[This is part 3 of 3 in a series of interviews with self-starters creating opportunities for themselves in Hawaii. CLICK HERE to see part 1 of 3 with local filmmaker Darieus Legg. CLICK HERE to read part 2 of 3 about BAMP Project. ]
[sidebar] VISION IGNITES ACTION
Brandon Reid, Owner, The Manifest
“Dream big, and let reality cut the edges off.”
In just one year’s time, Brandon Reid, owner of The Manifest, a coffee shop and lounge that provides creative relief from Chinatown’s hot streets, has helped reinvigorate the area. Now artists, students and business people alike flock to the cafe for its Chai lattes, free WiFi and rotating art installations. The eloquent young owner shared with us his vision for Chinatown and Hawaii in general. To keep up with The Manifest, visit www.manifesthawaii.com.
<photo_credit>Profile Photos by Aaron Yoshino
What were you doing before you started The Manifest?
I bartended a lot of places, and that’s the story with all bartenders. Bartend here, bartend there. I’m really proud that I was able to work under the tutelage of Wayne and John and Chad at Murphy’s. So a lot of my classical experiences with bartending weren’t so much the flair of cocktail making but how to captivate a few people sitting at your bar. Hit certain pressure points and have them come back every week. Bartending is pretty much just a performance art. Once I kind of appreciated that and understood that, I figured out my train of thought was just to bullshit, and trick people to enjoy themselves.
You mean everyone is just being fooled? No one’s really having a good time?
Absolutely! No ones really having a good time! No it’s smoke and mirrors.
So how did that experience prepare you for opening your own bar?
Well I got into the restaurant industry because I was bankrupt. I tried to invent something. I was dating a girl who got into a massive car accident, and she lost use of the bottom half of her body. That entire summer I was heartbroken. I was compelled. She was so strong. And I was surrounded by a lot of the same people who was going through the same thing she was going through. I got to see people struggle with eating, struggle with using the bathroom, struggle with using the elevator – simple things that we took for granted. I came up with a design of a plate to help people eat. I just thought about how we could take something we looked at over and over and make it better? And how can we improve people’s lives. On the smallest micro of levels? I don’t want to go into too much detail, because it’s kind of embarrassing, but I took all the money that I had from Wheel of Fortune –
Wait, you were on Wheel of Fortune?
In 1999, Wheel of Fortune came into Hawaii. I got on the show, and I won. I took all that money and put it into my invention, as a 19-year-old, just everything I had. I believed in this. Then the company wanted more money for more research and development. By this time, my parents were divorced, my mother’s abroad, don’t even know where she is. My father’s sick. So I have no guidance. So of course, without any guidance I took my money and throw it into the company. They wanted more. I took out a personal loan. I actually got the money! I gave it to them, not even looking at the APR. Turned out it was some fake company that took off with my money, and I was stuck with a hefty loan at a 24 percent APR, working part-time at Subway. Bankrupt.
Subway’s not gonna cut it, and I got introduced to the restaurant industry. I didn’t fall in love with it like everyone else did. It was quick money, but it was because I needed it. It wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck, it was living day to day. Little by little I humbled myself, cleaning up slop and bathrooms. I made my way into Bucca De Beppo, then I moved over to Murphy’s. After that everything changed. I started gaining confidence. I was the general manager for this Greek restaurant at Restaurant Row, worked at Rowe Bar, and I almost worked at Oceans, but ended up at Bar 35 in Chinatown. Been here ever since.
“WHAT DID THE AREA NEED? IT NEEDED THE MANIFEST, SOMETHING THAT WAS GOING TO INCREASE THE FOOT TRAFFIC ON THIS SIDE OF THE STREET. FOR YEARS I WALKED ON THAT SIDE OF THE STREET. NOW PEOPLE DON’T EVEN CARE. THAT IS SCARY. TO THINK THAT IN LESS THAN A YEAR, YOU CAN MAKE A CHANGE IN THE COMMUNITY.”
What propelled you to start your own business?
The number one thing I realized was that none of my best friends were coming to see me. So I spent a few months thinking, how can I make their businesses better? Then one day – it was a Monday night, and it was raining – my friend Jeff Nesbit was doing an installation at thirtynine hotel. He comes out frustrated, he’s sweaty, he’s messy and he’s like, I need a beer. I say to him, “What’s wrong? You seem frazzled.” He’s like, “Fuck Chinatown. It used to be the artistic center of the community – no one’s doing nothing.” Okay, so we go outside and smoke a cigarette. And it’s empty. Slow Monday.
And we’re talking. I was like, “Jeff, if you could do your own thing, what are the things you would need to help propel Chinatown into the direction you think it needs to go?” You know what he said? There just needs to be a bar with good lighting and wall space. Okay. Wall space, lighting. Well, fuck we can do that! I can do that! What he didn’t realize is that if I wrap my mind around an idea, you cannot – I cannot even change it. It’s either gotta burn or fall into the ground, or just keep going. I can’t control an idea that is bigger than me, and that’s what it was. I looked across the street, and there was a “For Rent” sign. We didn’t say two words. I ran across the street, took the number down, and from that moment on I just been nonstop, like this is my mission, this is my goal. These are the people I want to attract. So I had a very clear idea.
What is your mission? Who do you want to attract?
Like you. Like people who are young and energetic and excited about doing something with their lives, rather than just working in the restaurant industry, doing it day in day out. Like there are people who are downstairs right now who are actively participating in this cultural change. They’re realizing they don’t have to be 30 or 40-something to have a say. There’s this turnover of young people just grabbing the bull by the horns, like, look I got this one chance in life, I might as well go for the things I want. Why wait? Why not try and make a better place? Everyone is actively interested in bettering the area, and themselves. It’s one thing to create a venue and set the stage for people to just play. It’s another thing to create and set the stage for people to build. That’s huge. People are building their artistic careers downstairs. Maybe it’s just a hobby for now, but one out of the twenty kids are going to be pursuing it seriously.
There’s that whole notion of I can’t make it here in Hawaii, what do you say to that idea?
Oh absolutely! How many friends have you lost? Because they thought they can’t pursue their careers in Hawaii. That’s bullshit. I think the ones that go away are afraid that if they don’t, that they’re just gonna end up doing what the past generations have done. Just working, and losing sight of all the fun things you want to do in life.
So what do you tell those people?
Oh man. If anyone knows anything about me, it’s that I’m reckless, but the same time I’m really convincing. If I can motivate people to get interested in what they want to do, that’s one of the biggest opiates I’ve ever tasted. It’s like Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, where he has a compass and it can point to anything in the world that he wants, but he doesn’t know what he wants. That’s why the thing just spins and spins and spins. That’s what the whole movie was about: him trying to convince someone who knows what they want. I’ve always felt like that. I feel like everyone is like that. You have a wealth of experiences, but how do you take your experiences and make them work for you? You just gotta know what you want. And go for it.
I’m an opportunist and I don’t want to live in regret. If I’m 50 and I look back and wonder what that place would’ve been like when I was 28, wonder what that bar, that art gallery would’ve been like. That would’ve been cool. Man that’s too bad – man, fuck that! I’m not gonna do that! No way. I’m gonna do it, maybe not now, but I’m gonna do it. Because you have this one life, you know? Why would you leave any of that up to chance?
Tell me about the process to getting your loan?
Sex, lies and videotapes.
How did you get a loan after being bankrupt?
I been asking myself that question every day. How did I pull it off? How did I just trick the bank? Because, the bank people with money only see dollar signs and risk. But I was able to put together a business plan. I talked to the Small Business District Center. I spent six years thinking about opening my business, then one month writing a business plan, when I was serious about it. They told me my plan was crap. They said my enthusiasm was there, but my business plan needed work. Well fuck that. Boom. Knocked out another draft. Still not good enough. By the sixth draft I was ready. I talked to First Hawaiian Bank, and after my dad died, I got some money for that, so I injected all of my money into that. That gained me confidence with the bank. I secured the remaining 10 percent of the loan with life insurance. So I had a unique way of getting a roundabout loan, but if it proved anything, it proved I was willing to do anything to get the things I wanted.
So how has the first year been?
I’ve met a lot of awesome people. I’ve also lost a lot of important people. I’ve had to grow up real quick, because it’s no longer just being cool. I realized it’s Monopoly with real money, but it’s not a game; you’re playing with people’s income, people are relying on me to get their paychecks done, their taxes. My mother who put some money down – basically bet on me – she’s counting on me returning that money. So as much as the appearance of seeing me out, and drinking, whatever, I’m always thinking about business. If it were better for me to not even be seen for the business, then I would not even be seen. I’m under the belief, though, that people want to see the owner drunk. That’s my excuse! I wish everyone could experience what I’m going through right now, because my business is doing well, and businesses just don’t do that.
You work hard, you party hard?
You know, I know people who work hard, and I know people who party hard, and they’re getting nowhere. I think work hard, party a little bit. Because then you get ahead, you don’t totally negate everything you just did. That’s a saying to live by.
What has been the most frustrating or challenging thing?
Oh that’s easy. Being the boss. Having to tell someone that they’re messing up, when five years ago you’re looking that same person in the eye and encouraging them to mess up, you know? Firing people, hiring people, and changing the way that my friends and family look at me. I’m not just Brandon, I’m actually the owner.
You know what has also been tough? Is that we’re young, that there’s not that much that separates us from the people we work with. It would seem easier, maybe, if we were 15 years older than everyone and you just point a finger at everyone and shout, but you can’t. You have to readdress how you approach people all the time. I have something on my arm that reminds me of that. These are little notes. Just written in Sharpie. This one says, “Drink water.” This means, “Go Home,” so after work, don’t go out, just go home. And this one says, “No Rumplemintz,” my favorite drink; it just puts me under the table. But I have to remind myself that I represent something. Like we have to be careful how we go about doing things everyday, because that’s a reflection on the business, and how I talk to my friends, how I talk to my employees that’s been tough. I can’t get involved, personal, private things with people.
Which is hard in Hawaii…
It’s tough. It’s totally tough. I get dragged into stuff all the time.
What do you think is the most important trait if someone wants to start a business?
Well my secret, I think, is really knowing what we need. What does Chinatown need? What does the island need? What does the city need? It’s not, what do you want to do? Fortunately for me, what I want to do, and what this area needed are both the same. What is the demand? I guess it’s just simple economics.
What does the area need?
It needed The Manifest. It needed a spot that was open. It needed something that was going to increase the positive foot traffic, day and night. Hotel Street needed a positive business on this side of the street. For years I walked on that side of the street. Now people don’t even care. That is scary. To think that in less than a year, you can make a change in the community.
Oh another piece of advice I’d give to someone else, is to dream big, and let reality cut the edges off. Don’t try to dream up until a ceiling, just dream huge. Then once reality steps in, then you just trim away all the things that are not possible, and are you happy with what’s left? So dream huge. People have money. There are tons of people who have money out there that don’t know what to do with it. They’re looking for people like us. That’s that relationship. Can the visionary explain their idea well enough for someone to gamble on them?
What sacrifices have you made to own your own business?
Relationships. I don’t think there’s time or space for a serious relationship. The moment I gave birth to this idea, I started cheating on my girlfriend, with the idea. She was no longer the most important thing in my life, but the moment the business was given birth, she unfortunately was put in the back. I think that’s what stops a lot of people. It’s not so much the fear of failing, but knowing that they have to sacrifice things that are important to them. The only relationship I had was with her and my dog, and I lost my dog too. But I get to see my dog, like twice a week. And so far my ex has been phenomenal, super understanding, lets me see my dog whenever.
Sacrificing friendships. I think going back to being the owner, you’re around so many people that you have to talk to them differently. You’re no longer just a free bird. Part of it is growing up, and you realize business can be fun. The fact that you can be young, under 30, walk into a room, and captivate people’s attentions, people that have been doing it for 25 years, and they’re interested in your ideas? That’s exciting. We’re all in the pursuit of the things we want. And I think I just snapped out of it, and I realized I want these things, which is shallow, but the journey along the way is fun.It’s like trying to chase after that girl.
I like how everything reverts back to a girl.
Of course! I’m a male! Why do you think bridges were built?
Because a girl!! Some guy is trying to impress a girl, so he built a bridge. Because that’s what he did! He was good at building bridges. I’m not trying to impress my guy friends. Although I do look around at my peers, my friends, the guys that I grew up with, and everyone is doing what they want to do. Like my Jason Gomez, Flying Coffin. I think we’re entering an interesting time in life, or just the history of Hawaii.
I think it’s our turn to really start educating people, and be like, you can do business, and have fun and still retain that sense of yourself.
That’s the hope at least, because then reality sets in, and you gotta think about making money and to survive, but still keep what you want.
Yeah, I know what you mean…how do you not sacrifice –
How do you not sell out?
Yeah. How do you not sell out? How do you not compromise what is important at the core? For me, Red Bull came and they were like, we’ll give you X amount of dollars if we can burn into the wood. Right? Fuck that. You know. I love Red Bull I love the product, I love the people. But I’ll never be branded anything. If anything it’s going to be Manifest, or my name, or something.
Manifest on the Red Bull cans.
Yeah! It should be the other way around. You know, like, we’re the ones. Willy Wonka said it best, “We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of the dreams.” I think at an early age I knew that I don’t have the strength to lift things, but I have the ideas and the creativity to want to encourage people to do so. I want to build bridges, you know.
Hawaii is often criticized for being backward. How can we set the trend?
I been thinking about that, how can Hawaii make up for lost time, and get ahead? You know, people in Seattle are just praying for summer to come. The palm tree idea, it doesn’t have to be a tourist thing, it just has to be a concept. So we don’t sell the idea of getting away, we just sell the idea of Hawaii. I don’t know what that means yet, but I know what you’re saying, because I want to be ahead, I don’t want to be behind. New York is going under. It’s going to be a mirroring image of itself and people are going to be looking for fresh ideas outside of that place. So how do we get ahead? I’m not sure yet…
But really would you want to go to a bar that’s tikis and all that?
We don’t want to be lied to. No one wants to be lied to. That’s what I like about Chinatown, because it’s really raw and in your face. What’s weird though is Chinatown’s becoming a tourist destination too. It’s hard to think ahead, because even while we’re having these bartending competitions using all these fucking weird fruits and bitters – people are already doing that. How do you get ahead of that? I don’t know. I been trying to think of that too.
Maybe it is a return to the old.
Oh absolutely! I totally believe everything is cyclical. I walk into the bar, I see someone talking to the bartender, leaning over the bar, taking pictures, or someone just laughing. I see that. I want that. That expression right there. Today kids are totally oblivious to the world, so plugged into their video games that I don’t think they’re gonna have that much to pull out. I want to try to reinvigorate family. I want to see if I can push forward the idea of family get-togethers. I think about the experiences I had as a kid that made me strong today. What I want to do is to push the idea of the kid who bowls, gutter-balls, and looks to his parents. His parents are either going you know it’s okay, that encouragement, or they totally blow him off. Whatever happens, that kid has an experience that he’s going to live off of. We just need to bring back those values of what Hawaii is, which is family. My parents, everyone in my family bowled. And when they grew older, they didn’t like each other, but they still got together at the bowling alley, and wants the son to have oxtail soup. I think it’s the interactions that I’m going for.