Forty-seven years at a job he really likes to do
ALEXANDRIA, VA -While “Mango” Mike Anderson was growing up in Detroit in the ‘50s and ‘60s, his father, uncle, grandfathers, and just about everybody worked for automobile manufacturers. Mike worked for Ford Motor Company during summers and assumed that he would go back there when he graduated from Eastern Michigan University.
Under the pen name “Action Andy,” Mike wrote a customer help column for the Eastern Echo (college newspaper); his friend John Horshok wrote a sports column as “The Golden Kazoo”. When they graduated in 1971, Action Andy and The Golden Kazoo decided to go somewhere interesting for one year before starting their life journeys working for Ford.
They chose DC because the Nation’s Capital was exciting, had the lowest unemployment rate, and wasn’t too far from the ocean or Michigan. “But,” says Mike, “the killer was we’d heard there were seven girls for every guy in DC.”
On arrival, they drove around the Beltway looking for a place to stay, saw the Holiday Inn on Eisenhower Avenue, and took the Telegraph Road exit.
But Holiday Inn prices mandated a rapid move to cheaper housing, the Virginia Lodge on Route 1, where their neighbor was a character sporting a handlebar mustache and a cape. Luther Burbank McKean told Mike that he had just designed a new restaurant in Old Town: King’s Landing. And they might be hiring.
The only position open was as a dishwasher. It didn’t fit Anderson’s self-image, but he needed money and, with promises of rapid promotion, took the job. On the first day, he posted his college diploma above the Hobart machine in the kitchen.
“I’m washing dishes,” says Mike, “and the chef always swore at the dishwashers in French, and I’m really demoralized, when this guy comes back. He’s a waiter, his name’s Rob Zimmerman. He says ‘Welcome to King’s Landing, we take care of our own.’ And he brought me a beer.”
So began a career first of managing several and then of owning some 18 or 20 restaurants (depending on who can remember them all on any given day). “But Zim and I still talk every day, we’re still great friends,” says Anderson. Mike’s wife Donna has described Mike and Zim on the phone as a Seinfeld episode.
Take the Hill
“My dad’s whole generation’s mentality after World War II, was ‘take the hill’. They beat the Germans, came back from the war, got married, went to college on the G.I. Bill. They took jobs to support a family, they had mortgages, but it was all about taking the hill,” he says. “My dad had no joy in his work. He never complained, he went to work every day and did a great job, but he never liked it.
“In high school, it was the same. Nobody ever once said that you could find a job you really liked to do. There was no joy in working at Ford Motors—in fact, it was great incentive to go back to school. So then I’m in the restaurant business doing something I really like, and getting paid for it. After I got bit by that bug, I had no desire to go back to Michigan.”
Joe Theismann’s and Virginia liquor laws
Four years later, Anderson and Horshok wanted to open a restaurant where you could watch sports while sitting at the bar. The Kazoo had met Joe Theismann, then a third string quarterback behind Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer. They offered part of the business to use his name and opened the original Joe Theismann’s in Bailey’s Crossroads.
But in 1975, Virginia liquor laws were very different from today. You couldn’t sit at a bar and order a cocktail, only beer and wine. So Mike developed a menu of faux cocktails made with beer and wine, like a white wine Bloody Mary. “So we had a saloon in Virginia serving half pound burgers and all that, and you could sit at the bar and watch the game.”
A year later Virginia changed the law. “And then, I forget how many years later,” he says, “they won the Super Bowl, Joe was a big star, and everything just went crazy.”
Shooter’s, Eastport and Mango Mike’s
Mike opened his first Alexandria restaurant, Shooter McGee’s, in 1979. It was soon followed by Eastport Raw Bar, both on Duke Street. Eastport was popular through the 80’s and into the ‘90s, but, says Anderson, “These places have a certain shelf life to them. I figured it was time for a change.” So Eastport Raw Bar turned into the first Mango Mike’s.
Then, in 1999, the Bombay Bicycle Club, also on Duke Street, closed and he bought their lease. During the nine months it took to build out the new, much bigger Mango Mike’s, Anderson decided that you couldn’t have a Caribbean restaurant without real palm trees. Even in this climate.
“We got an estimate from a landscaper who wanted $50,000. I said, ‘Ugh, we’ll do it ourselves’ and I became a backhoe operator,” he says. “I’d get Oscar Martinez, who’s been with me for 25 years, and one other guy and every year we’d bring 25 palm trees up from Florida on a flatbed truck, and 300 tropical plants, and plant them all in five days. It transformed Mango’s from barren winter to a tropical summer landscape. I got the biggest kick out of doing that.”
On doing it yourself
Anderson’s penchant for DIY didn’t start with Mango Mike’s. He has built out most or all of the restaurants he has owned. “A restaurateur is like a farmer,” he says. “A farmer can fix anything. A good farmer knows the weather, the market, how corn’s doing, everything. As a restaurateur, you’ve got to have a lot of skills, or the money to hire people with a lot of skills. I didn’t have a lot of money so I learned a lot in restaurants, and I like the creativity involved.”
The new Mango Mike’s opened in 2000 and closed at the end of 2013. But by then, Anderson’s Home Grown Restaurant Group had opened a barbeque restaurant, a sushi bar, and a burger palace adjacent to each other in Del Ray.
During the Del Ray construction, Mike discovered a BBQ sauce being sold at Meat on the Avenue—Pork Barrel BBQ. He thought, “Well damn, why didn’t I think of that? That’s a great name!” He met with the sauce creators, Brett Thompson and Heath Hall, and negotiated rights to use the name within a 25-mile radius of Del Ray. [Thompson and Hall later appeared on Shark Tank and secured backing from Barbara Corcoran. Their product is now available in thousands of stores.]
the sushi bar met with notoriety for its “no kids” policy. “PR people came up to us and said that was just genius,” says Mike, “I said we weren’t that smart.
“We didn’t think about PR. We just saw all these helicopter parents in Del Ray and thought, ‘man, these people need a break.’ Every restaurant in Del Ray is packed with strollers and kids screaming and running up and down the aisles, and we figured these poor parents needed a breather. Of course, it’s not their kids that have issues….”
Charitable Business Practices
“I don’t use the term ‘giving back’ because it sounds so cliquish and overused,” says Anderson. “Part of it you do because it’s just good business, and you always try to think of ways to help your business.”
The list of ways Mike’s good business practices have helped Alexandria and other communities goes far beyond 10Ks, triathlons and Chesapeake Bay swims, or work with the Chamber of Commerce and Small Business Development Center.
“Mike is someone who truly cares about making the community better on both the business and nonprofit fronts,” John Porter, ACT for Alexandria president and chief executive officer, has said. “I’ve never known him to say ‘no’ to a charity asking him for food to support an event or activity.”
Shooter McGee’s Autumn 10K
Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded Special Olympics in 1968 and by ’79, when Anderson opened Shooter McGee’s, it was a prominent cause. “I’d run my first 10K in Rehoboth, and I thought, Shooter McGee’s needs to do this. Giving the money to [Special Olympics] was just kind of a byproduct.
“About 2,000 folks participated,” says Mike, “and Shooter’s regulars helped. It took 150 volunteers to run the race, so after the race we fed 2,000 people and all the volunteers in Shooter’s parking lot.”
“The tough thing about 10K’s today,” says Anderson, “is where can you run? Cameron Station was still a military base that allowed runners in. They ran by the pond, by the geese, and there was no traffic, and very little need to shut down Duke Street. Now they make you run up and down Eisenhower Avenue, which is the most boring thing you can possibly do.”
In 10 years, Shooter McGee’s Alexandria Autumn 10K raised $50K for Special Olympics.
Holy Cow is known for gourmet burgers and for contributing 25 cents for every burger bought to one of 232 charities under ACT for Alexandria’s umbrella. John Porter helped Anderson and HGRG partner Bill Blackburn figure out how to distribute the funds. “John Porter’s our go-to guy whenever we have a question about how we can help out in Alexandria,” says Mike.
Since November 2012, Holy Cow has donated more than 380,000 quarters. “We always express it in quarters,” says Blackburn, “because it sounds like more.”
Mike Anderson was named an Alexandria Living Legend in 2014. “He’s a restaurant owner that everybody likes,” Blackburn adds. “If you talk to people who have worked for him, you’ll have a hard time finding someone who’ll say ‘man, he’s a jerk.’ And that’s pretty rare, especially in the restaurant business. Everybody likes that guy.”
Hiring kids for first jobs
Anderson’s businesses frequently hire high school students for their first real jobs. “Working in a restaurant teaches you a bunch of skills that will really help down the road,” says Anderson. “There’s no better training ground. You work with Latinos, African Americans, a whole host of different people. You learn to prioritize and to deal with different classes of people in all different situations, especially if they’ve been drinking. Skills you learn in a restaurant apply toward future jobs, and we try to give those kids as much opportunity as possible.
“The downside is, we don’t ask a lot but one big thing is just come to work! Please—that’s 90 percent of the job, to just show up. We get a little frustrated sometimes because of the ‘show up factor.’”
Work and family
Mike Anderson was behind the bar at Shooter McGee’s in 1979 when Donna Worsham came in after her shift as an ICU nurse at Fairfax Hospital. They were dating in short order, and that lasted 10 years. When the marriage proposal came in ‘89, it was a production still talked about by 75 of Donna’s family and close friends, which culminated in her being presented an engagement ring frozen in a block of ice, and an ice pick. Bob Levy wrote it up in The Washington Post.
The Andersons have three girls, Danielle (29), Chelsea (26) and Dakota (23). Donna left nursing before Dakota was born. “Those were the years when they really needed somebody and Mike was gone, so I stayed home and I didn’t seriously go back to work until they went off to college.”
But, she adds, “Two words that Mike never says are ‘I’m tired,’ so he’d spend as much time with them as he could. He was a fun dad. Mike exudes positivity, there really never is any negativity surrounding him.”
Donna returned to nursing briefly, but Mike encouraged her to work in the restaurants. “And then we opened a new place and put my name on it. We were at my parents for Christmas and he gave me this picture frame to open. It said Sweet Fire Donna’s — the restaurant’s going to be named after you. It was really cool.
“And my best friend said, ‘Donna, snap out of it. He’s given you a huge job.’”
“She’s been extremely successful and it’s all due to her,” says Mike. “All I did was build the place with my guys. The business she does with just 48 seats is incredible.”
Three daughters are in the business…
“…except Danielle dumped me,” says Mike. “The plan was that she would be the GM at Whiskey & Oyster. Then her boyfriend [now fiancé] wanted to move back to Michigan. She is an excellent restaurateur, and she’s working in Ann Arbor at the Pretzel Bell, and here’s a strange twist of fate.
“When you turned 21 back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you could stand on the bar at the Pretzel Bell and drink a pitcher of beer and they would ring this big barn bell. My daughter is managing the place where I had my 21st birthday. It’s purely coincidence.”
Dakota works in a craft brewery, LTD Brewing Co., in Minnesota. Chelsea is the bar manager at Pork Barrel BBQ.
“My dad had a motive behind everything he did, everything was a lesson with him,” says Chelsea. “I really wanted an iPod when they first came out. He said ‘okay, but you’ve got to work for the money’ and he made me work up to what he thought was the value of an iPod. Then I said ‘Okay, can I get it now?’ He said ‘No, I want you to take the cash and hold it in your hand and know that you’ve worked for that. Then give it back to me and I’ll buy you an iPod, or you keep the money and save it. I want you to really think about this.’ I remember holding the money and thinking, WOW, this is the most money I have ever seen in my life.’” (She chose the iPod.)
“As I got older,” she adds, “I started seeing how crazy the industry was. You’ve got to like people and my dad loves everybody. I’ve always admired him for that. Things that would drive people crazy, he just laughs, like isn’t this a great world we live in. I think that’s why he’s still thriving.”
On Being an Entrepreneur
“What I tell people who are trying to be entrepreneurs is that you’re going to have failures, and that’s okay,” says Anderson. “The key is being able to survive and stay in the game. The only reason I was able to was the fact that I didn’t get married until I was 40. So with my earlier failures, it was just me and the dog. I could start from scratch and build back up.
“The other mistake—luckily I’ve had partners who are smarter than I am. As an entrepreneur you always say ‘I can make this work, I can fix this problem, I just have to work harder, I have to work smarter.’ But a lot of times you can’t.
“When I had Shooter McGee’s, my partner was Tom Jackson, a real smart guy, and we had the Eastport Oyster Bar in Fairfax City. It did great on Saturday night but the rest of the week it was empty. He said ‘Mike, this is not working,’ and I said ‘No, we can make this work, more advertising, change the menu, lower some prices’. But he was smarter than I was, and he knew when to walk away. Sometimes you gotta pull the plug.”
“I am so lucky that I took that Telegraph Road exit in 1971. This is a terrific city, with lots of opportunity and for the most part pretty good government, and a lot of smart people who love the city and want to continue making it a great place to live.
“I’m especially grateful that I’ve had thousands of people work with me over the years at all my restaurants. They’ve been terrific people who worked really hard to make these joints successful, great management teams, and great partners. I’m really blessed with the quality of people I’ve worked with.”
(Unless otherwise noted, all photos are from the Anderson Family collection.)
The Home Grown Restaurant Group’s current locations
Tequila & Taco – Just opened May 3!
540 John Carlyle Street
Come discover the best array of tequila cocktails and innovative tacos in Alexandria! See our review on page 15.
Pork Barrel BBQ
2312 Mt. Vernon Avenue
We use a mix of oak and hickory logs to smoke our meat, which gives it a deep, robust smoky flavor that leaves you wanting more. Take your choice of one of our four different award-winning sauces: Original, Sweet, Mustard, or Carolina Style.
the sushi bar
2312 Mt. Vernon Avenue
A cozy lounge-like escape, our sushi and sashimi are prepared by award-winning chef saran “peter” kannasute. Because we strive to offer a cozy, intimate atmosphere, we ask that parents leave children under 18 at home.
Holy Cow – Del Ray’s Gourmet Burger Joint
2312 Mt. Vernon Avenue
Every burger bought makes a contribution to one of the 232 charities under ACT for Alexandria. Buyer’s choice!
Sweet Fire Donna’s
510 John Carlyle St.
Good Barbecue begins in the smoker! Come in for our early evening specials, 4 pm to 7 pm every day. Or order online.
301 John Carlyle Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Mango Mike’s (RIP)