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Bred for the Business, Russ Bendel’s on a Roll

How do you grow a local restaurant empire? For Russ Bendel, one restaurant and one community at a time.

Russ grew up in the restaurant industry. Russ Bendel Sr. is chief executive of Irvine-based Habit Restaurants LLC, and for years ran then-Orange County-based Mimi’s Cafe. And here came the son, who today has three neighborhood fine-dining restaurants attracting food lovers in droves.

The dynasty followed years of proper training. After graduating in 2004 from Cal Poly Pomona’s Collins School of Hospitality Management, Russ Jr. spent nine years with Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. He was promoted to partner of the flagship Newport Beach location at age 25, the youngest in company history.

While there, he obtained the Court of Master Sommeliers, Level 5 Wines of the World Certification and was named Fleming’s Partner of the Year in 2010, 2011 and 2012. When his contract expired in 2013, Russ ventured out to do his own thing. He knew the owners of Vine Restaurant in San Clemente, and learned they wanted to sell it.

“Vine was so similar to my vision of a wine-inspired, chef-driven, wine country-themed restaurant,” Russ told me recently as we talked over glasses of Opolo Zinfandel at Olea, his latest venture. “I thought, this is a home run, why not take it over? It worked out. We built our team there. We used that for our laboratory and launching pad. We slowly tweaked it and converted it into what it is today. That success led us to do our first built-from-scratch concept, which is Ironwood in Laguna Hills.”

Russ and his team brought new life to a local’s favorite while doubling annual sales. He had befriended several fellow restaurant managers and staff from various restaurants, and they’d talked about doing something together. After purchasing Vine, he began to build his team, all of whom had a following from previous restaurants.

General managers Kyle Simpson spent five years with Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion, and Kevin Franke came from Mastro’s and Fleming’s; mixologist extraordinaire Gabe Whorley helmed the bar at Charlie Palmer’s, and executive Chef Jared Cook is a veteran of Crow Bar and French 75.

Russ said he usually makes the rounds of each restaurant most nights, starting at Vine and working his way north to Ironwood and on to the new Olea. He’s very hands-on and seems genuinely delighted to “work the room” and help as needed.

Ironwood was a blank canvas, and he was ready to sketch a new restaurant. He and his partners took all the things they loved about Vine, talked about the things they wanted to do differently, and developed a concept but with the same backbone.

“Chef Jared Cook created the menu for both,” Russ said. “You can see similarities between some of the items, but we wanted each to have a different feel and a differentiation on the menu.”

Why Laguna Hills? While working at Fleming’s, Russ, who lives in Mission Viejo, drove down La Paz to the San Joaquin (73) Toll Road. He always glanced at the future Ironwood site and loved the location—a strip retail center on the corner, large parking lot, nice visibility and a view of the Saddleback Mountains.

Fortunately for Russ, the owners remodeled the center and parceled one strip into smaller suites—exactly what Russ needed. He worked with his design company to create the look and feel of Ironwood, which has the wine country theme but suits the family-oriented neighborhoods surrounding it.

Ironwood opened in 2016, and like Vine was an instant hit. Shortly after opening, Ironwood was named Best New Restaurant in Orange County at the 2016 Golden Foodie Awards, and business partner Whorley was named Orange County’s Best Bartender of 2016.

Recipe for Success

Last year Russ Bendel went for the hat trick. He’d been looking for the perfect place to open a third restaurant and found it on Westcliff Drive in Newport Beach. Olea opened on Dec. 1, and like the other two restaurants, became a magnet.

“We have repeat guests that make this their weekly place to go,” Russ said. “Each restaurant has different demographics, and is designed to cater to the neighborhoods that they’re in. We intentionally made each place have its own identity.”

Olea’s U-shaped bar features an Argentinian leather-finish marble top, a side wall and kitchen counters.

Pine trees from Portland are wedged into openings in the ceiling above the bar, giving the restaurant what Russ said was “the rustic wine country feel we were going for.”

Success has bred success, and naturally Russ is considering restaurant number four.

“We have been approached. People have shared opportunities. Right now we are trying to focus on Olea and perfect what we’re doing. I’m sure when the time is right, there will be another site, and we’ll try to do the same thing, wherever it is.”

You can’t have great restaurants without great food and a great staff. Russ has both. The staff is fun, friendly and knowledgeable, while the food is crazy-good—inventive, creative, fun, flavorful and reasonably priced.

“Jared takes pride in thinking through every menu item,” Russ said. “Every dish works well together. The menu items complement one another, which allows us to have something for everyone without having a four-page menu.”

Jared’s signature items, on the menus of all three restaurants, include duck wings and chicken schnitzel, which is breaded and flash fried and served with spaetzli, heirloom vegetables and a drizzle of mustard cider gravy on top.

Each restaurant offers 25 wines by the glass, and another 40 to 50 by the bottle.

Russ said he does no marketing or advertising, preferring to let things happen organically. He believes it all comes back to quality food and service.

“If we focus on that, eventually word will spread.”

It certainly has. n

Vine Restaurant

Dinner nightly at 5; 211 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente, (949) 361-2079,

vinesanclemente.com

Ironwood

Dinner nightly at 5; 25250 La Paz

Road, Laguna Hills, (949) 446-8772,

ironwoodlagunahills.com

Olea

Dinner nightly at 5; 2001 Westcliff

Drive, Newport Beach, (949) 287-6807,

oleanewportbeach.com

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