December 4, 2012 - There's a name in this town that makes Long Beach residents, business owners and elected officials react. Like him or not, John Morris has made a dent in this community, starting with the opening of Legends Sports Bar in 1979.
After nearly a decade running a successful operation at Legends in Belmont Shore, Morris opened Mums Restaurant at 144 Pine Ave. in 1988. He served as president of the Downtown Long Beach Associates for several years, working on a revival of the main artery of downtown. In the 1990s, Morris was recognized as one of the most influential businessmen in Long Beach.
He eventually closed Mums and reopened the restaurant as Smooth's Sports Grille, bringing the sports bar concept to Pine Avenue. He closed Smooth's in 2010 and in February 2011 joined McKenna's on the Bay at Alamitos Bay Landing as its manager.
He has since become general manager and a partner in McKenna's, and this year he got re-involved with Legends Sports Bar. Morris sat down with the Business Journal to discuss his entrepreneurial ventures in Long Beach, the bumps in the road along his journey and what it's like to have his business career come full circle.
LBBJ: Some have said you pioneered a revival of Pine Avenue by opening Mum's in the late 1980s. You spent 30 years working on Pine Avenue before closing down Smooth's in 2010 and leaving downtown. Do you think Pine Avenue needs a revival and, if so, what do you think would bring a revival to the street?
Morris: I think at the end of the day the revival for Pine Avenue and all of downtown will be the future development of high-density residential. That's the only real thing that's going to make it all work. And I mean all, not just The Pike or Pine or the East Village.
LBBJ: Have you visited downtown lately?
LBBJ: Have you been to The Promenade?
LBBJ: What do you think about The Promenade and its impact on downtown?
Morris: I think that The Promenade is a project that should really have waited. They should have strengthened the base of Pine Avenue. That was the recommendation for many years by every consultant that came in. They said, "Don't do The Promenade until you solidify and strengthen Pine Avenue." But they did it anyway.
LBBJ: In your 30-plus years of doing business in this city, what would you say has been your biggest disappointment?
Morris: Dealing with the 333.
LBBJ: The 333?
Morris: Ocean Boulevard. Dealing with 333 W. Ocean Blvd. [city hall]. Half a devil.
LBBJ: How would you describe your relationship with the City of Long Beach and its elected leaders?
Morris: Its elected leaders I've fared pretty well with. I think that the staff at city hall over the years is very vindictive. I used to take it personally, but they're very vindictive to everybody unless you're on the inside.
LBBJ: So you don't take it personally anymore?
Morris: Not anymore. Being on this side of town now, I see that they treat everybody that way. It does elevate when my name is involved, but they're very vindictive to everybody, the vast majority of people.
LBBJ: You're now a manager with McKenna's, is that right?
Morris: I've become a partner and I'm the general manager of McKenna's.
LBBJ: What sort of activities and promotions have you been working on with the restaurant?
Morris: The biggest thing I noticed when I arrived here was that there was no connection between the waterfront and the restaurant. It's hard to believe, but it's very true. What I've been working on is activating the waterfront and tying all of these different events into McKenna's. We're using a duffy boat service to pick up people in Naples and the peninsula and bringing them in for dinner by boat. We have dragon boat racing from the dock at McKenna's. We have concerts in our parking lot. In the past 18 months we've had about 10 concerts. It's more about bringing awareness to Alamitos Bay Landing. It's a very underutilized center, and yet it's a gem. I used to hang out here in the 1970s.
LBBJ: Your first business in Long Beach was Legends Sports Bar, and now you're involved with the restaurant once again. How does it feel to come full circle, and what are you doing differently with Legends now that you didn't do when you were there in the '80s?
Morris: It was exciting for me to get back involved as a partner with Legends. It's nice to just be the smiling face of the establishment and let Eric [Johnson], Matt and Dave, the other partners, do the day-to-day operations. I'm just that wonderful face of the place. That's what I like to tell everybody because that's what I really am. I don't have to do anything. I like it.
LBBJ: A little birdy told us that you had an interest or were planning on getting involved with Kelly's in Naples. Is that true?
Morris: We've been negotiating with the principal of Kelly's and it's moving along. I cross my fingers that we pull it off and bring it back to the days of yore, the way it used to be. I hate to even talk about it. I don't want to jinx it.
LBBJ: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Morris: Life is good. I can look outside and look at the seals coming up on the waterfront. I say to myself some days, "Alamitos Bay. Pine Avenue. Hmmm." It's very enjoyable being back on this side of town. I've realized that a lot of my anxiety over the years is due to the fact that when you have to deal with the 333, life isn't good. They can't relate to people in business. They don't have a clue.
LBBJ: It's been 30-plus years of doing business in the city and you still feel it's that way?
Morris: I've felt it, seen it and hear it. Nothing changes. It's unfortunate. In a lot of ways, to me, it's us against them.
LBBJ: How does a city thrive in that kind of environment?
Morris: I think of the famous words of [former city manager] Jim Hankla. Many years ago, I was having my feuds with him in the '80s in downtown. I will never forget the statement he made to me. At that time, he was just referring to downtown. He said, "Downtown will succeed despite city hall." I will never forget that comment because it's true. It's a slower pace to get to that success because of city hall. But because of people like myself and people who get into business and are entrepreneurs, those are the kind of people who put the blinders on and just keep going. Yeah, we're getting punched and sucker punched and backstabbed. But we just keep going. It's just the way it is.
I love Long Beach. The people of Long Beach are phenomenal. I love this city. I love the diversity. I love everything about Long Beach. I just don't like the 333. They're not nice to the City of Long Beach.
LBBJ: We understand that you got involved or were thinking about getting involved in the medical marijuana industry in 2008 or around then, realizing that the city wanted to put together an ordinance to allow for medical marijuana dispensaries.
LBBJ: You had some other ideas in terms of how the marijuana dispensaries would be structured and managed, particularly in how they would give back to the community rather than the method that the city followed. Now that it's all turned around – the city went through the process of accepting applications, had the lottery, allowed dispensaries and then banned them – what do you think is next?
Morris: I think at the end of the day it's going to be just like Colorado. We will get there, and I think it needs to get there. The benefits far outweigh the negatives. I understand where the police department is coming from because there is a lot of that out there – the gangs, the mob, the cartels, whatever. But if you run them correctly and you do it for the right reasons, I think it's a beautiful thing. I even gave some to my mum. She had dementia. In the last two years I've been giving her [marijuana] and it makes life so much better for her. I have a couple of other instances of family friends that use it for medical reasons. What it can do is unbelievable. But until you can get the police department just focusing on the gang bangers and letting the medicinal side of things take care of itself, it's not going to happen in Long Beach. There are too many people at the top who are totally opposed to it 100 percent. The template that we tried to set was the template similar to Colorado.
LBBJ: Oakland has an interesting model as well.
Morris: That's where we got a lot of our ideas from in terms of what they were doing and how they were doing it. We brought in names in the community, [people] we thought would legitimize the project, to keep everybody at ease about who is involved and who is not involved. But, typically, they just can't get out of their own way. One week it's in, the next week it's out. When I came to McKenna's in February 2011, that's when I washed my hands. I'm not involved with that at all. This is a better chapter. This is fun. I'm enjoying this new chapter. This is really, in Long Beach, where my life began.
LBBJ: Let's go back to that. Tell us about when you used to hang out here in the 1970s.
Morris: I take people out on Duffy boats and tell them stories like, "Well, in 1973, my first apartment in California was here on the bay. I paid $175 a month. I used to think, 'How am I going to pay for this?'" I point it out, the apartment. It's right there on Bayshore and Ocean. I was on the second floor, looking at the beach. It was my first day in California and I'm going, "I've died and gone to heaven. Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to this." Then I bought a house right on the ocean side with Dennis Harrah. He played with the Rams. We bought that house and leveraged that house to build Legends.
In 1973, McKenna's used to be Hungry Jose's in an old building very similar to the structures of Buster's and Khoury's. Khoury's was the Windrose. Buster's was Jolly Roger. McKenna's was Hungry Jose's. In the '70s, everybody came to these three places. This was the place in Long Beach. Happy hours were beyond belief. Buffet spreads. That's how they did it back then. Then in about 1976, McKenna's Creek opened where the Tilted Kilt location is at The Marketplace. The Claim Jumper was Bobby McGee's. The [Alamitos Bay Landing restaurants] action moved over there.
One night, standing at the bar at McKenna's Creek in late 1978 – went there for Monday Night Football – we get there and it's five minutes after 6 p.m. The game has already started. I say to the bartender, "Where's the damn TV?" The guy goes to a closet, grabs a TV, brings it out, sets up the rabbit ears and tunes it in. That's the night I said, "How come nobody's ever built a place where you could actually go watch a game?" So, I opened Legends in 1979 and in 1982 we had McKenna's Creek's Christmas party at Legends. I met my wife. Twenty-nine years later we're still together. Then we go downtown and do Mum's, then you come back around and I'm now part owner of McKenna's. I bought Legends back. This is a nice chapter. If we can pull the Kelly's deal off, it would be kind of nice to have the three icons of Long Beach in the restaurant industry together. It has a nice feel to it.
For me, it's been fun. All I get over here, in all honesty, are accolades galore. People can't say enough nice things about all of the things I do. I'm not doing anything different than I did downtown, and yet downtown they think I'm an ass*#@*. But in the 90803, I'm, like, a star.