Ben Berg’s World — New Restaurants, a Move Into the Greater Heights and Plenty of Excitement
New Yorker Turned Houstonian Does Not Believe in Slowing Down — a Restaurateur on the MoveBY Shelby Hodge // 04.28.21
Benjamin Berg arrived in Houston in 2011 to begin his hospitality career that has catapulted into an ever-growing restaurant empire. (Photo by Leah Wilson)
Benjamin Berg and chef Robert Del Grande at B&B Butchers & Restaurant during the barbecue fundraiser for restaurant workers displaced by COVID-19. (Photo by Daniel Ortiz)
Benjamin Berg launches his Houston restaurant empire in 2015 with a blowout party honoring Becca Cason Thrash and supporters of Best Buddies. (Photo by Fulton Davenport)
The three amigos of Turner's and The Annie Café & Bar — Sam Governale, Chef Robert Del Grande, Ben Berg — celebrating at the opening. (Photo by Jacob Power)
Monica & Ben Berg share a moment at The Annie Café & Bar re-imagining of Café Annie opening in 2019. (Photo by Jacob Powers)
Benjamin Berg is honored by Houston Fire Fighters at the Red Hot Gala in November 2020. (Photo by Michelle Watson CatchlightGroup.com)
Benjamin Berg, Lou Savarese at the opening of B.B. Italia Kitchen & Bar. (Photo by Daniel Ortiz)
The 43-year-old Benjamin Berg is mid-stride in building a restaurant/hospitality empire (Photo by Leah Wilson)
Benjamin Berg saunters into his eponymous Berg Hospitality headquarters around 10 am midweek, his nonchalance belying the pressure of running an ever-expanding restaurant empire in the midst of a pandemic. But make no mistake. Beneath the cool countenance, this is one tough guy whose energy is sourced from an unexpected creative bent.
He has been up since 4:15 am, his reveille before sunrise necessary for a daily boxing workout in a downtown gym after which he heads back to his Memorial area home, cleans up, takes his son to school, stops off at Starbuck’s for venti iced coffee, and heads to the office where things are always ginning.
With six restaurants (B&B Butchers in Houston and Fort Worth, The Annie Café, etc..) plus the ghost kitchen in his stable, three new upcoming restaurants recently revealed and hints at future projects, Berg is clearly a man who does not sit still.
“I just have so much fun coming up with concepts. Some people say ‘Oh, why don’t you just take one and go with it.’ But that doesn’t seem as much fun to me,” he tells PaperCity. “I enjoy coming up with the concepts and doing different things. The creative side of it.”
Currently in the works are Trattoria Sofia at 911 W. 11th Street and a live-fire steakhouse in The Docks at Timbergrove , 2505 W. 11th Street, his first entries into the burgeoning greater Heights area, and the NoPo Café Market & Bar in the same development as Berg Hospitality headquarters at 1244 N. Post Oak Road.
Of Trattoria Sofia, named for his eldest daughter, Berg says, “I love the building and we wanted to do a rustic Italian concept. And when The Presidio (a closed restaurant site) was proposed to me, I really liked the building. Obviously in the middle of COVID, I liked the huge patio . . .
“We’re going to do something really, really special there on the patio. The aim is to do one thing and really knock it out. The goal is to have the most beautiful patio, covered, Italian, romantic, very private. It’s going to be pretty cool.”
The patio, to be shrouded in olive trees and other greenery, will seat 80 while inside a large bar and table space will handle 64. Sofia’s scheduled to open at the end of June.
As for the Timbergrove steakhouse, yet to be named, it is expected to open in early 2022. “I just saw that building and it looked like the Meat Packing District in New York from 1992 and we could do something very cool in there and we already had some chefs in mind,” Ben Berg says.
In April, Berg Hospitality moved its headquarters to developer Robert Clay‘s North Post Oak Road development, where the NoPo Cafe Market & Bar will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner with the market designed to provide staples to nearby residents. Not familiar with NoPo?
That’s Berg’s playful acronym for the east Spring Branch neighborhood, north of I-10 and west of The Heights. Clay suggested the addition as there is little nearby to serve his office complex or nearby Awty International School. The cafe with full bar will open the first of June.
Ben Berg not only thrives on creating new restaurants, but he also grooves on the results.
“The excitement of seeing people. You can stand back in a restaurant and see the action and the atmosphere. Just to see that like a perfect show going on. Like it’s a concert,” Berg says. “And it’s like Wow! We created this. The happy faces. People bustling. The energy makes me tick. When you have that energy, I love it.”
Who Is Ben Berg?
After growing up in New York and attending the Ivy League prep school Collegiate in Manhattan, Berg continued his education at Tulane University in New Orleans and ultimately earned his masters in hospitality management from Cornell but not before some very basic training while he pondered his future.
Berg began his hospitality career as a bellman at The Point, a Relais & Chateaux property on New York’s Saranac Lake, and the posh Lake Placid Lodge. He eventually moved to the front desk at Lake Placid and became friends with food and beverage head Mark Stebbings, now the GM at Miraval Arizona, who continues to be Berg’s mentor today.
“When you start at The Point, which at the time was the number one small hotel, you learn at the top, top, top,” Berg says.
After earning that master’s degree and earning his chops at restaurants in New York, we fast forward to 2011 when Berg arrived in Houston from New York City with his wife and three young children in tow. The decision to move to Houston was an easy one, he says. Wife Monica, who grew up in Mexico, was very familiar with the Bayou City and she wanted a house with a yard for their youngsters. Also, Berg’s best friend and their son’s godfather had taken a job at Baker Botts.
Through New York connections, Berg walked in as GM at Smith & Wollensky Steakhouse where he mastered the Houston restaurant landscape over close to three years before moving on to create B&B Butchers & Restaurant.
“My plan in coming down here,” he recalls, “I wanted my own restaurants.”
So in 2014, he left the security of corporate hospitality and went out on his own and opened B&B Butchers & Restaurant in 2015. His plan called for this to be just the beginning.
Berg also engaged his sense of community and duty as evidenced in his quick action during Hurricane Harvey. Despite the fact that his home flooded in the 2017 disaster, he opened B&B in order to feed first responders for free. In 2018 and 2019, his four restaurants again fed first responders for free on Labor Day in commemoration of their dedication during the historic Harvey flooding. When the COVID pandemic shut down restaurant dining rooms last year and put his team out of work, Berg Hospitality hosted several drive-thru barbecue fundraisers for his restaurant staff.
“It’s part of hospitality. You always give to your customers. You give to your guests and it seems to make sense to give back to your community that has been so supportive of you,” he says. “When you’re in the position to do it, it feels right. Especially for the company and the staff.
“Everybody knows what we do and I think it makes them proud. And Houston is definitely one of those cities where people like to say thank you and they recognize it too which is nice.”
Berg’s generosity of spirit extends to his 320 employees. He sends each one a hand-written card and a Starbucks or Chick-fil-A gift card on their birthdays. No small gesture considering the ever-expanding size of his operation.
After the myriad daily meetings regarding new concepts for restaurant designs, menus and kitchens and upgrade meetings for current designs, Berg begins his day’s end at B&B Butchers & Restaurant and then B.B. Lemon and works his way west through his various properties.
He also checks OpenTable to see if there are any guests that he would like to say hello to at the restaurants. He plans his evenings around stopping by those tables. Then he heads home, spends some time with his three children (Sofia, Emilia and Diego) and his wife, looks at his schedule for the next day, and then goes to bed, perhaps dreaming of what is next for Berg Hospitality.
As for his future plans? “It’s just finding the right spot,” he says. “There is no end game. Not yet.”