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VOL. 9 | NO. 22 | Saturday, May 28, 2016

Baker Family Keeps Owen Brennan’s Going

By Don Wade

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If you show up on a Sunday for Owen Brennan’s famous brunch, owner Jim Baker will be there to greet you, to say your name and smile at the thought of another round of mimosas being ordered.

Family influences can be seen everywhere at Owen Brennan's. The restaurant has built a loyal following of customers over the years and is going stronger than ever today in the heart of East Memphis. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

On Mother’s Day, the restaurant went through 30 cases of champagne. Some 1,500 people were served. And brunch goes for $40 a head.

So, yes, business is good.

But at most any time day or night, you would find some member of the Baker family at the restaurant and that’s the way it has been from the beginning – always, a personal touch.

“We hung out in the restaurant and met the regulars,” Jim’s daughter, Becky Baker Crucifixio, said of the way she and her brothers Austin and Lawson grew up.

They got into the usual kid mischief – running around when they shouldn’t have, breaking too many glasses. They even got their brush with fame when a scene from the movie “The Firm” was filmed there.

“I got Tom Cruise’s autograph,” said Crucifixio, now 32, and catering manager at Owen Brennan’s. “I thought it was pretty cool to meet him as a young girl.”

“The Firm,” inspired by John Grisham’s book of the same name, was filmed in 1993. The scene at the restaurant had Cruise and Gene Hackman meeting for a business lunch.

But when Baker recounts the restaurant’s history, he does not volunteer a detailed memory of “The Firm” being filmed there. For him, the real drama came earlier.

He had opened Owen Brennan’s in 1990 under a partnership of investors. Chef and TV personality Burt Wolf and Baker and the other investors had approached the Brennan’s Restaurant family in 1989 and obtained a license to open a New Orleans-style restaurant in Memphis.

Wolf, in fact, selected the site where the restaurant still is today: 6150 Poplar Ave. in East Memphis. Wolf also was the general partner in the deal.

I always see things I could do. I'd like to expand my patio so I could have big weddings out there.”

–Jim Baker, Owner, Owen Brennan's

Baker had come to the venture after leaving the securities business. And he did not originally intend a financial career. He graduated then-Memphis State in 1977 with a degree in chemistry and physics. But after he discovered there was a limited future there, he changed fields.

After several years in the securities business, he says he put $2 million of his own money into the restaurant.

Less than a year into it, Baker became concerned about where things were headed and he bought out Wolf’s share and became the general partner and formed a new partnership. Fast forward to 2005, and Baker and his son Austin bought out all investors and formed a new limited partnership; Baker is 95 percent owner of the restaurant and Austin owns 5 percent.

“I’m not the smartest guy in the room,” said Baker, 65, “but I’m persistent, persistent. And I’ve got good taste buds.”

Not an insignificant quality as a restaurant owner. Owen Brennan’s has been around more than 25 years, far exceeding any kind of normal restaurant lifespan. During that time, Baker has overseen expansions, rode out a hard recession, and most recently embraced technology to capture a larger share of the corporate market.

Walking around the restaurant one morning before the first lunch customers have come in to order favorite dishes such as Alli-gouda Mac & Cheese (yes, that’s alligator sausage) or Voodoo Chicken Pasta, Baker shows off his many flat screen televisions, cameras, and sound system. He invested $100,000 in the technology, and now a corporate executive can stand in one place near the bar, a camera trained on him or her, and every employee all over the 440-seat restaurant can see and hear all.

“That’s an interesting twist I haven’t seen anywhere else,” Baker said.

He will also call upon his chemistry background to get a new recipe just right and still gets there first thing in the morning several days a week. He grew up on a farm. Or he says, “Grew up with a strong work ethic.”

Crucifixio loves the Cajun food and the New Orleans décor – “you can’t go anywhere else in Memphis and find that look,” she said – but she believes it is the consistency of the family being there and knowing their customers and treating their employees right that has yielded sustained success.

“We lucked out on the location. It’s a beautiful establishment,” she said. “But one of us is usually always here. We remember (customers’) names, find out their likes and dislikes. We want to hear what you have to say. That’s helped us a great deal.”

And they’re not done yet.

“I always see things I can do,” Baker said. “I’d like to expand my patio so I could have big weddings out there.”

Crucifixio watches the next generation of kids running around the restaurant the way she and her brothers once did and doesn’t want to imagine a time when it will be any different.

“I enjoy what we’re doing,” she said. “Hopefully, our kids will be growing up in here.”

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