Mike Zislis has built an empire.
He and the Zislis Group, which includes his mysterious, seldom seen brother Dave, have largely remade downtown Manhattan Beach. The Shade Hotel is the cornerstone of the thriving Metlox Plaza development and has proven to be as much a community gathering point as it is a hotel. Zislis restaurants include Rock ‘n Fish, Mucho Ultima, and the recently opened and startlingly ambitious Strand House.
His understanding of successful South Bay highlife is so unparalleled that the city of Redondo Beach’s hopes of revitalizing its harbor hinge greatly upon the Shade Hotel, slated to open there in two years. If Zislis builds it, the reasoning goes, people will come.
His is an empire built on beer, one that began taking shape when he was a 13-year-old boy in Rolling Hills appropriating, empty five gallon Pepsi kegs in order to make home brews.
“I was at the orthodontist’s office and saw in Popular Science a beer kit for $15,” Zislis said. “I went to the post office and mail-ordered it and started making beer. I kind of had to convince my parents it was an algae experiment, but it was strictly for drinking reasons. By the time I was in college, I was a good brewer.”
He was hooked. Zislis is a natural-born entrepreneur. Business ideas seem to bounce out of his mind like popcorn – and so when he graduated from USC, he naturally gravitated to a beer business. In 1989, Zislis opened Manhattan Beach Brew Company. He brewed his own beer using recipes he’d been developing since his teenage experiments.
Opening day was on July 4 and coincided with an AVP Volleyball tournament. His beer was brewed, fermented, and in serving tanks, but he couldn’t get them out of the tap. They were supposed to open at noon and people were banging on the door as Zislis furiously worked the clamps and hoses he’d bought that morning from Pep Boys trying to stave off an emergency. At 12:40 p.m., the beer finally flowed, and a crowd swarmed in.
“That was the first day I realized, a. I was on to something, and b. I had to change my concept,” Zislis said. He tried to open with a minimal staff, relying on orders by numbers. “This was my first restaurant. I knew nothing.”
The brewery quickly became one of the top 10 producing breweries in the state. Lines formed outside almost every night for six months. He opened up the Redondo Beach Brewing Company three years later.
“I can’t tell you how many nights I drove home with red socks, or brown socks, from spilling beer back there, getting pulled over by police and thinking, ‘Uh oh, I got a drunk one here,’” Zislis said. “And me pulling out my business card, saying, ‘I am a brewer. That is what you smell.”
His beers were named after local landmarks – Dominator Wheat, Rat Beach Red, and Buccaneer Porter – and his empire was off and running. He launched a construction company and brewing institute called Bohemian Brewing and built more than 80 brewpubs all over the country.
The brewpub craze did not last, although Zislis’ own pubs did. “A lot of the brewpubs failed because the food sucked. You have to have good food,” Zislis said. “That is something I have always prided my places on.”
In fact, his early success is what enabled Zislis to begin understand food better.
“Beer first,” he said. “Then, I made money selling beer, and I got to dine out, and I got to travel a lot. I was building about 48 breweries a year around the world.”
By the time things died down in the brewpub world, he’d started opening his other restaurants, and finally, the crown jewel of his expanding holdings, Shade Hotel. But deep in his heart, he always knew he’d return to his first love, beer.
Rock & Brew, his new restaurant in El Segundo, is Zislis’ vehicle for going global. The restaurant is the condensation, he says, of everything he’s learned in the last 23 years. His partners are Gene Simmons, lead singer of KISS, and Dave Furnano, a rock promoter famed for managing tours by Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Doors, and the Allman Brothers.
Rock & Brew opened in 2010, testing the waters for the concept of a rock-themed beer garden (with 52 taps of craft beers served at two temperatures) serving thoughtful but unpretentious food. It was so immediately successful that earlier this year Zislis invested more than $3 million in the concept. The LA Times called Rock & Brew “the surest sign yet that the craft beer concept has gained mass acceptance in Los Angeles.”
Franchises are soon opening in Redondo Beach, Cabo San Lucas, and LAX, and company-owned venues in Maui and Kansas City. Two things drive the concept, in Zislis’ mind: each store will support small, craft breweries and food vendors. And each will use a menu that amounts to his life’s work as restaurateur.
“I am a small businessman,” Zislis said. “I just love supporting the Shitake Happens guy who sells me my mushrooms, and the local breweries. To these guys, that $1,000 check for the beer pays for the lights, pays the rent. So it’s nice to have these local vendors.”
Every Rock & Brew will serve 24 beers from the area in which it is located.
“I am very beer-centric,” Zislis said. “I am, ultimately, a beer guy.”
Rock & Brew, 143 Main St., El Segundo, (310)615-9890. Brewco (formerly Manhattan Brew Co.), 124 Manhattan Beach Blvd, (310) 798-2744. Redondo Beach Brewing Co., 1814 S. Catalina Ave., RB, (310)316-8477