Entrepreneur James Brennan has deftly started and sold several well-known San Diego companies in the past few years. A former real estate success, Brennan started his brand building in 2003 with nightclubs in the Gaslamp. In 2014, Hakkasan Group bought 51 percent of his Enlightened Hospitality Group—for $28 million. Later, Coca-Cola bought into his cold-pressed juice company, Suja, at a valuation of $300 million. Here’s a road map of how he pulled it all off.
Side Bar Opens in the Gaslamp
Side Bar opens during Super Bowl weekend, hosting Derek Jeter’s private party on its first night. It becomes the first nightclub in San Diego to offer bottle service. “We didn’t know until 5 p.m. the night of Jeter’s party if we were going to be permitted to have a DJ,” Brennan says. “Bottle service was huge for us. We had 11 tables. For two years until Stingaree opened, every table was booked Friday and Saturday night.”
Brennan Builds the Super Nightclub, Stingaree
Brennan and partners spend $7 million to open Stingaree, a world-class nightclub. Both Beyoncé and Kanye West perform there. “To go from 3,500 square feet to a 23,000-square-foot venue was a huge jump. At the end of the day, we landed those big musicians because we paid. The penthouse also set us apart—word got around the industry that we had this really cool space that could keep talent connected to the room, but also protected with their own side entrance.”
Bar West Brings the Downtown Vibe to Pacific Beach
Bar West turns out to be a successful venture, and Brennan credits its success with keeping him afloat during what he calls “the dark years.”
Universal Opens in Hillcrest
Brennan tries to bring the huge-club experience to San Diego’s gayborhood. “I knew the very first night we opened,” Brennan says. “I was on the phone with SBE the next morning trying to sell it. I made some fatal mistakes—including adding 3,500 square feet at the last minute.”
Sells Bar West, Side Bar, and The Witherby to Stay Alive
“I needed to pay off debts. This was as dark as it gets. My finger was on the personal and business bankruptcy button.”
Brennan Gets Sober
Drinking is just part of the nightlife world, and it had spun out of control for Brennan. “That caught people’s attention and gave them a different respect for me. If I hadn’t gotten sober, this would be a trashier story.”
Searsucker Brings “Social Dining” to the Gaslamp
Brennan and partners team with chef Brian Malarkey to create a new kind of restaurant they call “social dining.” “No other restaurant had DJs while you were eating dinner,” he said. “This was an exciting time to finally be playing offense again after two years of playing defense. Malarkey had energy. That’s what we wanted—we wanted to put on a show.” The restaurant does $10 million a year on the corner of Fifth and Market. “I didn’t know we were going to do that well,” he says. “But I knew we were going to knock the cover off the ball. I had zero doubt.”
The Fabric Restaurant Empire Blooms… Briefly
Burlap opens in Del Mar Highlands, along with Herringbone, Gingham, and Gabardine. For the first three months, Burlap actually outsells Searsucker, but the success is short lived. “The location was the farthest point from either entrance, the egress was bad, and so was the parking. People got tired of it real quickly and the shine kind of came off.”
Enlightened Raises $15 Million
to Roll Out Herringbone and Searsucker Nationally
“We never had the intent to roll out five brands nationally,” says Brennan. “Our goal was always to see which two of the brands would rise to the top.” La Jolla’s stunner, Herringbone, is “still my favorite restaurant in America.”
Brennan’s Wife Introduces Him to Eric Ethans, Juice Maker
Brennan’s wife patronizes Ethans’s cold-pressed juice home delivery service. Brennan convinces friend Jeff Church (cofounder of Nika Water Company) to become CEO of their new business, called Suja. “Eric had something special, and I became hooked myself,” he says. “We were making the juices on the rooftop of Stingaree. I realized what I do best is build brands, and it was a lot easier for me to focus on a single product. So we put the deal together and at a meeting with Whole Foods in July they were like, ‘How quick can we get it onto the shelves?’ That was the moment we knew this was real.”
Hakkasan Buys 51 Percentof Enlightened Hospitality for a Reported $28 Million
“I did have to go to Abu Dhabi and there was one day it looked like they were stuck on a key point, and I wasn’t sure if we were going to get it done. But we did.”
Suja Featured in Forbes as America’s Third Most Promising Company
That media blast helps open more doors for Suja. There are three cold-pressed juice brands leading the way: Suja, Evolution Fresh, and BluePrint. “We were the only independent one,” Brennan explains. “If a corporation wanted to get into the cold-pressed category, we were the only one left to buy.” Nice position to be in.
OCTOBER 2014–JULY 2015
Brennan Partners With Kiana Cabell to Form Kopari Beauty, Takes a Large Stake in Local Watch Company Original Grain, Forms Enlightened Brand Ventures
Brennan had been pitched Bell’s coconut-oil-based beauty product idea independently by two friends he trusted. This cements Brennan’s move out of the hospitality arena. “Even though I still own a piece of the restaurants, I have absolutely zero to do with the day-to-day.”
Coca-Cola and Goldman Sachs Buy 49 Percent of Suja Juice at a Valuation of $300 Million
“Just the fact that Coca-Cola and Goldman Sachs wanted to partner with a business we had created was the most significant achievement of my career. That was clearly the pinnacle. Humbling doesn’t even do the feeling justice.” At the suggestion that Brennan could easily retire on this money, he replies: “No way. I would die.”
From Black Friday through Christmas, Original Grain Sells Nearly 20,000 Watches ($3.5 Million in Sales)
What did Brennan see in them? “It’s two brothers from Carlsbad. I loved the brand, I loved what they had created. They just needed a strategic partner.”
Kopari Officially Launches
The line of coconut-oil beauty products is featured in People, Glamour, and Allure, and gets a shout-out from Victoria’s Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.
Suja Ranks No. 1
Suja Juice makes No. 13 on the Inc. 5000 list, and No. 1 in the food and beverage category.
Kopari Lands Major Retail Distribution
The brand signs to sell online at QVC and Sephora, and will roll out in Sephora stores nationwide in spring 2017. “Coconut oil is very much like grapes that make wine,” Brennan explains. “The quality depends on where the coconuts are grown, and the temperature and soil they are grown in. We believe we have found the best coconut oil in the world.” The company says it sustainably harvests its coconuts in the Philippines.
Sales of Original Grain watches jump from $4.5 million in 2015 to $13 million.
“We will be launching multiple lines at Kopari in 2017, amongst some other big news surrounding new partnerships and investors.” Brennan also says to expect a new style from Original Grain. Does he miss the hospitality world? He feels the consumer products industry was his calling. “I couldn’t be happier that I found it! Better late than never. I do still get chills when I walk into Herringbone, and the dining room is packed with people talking and laughing and enjoying each other’s company. So, no regrets!”