Fast food, Donovan's restaurateur Dan Shea and his plain-spoken passions
By Fred Dickey
Dec 26, 2016
Fast food, Donovan's restaurateur Dan Shea and his plain-spoken passions
How do I accomplish an interview with a man who has no interest in doing it? My subject is a very private guy who would pull the plug on any spotlight aimed at him; he’s someone who would force a smile at fluttery chatter at a PR event, then duck out.
My only chance is to talk about what I know is important to him: a rigid belief in straight talk, a commitment to hard work and a faith that “honor” is an everyday word. He also thinks that being rich just to be rich is a waste of money.
He would like to see these convictions spread the way missionaries spread the Gospel.
Now we’re talkin’.
He’s Dan Shea, 63, father of four and married to Sally. He’s the co-owner, with partner Don Wollan, of 140 fast-food restaurants nationally and the two high-end Donovan’s restaurants in San Diego, plus one in Phoenix, where by reputation you get what you pay for — and you pay a lot.
Shea lives large in Fairbanks Ranch, where the very rich stable their horses and Porsches, where golden teenagers smash tennis balls while approving parents smile at such a beautiful world.
However, he hails from Okawville, a town so insignificant it doesn’t appear on some maps. It’s the sort of place that would cause a titter in a Manhattan cocktail party, to which Okawvillians would respond, “Kiss our asphalt.”
Okawville is a village in rural southern Illinois, a quiet outpost of what urbanized sociologists would describe as used-to-be Americana, and to which residents would respond, “Still should be.”
The population is 1,400, including four blacks and two Asians. There is no traffic light, but also no crime, at least little that would cause lights to flash on San Diego’s squad cars. The last murder was about 30 years ago, a long-timer vaguely recalls.
In Okawville, birds will not let you sleep on summer mornings. Dogs will stop and scratch in the middle of the street. Deputies will drive a drunk home, not jail him. And people who move away usually miss it.
Poets write feelingly about the Okawvilles, not the Fairbanks Ranches.
If an Okawville kid is rude to a teacher, he or she “bears watching.” Donald Trump won the town’s vote in a landslide (actually, more of a tsunami), and San Diego would be seen as a “nice place to visit, but ...”
Okawville is a greater distance from Fairbanks Ranch than miles can measure, but Dan Shea made the trip. But you might not know it because he wouldn’t volunteer the information. He’s almost Buddha-esque (a new word; you’re welcome) about pointless chatter, and he considers talk about himself trivial. If he hired a PR guy, he’d probably have him bussing tables.
If you were in a job interview with Shea, he’d scare you to death. He doesn’t talk small. He’s got some grump in him. He would ask stiletto questions backed by an unsmiling eye-lock. You would feel like the dumbest person in the world.
His leading question would not be, “What are you willing to do for me?” It would be, “What are you willing to do for you?”
What you would not be privy to is hearing his voice soften when he talks about cancer-afflicted children or homeless, old people out in the cold. You would be unaware that his eyes redden upon hearing of good people losing to long odds not of their making. And you would not see the checks sent quietly and unbidden to those people.
Let’s return to Okawville. Shea’s father, Pat, moved his family of eight children to the village about a half-century ago because he found a house he could rent for $60 per month. He was a retired Air Force non-com who worked stacking shelves at a grocery store. The family was poor, but Pat was a good man, respected in the community.
And idolized by his son. “He was a soft-spoken, big-hearted person. I just loved him to death.”
Although Pat had a low-paying job, Dan looked up to his dad for his honesty, humor and sympathy for those even less well-off than he. And this is something Dan remembers fondly about Okawville: Even though Pat and his family were poor, he and they were respected for the lives they led, not the money they had to spend.
Shea remembers: “All the older children contributed to the family. At age 10, my part was the $3 a week I got for mowing the empty lot next door. That $12 per month made an important contribution to our rent.”
Has it occurred to you that your father might have considered himself a failure?
Shea counters the question: “He considered himself a poor man. He was always against any kind of risk, and it was always us against ‘them.’”
Was he a typical survivor of the Depression, fearful of poverty?
Often, successful people who grow up poor in small towns associate those places with bad memories. And without question, small towns can be nasty places with no place to hide for someone looked down upon.
Shea is different. To him, it’s still home, and he savors the memories, probably because of the respect his parents earned in town and how that carried over to the family.
Dan was just another kid around town. He was not first in anything except for being unnoticed. If his class had held an election for most likely to succeed, he would have been a write-in candidate. People must have assumed he’d settle into the gentle undulation of small-town life: perhaps be a letter carrier, maybe run a gas station.
Years later, he anonymously endowed a scholarship in the name of his high school science teacher. And can you guess why? For flunking Dan. Well, there was more to the man than that, but it was a wake-up call that Dan learned to appreciate.
When the Okawville newspaper wanted to profile Shea and his success, he declined, telling the paper that from what they had told him, they wanted to write about a local guy who got rich. Not interested. He would have agreed only if the story might be useful to young people, such as the values to be learned right there in Okawville.
Once out of high school, Shea earned college money in the most logical way for a poor kid from the sticks: He joined the Army. Along the way, he got into one of those youthful marriages that have no place to go. The breakup was about ambition boundaries: She wanted hers around southern Illinois, he didn’t want any.
Discharged, he enrolled at a satellite campus of Southern Illinois University. Not Harvard on the Mississippi, by the way, but a respectable school. He studied economics before going off to do battle with an unafraid world.
Mindful of the fancy education of those he rubbed elbows with, he compensated by becoming a lifelong reader, delving into thinkers such as that mental muscle-builder Viktor Frankl whose philosophic writings range from heaven to hell.
Before we accompany Shea into the marketplace, you need to understand more about his make-up. He reminds me of an old Scots-Irish prayer that’s foundational to the type of people in his early life: “Lord, grant that I may always be right, for thou knowest I am hard to turn.”
That’s Shea: He can be stubborn as hell. To quote another from that same socio-genetic pool, Davy Crockett: “First make sure you’re right, then go ahead.”
That’s the sort of thinking Shea was raised on and, as they say, “it took.”
Once you dig your heels in, you’re not likely to seek a compromise, are you?
“I don’t compromise easily, but there’s always a time when you have to,” he says.
I bet you’re a tough negotiator.
“I don’t blink easily. When you want the deal that’s on the table, you have to be willing to walk out of the room and let the door close behind you, and then walk very slowly to the elevator. You hope they’re going to open that door and say, ‘Let’s talk one last time.’ And if they don’t, you got to be smart enough to walk back in and say, ‘I’m going to give you one last opportunity.’”
There comes a time when you have to keep walking.
“Yeah, there is.”
Today, as a sometimes player in San Diego public affairs, Shea is the same guy.
What public issues, aside from business, are important to you?
“The fair treatment of people. I couldn’t care less about being politically correct, but I think it’s important that everybody has the same rights of everyone else, including the gay community and people of color. I think it’s people who can’t defend themselves, it’s people who get preyed upon.
“I see politics as an ugly game that doesn’t interest me much. I have the ability, and from time to time I use it, to call out something that’s really bad. And I don’t hesitate to do it, and it doesn’t bother me who gets pissed off at me.”
What is the “ability” you mention?
“What are they going to do to me? I’ve had people say to me, ‘I will never go to your restaurant again,’ and I say, ‘OK, I’ll miss you.’ Really, politically, a lot of people in town are cautious and walk on eggshells, and sometimes they have to. But I’m not one of them.”
Whenever he sees politicians marching in lockstep for a cause he thinks unworthy, he has an urge to disrupt the parade.
In 2007, he wrote an opinion article excoriating what he called the “political hacks” that he believed were leading Mayor Jerry Sanders astray. The issues have moved on, but here’s an insight into Shea’s “Davy Crockett” mind.
“Jerry Sanders is a decent man, but he has been the victim of some appallingly bad political advice. This advice (is) dispensed by retreads from the (Susan) Golding administration … the advice handed out by these political hacks (had) one central thought: The mayor should appease wild man City Attorney Mike Aguirre (and) avoid tackling hard issues ...”
This is the type of red-meat bluntness applauded by many who get disgusted by politicians’ mush-mouthing.
Another random example is the recent mini-flap over the Bill Walton statue. Though Shea had nothing to do with the creation of the very expensive bronze statue, his admiration for the basketball great caused him to surge to the front of the effort to have it placed gratis at the San Diego International Airport. The airport art committee turned down the offer.
His scorn for the airport’s history of spending big bucks for head-scratching abstract art was withering.
Mainly, though, his interest is supporting small foundations and groups devoted to children in need, the homeless and the poor. He wanders unpredictably across the needs landscape, stopping to put his money and attention into whatever touches him.
Back to the early days.
After college in the early ’70s, he got a starter job at Stouffer’s, a large hospitality company. In his short time there, he learned that a bit player can sink into invisibility. He was disadvantaged by not being handsome and 6-foot-2, with a low handicap, a smooth manner and a Stanford class ring. (Don’t kid yourself, those things count.)
But he also learned something that opened his eyes about the corporate world: It doesn’t always pay to be harder working or smarter than the “system” expects or wants you to be.
Shea realized he sometimes could analyze situations before others got around to it, but his opinion would go unheard. Being really smart only helps when others also realize it and are not threatened by it. It taught him early on that his future would be safe only to the degree he had control of it. So he left Stouffer’s. And promptly ended up out of money, out of prospects and living in his car.
Next Monday: From Okawville to Fairbanks Ranch is “a hard road to travel.”
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at email@example.com