Originally featured in the January 2010 issue of AVIDGOLFER Magazine.
Story by Art Stricklin
Brent Harman has hundreds of employees and multiple locations in his multi-million dollar Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse Empire.
But the 38-year-old says he uses the game of golf to remain sane in the pressurized industry, staying connected with his family and the game he loves.
“What is really so neat about the game of golf is that we have three generations, my son at age 8, myself at 38 and my dad at 63, and we still all play together,” Harman said. “It truly is a game for a lifetime.”
The lifetime North Texas resident attended Highland Park High School and the University of Texas before getting an MBA at Baylor University. He now plays golf in his everyday life to stay grounded, stay close to his suppliers and customers, and enjoy time with his friends.
The Harmans purchased Sonny Bryan’s from the Bryan family in 1989, with Brent being named President and CEO in 2004 after first spending six years working at various locations, then learning the corporate operations.
He has been able to combine his love of golf with his savvy business skills and the chance to help others and bond with those he cares about. That’s become evident in his regular family Sunday afternoon rounds at Dallas Country Club, his annual golf trips to Pebble Beach and Bandon Dunes in Oregon, and Bryan’s longstanding corporate involvement with the First Tee of Dallas.
The Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse legacy is one of the truly legendary North Texas family restaurant dynasties, in an area that hasn’t had that many. It’s been nearly a century of success for the barbecue kingdom, which started and still exists in Dallas, and has since branched out to the surrounding communities.
The first link in the family chain was Elias Bryan, who opened his first outlet in Oak Cliff on Feb. 13, 1910. Exactly 20 years to the day, Elias’ oldest son, William Jennings Bryan, better known as “Red” to most people, opened up his own outlet. It also was located in Oak Cliff in a retired railroad car known as the “Tin Shack,” where a steady stream of customers could buy hamburgers for 5 cents and barbecue sandwiches for 10 cents.
In 1947, the Tin Shack was replaced by a larger building and the next family generation appeared in the form of William Jennings Bryan, Jr., who picked up the nickname of “Sonny.” He attended nearby SMU with the hope of becoming a stockbroker, but the lure of the family business was too strong for him to resist.
Sonny and his wife, Joanne, became the first Bryan family members to move the restaurant outside of Oak Cliff when they mortgaged a great deal of their savings to open the Inwood Road location on Feb. 13, 1958, the spot that features the schoolboy desk to eat on and still operates today.
Each Sonny Bryan’s outlet still operates on the same philosophy of making only a certain amount of home-cooked goodness each day and warning customers ahead of time to come early or risk it being sold out.
Harman purchased the Bryan Smokehouse from Sonny himself, but kept the same name, décor and long-time North Texas popularity.
The year 2010 is poised to be big for the Dallas-area chain, which has nine restaurants along with a catering company. In February, they will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first Bryan smokehouse restaurant in Oak Cliff on the 13th of that month.
Because of the Harman family’s love for golf and support for the First Tee of Dallas, headquartered at Cedar Crest Golf Course, south of downtown Dallas, they came up with a unique promotion that they hope is adopted by all North Texas golfers. Sonny Bryan’s Restaurants will donate 100 percent of the proceeds from the rollback-priced sandwich specials on February 13 to the First Tee of Dallas, with the goal of funding 100 scholarships for kids this year with a contribution of at least $12,000.
“The perfect way to combine our love for golf and a great organization like the First Tee,” Harman said.
Another big event in 2010 will be the first franchise arrangement that will bring Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse outlets to locations all over America. The Harmans will carefully select the owners, but Brent joked he’s not above making the first selections to conform to golf Mecca’s like Pebble Beach, Augusta National, Pinehurst or Bandon Dunes.
“We’ll make our strategic gameplan where we can play golf,” he laughed.
Since his first round of golf at age 12 at the Horseshoe Bay Resort, he has been in love with the game and thrilled with where it can take him. His dad, Walker, originally owned the land where Cowboys Golf Club in Grapevine now sits. Brent still makes a monthly golfing journey to Cowboys with his friends, hoping to get in 9 or 18 holes, finishing just before sunset.
This year, he entered his first father-son tournament at DCC, where he and his son, McKay, finished third. “It was an awesome day,” he added.
Harman has taken golf trips to Scotland, Pebble Beach and Bandon Dunes, where he said high winds and low temperatures make the challenge factor off the chart. He has also participated in a half-dozen half marathons and recently added mountain climbing to his list of sports accomplishments.
Harman has caddied in two Byron Nelson Pro-Ams, including one memorable round with Fred Funk, and played once with Ted Tryba. He also attended the Ryder Cup in 1995 in Spain, where he watched Dallas’ Corey Pavin work his short game magic.
“The difference between a scratch golfer and a PGA Tour player is huge, but that makes it so fun to watch,” Harman said.
The 10-handicap Harman likely will never take a swing on the PGA Tour, but he’s determined to become a major championship winner in something Texans take almost as seriously, barbecue.