Breaking Camp – Jennifer and Paul Hennessey
by Stephanie Cartozian
In 1970 in New Jersey, Paul Hennessey was taking the Erie Lackawanna commuter train home from work when he met a young woman named Jennifer in the Bar Car. Paul was a 23-year-old stock broker in a falling market. Jennifer was a 21-year-old school teacher on summer break. After their third date, Paul invited Jennifer on what he said would be a six week road trip to California to visit his sister. He planned to drive his Mustang convertible and camp each night in his pup tent. Jennifer said yes.
“We spent one day in each place and visited every fair and tourist attraction conceivable, including the sauerkraut festival, haunted mansions and the biggest rubber band ball in the world. We would get pretty far north, close to Canada, and would hit icy spots. Then we’d just pick up and head in a different direction.
They landed in San Francisco and never returned to New Jersey, except to visit relatives. Two years later they married.
Jennifer’s teacher’s credential was valid in California, so she went to work in retail. (She subsequently returned to school to become a high school counselor.)
Paul found work at Victoria Station, a railroad-themed steakhouse chain, which at its peak had over 100 locations throughout the United States.
“I had never cooked before, but after starting as a busboy and working my way up to waiting tables, bartending, and being an assistant manager I finally did do some cooking,” Paul said.
After a few years, the couple moved to the South Bay, where Paul worked at the Victoria Station on Hawthorne Boulevard, in Torrance.
He spent six years with Victoria Station.
“Then, on a wing and a prayer, I bought a bar called Mr. C’s on Pier Avenue, two doors from the beach. Mr. C’s was what we called a 6 a.m. bar. Bars in the ‘70s were dark, dungeness chambers, even the nice ones like the old Velvet Turtle (A popular restaurant on Catalina that opened in 1964 and closed in June of 1992).
He renamed Mr. C’s Hennessey’s Tavern.
“It took until a year after we opened for us to be able to afford a hot grill and a hood. Until then, all we served was cold sandwiches and high quality cocktails, made with freshly squeezed juices,” Paul said. Fresh juices were an innovation in an era when most drinks used canned juices.
He replaced the deep booths with chairs and tables and cut out big picture windows to let in the California sun and allow customers to watch the passersby and passersby to watch the customers. All that remained of the the original Mr C’s was a big mirror behind the bar with etchings of nude nymphs drinking from a fountain-size martini glass. The tavern has been remodeled many time since, but the nude nymphs remain behind the bar.
“I was the bartender, I prepared all the food, I waited all the tables and I cleaned up. There was no one else,” Paul recalled.
While he attributes Hennessey Taverns’ success to hard work and the then novel concept of a cheery bar, Jennifer attributes it to her husband’s “sparkling personality.” “He has a way of engaging with people where they want to come back and see him again and again,” she said.
The couple now have 16 restaurants, from Manhattan Beach to Las Vegas. Their South Bay locations include the Hermosa, Manhattan and Redondo Hennessey’s Taverns, the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa, HT Grill in Redondo and Rebel Republic Social Houses in Hermosa and Redondo.
Paul credits Hennessey’s growth to his staff. “We hire great people and pay them well. We were among the first local restaurants to offer our staff health insurance, well before it was mandatory. When you’re generous with people they pay it back with honest hard work. Each holiday season, we host the staff party at our home.”
The couple had lived for 24 years in Rolling Hills, where they raised daughters Shannon. Devon and Erin in a sprawling Ranch style home with extensive acreage. Spanish Colonial home designed by architect Tony Ashai and built by Schiappa Construction
The five bedroom and eight bath home includes a casita with a private entrance and amenities not found in older Spanish Colonial homes, such as a gym two steam rooms, an office, and a gourmet kitchen.
Paul’s favorite part of the house is the ceiling designs. Local artist Shari Tipich painted the majority of the ceilings, walls and arches, some with historic themes, others with ornamental and faux paintings. Each of the eight bathrooms utilizes different tiles and stone. In the master bathroom, there is a wooden olive and mustard mural in a Spanish, Fleur-de-lys style that contrasts with the white marble jacuzzi tub. The large, outdoor courtyard is designed in a mission style, reminiscent of the original Palos Verdes homes.
Now, after three daughters, six grandchildren and countless baby and bridal showers and company parties, the couple plans to find another, smaller Peninsula home.
When asked if they would be camping again anytime soon, Jennifer said, “Yes, at the Ritz Carlton in Mykonos.”