For more than two decades, Anderson, the tall and congenial accountant who turned an aging downtown steakhouse into the flagship of a successful restaurant group, was the public face of the Hereford House restaurants. But on October 31, after a high-profile trial, the 59-year-old restaurateur was found guilty of arson, mail fraud, conspiracy, and using fire to commit a federal crime.
Anderson had been charged in connection with the October 20, 2008, fire that destroyed the original Hereford House restaurant, at 2 East 20th Street, which opened in 1957. (Anderson’s two co-defendants, Vincent Pisciotta and Mark Sorrentino, were found guilty of arson, conspiracy, and using fire to commit a federal crime.) At the time of the fire, the Anderson Restaurant Group operated the four remaining Hereford House restaurants as well as the 13-year-old Pierpont’s at Union Station restaurant. Anderson’s name and image were crucial to each restaurant’s publicity and marketing.
Jim Stanislav, chief financial officer for the Anderson Restaurant Group for the past 12 years, doesn’t sound worried. “I don’t believe the negative publicity from the trial will hurt the Hereford House in the long run,” he tells me. “At least I’m praying that it won’t. I haven’t seen any backlash yet and I don’t think that we will.”
Anderson faces a prison sentence of 15—35 years. And even if he successfully appealed his convictions, he would unlikely ever play a role in his company. That leaves room for Stanislav to become the company’s face, but he says he hasn’t thought that far ahead.
“It’s too soon to tell,” Stanislav says. He adds that no decision has been made about renaming Anderson Restaurant Group. “We’re still sorting out all the details here,” he says. “We’re in the process of deciding who is going to do what in the company. The one thing that won’t change will be the day-to-day operation of the restaurants.”
For Stanislav, the core of those operations — and the reason behind the Hereford House brand’s long run — is the company’s staff. “We have employees that have been with us for over 10, 15 and 20 years, the servers, managers, bartenders who have been part of our business for 50 years,” he says. “Those are the people that our customers expect to see at the restaurants when they come in to dine.”
When the original Hereford House burned, many of the longtime employees at that location stayed with the company, moving to one of the four satellite operations — in Leawood, Zona Rosa, Shawnee and Independence.
A bigger challenge for the Hereford House restaurants than the recent trial publicity, Stanislav says, is keeping a half-century-old brand relevant in the modern, steakhouse-heavy restaurant community.
One way to keep customer loyalty has been to continue offering full-plate steak dinners, unlike the upscale beef palaces that offer primarily a la carte menus. “Our customers do not pay extra for a salad, breads and a side dish,” Stanislav reminds me. “We’ve had discussions about that in the past, but we know what our customers want, and we’ll continue to provide that level of assurance.”
During the trial of Anderson, Pisciotta and Sorrentino, two former Hereford House employees testified that Anderson had shown them, before the 2008 fire, an architectural rendering of a new building that Anderson wanted to construct on the property at 2 East 20th Street. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jess Michaelsen told the jury on the first day of the trial that Anderson was in debt and “out of options” prior to the destruction of the restaurant, yet had wanted to build a new Hereford House to compete with the Power & Light District’s upscale new venues. “Rod Anderson had a dream, a vision of what he wanted a new downtown Hereford House restaurant to look like,” Michaelsen said.
The Anderson Restaurant Group does not own the property where the original Hereford House once stood — now a narrow, grassy plot. But Stanislav does not rule out building a new Hereford House on the site.
“It’s a possibility,” he says. “Who knows?”