Legal counsel of Austin bars and restaurants
Kareem Hajjar is a proud native Austinite. When asked where he was from, he said, “Seton [Medical Center Austin], second floor.” After his father instilled a love of real estate from an early age, Hajjar went to The University of Notre Dame for his undergraduate degree, and ended up back in Austin to attend law school at The University of Texas.
As a young attorney, Hajjar found his niche representing local restaurants and bars. Hajjar is the principal at Hajjar Sutherland Peters & Washmon LLP, which represents more than 300 bars and restaurants all over Texas.
Hajjar’s participation in the culinary world does not stop with his law practice, as he serves on the board of the Sustainable Food Center and the board of the Hill Country Conservancy.
What made you want to practice law?
It was either going to be investment banking or real estate of some kind, and that was from a really early age. I was always attracted to both. When I got into [The University of Texas], it was something I couldn’t pass up.
I came here and still was sort of unsure my first year in law school whether I was going to leverage it to go into banking somehow or if I was actually going to practice [law]. But I started clerking at a real estate law firm my first year and never thought about banking again.
What about real estate was attractive to you?
My father is a local small-business owner. We owned a local swimming pool business. One of the things he did right was he got me involved in investing at a really early age. He started showing me about stocks and investments at age 7, and as long as I can remember, we would read the business page together.
I understood that if I invested this much money, I would get this much money, and I didn’t have to do anything.
I always had a little job at some point—I was always working doing something—so I always had a little bit of money. He opened an account for me and we started making trades together. The first stock I ever bought was Mirage Resort. The reason I bought it was they opened the Treasure Island, and I liked pirates.
Real estate is very much the same. You’re identifying something that can hopefully make money without having to do anything. As my dad eloquently said, ‘Your money works while you’re sleeping.’
You have a lot better baseline of what it is that you’re buying and getting into with real estate (than stocks), so it makes for a really nice investment, and when it comes to being a lawyer in real estate, to me, when dealing with titles and entitlements, it seems like a crossword puzzle. If you like crossword puzzles, you’ll love real estate law.
At the end of the day, you’re still dealing in a finite box. Every project has something that is special to that one project, but you’re still dealing with an effective finite set of rules. It’s always fun trying to find new ways to deal with those issues within the set of rules that you’re given.
How did you come to have so many bars and restaurants as clients?
I was a young lawyer, and I met a young broker who was putting together a deal, and that deal ended up being Doc’s Motorworks on South Congress Avenue.
I was barely out of law school at the time I represented Doc’s, but they were ecstatic with the work. They hadn’t seen work like that before, and shortly thereafter, I started representing all of Waterloo Icehouse because one of the owners of Doc’s is an owner of Waterloo.
At that point, there wasn’t anyone representing bars and restaurants. I just started doing it and getting more and more clients because there was not anyone else doing what I was doing.
There was no counsel that was specifically geared toward their needs, and over time as the issues became more and more widespread, people started calling and saying, ‘Hey, I need corporate documents, and I understand you represent bars and restaurants.’
What special needs do restaurants and bars have?
What makes them unique is they have legal issues across the board. It’s not like any other retail use. They employ more people, they have more customers, and they create noises and smells.
They have more lawsuits dealing with wrongful termination, they get slip-and-falls and there wasn’t anybody at the time who was doing it, so they were sort of like a man without a country.
After realizing that this niche existed, I really embraced it. They are the best clients. They are so hardworking. They understand the value of a dollar. You can’t own a bar or restaurant and be lazy. If you are, you won’t own a bar or restaurant for very long. They are a great client to have, and I am blessed to have this group of clients.
Were you interested in the restaurant world before you started to do this?
I was a barista for a while in college, but no. I don’t think there’s a guy alive who doesn’t want to own a bar, but they don’t understand how much work it is, whether it’s an 800-square-foot bar or an 8,000-square-foot bar. Now that I know what I know, I definitely don’t want to own one anymore. I will leave it to the people who will do it much better than I would.
How did you learn to account for all the different types of law you need to use to represent these clients?
At this point, I’ve been doing it 10 years, and it’s not all me. There’s a firm that’s behind me. I represent them in all of their corporate and real estate transactions, but we have counsel here that will help them with litigation, we have counsel that will help them with those employment disputes and [Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission] issues, so it’s not just Kareem Hajjar: One Man Band. There’s nine of us now that in some form or fashion are representing them.
I get the vast majority of the credit because I’m doing the most visible work, but there’s a lot more to it.
A collection of Hajjar’s clients
- 219 West
- C. Hunts Ice House
- Dickey’s Barbecue Pit
- Doc’s Motorworks
- Hunan Ranch
- J. Black’s
- PhoNatic Vietnamese Cuisine
- Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q
- Texican Cafe
- Thunderbird Coffee
- Uchi and Uchiko
- Wahoo’s Fish Taco
- Waterloo Ice House
- Bridget Dunlap, owner of several Rainey Street bars
- Carmack Concepts
- G’Raj Mahal
- Key Bar
- Lavaca Street Bar
- Royal Blue Grocery