because you have 40,000 day-time employees down there and saw all these people getting off work, you know, dress up, suit and tie. And the closest place they were going to get a drink was Brookside, which is over three miles away. And so you didn’t have this dynamic you have in a lot of other cities where, okay, we’re leaving the office before we go get in the car to go home, let’s go grab a beer or two and continue the conversation, whatever is going on, or maybe have an office birthday celebration. So I started looking around and finally ended up in the building we’re in, and that was probably December of 2002. Signed that lease. And it took 15 months to put it back together. A couple feet of water in the basement covered a mold and it was a disaster.
Eric Chupp: A whole thing, right?
Elliot Nelson: Yeah. And then when we opened, our next door neighbor was a welding shop. Next door that was a machine shop. Across the street was a bookbinder and a cabinet banker so anyway…
Eric Chupp: Wow. Not a lot of pubs.
Elliot Nelson: We were on an island. Yeah.
Eric Chupp: All right. So let me just run through the list. We’ve got McNellies, El Guapos, Fassler Hall, Dilly Diner—never heard of these places—Yokozuna, The Tavern—best burger I’ve ever eaten in my life, by the way, I had one like a week and a half ago, two weeks ago—Dust Bowl Lanes and Lounge, and Elgin Park. My man, that is a lot of stuff going on. Where did you get the drive and just the inspiration? Starting a business, running businesses is not easy. It’s not the most easy thing to do. Where do you get that drive and that inspiration to keep going?
Elliot Nelson: Yeah…
Eric Marshall: Hang on. Don’t forget The Bull in the Alley. That’s fine dining in Tulsa.
Elliot Nelson: That was pretty good.
Eric Chupp: Nice, I just making sure you were paying attention.
Eric Marshall: I got to throw in here every now and again, right?
Elliot Nelson: You know so a lot of that started, the reason we have so many different things now is that I started out, I built McNellie’s, eventually we built a continental next to that. We opened a couple other bars, Tiny Lounge, The Colony, and we were at the time, you know, we opened McNellie’s I’m going to say it was a few months after Vision 2025 got passed. So BOK center didn’t exist but it was coming and I kept looking around and thinking like, man, things need to happen down here, you know, when’s downtown Tulsa going to catch fire and start going? And it wasn’t. So I started trying to do some real estate development. It turns out it, you know, 26 years old with no experience. That was kind of hard to do. But I did know how to open a restaurant. So I said, all right, well if I think this needs to happen, I’m just going to set out and start trying to do it. And that’s why we have so many different concepts, especially within a close proximity to each other is everything we did, we were trying to build a neighborhood. And so, you know, as you go through kind of store by store, you know, El Guapos we built because we new Mexican food and in Oklahoma skews about 40% higher than it does the rest of the country. Right? So people eat a lot of Tex-Mex food, right? So we built that and then we said, you know we need a place for breakfast and for office people to come eat a quicker lunch so we built, at the time, The Dilly Deli is now the Dilly Diner. Then from there, Yokozuna was an existing restaurant that was Sushi that we ended up taking over and we started trying to push price point there. Let’s say we were pushing the price point and then we opened The Tavern, and The Tavern was when we really pushed some issues on where we said, you know, you need a finer dining place down here where people will come down and have a nice meal, spend more money. And also, I was a true believer that we needed more places to eat late nights, so we just committed to 11:00 PM during the weekdays and 1:00 AM on the weekends. So, you know, we want to be able to serve somebody a really good meal late at night because you’re never real city if you can’t get a real meal late at night.
Eric Chupp: Right. Absolutely. There’s a bunch of venues right there too, I mean, so people are there and they’re gonna eat.
Elliot Nelson: And they’re hungry.
Eric Chupp: So, yeah, that’s awesome.
Elliot Nelson: And then from there we opened Fassler Hall. And Fassler Hall was one where, you know, at that point McNellie’s was probably six years old and so younger people weren’t, McNellie’s had kind of passed up it’s time as being the hip bar to be at late night. So we needed to recapture that audience. And one of the things we knew is that people want a more than entertainment and other things. So we built Fassler Hall to capture that audience. And then The Dust Bowl was something we built because we wanted an entertainment option that wasn’t food. You know, everything we’d done was a restaurant. So, everything has had a purpose, you know, Elgin Park when we built it, that took a long time to build, but Eric and I have been talking about forever. Well one of the big pieces of feedback we got through our bartenders and servers that people from out of town, especially in hotels, were we’re looking for a sports bar. Like where did they go watch their team? And we didn’t have that down there. So Elgin Park, we tried to fill that void. And then, The Bull in the Alley was one of the, just the space kind of fell in our lap. And for me, I’d always want, I’d written that steak house concept along time ago, always wanting to do it. And then luckily we had an opportunity to build it and it, but it was again, like, you know, we’d push price point a little bit with The Tavern, but then I felt like it was time to just go to the absolute top of the price point in town. And so, you know, it’s right there with Mahogany’s and Flemings and everything else as being the most expensive in town, but you know, downtown needed a way marker and that kind of global food map of saying, you know what, you can get the best meal in town in downtown Tulsa. And that was a point for us that we built out the market kind of stair stepped it along the way and we thought…
Eric Chupp: With the crown jewel.
Marshall Morris: The crown jewel with the Bull in the Alley.
Elliot Nelson: That was something that was really at the top end of things.
Eric Marshall: Well you have the atmosphere and the ambiance. I mean I think that did such a great job with it too. There’s the simplicity of it, but also like if you go spend the money for that special occasion, like, I mean this sounds ridiculous but you don’t feel like you’re in Tulsa. And I hate that. I hate using that phrase because…
Eric Chupp: Being pro-Tulsa.
Eric Marshall: Being pro-Tulsa. But it has a big city feel to it.
Elliot Nelson: it was one of the things when we built McNally’s, you know, I, I always said that this’ll be a good bar and we measure other stuff this way too. If you could pick up McNellie’s and drop it in the middle of New York and Chicago and then it would still be a good pub. That’s when you knew it was good. And I feel that way about that pub. I feel that way about the Bull in the Alley. If we picked up the Bull in the Alley and we dropped it in the right location in a major city, I think it would still thrive. And so that’s one of the things we try to build to. And then, you know, that energy question, I mean, a lot of it at this point is we have such an incredible team of people who have been with us so long that um, you know, it’s a team effort and so for me, we continue growing and building to create opportunities for all those people who’ve been loyal over the years and helped us since we were just a company in our infancy by a bunch of 25-year-old people who didn’t really know what they were doing.
Eric Chupp: Well, speaking of that, like, take us back to that. Did you, when you were doing the whole McNellie’s concept, had you run bars and restaurants? Did you have any toe in the jacuzzi, I mean, what was that like?
Elliot Nelson: I went and got a job waiting tables at Soba Loco. I waited tables for about eight months.
Eric Chupp: Like on purpose to kind of just learn the restaurant scene?
Elliot Nelson: Yeah, I was like, if I’m going to build this I better see what a restaurant looks like. Right? I better figure out how this works.
Eric Chupp: I think that’s a bigger deal then like you’re making of it. Marshall and I work with a lot of business owners, and you might be surprised, you might not be, of how many people just jump into something because they see an opportunity or a good idea, but eight months of investment, like I’m going to learn the inner workings, right?
Elliot Nelson: But yeah, I mean you had to see how it works. Right. And so I did that. And luckily I met the guy who was our first kitchen manager there, Pete Gwen. And so Pete actually still works for us. He doesn’t run a kitchen anymore he’s an hourly guy, but he’s been with us since day one. And if not for Pete—and Pete’s older than I by about probably 10 or 15 years—you know, if not for Pete, I don’t know if we would have made it, I mean, I remember the first month we finished being a business and he’s like, hey, we need to do inventory. I’m like, wait, what? What were you doing here?
Marshall Morris: What is this thing that you’re talking about?
Elliot Nelson: Like we got to know what our costs are, I’m like, “Oh, okay. I guess that makes sense,” you know? But, um…
Eric Chupp: Smart!
Elliot Nelson: Yeah,
Marshall Morris: That’s insightful.
Elliot Nelson: So, yeah, I didn’t really know how to restaurant work. I guess what I knew was—and this is my conversation with Pete when I hired him I said, look, I know that the craft beer world is emerging and then if we can be the first place in Tulsa to concentrate on craft beer and really specialize in it and build all these taps and beat everyone else to market, then we’ll be okay. Right? I can corner that part of the market, and I know the beer well, I’ve got a lot of beer knowledge, but I don’t know anything about a kitchen. So my charge to him was giving me a really good hamburger and I don’t really care what else…
Marshall Morris: Just I need a burger.
Elliot Nelson: So long as people can come in and trust that the hamburger will be good. You know, we’ll get them with the beer too.
Eric Chupp: Simplicity scales right?
Eric Marshall: I think a testament to that too. I mean, you—by and large—I mean obviously you guys have tweaked the menu. You’ve done things, but there’s a lot of OG stuff still on that menu that really speaks true. We still have like, you do it and you do it right and it’s what people expect.
Marshall Morris: You know, how did you arrive at the Irish concept, the Irish pub concept? Because I mean, people are like, well, let’s just throw up a restaurant. Right? But you seem like you were very intentional about the things that went into creating that concept.
Elliot Nelson: Yeah. So, I’m really passionate about Irish pubs. I loved them. And I love Ireland. I love being there. I go back about some once a year, but the great thing about an Irish pub is that, so in the town I lived in just south of Dublin, which is called Black Rock. The pub that we hung out in, the busiest time in that pub was Sunday after mass. And so the whole town…
Eric Chupp: That’s a community pub right there, right?
Elliot Nelson: That’s a community pub, right? And the whole town is there—I’m getting chills right now talking about so—so you have grandparents all the way down to these little kids. But the pub in Ireland is this community gathering place, right? The music’s not loud, it’s well lit, it’s a great place to have a conversation, and so to me, you know, this is when you write a business plan, you know, in school they tell you like, or what’s your target demographic? Who are you shooting for? And for me it was like, this is an Irish pub, like my target, your demographic is everybody. Like, they said, well that doesn’t work. I’m like, I don’t know man. If you build a pub right, it kind of does.
Eric Chupp: It has for hundreds of years.
Eric Marshall: It doesn’t matter if you’re the mayor or you’re the little man on the totem pole in a factory, you’re having a beer next to each other. You’re having a good conversation…
Elliot Nelson: And if you build it right and it feels right, it’s not intimidating to that blue collar guy, but it still feels really good to that guy in a suit. Right? And so that was the goal. And I still remember—this is probably the second week we were open. It was a Sunday. And I used to be down there 120 hours a week.
Eric Chupp: What year was this?
Elliot Nelson: I mean, back then it was slow. So nobody really knew were there and we’re trying to figure it out, but I remember this table about 15 people came in and they were celebrating a guy’s like, I think it was his 70th birthday maybe, but it was three generations of this family, right. So it’s the patriarch and his wife and their two grown siblings and their spouses and then like a handful of kids. And they were there to celebrate a birthday party on Sunday afternoon. And I just remembered like listening to these people thinking this is it. If those people are here, this is going to be okay. You know, it took a while for that to catch on full speed, but you just kind of knew, if this feels good to those people, we’re going to figure this out.
Eric Chupp: That’s awesome. During that first year or lead up to that first year, what were some initial roadblocks you guys didn’t expect? Just like you said, inventory. Oh sh*t, we need to take inventory. What are some other of those roadblocks?
Elliot Nelson: You know, there were a ton, so I was 25 when we opened. I’m suddenly managing a staff like 50 people, you know,
Eric Chupp: It’s quite a few.
Marshall Morris: Hold on! He was 25!
Elliot Nelson: And so, you know, how many of you get to learn a lot in a hurry, right?
Eric Chupp: When you have to, right? When your hair’s on fire.
Elliot Nelson: But, but still there were all the hours and all the work going in and we didn’t have enough cash in the bank to pay myself. We were about 90 grand short the day we opened on our startup budget, and we payed that add over cashflows. And my wife was bartending at the time—she was actually, my fiance at the time—she was bartending. We were living off her bartending wages. And so, you know, the biggest thing that has stuck with me over the years is, there was tons of stuff we were learning on the fly, but it was the cashflow management. I went back in to every Saturday morning and did forensic accounting on the entire week. Like, okay, where’s all the money, where to go? And it was probably two years before I got out of that cycle where we finally had enough cash in the bank where I could pay myself a regular salary and not have to just go back in all the time and be like, how am I going to pay these bills this week?
Eric Chupp: If you’ve ever have run a business or like had to come up with payroll, that’s a whole another level of anxiety I think most people don’t get.
Eric Marshall: And you just get to the point where you’re like, okay, I’m not going to get paid this cycle. And then all of a sudden when you get through and it’s like, oh sh*t, I got a paycheck.
Elliot Nelson: Right? And it’s one of those things too, people are always like, oh, you’re so successful now. It must be great. I mean I was at that point, I missed two pay cycles just 24 months ago. It never stops. I mean we’ve constantly taken everything we have and double down and reinvested and tried to keep growing, and that’s not just on the McNellies side of the things that’s on my personal side, real estate side of things. I mean, I don’t know if it ever stops. You know, I talked to this guy the other day who is Jose Andreas’ partner; he was actually the guy that founded that company and he hired Jose Andreas back in the day. It’s now I think Food Group. And up until two or three years ago, Jose Andreas worked for him. And now Jose Andreas is the majority partner through stock grants and other things that they’ve given him. But, anyway, I was talking to him about it and he’s like, “Look, we’re a $200 million company, 2,500 employees, critically acclaimed around the world. You can go in any major city and people know who Jose Andreas like, and I still have a second mortgage on my house from a business loan.” It just never stops.
Eric Chupp: Well, I talked to me when my parents had a commercial, concrete construction company. My grandfather had restaurants and, and just a family of entrepreneurs. My in-laws, father-in-law ran a fence company. And so I’ve just been surrounded by entrepreneurs. And what I always tell everybody is that when you run a business, everybody thinks you have more money than you have and you have more time than you have. And usually you have neither. And you’re like, that’s not how it works, but think how you want and go back and do your job. But like that’s what happens. So, continuing on this theme of like those roadblocks, I had read in a Tulsa World article where you had said that El Guapos, was the one where you had all of the screw ups but it made you better. Walk us through what that time frame was because I remember this time. I think I turned 21 around 2006 and started getting back into town from college and was totally into McNellie’s. I remember El Guapos opened and I’m like, hell yeah. So what went wrong? I always loved it but…
Elliot Nelson: You know, so there’s a lot of stuff, I don’t know where to start. So, we budgeted at $1.2 and I didn’t have a hard bid construction, so eventually we ended up two point $2.1 million into that project.
Eric Chupp: You just got the numbers flopped. That’s all.
Elliot Nelson: That’s it. That’s it. It was just a reverse problem. So anyway, that was extremely difficult. And then we opened and I just had the wrong people in the wrong places. And so we weren’t able to execute. And the space is extremely difficult. It still is. It’s a hard place to run, just the three floors and the complexity of it. But anyway, we got to a point where we were just hemorrhaging cash and it was all I could do to keep it afloat. And so I remember we opened I think July of 07, and at that point we had McNellie’s, Colony, Continental, Tiny Lounge and then that was the number five. And I was the only corporate staff when we opened it.
Eric Chupp: And you had nothing else going on either right?
Elliot Nelson: Yeah, I remember the first launch we opened there, it was 11:30 AM and I kept going up the kitchen and we need to open the doors. Like there’s a line outside and it was 11 AM is when you’re supposed to have the guys around the kitchen kept telling I can’t do it, can’t do it, we can’t do it. And eventually I was like 11:30 AM I got to open the doors. Like there was a line around the block and it was a complete meltdown. It was terrible. It was one of the worst days I’ve ever had in a restaurant. And actually if you talk to, there’s two guys who are now vice presidents of operations for us who were there that day, and they were just managers at the time are all kind of come up together—they will tell you it’s the worst day they’ve ever had. And by 12:45 AM that day, I had walked back across the street and I just sat down in the walk-in cooler of McNellies so nobody could find me. I just sat there in the cooler by myself.
Eric Chupp: I laugh with you, not at you. For sure, for sure.
Elliot Nelson: So anyway, if you kind of fast forward, McNellie’s in Oklahoma City was getting built at the time and it was way delayed for various reasons.
Eric Chupp: It was construction. That’s what happens.
Elliot Nelson: Right? But I remember February of 2008. So El Guapos had been opened for, I don’t know, seven months or something like that. I remember sitting down with my attorney and have him walk me through bankruptcy. I’m just like, man, I don’t think we’re going to make it. Like it’s over, right? And, so he kinda walked me through that and I was getting ready to make some really hard choices and we just had our second kid who was like three months old. I remember coming home and I would put on a hooded sweatshirt. I’d just cinch it tight so I couldn’t see out of it and just lay on the couch. My wife was fed up with me. It was a disaster. Everything.
Eric Chupp: The beautiful life of entrepreneurship. They write a lot of books about those parts right there, yeah.
Elliot Nelson: Then what happens is March hits and the weather turns. Right? And when it got warm, people came back to El Guapos, and so what had happened was we still weren’t good at executing, but people love sitting on that roof. And so we became this hugely seasonal place where we could cashflow ourselves through the summer. And then we lost money through the winter. But that cashflow that started flowing in and when the weather turned allowed us to stay in business, then McNellie’s in Oklahoma City opened end June of 08 and it made money day one. So that making money got us to a point as a company to where you kind of stabilize. And we said, all right, you know, now at this point we need to recapitalize this business. And I went out and I took all my stock and kind of put it together and we brought on some venture capital guys who’ve put in some money for half the company. And we took that money when it grew over the next two and a half year, they came in July of 2009. We grew really fast for two years, let me had to stop and take a break. But El Guapos was the place that—so I guess I left out a part of the story, which is, you know, the financial crisis happened through that time—and when we were so far over budget, I had to go back to the bank and ask for an unsecured note that my dad had signed on and the bank came back and they called the note. They said, you’ve got to pay this because I mean, everything was melting down and nobody knew what was going to happen.
Eric Chupp: Worst scenario. Worst case scenario.
Eric Marshall: Also a great time to start a brewery too.
Eric Chupp: He’s like, “Eric, you’re sweating. Are you okay? The flashbacks, what’s happening?” Yeah.
Elliot Nelson: Q4, 2009 was ABs best quarter ever. So, you know, it might not have been that bad of a time. But I wasn’t getting my dad pay that loan. So that’s when I recapitalized everything, we paid off that loan, and had some money to grow.
Eric Chupp: So back to your worst day ever. I’ve worked in the restaurant industry just as a cook and stuff when I was younger, but man, do people get pissed off about their food and their time. I bet you get some, you get some people.
Elliot Nelson: I mean it’s tough and that actually was funny. Early on, running McNellies—I ran it every day for a couple of years—I realized that I just wasn’t equipped to deal with that. Right? Somebody came in and they start berating me. Like I couldn’t do it.
Eric Chupp: Please stop, please stop.
Elliot Nelson: Just tell him off, kick him out, whatever.
Eric Chupp: I would cry, I would just cry. I’d be like.
Marshall Morris: Walk-in cooler.
Eric Chupp: Yeah, walk-in cooler time.
Elliot Nelson: I remember the first week at McNellie’s I had this guy stand up on me. Well first he was like yelling at me cause he got ranch instead of blue cheese dressing with the side salad,
Eric Chupp: We can fix this.
Elliot Nelson: And I was like, hey man, I’m really sorry. I’ll get it. And he said something to this effect, you know what, this is the second or third person I’ve asked. I was like, look dude, you don’t have to berate me. I’m going to get your dressing right now. But then he stood up out of his chair and I’m like, really, you’re going to fight me over your dressing? I mean that was maybe the first week and very early on I was just don’t think I do this. I don’t think I run a restaurant every day, which is really when I started saying maybe I want to do real estate development, maybe. Maybe it’s this development thing that I’m more suited for. And so really if you look at our company now and how we’re set up, I mean that’s what I do. I do restaurant development. You know, I go out and find the sites and build them and financing them. And then we have an incredible team of people who are much better running a restaurant than I am.
Eric Chupp: But that was literally my next question here is how many employees do you currently have?
Elliot Nelson: We’ve got a 1,000 employees.
Marshall Morris: 1,000 employees. Wow.
Eric Chupp: That is a lot of employees.
Elliot Nelson: It’s a lot of employees, yeah.
Eric Marshall: Well, Elliot kind of mentioned this earlier too. One thing from the other side of the perspective is he’s done just an incredible job of keeping the structure and keeping talented people in place and really being true to his people. I know that from the supplier side of things of dealing with other people where you’ll go in one week and two weeks later you’ve got a whole different bar manager. I mean, we’re dealing with and we have close personal relationships with people that we’ve dealt with since day one that are still in his company and they’ve shuffled around to different places and he’s done a fabulous job of trying to utilize their talents for something they’re interested in, but also for the betterment of the company. So it’s a very symbiotic relationship in that sense, and he’s modest about this a lot of times, but I think that they’ve done a phenomenal job of that and just such a great company from that regard. I want to give him kudos for that because he did mention that earlier, but it’s, a lot of…
Eric Chupp: People don’t realize this. But when the business owners that we work with, that’s the hardest part of the business, you know, it’s hard getting it started. It’s hard and making money, but managing people is the hardest part because we’re all crazy. My own way. Right.
Marshall Morris: In with when you work with a financial advisor and somebody who has made some money and they’re looking to invest money and then you go to the financial advisor, you say, “I want to start a restaurant.” And they just cringe. They’re like, oh no. Right. But somehow you’ve managed to develop real estate and in a very successful way in a lot of different capacity, a lot of different concepts. And so is there anything that maybe you can share that you’ve looked in the different concepts without giving away the secret sauce maybe?
Eric Chupp: Or just, you know, share the secret sauce with us.
Elliot Nelson: I wish there was one. I think for me a lot of these spaces we built what we built in the space because of the space itself. Right. So, Fassler Hall, we didn’t have a plan for a beer hall but David Sharp, who was a good friend of my landlord is several places called me and said, “Hey, I just bought this building,” it was Indian Lock and Key at the time. “Go look at it. I think you might like it.” So I walk in there and I’m crawling around and it was in rough shape but we got to the very back of it and you could see back up over the drop ceiling portion of the facility and noticed it was a big barrel roof ceiling. And I’m like, “You know what I think is to be a really good beer hall.” So then we said, “Okay, we’ll take it,” and hopped on a plane in Germany and when did some beer hall research.
Eric Chupp: That’s a good excuse.
Elliot Nelson: Yeah, right. And the same thing happened with The Dust Bowl. That building came on the market for sale and the price was so good that I just put it in a full price contract day one; we bought it. And then once we started measuring and other things, I’m like, “Man, I think this might be deep enough to do a bowling alley,” so then we started designing a bowling alley and went about it that way.
Eric Chupp: It’s great.
Elliot Nelson: So a lot of times, for us, it’s been less about like, oh, I have this burning desire to do these concepts and trying to fit it into a building somewhere. And then we’ve kind of let the real estate tell us. And that’s easy to do in downtown Tulsa for me because I know it all really well. I’m down there every day. It’s harder in the suburbs. You got to be a lot more calculated about that kind of stuff. So we have some different ideas we’re working on right now about some things like. So these guys in Owasso, right, were like, “Hey, when are you do something in Owasso?” And I’m like, “Man, I don’t want to be in a Owasso.” But, also—I told him a long time ago; they brought me out and showed me all these different spaces—I said, “Look, find me an old barn or an old farmhouse somewhere that has a couple of really good mature trees on it and I’ll come build something in Owasso.” And we finally got a call a couple of weeks ago like, “Hey, we think we might’ve found it.” So I went out, looked at it. We’ll see if we make the deal happen. I guess for me in Owasso, like I don’t want to go to Owasso and build some sh*t in a strip mall. But if I can go out to Owasso and build something that’s really cool and speaks to rural Oklahoma, then I’ll do it. Right? So that to me is the idea that we’re not going to cookie cutter a concept and just keep building and building, cause that’s just not that entertaining. You know? And, and for us we like our jobs a lot better if we’re doing things that are interesting. And that we think we’re making the community better. And so, you know, me dropping a Dilly Diner next to a US sailor store in Owasso, it’s not really what keeps me going.
Eric Chupp: So that was another question I had for you. You were talking about the space that’s available, but how important in your mind is the actual location of that space?
Elliot Nelson: That depends. I think it depends a lot on what you’re doing and how much of a commodity service you’re giving. Right? The pubs, when did them originally, we were in these really bizarre spaces, even the one out south’s in a bizarre space a little bit, even though it’s on 71st and Yale it’s kind of tucked back behind a bunch of stuff. I think if you’re providing a service that people really desire and want, they’re gonna find you seek it out. Right? But if you’re doing cheeseburgers and your cheeseburgers are not that much different than other guys cheeseburger. Like, yeah, you need to be on the corner with the highest traffic count, right? Where you catch the most drive-thru business because you need that. It’s gotta be easy. But if you’re doing something like Bull in the Alley where we say, hey, we’re going to see if we can make the absolute best steak we’ve ever had and we’re going to put it down this alleyway without a door. You know, people start saying, “Hey, you need to go try the steak.” You can put that anywhere. Right? People will find it.
Eric Chupp: Well, we talk about a concept called the ‘purple cow,’ I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, this guy named Seth Goden. And you know, if you see a purple cow in a field, you’re likely to tell somebody like a freaking purple cow over there. And you’ve kind of had done that with that restaurant. Like it’s in an alley. People tell people that about it, right? Like that’s kind of a differentiating factor. So that’s very cool.
Eric Marshall: Depending on who you talk they will tell you a different name of the place. The Lounge, The Bull in the Alley, Speakeasy…
Elliot Nelson: We called it, ‘The Lounge Eternally Forever.’ And then the website, I think might’ve said Bull in the Alley, but if you find the website, it’s just the phone number; there’s nothing on it.
Eric Chupp: That’s great.
Elliot Nelson: But when we launched that concept, I took a picture of that bowl and I listed the phone number and I put it on my personal Facebook page and that was the only marketing we ever did.
Marshall Morris: I want to ask you about that because I’ve read case studies about these different speakeasies and The Bull in the Alley is so much more than that, but that has to be a little bit of a tense moment where you’re like, we’re not going to market this.
Elliot Nelson: And that was it. And we’re like, “We’ll see if it works, right?” And, so it was a slow build.
Eric Chupp: I like how calm you are when you were saying… Let’s see if it works.
Elliot Nelson: Yeah, here’s the thing, originally my concept was: We’re going to do the steak, we’re going to make spaghetti, we’re going to have shrimp cocktail on the caesar salad, and one dessert—that was the whole menu. And then it got really bloated and then we kind of brought it back down to where it is now. I think there’s 12 things on the menu or whatever it is. But, we knew everything we were putting on the table was best in class. We’ll put it up against anybody. And so knowing that eventually you just assume the word’s gonna get out and it’s going to catch on, right? I mean, at least you hope. But we also knew it was going to be a slower build to get to that. But one of the things we did was we picked a list of 3 or 400 people that we know and like, but we also know have a lot of business dinners and do stuff and we just invited them down for dinner. So over the course of a couple of weeks like, “Hey come down, we want to, we want to buy dinner at this new place we’re doing.” People come down, they have dinner, and then they tell their friends.
Eric Chupp: They tell 7 people and then you got a whole crew coming.
Marshall Morris: I want to ask you for all the business owners that are listening, that might question that concept because there’s a cost associated inviting 300 or 400 people, and especially with that being your marketing strategy of word getting out through that—people with big networks. Why was that a no-brainer for you to invite those people? Because I’ve talked to some business owners and they’re like, “I don’t know if I can spend $100 on Facebook to advertise my business.” How big is advertising played for both Bull in the Alley and your other marketing concepts?
Elliot Nelson: Yeah, so I mean, that’s a moving target at this point, right? I mean, you know, our advertising budget, when we, we laugh at it, I used to be all print advertising. Right now you hardly run any print advertising. So it’s all changed. And that know those numbers have changed. But you know, Bull in the Alley, we knew that experience was going to be so unique that if we could get people in to experience it and they go tell people that word of mouse can be your best bet. Right? And, and so that cost, and we have no other marketing costs, right? I mean, Just buying those dinners was our marketing costs. And for us, when we’re buying those dinners were also buying them at our cost. Right. So it’s not even my paying full price on those dinners. So, those decisions were pretty easy in terms of marketing that concept. But overall, I mean marketing, McNellie’s downtown, I don’t know if we hadn’t started doing $3 Burger night, I don’t know if we would have made it.
Eric Chupp: That’s a big deal.
Elliot Nelson: And which is really weird to say. Our business was so bad during the week, and Wednesday was our worst day, and we ended up doing that $3 burger. I think it was maybe August after we’d been open let’s say five months. And that was me going the chef and saying, “How much do you have a burger?” It was like $2.80 or whatever it was and so I said alright, “I’m gonna sell them at three bucks.” I’m just going to see what happens. And we ran the same ad, back then it was Urban Tulsa, $3 hamburgers every Wednesday for maybe three months straight. That’s the only ad we ran. And we went from, I think the first Wednesday we sold like 70 hamburgers and we were elated, right? I mean it was incredible like high-fiving, were exhausted. And then within like three months we were sell 500 burgers every Wednesday. It was nuts. And then what happened was the waits got so long on Wednesdays and we got so busy, I think, you know, it’s really come back down over the years, but at our peak, we were doing maybe like 1200 burgers on a Wednesday night.
Eric Chupp: I think I remember those days.
Eric Marshall: It definitely got to a point there. I was like, Oh sh*t, it’s Wednesday.
Elliot Nelson: That’s what happened is then all of a sudden people start showing up on Tuesday and Thursday. Right? So it had this kind of bleed out effect, but that marketing campaign was still the one that I point to is like that was the best thing we ever did. Right. And right now we’re trying to build up this wine’s day idea at The Tavern where all bottles of wine are half price every Wednesday. And our marketing people, you know, I see it every once a while. I’m like, “No guys, you don’t get it. Like it’s got to be there all the time for a while.” People just need to get it in their head. And so I think the marketing is immensely important. But back to the Bull in the Alley idea you know, at Elgin Park, our biggest struggle there has been daytime lunch business. We’ve really struggled with it. And I think we’ve identified that a lot of that struggle has to do with pizza itself. So we’re putting in maybe I think five new salads and a dozen new sandwiches and really ramping that up. But what we’re gonna do is we’re going to put it out on Facebook and we’re going to buy lunch for like 500 people, maybe a thousand over the course of a week. Just say come down and eat and hopefully when they’re there we deliver. And that’s the thing that, that builds it back up.
Eric Chupp: And we talk about that all the time with our clients. And that’s what we call the golden look. Right? You just got to get him in there. When you wow them, they have that cathartic release. They’re either going to go to people how awesome it was were how sh*tty it was, right? But the goal is to get them in there and then wow them. And they’ll come back on the Tuesdays and Thursdays just like you found with McNellie’s. That’s great.
Eric Marshall: There was also a nostalgia aspect to it too. I mean, especially like, say with McNellie’s that now is, I mean, it’s weird to say that it’s like an old man on the block, but it’s like, you don’t go in there for a while and you’d go in and it’s like we were in for the holidays and it was decorated for Christmas and it was like, damn, this is actually a really good family… I mean, usually it’s my wife and I, we’ll have a beer and something to eat before we go somewhere, but we took the kids in and it was like, and this is a great family place.
Elliot Nelson: I had a friend tell me recently, he has a grown son who’s 24, 25 who’s dating a girl who lives in Paris. And he was going to Paris for several months, he was trying to get a visa and stay there. But so he’s having his last dinner, Tulsa. He’s like, “Where do you want to go?” And like, McNellie’s is not his favorite restaurant. Right? He’s like, “I want to go to McNellie’s.” He’s like, “Really?” He’s like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “I mean that’s Tulsa. Like I’m not going to be here for a while. Like I just want that. That’s it. Right? Like that is the like downtown that is…” And so…
Eric Marshall: That’s one of the best compliments you can get.
Eric Chupp: I was going to say, do you feel like a proud dad in that moment?
Elliot Nelson: There used to be this thing to that, I mean I used to get into the mayor’s office and the Chamber of Commerce all the time, like they’d have people in town they’re entertaining and you’d hear where they went, and like, you know, they’d take them to like Fleming’s or wherever and I’m like man they can get Fleming’s anywhere in the country. Like they need to be here. And not only that, they need to be here on a Wednesday and they need to leave here with them like, “Jesus, Tulsa’s nuts.”
Marshall Morris: My first date that I took Maddi on was to McNellie’s. I was like, “I need a spot, I need a spot.” But it was also polarizing. I was like, “She’s either going to love this and she’s going to be awesome or she’s going to hate it and we’re not going to see each other.”
Elliot Nelson: It’s a good litmus test, right?
Eric Chupp: A McNellies litmus test.
Eric Marshall: That’s where my wife and I met. I keep joking with him that it’s like all these like major influential moments in my life—my adult life—I can thank McNellies and Elliot.
Elliot Nelson: I keep waiting on having this massive HR problem cause one of my interview questions—I don’t interview a ton of people anymore—”Do you drink beer? And then what kind of beer do you drink?” No matter what I’m interviewing for HR job, a marketing job. And if the answer’s no, then the interview’s over. “Sorry man, you might not fit in around here.”
Eric Chupp: Well that’s funny that you bring that up Eric, because one of my next questions here was just I wanted you guys to talk about how you know each other. Do you know Eric Marshall and Adam and, and the Marshall’s group here, and kinda how’d you guys get connected and any insights you might have into this brilliant dome over here of the Brew Master?
Elliot Nelson: Oh yeah. Big package.
Eric Chupp: Shoutout.
Elliot Nelson: Yes. So we met maybe what the first week or two McNellies was open?
Eric Marshall: So that was my senior year of college, I was finishing up and went in…
Eric Chupp: I need to get f*cked up.
Eric Marshall: I went in and ate dinner with my parents and he was doing the rounds and welcoming people and all that. And we just got to conversation. And of course my dad starts running his mouth, which he likes to do. And it was like, “Oh, well Eric’s getting ready to go to brewing school in Germany and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And Elliot was like, “Really?” And so, I was like, “Man, this place is f*cking legit.” So I went back, grabbed a couple of fraternity brothers and like, “Hey, we gotta go grab some beers here tonight.” And came back and he was like, “Oh sh*t, you’re back.” And we literally, we sat down, probably had a conversation for about an hour and then just kind of developed a friendship from there.
Elliot Nelson: Yeah, and I think for me, early on I kind of realized—so back then I got into the McNellie’s because my passion was beer, right? I love beer. I wanted a place where I could drink beer and share with people. But then as I got older—I mean I still love beer, but my passion, I realized it’s really my home town. And I knew very early on that one of the things that Tulsa really needed was a hometown brewery. Like a real one, you know, not a small tasting room brewery—or even though Elgin Park’s great—not Elgin Park. It needed a real brewery, a brewery where you saw the beer everywhere because I knew from my own travels, when I was in a city, my first question is like, well, what’s the local beer? You know? And I knew we needed that. And so when Eric told me that he was going to brewing school and might open a commercial brewery. I probably was too overbearing every time and said “When are you opening the brewery, when are you opening the brewery,” I knew for Tulsa to really matter and reestablish itself as a place that people wanted to live, we needed a really good brewery.
Eric Chupp: That’s a puzzle piece, right?
Elliot Nelson: Yeah. It’s a big piece of that puzzle.
Marshall Morris: And so developing downtown, you said when we started McNellies there was nothing here. Nothing was downtown and there’s continued to be some ebbs and flows of downtown—several resurgences. But now, over the past five years it’s continued to grow. And so what are the different keys to growing downtown Tulsa over maybe the next five years and continue to build upon what you’ve already built?
Elliot Nelson: Yeah, I mean, the big key is really density density of commercial businesses, but also density of housing. We need a lot more people living down there and we need the, the shoulder neighborhoods around downtown to be the accessible single family homes. I mean, if you look at the global Tulsa housing market. If you want to start her home, say 150,000–200,000, your best bet for buying one of those is still Broken Arrow, Glenpool, and Owasso, right? And we need to figure out how we build those and the central core of downtown Tulsa, I mean not downtown, but those shoulder neighborhoods—everywhere between downtown and this brewery.
Eric Marshall: Right north of here. That’s a beautiful spot to start buildings some cool houses.
Elliot Nelson: They should all be craftsman style, front porch starter homes where suddenly if you’re somebody who’s starting their family and you’re moving out and maybe your apartment, the starter home mortgage prices roughly the same amount as most people’s apartment
Eric Chupp: If not less.
Elliot Nelson: And so we need to build that inventory and provide it inside the city of Tulsa so that young, educated people are repopulating our urban core so that in turn their children are going to school in this urban core. And that’s what starts to reset the school district and it has this ripple effect. And so I think it’s, we can’t build enough housing like we started tomorrow, we’d be building for 20 years. By the way, we need to start tomorrow. We already said we are in some places and this is overcoming a lot of, there’s a long history of bad policy in the city in the city of Tulsa. Eric’s brewery should be downtown, but they f*cked it up. You know, they wouldn’t budge on the zoning codes and let him do it, which was a huge mistake. Right? So you didn’t have anybody with the foresight and like a lot of our downtown buildings got torn down because they wouldn’t reassess the buildings when they were vacant. So people said, all right, well I’ll tear it down. And that’s how they got there, their tax reassessments done. And so you had this long history of just bad policy at the city that that has cost us a lot. And so now we’re fined from behind and hopefully we’ll get there.
Eric Marshall: But I think kind of the point too, I mean, you look at, you look at sort of our generation of people and I mean, we were kind of the end of your, a couple of years older than me, but we were kind of the end of like, all right, I went to school here, I maybe it went to TU. F*ck it, I’m out. I’m going to Dallas, to Chicago, I’m going to New York. And then a couple of years, a few years after me, you start seeing more people like, give McNellie’s credit where credit’s due of kind of that spark to start revitalizing and seeing cool sh*t happened downtown that now we have this whole core of people that are like, “No, no, no, I’m gonna stay here and Tulsa because there’s cool stuff going on.”
Elliot Nelson: And I haven’t seen the statistics lately, but for a long time, more Tulsa kids, they graduated from college, moved to Dallas every year, then moved back to Tulsa.
Eric Chupp: That’s when you think about that. That’s pretty crazy.
Elliot Nelson: Oh, it’s a huge brain drain. Right? So yeah, you lose all these talented people. And as it starts at the, one of the bigger, biggest issues with it is that you don’t have a lot of people in their early twenties who are then meeting their future spouse and starting a family together. And what happens, it has this huge ripple effect to our economy because most of the big purchases in people’s lives have to do around, getting married, having children, starting a new house, right? So then you got to buy your fridge and your washer dryer. So if all that sh*t’s happening in Dallas and not here, the sales tax implications of all that is drastic.
Eric Chupp: And now Dallas is huge!
Elliot Nelson: Yeah, it’s crazy, so.
Eric Chupp: Well, I want to jump in and I want to ask you, what are a couple of the things that you’ve accomplished? I mean, business, personal, within the community—what are you most proud of that you’ve accomplished—maybe one or two things?
Elliot Nelson: Oh man, I don’t know that the fact that my wife is still married to me might be…
Eric Chupp: Amen, brother.
Elliot Nelson: So that’s something I don’t take lightly.
Eric Chupp: That’s a true entrepreneur’s answer right there.
Elliot Nelson: She’s put up with a lot over the years.
Eric Marshall: I always joke and call my wife a coal holler because she was hoping for a diamond in the rough. She had to carry my ass for a while before… She’s still waiting for that diamond.
Elliot Nelson: Yeah, if you look at it, I think at least business wise, we’ve had an impact on the community and that’s been good. I feel like we’ve had a big impact on the growth of downtown—sometimes, we probably get too much credit—but the bigger business impact to me is that—so we have a thousand employees and our turnover every year is about 40%. Industry average is 150%. And if you look at our, if you look at our turnover, most of that turnover is in about 10% of our workforce. Right? So about 900 of those thousand people are static, right? And we’ve had them for over a year. That’s amazing. And we give insurance I think to like, I’d have to pull the stats, but I think it’s a little over 200 people. So in an industry that I feel like does a really bad job at taking care of its employees, we’ve created an atmosphere where a lot of people stick around, where they’re well taken care of and provided insurance, and have access to 401k, and all these things that, that I feel like they wouldn’t otherwise have access to if they were in the service industry in town. And we’ve given stock to 12 people now and so to me, it’s creating a company that hopefully provides opportunities for people that wouldn’t otherwise have. And that’s something that matters to me. And it’s a huge impact to our bottom line. Like we would make more money if we didn’t do it that way, but make more money for what purpose, right? So I could have it lake house? It’s like, I don’t want a lake house. I’d rather give somebody some of my insurance, you know?
Eric Chupp: And when people work for you, that’s, you know, with my parents running a company growing up, like it’s a huge impact on their entire family. Right? It’s not just that person, it’s their family, and then they spend the money that you’ve helped them earn and it’s like the whole ripple effect and it’s a huge thing. It’s a huge thing.
Marshall Morris: Well, I wanted to ask you about that because you said that you were 25 and immediately you had 50 employees, right? When you first were starting McNellies, you probably, I don’t know, did you have the vision that one day you’re going to be managing a thousand employees? Was this always the goal or when, when did that transition?
Elliot Nelson: If you caught me several months after McNellies had opened. I would of told you my goal was to just do development work.
Eric Chupp: I’m never doing this again.
Elliot Nelson: Exactly right, but why the hell did I do this? So, no, that was never the vision. But at some point, you know, I looked around and we had a really good core group of people and, um, we said, you know, I think this is, this is somewhat, we need to grow. And at this point, 5, 10 years from now, I hope the company outgrows me, right? Like, there’s a very finite amount of time where it still makes sense for me to be the CEO of that company. Right? At some point we’re going to outgrow my skillset—if we haven’t already, we probably did five years ago—but that company outgrowing me and being bigger than me and something that will last well beyond me being the CEO that’s going to be really good. Thats going to be really good for a lot of people that worked for me and I think we’ll be good for the community too. So that’s the one you need to look at it. and you say, well, it’s crazy, right? It’s crazy that that’s where it went, especially in an industry with the failure rates that we have. And, so it’s been fun.
Eric Chupp: I can’t imagine managing a thousand people. That’s crazy.
Elliot Nelson: I mean when you say that? Like, I manage like seven people. Right? Like everybody else is like…
Eric Chupp: You might be surprised, you might not be surprised, but we’ve seen so many people that, you know, obviously if you get to a thousand, you’ve got other people managing, but they tried to manage a team of 150. A team of 75 and like you can really manage 10 people. Like you’re not managing your abdicating and they’re doing what they want and you just don’t know about it. On that same vein, what do you look for when you’re hiring somebody? What are some—so they drink beer?
Elliot Nelson: One of the big things for me is just core intelligence, right? Somebody that you can have a conversation with and now there’s a few things I will ask somebody in an interview, but, but one is, you know, I want to get to know somebody on their personality. Are they interesting? You know, like what kind of music do they listen to, what do they read? One of the big questions to me is, where do you get your news from? Right? Because if somebody only gets their news from Fox News, like they’re not going to fit in or our company? Right? I mean, that’s just not going to happen. So, we have to make sure that people are—this is probably—but you know, we want people that are open minded and
Eric Marshall: Cultured.
Elliot Nelson: Yeah. I don’t know if I say cultured, but we want people that are—and I mean I have friends that watch Fox News, so I’m not like—but also, do you watch Fox News and MSNBC. Do you read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal?
Eric Chupp: Open.
Elliot Nelson: Yeah. We want people with an open mind who are open to new ideas and things. Because when you have a thousand people, you have a lot of different personalities and a lot of different points of view. And the last thing you want is that people who are closed off to ideas and to people because you have to be really accepting in our business because we’re not an accounting firm, right? And not everybody’s got a master’s degree and was that A personality type going through school. We’re all different shapes and sizes and so you’ve gotta be open to those people, but also you’ve got to cherish those people, right? I mean, their great. For so long, I’ve told people, “I’d much be down hanging out with my employees,” and were more interesting. Right? And so I think that’s a big one for us. How open are you as a person and your thoughts and what you believe. Because if you aren’t, our company will be a tough place to work.
Marshall Morris: I want to ask you, if you find these A players, these different people within the organization that you can really count on, you really want to invest some stock into because they’re going to play a key role. How do you motivate those people? Do you motivate them the same way as everybody else throughout the organization? You said that you’ve really invested in, you’ve given stock or stock options for some employees. How do you motivate those people that you know are going to be around for a long time?
Elliot Nelson: Yeah. One of the big things for me is try to let people have an opinion and a say in what we’re doing, and even to some extent letting them chart their own way because I think, well, once you get to a certain size, you’re forced into that a little bit. But for me, if I was trying to dictate every single decision it would crater on itself, right? So, trying to get to a point where you’re asking people questions and encouraging them to find the answers themselves and that just has a lot to do with me as a person and how I manage. I’m not a micromanager. People who are self-starters work a lot better with me because we’ll put something out and then we expect people to take it and run with it. And so that’s been really helpful for us and that we kind of let our best GMs and our best upper level managers be themselves and make their own decisions and hopefully, you know, we say this with our chefs too like, I’m not going to come in and tell you exactly what you’re serving because I want you to enjoy your job, I want you to come in thinking about what you want to change, what you want to make your own. And so doing that has really helped us, I think keeping people engaged and keeping them there for a long time because they know if they’ve got an idea or something they want to do that, you know, we’ll support them in doing it—within reason.
Eric Chupp: You said giving people freedom, right? And letting them do that kind of stuff. We interviewed on the show that were involved with the Thrivetime show and we interviewed a guy named Horst Schulze—he’s the founder of the Ritz Carlton. And it was an awesome interview. He’s a guy from Germany and just a wise old man. It was great. And one of the things he said that stuck with me, he said that you’re looking for those A players and what you have to remember is somebody being an A player means they’ve earned the right to make a mistake, right? And so you got to give them that freedom and you’ve got to understand that they are going to make those mistakes. You can’t freak out on then because you gave them that leash. So let them go a little bit and learn from their mistakes. I think that’s a powerful thing that you touched on.
Elliot Nelson: Yeah, were really slow to fire people. And it’s just part of back to my own personality, but you know, people make a mistake. If you’ve already invested years of time with them and gotten to where you are and then they make a mistake. And I think there’s so many people that say well you got a firearm that they screwed this up. But you know, where does that leave you?
Eric Chupp: Right. How about talk to them, educate them, help them, manage them, mentor them, right?
Elliot Nelson: Yeah because chances are they know that made a mistake, right? So…
Eric Chupp: And they didn’t set out to make that mistake. It wasn’t nefarious. They’re like, “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, I’m going to screw over Elliot today. That’s my goal.”
Elliot Nelson: Eric, are you going to share that beer, or what’s your plan?
Eric Chupp: It’s a serve your own in the snug here. You just gotta reach… Um, touching back to that thousand employees—you know, all the irons, you have a ton of irons in the fire—like there’s so much going on. How important is just time management overall to the success you’ve had?
Elliot Nelson: You know, it’s one of my weak points, so—maybe not as important as it should be. You know, I’ve gotten to a point now, it’s interesting my life now, if we have projects going on, I’m very busy and if we don’t, you know—well, I say that—I have a lot of nonprofit boards I’m on, I think I’m on six different boards right now. So, you know, I’m busy all the time doing stuff in the community. But I think that, you know, unless we’re in a new project or a crisis, you know, my days can be pretty slow, but then you realize when that crisis hits, you know, that’s where I earn my money. Right?
Eric Chupp: Right.
Elliot Nelson: That’s why I’m still there.
Eric Chupp: That’s a good thing that your days not busy because now that you have the time that you can invest in that.
Elliot Nelson: And your are really running, you know, all the time, meeting to meeting to meeting, which can happen. I mean, you know, there’ll be a week that goes by where I have 50 meetings and you’ll be exhausted. But you realize when you do that, you’re not prepared to deal with those crisis’ when they happen, right? You’re too mentally worn down. And so to me it’s making sure there’s enough time to, you know, stay acute…
Eric Chupp: You got that bandwidth.
Elliot Nelson: When those people really need me to step up and do something then I’m there and mentally and able to do it.
Marshall Morris: One of the very first places that I ever had Marshall, different types of Marshall beer was McNellies, you know, and I thought that was a really cool place and for a little while. I thought that was the only place that I could get it.
Elliot Nelson: We tried to make it look that way. That was the plan.
Eric Marshall: Elliot was certainly, I mean he was the earliest factor…
Marshall Morris: So Eric, I wanted to ask you like how cool was that development of the relationship, the partnership, the friendship between the two of you guys? Because you guys have really grown simultaneously in a lot of different areas to help grow Tulsa. But you know, from just going back there with your fraternity brothers and saying, “Hey, we got to talk to this guy.” What was that like and how has that developed over the past couple of years?
Eric Marshall: Yeah, I mean, I think this is cool. I get to do a lot of different interviews, but I don’t get to do a lot of different interviews with Elliot. So it’s giving me a chance to kind of brag on him with him here. But, he was very key in kind of being in the guy to say, “Hey man, timing is right. You need to do this.” Because I had this plan in my head of, hey, I’m going to go to Germany for a little while, I want to work at a larger craft brewery in the US and then maybe want to go get some time in a brewpub. And spend some time… I was working at a brewery in Pennsylvania and we just kind of kept in contact and he was like, “Man, timing is right.” And so while I made the joke earlier about, you know, when everything was melting down, it was just a wonderful time to start a brewery.
Elliot Nelson: And that was my fault?
Eric Marshall: No, no, no. It really, you know, when you look at it from that perspective, yeah, it was a crazy time. But back here, I mean, it kind of help shelter some of that Tulsa time and Oklahoma time was right. And I don’t think I would’ve jumped on when I jumped had it not been for him. And he was very helpful. I think a lot of people, obviously we make a beer called McNellie’s Pub Ale and that was more of a tip of the hat. But I think a lot of people are like, oh yeah, that’s a McNellie’s brewery isn’t it? I think people have gotten that all the time. I’m sure you could probably probably say the same thing, but the way the laws are, he can’t have a part of what we’ve got going on. And so it literally was out of the goodness of his heart and also wanting to, to see these things for Tulsa. He talked about it earlier, you know, I’m passionate about Tulsa. People who don’t know Elliot, I will tell you firsthand, there’s not a bigger cheerleader for the city of Tulsa than Elliot. And the things that he’s built and that he’s done is incredible. And it really is. I mean, it’s not rare to see him. I mean, hell, I think the last two times I’ve been into Hideaway, Elliot’s behind me telling me, hey, you need to your, what are you doing here? And we’re on the same donuts scheduled too for some reason. But…
Elliot Nelson: Steve and Amy, over at 19th and Harvard. We go over and see them at Daylight Donuts.
Marshall Morris: Exactly.
Eric Chupp: Shoutout.
Eric Marshall: But, no, I mean, early on, early adopter and you know, they’re the first place we sold our beer. So that’s why I made the joke earlier that all these major events in my life that have happened as adult, I can thank him for.
Eric Chupp: When you lost your virginity. Oh no, not that.
Eric Marshall: But, I mean, to see that sort of go, I mean obviously the first time we sold beer, all of these places, they’ve been great customers of ours, and then also then to be able to work on the Elgin Park project together. I mean it was kind of bringing everything, but even in building the taproom, I mean he was the first person that was like, let me tell you some of the mistakes that I made that, you know, don’t spend a bunch of money here. That’s bullsh*t. You need to do this.
Elliot Nelson: Try to get him to put a rooftop patio on and sort of Mexican food and he wouldn’t do it.
Eric Chupp: Add two more stories.
Elliot Nelson: But here’s what you’re doing wrong.
Eric Marshall: You know, the beer garden that we’re building out back was 100% Elliot’s idea. You took a look at it and was like, “No, no, no, no, no. Why are you trying to do this? I’m going to tell you this and hopefully it doesn’t kill the beer garden at Fassler, but if it does, I don’t give a sh*t. I’m going to come drink beer here. You need to do this.” And so I mean that’s a testament to the guy that he is, that he really does want to see cool sh*t happen here and understands that building that up builds the neighborhood up and in turn, you know, builds his businesses. And so, I mean, you’re not going to meet a bigger fan of Elliot Nelson.
Eric Chupp: Right here. We got two more.
Eric Marshall: Honestly, I mean he’s been a great friend and just from that first time going to his place to develop a friendship that we have and I mean he’s a dear friend and has been very helpful and in everything that’s been built.
Eric Chupp: Well, there’s no more Eric or Marshall’s or Eric Marshall’s than in this room right now that are Elliot Nelson fans. So, you had touched on it a minute ago. The housing, the housing is a big issue. What are maybe one or two more limiting factors for Tulsa’s growth that you see?
Elliot Nelson: I mean, are our biggest issues is cities that we don’t have a four year public university. Just, that’s it.
Eric Chupp: Warren Ross said the exact same thing.
Marshall Morris: It’s exactly what he said.
Elliot Nelson: Warren and I are good friends and it’s a problem. If you look at Oklahoma City versus Tulsa. Between OU and then University of Central Oklahoma, I think they’re churning out 6,500 public university bachelor degrees every year into that metro area. And we’re producing, I mean, I want to say OSU Tulsa is doing a couple of hundred and those couple of hundred OSU Tulsa are generally nontraditional students. So you’re talking about people who are later in life, maybe already into a career who are going back to school. So you know, the difference and what that does for an economy is huge. And, I know that the new president of the University of Oklahoma is adamant about doing more in Tulsa. He’s talked about having a 10,000 student campus here. If we get that done, it would be huge.
Eric Chupp: It’d be big.
Elliot Nelson: Yeah. And I think that energy that all those young people provide is hard to replicate in any other place. And so I’ve always looked at that as being our biggest challenge.
Eric Chupp: Cool. I got to ask you a question. This may be off limits or maybe like trying to pick your favorite kid, but what’s one of your favorite restaurants? Do you have a favorite that’s yours?
Elliot Nelson: McNellie’s, it’s still my favorite place. You know, it has a lot to do with just how I feel about a pub.
Eric Chupp: To the roots.
Elliot Nelson: If it were up to me, I’d just be in a pub all the time.
Eric Chupp: Well that’s why that’s were glad to have you here in this Snug.
Elliot Nelson: Yeah. Right.
Eric Chupp: It’s pretty fitting right?
Elliot Nelson: Yeah.
Marshall Morris: Well, I want to ask you if you were looking back on 25-year-old Elliot Nelson and…
Eric Chupp: You’re having a beer in a pub with him.
Marshall Morris: Yeah. You’re having a beer with him and you’re giving advice to him, what kind of advice would you be giving him?
Elliot Nelson: Go to law school. Get an oil and gas business? You know, for me all of this feels so real time like it’s, you know, people only have so many employees now. You guys are so big. Like to me, man, I’m just still a small business. I mean, I get a cash report every week. I mean, I’m still managing week to week a cash balance, you know, it’s like, so it’s not, I mean I’ve learned a lot along the way and I mentor a lot of people and you know, but ultimately you get to a point where how much conviction do you have and your own beliefs and ideas and that person back then 25-year-old me, I think would have better advice for me than I did for him. And that is because at that age, I just, I didn’t think there was anything in the world I couldn’t do. And now at this point, I know enough to know their limitations and it drives me nuts. And I’m going through a process right now. We’re working on a massive development downtown. It’s going to be anywhere from $100 to $200 million odd projects. And you know, there, there’s a piece of me that says, can you really do this? Whereas if you’d asked that guy, he would have told you absolutely. And now I’ve got kids, right? And I gotta worry about how I’m going to send my kids to college and how I’m going to pay my mortgage and all these other things. And that makes you more risk averse. Right? And there’s a piece of me that wishes I didn’t have that I just had that absolute conviction and myself still to pull off anything. And I do. It just takes longer to get there. Right? And you build in your own governor I guess, but luckily I’ve got good parents, good family, and an amazing wife. And so I haven’t done any, you know, stupid on ethical sh*t over the years. It’s gotten me a lot of trouble that I need to go back and tell that guy about, you know, so back to the future moment. Put on a bulletproof vest. So I had a really good guiding force in my life with those people and it just to conviction and that all this was to contribute to a greater good. Right. And so that helps. But, you know, outside of get a better set of blueprints on El Guapos and a hard set of bids. I’m not, I’m not sure…
Eric Chupp: Don’t transpose those two numbers. That one thing!
Elliot Nelson: Right. Yeah, yeah, that’s right.
Eric Chupp: Well, what’s something, what’s something that you’re into these days and people might not know outside of work, outside of development and the restaurant’s hearing and all that. Are you in anything that people don’t know about?
Elliot Nelson: Man, I wish I was, you know, the…
Marshall Morris: You said you like music? Are you into the Tulsa music scene? Or the concerts that are coming up?
Elliot Nelson: Man, I can’t stay up that late anymore that anymore to keep track. I mean, back 5, 10 years ago. Yeah, I would have been, you know. Unfortunately this year my big music events, just going to see the Stones, but I’m taking my kids because I’m like, man, the Stones are going to die. I got a chance to take my kids. I’m almost embarrassed to say what I listen to is somebody told me I just listened to dad rock. So, you know, it’s…
Marshall Morris: Okay. But what is that?
Elliot Nelson: I was told it’s too soft, you know, so.
Eric Chupp: You don’t want to be angry anymore. You got kids.
Elliot Nelson: Well, you know, one of my coworkers sent me the Greta Van Fleet album and said you need to get back into this, you need to reacquaint with that Led Zepplin piece of yourself as opposed to this like pseudo, soft rock, folksy thing that’s it’s going on that seems kind of sad. Yeah, no, otherwise what I meant, I travel a lot still. That’s still, to me, there’s so much about just seeing the world and seeing other cultures and meeting new people and, and taking those ideas and cultivating them and letting them kind of roll around in your head and figuring out, okay, from all the stuff you’re out seeing in the world, what can you bring back home and tweak and change and add to that will make Tulsa a better place to live. So I spent a lot of time traveling every year because that’s what I’m passionate about is just keeping my mind going on what’s out there.
Eric Marshall: I mean that’s gotta be why you opened McNellie’s where you opened it. Right? Having lived in a European city where the town is the focus of…
Elliot Nelson: Well, it’s more about New York for me. Right? And I love McSorley’s. I don’t if you’ve ever…
Eric Chupp: Yeah, I’ve been there.
Elliot Nelson: So McSorley’s to me, my bachelor party, I spent at McSorley’s. I was there 12 hours with just a group of guys. We just sat there…
Eric Chupp: That’s the place with the smaller beers.
Eric Marshall: Light or dark.
Elliot Nelson: We just sat there at a big table in the back and just drank all day. It was a great day. And there’s a couple of pubs in Chicago too that I attribute this to, but so when I left for college, I thought I was just going to keep going and at some point I would be living in New York and putting on a suit and riding the train to work every day. Right? And then at some point, you know, I guess I thought I would be doing that as an attorney and decided maybe that’s not what I wanted to do and, but I still have this vision of these bars I’ve been in New York and Chicago at five o’clock and that to me was the absolute best time to be in one of those bars cause everybody just got off work. They’re excited, they’re still dressed up and things are still happening. And I looked at a city here where that didn’t exist and…
Eric Marshall: At all.
Elliot Nelson: And that’s my downtown for me.
Eric Marshall: I always joke, it’s like as a kid, like you went to downtown, if you work downtown, you went there for that obviously. But you went to church and you went to May fest once a year.
Eric Chupp: Yeah. That was my life. Right?
Eric Marshall: And like when you went to May fest, once you turned 16 like you had to find a pay phone and call mom immediately and let her know you made it safely. Then you had to call her when you left and then…
Elliot Nelson: Are you too young to remember the ice skating rink? Did you not go ice skating down there?
Eric Marshall: Oh, I got a scar on my knee from…
Elliot Nelson: I got one on my shin!
Eric Marshall: I got a scar on my knee from the stitches I got from a screw hanging out of the board.
Eric Chupp: Scar brothers.
Eric Marshall: Yeah, scar brothers.
Eric Chupp: Nice. Well, hey, I got one more question for you here. If we wrap things up. I appreciate you being here with us. You had touched on maybe this new downtown development, but is there something that you’re working on right now that’s, that you’re most excited about? Something new. What’s coming next?
Elliot Nelson: So, we’ve got a handful of new concepts. I am working on recapitalizing again and go on to the next level. I have 29 projects on my dry erase board, my office that I’m working on it and…
Eric Chupp: Eric’s like, “What the f*ck?”
Eric Marshall: He doesn’t sleep.
Elliot Nelson: It’s a disease, but we have a handful of new concepts we’re doing. I will say, we’re building a Fassler Hall in St Louis. And it’s in this 1920s foundry they’re redeveloping and we’re right next to Punch Bowl Social and across the way from an Alamo Draft House. So it’s right in this big new building. It’s going to be really cool, but there’s this canopy on this whole foundry. It looks like Churchill Downs’ overhang and that’s going to be the beer garden for the Fassler Hall. That has to be the very center of the development and the only real outdoor space. And I’m really excited about that. It’s going to be cool. And I think we’ve gotten to a point now where we look at Tulsa and we’ve for so long everything we’ve been focused on is how do we make Tulsa a better place to live. And we still have a handful of those projects on the board and that I can’t talk about.
Eric Chupp: We’ll just keep it between us!
Elliot Nelson: But, now I’ve got this idea in my head that I’m really excited to take the cool sh*t we’ve built in Tulsa and export it to other cities. Like, you know, if we go to St. Louis and we build a Fassler Hall and we build a Bull in the Alley—which we might do too—and those are the coolest things in that development. And we exported things from Tulsa into a major city, and we’re the coolest thing there. I mean, that’s something to really be proud of…
Eric Chupp: Well the only thing I ask you is that you put a picture of Eric and Marshall and myself.
Elliot Nelson: Yeah that’s right. Well, we need Eric to start shipping beer to St. Louis. Yeah, so we’re excited to export Tulsa and I think that’s one of the things for our staff and our, especially those people that become partners in the business we’re fired up to take the things that we’ve learned here and a send them around the country.
Eric Chupp: Well that’s awesome man. Thank you so much for coming in.
Elliot Nelson: Thank you.
Eric Chupp: We had a blast. It was great to meet you. Let’s cheers on our way out fellas. Eric Marshall, and Eliot Nelson everybody. Thank you very much!