Building an Empire

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Randy Schoch Weathers the Storms

By Allison Schaefers

RESTAURATEUR RANDY SCHOCH ARRIVED in Honolulu 35 years ago with just $125 in his pocket, but the 19-year-old surfer’s head was filled with big dreams.

While busing tables for $3.50 an hour in Southern California, Schoch had read about Victoria Station owner Dick Bradley’s success in an employee manual and visualized his own achievements.

“I thought to myself, I want to be the top guy,” recalls the now 54-year-old Schoch during one of several interviews throughout his harried day as the founder and chief executive officer of Desert Island Restaurants LLC.

By his early 30s, the self-described “mediocre student from a middle-class neighborhood” had transformed himself into a restau- rant owner and millionaire, who counted Bradley among his many friends. A few years later, Schoch nearly lost everything.

“There are three kinds of CEOs: Those who are going to fall, those that are falling or those who have fallen and are on their way up,” Schoch says, having experienced all three stages.

After arriving in Hawai’i, he was turned down for several busboy jobs before being hired at the Bistro on Kapi’olani Boulevard. He paid $10 weekly to sleep on the floor of a Hawaii Kai home, and pooled resources to buy a 1968 Chevy Nova for $100.

He worked his way up to the Bistro’s assistant manager position before leaving to run Raffles at the Wailea Beach Hotel on Maui. In the 1980s, Schoch returned to O’ahu to become general manager of Nick’s Fishmarket.

“I shook a lot of hands and made a lot of friends,” he says, noting he still only had about $1,200 in the bank when he bought half of Nick’s Fishmarket for $250,000. He cites retired Bank of Hawaii CEO Larry Johnson and the late Chris Hemmeter among the restaurant patrons who coached him.

Before long, Schoch’s success afforded him the opportunity to buy a $1.8 million dream home in Hawaii Loa Ridge. He kept rising until he expanded his restaurant holdings to include The Black Orchid, a 1980s Honolulu hotspot for celebrities and wannabes that did not survive the 1990s recession.

“I made my first million by age 30 and by age 34 I had lost my first $950,000,” he admits, adding, “The IRS couldn’t understand how someone could be so stupid.”

Schoch left Hawai’i in 1995 to work as an executive with Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Arizona. For some, the story might end there.

However, Schoch is the kind of guy “who turns pineapples into pineapple juice,” says longtime friend Linda Fernandez, president and CEO of Fun Factory Inc. and Fernandez Enter- tainment Inc.

“He’s a survivor and a fighter,” chimes Hawai’i entertainer Cecilio Rodriguez.

Today, Schoch splits his time between Arizona and Hawai’i, developing new restaurant concepts and overseeing the opera- tions of five franchised Ruth’s Chris Steak House and two Romano’s Macaroni Grill restaurants in the isles, as well as the Thaifoon-Taste of Asia and Ling & Louie’s Asian Bar and Grill restaurants located throughout the western United States.

“By the end of 2013, we want to operate 100 full-service restaurants,” Schoch says, adding that he has scouted locations on Kaua’i and O’ahu’s west side, but nothing is firm.

“He is someone who realizes the mistakes that he has made and doesn’t make them a second time,” says Andy Friedlander, co-founder of Monroe & Friedlander commercial real estate companies.

Schoch’s savvy, Friedlander points out, made Ruth’s Chris Steak House restaurants profitable in Hawai’i.

“The former owner Paul Fleming did not make a go of it, but Randy turned it around and expanded it,” he adds.

Schoch says that he was better prepared for the recession that appears to be ending, as well as the downturn in visitor traffic due to the Japan tsunami. He beams proudly when stating that he wasn’t forced to close a restaurant nor lay anyone off.

“Chalk it up to lessons learned,” he concludes.

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