Today we’d like to introduce you to Brent Harman.
Brent – please kick things off for us. Where does this story begin?
The Harman family purchased one restaurant from Sonny Bryan in 1989. It was Sonny’s only restaurant and, besides his wife and two sons, it was his love and passion. The company has grown well beyond Sonny’s original store and has built seven more restaurants and a full-service catering division. Since 1989 the growth of the company has been a family endeavor, but the tradition of family goes back way beyond the twenty-eight years the Harman’s have owned it. In fact, it goes back almost 100 years. To understand the family tradition of the company you must understand it roots.
It all started on February 13th, 1910.
Elias and Sadie Bryan moved to Oak Cliff from Cincinnati, Ohio in the beginning of the twentieth century. On February 13, 1910 Elias opened his Smokehouse on Centre Street in Oak Cliff. Both of Elias’ sons grew up in the restaurant and followed him into the barbecue business. The younger son, Fred, moved to Los Angeles and opened a restaurant in the Farmer’s Market. The Bryan’s elder son, named William Jennings Bryan after the presidential candidate in 1900, was called Red. Red established the tradition of Bryan men growing up in the barbecue business and trying to leave it for greener pastures.
After graduating from Oak Cliff High School, Red wanted to be a florist. He operated the florist shop over Lamer and Smith Funeral Home on Jefferson Street. Oak Cliff was growing and there was more demand for barbecue than for flowers. So on February 13, 1930 Red Bryan opened his Smokehouse on Jefferson Street. It was a retired interurban car nicknamed “The Tin Shack.” Hamburgers were 5 cents and barbecue sandwiches were 10 cents. The smokehouse was a great success.
The Tin Shack was eventually replaced by a grand edifice. At Jefferson and Llewellyn, Red commissioned the most famous architect in Dallas, Dilbeck, to build the last restaurant of his career. The large ranch style building which opened on February 13, 1947, is still a landmark in Oak Cliff. Red Bryan’s only son, William Jennings Bryan Jr., was called Sonny. He grew up working in the Tin Shack changing the sawdust on Saturday mornings. In keeping with tradition, Sonny dreamed of greener pastures. Sonny went to SMU with hopes of becoming a stockbroker. After a less than successful freshman year, his professor offered him some sage advice, “Find something that you can do and decide to be happy doing it.” Sonny returned to the family business as the manager of Red Bryan’s Smokehouse.
In 1957, Cliff Temple Baptist Church and Tyler Street Methodist Church united to vote Oak Cliff dry. Beer was no longer allowed to be sold in Red Bryan’s. Sonny and his wife Joanne saw this as an opportunity to gain independence and their own stake in Dallas. They sold their home, their 1955 porthole continental kit Thunderbird, and a collection of antique Colt firearms. With $6,500 in capital, Sonny opened his restaurant across the river in “wet” Dallas. Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse first served barbecue on February 13, 1958.
Sonny worked seven days a week for the first twenty-five years. His wisdom handed down to his sons was, “The only smart thing I ever did was to find something I could do, and decide to be happy doing it.” Sonny is remembered as one of the happiest people in Texas. He never expanded beyond the one place that he could manage himself. Sonny’s two sons began washing dishes before they were ten years old. Following the tradition started in 1920, they wanted to do something besides barbecue and they succeeded. William Jennings Bryan III is a United Methodist minister and Dr. Burt Chapman Bryan is a dentist in Coppell, Texas. Sonny died of cancer in 1989, but shortly before his death he sold it to the Harman family. In keeping with the Bryan tradition, they have continued to keep the barbecue business a family affair.
Walker Harman bought the restaurant from Sonny and ran the business for several years. Eventually he hired a president to run the day to day operations. He has remained the Chairman and been actively involved to this day. Walker’s second son, Brent (myself), much like those before him, did not want to go into the barbecue business. I went to college to become an accountant and in 1995 I graduated from University of Texas with an accounting degree. With a really soft job market and after several months of job searching, I reluctantly agreed to “help” open a new Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse location in Grapevine, Texas. I stayed for two years working as the assistant manager and again I left for greener pastures.
I went to graduate school at Baylor with visions of becoming an investment banker and graduated in 1998 with a M.B.A. Newly married and once again searching for the perfect position, I agreed to “help” with the opening of the newest store in Richardson, Texas. I have been with Sonny Bryan’s ever since. I spent the next three years working as a Manager of several of our locations. I served as the Vice President of Operations, Vice President of Development, and was promoted to President and CEO in 2004. Father and son still work closely together on the day to day operations of Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Innovating with new recipes while holding true to traditions like our famous BBQ sauce is one of the biggest challenges. What we’ve found is our fans love the originals, but it’s nice to introduce new things occasionally. We recently introduced a new brisket called Hill Country Brisket to stay relevant.
Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse – what should we know?
Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse has seven DFW area locations. Each restaurant serves up the original Sonny Bryan’s family barbecue recipes and homemade side dishes our fans have come to know and love. All locations offer daily lunch specials, online ordering for quick pick up, and full-service catering options for groups of 10 to 10,000. Tradition and service sets us apart from our competitors, and our delicious smoked BBQ!
Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
The Bryan family is the reason Sonny Bryan’s exists today, so we would be remise in not mentioning them. The same recipes used over a century were brought about thanks to them. Additionally, we have the best employees who keep our restaurants running every single day. Our business wouldn’t be what it is without them.
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