Brandon Cash Says He's a Clown. His Critics Say He's a Bigot. Will His Customers Keep Coming Back?
The show must (?) go on
As COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket and the city's bars and clubs return to lockdown, a prominent and successful Austin bar owner has responded with blatant racism and misogyny – after having already weathered a storm back in 2017 prompted by similar social media mischief. This time, Unbarlievable owner Brandon Cash unleashed a torrent of posts targeting Mayor Steve Adler, Black Lives Matter protesters, and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
On June 21, during the three weeks that Texas bars had been allowed to reopen, TABC shut down the West Sixth Street location of Cash's Unbarlievable (the original location is on Rainey Street) and three other Austin bars as violators of state COVID-19 restrictions. Gov. Greg Abbott then again shut down all Texas bars on June 26; in an interview with the Chronicle, Cash indicated that his issues with TABC were resolved quickly and that Unbarlievable is permitted to reopen once Abbott lifts his current restrictions. In his online response, Cash was much less calm, embracing natural selection rather than social distancing, while also finding time to disparage BLM protests against racial injustice and police violence (a sample: "The media and social justice bitches need to jump off a cliff").
Shades of déjà vu? Cash became locally notorious in 2017 with a similar flurry of racist, misogynist, and Islamophobic responses to online reviews for his then-new Rainey Street bar. Cash expounded on how dissatisfied customers shouldn't bring prostitutes to his bar, defended a bartender for serving beers in the formation of a swastika, asked for a tan/brown small human to sell "chicle" at his bar, and openly suggested that a female reviewer's daughter would "get grabbed by the pussy."
This prompted an unusually intense public backlash, with protests, petitions, and press conferences, all aimed at holding Cash accountable. "I can remember there was a protest that was scheduled to be held in front of his bar. He put up some big banner that said he was sorry," said Ben Siegel, owner of Banger's Sausage House and Beer Garden on Rainey.
After the deluge of negative attention, Cash capitulated to public pressure, issuing multiple apologies, asking for forgiveness from the community, and even hanging a "We're Sorry Austin" sign from his bar.
In a June 2017 statement issued through his publicist, Cash said, "My words and actions were wrong, inappropriate and inexcusable. They certainly don't exemplify the values of a community that I love and care deeply about and my insensitive actions do not represent the views of my loyal and dedicated employees."
"Most of the businesses on the street put up a social media post that just said 'Bars Against Bigotry.' We all posted that in unison, and it made national news and it was like, 'There's no way this guy's going to survive this.' And then it just seemed like nobody cared," said Siegel.
Business As Usual
That seems to be the lesson Cash learned from his public shaming: People grow tired of caring. The tsunami of negativity abated, and his business returned to normal. "One of the biggest mistakes I made in the original protest was letting my PR company issue an apology. I feel like it just backfired and made me look guilty. I don't think I'm going to make that mistake again," Cash told the Chronicle.
"I'd never been through that [before] in 2017. I didn't know what to do," Cash added. "It was a scary time, you know? Going through all of the mediations, and the attacks and what-have-you on our bar, seeing that we were a very young business." Cash told us his concern wasn't just for himself, but "for the staff, the street, and everything. What was being [put] out there ... it was just not a good look. And you can call me an asshole, a douchebag, or whatever. But I'll fight to the end of my breath [to show] that I'm not a racist. Putting those things out there, in my mind, brings racism to life, more than letting it die."
And yet, in June during the BLM protests, Cash posted multiple pictures and videos on social media that many felt were plenty racist, such as a post announcing Unbarlievable's anniversary celebration (and the new West Sixth location) with "Gonna have barbeque'd protestors on the menu." His most recent slew of online remarks has galvanized a group of activists against him, and although his social media accounts have since gone private, his words remain archived on the internet.
Nic Sanchez and Alex Walter founded a website called Shut Down Brandon Cash that aggregates Cash's history of bigoted statements and hosts a petition to shut down Unbarlievable; it has been signed by over 22,000 people. "He made some terrible comments on Black Lives Matter, and that was just the last straw for me. I had seen it two years ago, but I wanted to get more involved this time. We wanted to bring awareness to his actions and what he was saying," Sanchez said.
But Cash seems to relish and even thrive on the negative attention. His social media following grew quickly after both the 2017 and 2020 outbursts, and a cohort of supporters leapt to his defense, some sporting trash bags to parody the "Brandon Cash Is Trash" trending hashtag. When the Chronicle asked if the 2017 firestorm helped generate sales for his fledgling bar, Cash said, "It definitely didn't hurt. It's hard to say, but people gravitated to the concept."
In light of that, Cash appears confident that the current controversy will play out to his advantage. After TABC shut him down in June, he retracted his previous apologies and showed no remorse. In his post, "I'm tired of being quiet... I ain't sorry for shit!!! Never fucking was!!! I'm gonna say whatever the fuck I wanna say and do whatever the fuck I wanna do and if you don't like it you can get fucked!!! You know why... bc this is fucking America! If you don't like it get the fuck out! The media and social justice bitches need to jump off a cliff. Every loser/protestor with a cause needs to mind their own god damn business before they get smacked in the face with the fucking keyboard. Get a fucking life! Never been more un-proud to be an American."
Cash insists that if he has a negative public image, it comes from media coverage and not his own efforts. "The narrative that is out there couldn't be further from the truth. And again, you can call me an asshole, call me a comedian, whatever. But this racism narrative has absolutely no merit to it. It was a fabricated attack from 2017 that has resurfaced due to the success of the business and us opening a new location."
In 2001, Brandon Cash was an 18-year-old Austin native studying architectural engineering at UT and working as a busboy at the local Cajun restaurant Gumbo's. He began climbing the hospitality ladder, from washing dishes to waiting tables and, upon turning 21, tending bar. By the time he was 23, Cash had already become a partner/owner in his first bar, before choosing to step away from the scene while working a management job for DPR Construction.
According to Cash, when he was laid off in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, he opted to give the bar scene another try. Beginning with a campus bar called the Rooftop, Cash would grow a small empire that included partnerships in the Rooftop on Sixth, Rooftop on the Square, the Aquarium, and the Goodnight. In 2017, he opened the circus-themed Unbarlievable on Rainey Street.
While all of Cash's bars have been successful, Unbarlievable quickly took his fortunes to a new level; its liquor sales routinely rank among the top five for license holders in Travis County. It outsells massive venues like Circuit of the Americas and Omni Barton Creek Resort; the only licensee to consistently outpace it is the JW Marriott, which has five separate bars. The small bar in an old house with a giant giraffe and a rowdy brand ("Unbelievable. Decidedly Offbeat, Shrouded In Eclecticism And Whimsy – It's A Show And A Space That Forbids You To Take Anything Seriously") may seem gimmicky and rickety, but it's a well-oiled machine that generates astronomical profits for its size. "His bars, like Unbarlievable, bring in a month what one of my bars brings in a year," said Tim Lupa, general manager of Drinks Lounge.
Cash is not humble about this. "We came into that Rainey Street District and really broke the mold and rocked the boat. And we're doubling and tripling [the sales of] a lot of the other establishments. As you can imagine and have witnessed, I didn't make any friends on that street."
Despite acting the clown on social media, Cash's management style is closer to PT Barnum in his ability to turn profits. Unbarlievable is tailor-made to get people through the door: Slides, sex toy machines, and $100 Moscow mules bring in bachelorette parties like moths to the flame. And yet Cash enforces a zero-tolerance drinking policy for his staff, demands rigid cleanliness, and headhunts for the city's best bartenders – outgoing, fun, with large groups of regulars.
"A lot of places are run professionally and some aren't; you'd be shocked to find out that [Cash's] are run really well," an ex-employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, told the Chronicle. "It's one of the most tightly run bars that I've worked at, but it's the staff that really makes the place. I mean, they aren't reinventing the wheel with a carnival-themed bar – it's the staff."
Cash agrees this is part of the secret to his success. "Regardless of how the media portrays me, there's a lot of really bad operators business-wise and morally and ethically," he said. He, on the other hand, works at "not being a complete piece of garbage and treating your staff with respect, and rewarding them, and actually taking an interest in their lives." Without a hint of irony, Cash continued: "I think it's a level of respect and a level of professionalism that I try to maintain. We also don't put up with drama and a lot of things that go on in normal businesses."
It's not just uninformed tourists and bachelorette parties on Rainey that keep Unbarlievable hopping. Despite Cash's bad reputation, a large portion of patrons are local. After Austin bars reopened but while travel was still at a standstill during the pandemic, "his bar is packed, so that tells me that it's not tourists on Rainey," said KC Hensley, a hospitality industry veteran and advocate. "I don't know what happens inside of his business that people love, but I believe he's found a base, if you will, of people that share the same point of view as him."
The success of Unbarlievable baffles other Rainey bar owners as well. "I see other bars that aren't as busy, but [people] want to wait in line for Unbarlievable," said Banger's Ben Siegel. "I do not understand why. And that's not a knock against him and the concept or all of that – it's just hard to imagine that you could be blissfully unaware" of the controversies surrounding Cash. "That every one of those people is blissfully unaware."
Austin is a haven of conscious consumerism, a place that consistently supports small, local, independent businesses over national chains. Yet the community's consciousness compass begins to spin when it comes to moral clarity among those business owners. "Does a business align with your moral values? That's not something you usually think about, especially if you're not from a marginalized community. And he's found a vein of people that just don't care about that," said C.K. Chin, partner in Wu Chow and Swift's Attic.
Money Changes Everything?
As Brandon Cash has been singled out by protesters and the media, he has been enabled by a network of shadow investors and partnerships across the Austin bar and hospitality scene. As a business partner, Cash brings a lot to the table – an impressive track record of successful concepts, a vast network of industry contacts, and importantly, his own construction business. The titular owner of Brandon Cash Construction can vertically integrate his concepts while fast-tracking permitting and maintaining cost efficiency on repairs, remodels, and new build-outs.
Along with his sales numbers, it adds up to a near-irresistible combination for financial players in the volatile hospitality industry. "Anytime you can cut out middlemen – the economy is actually booming right now. It's become increasingly more difficult to find competent architects, engineers, expediters, contractors, [and] I'm able to cut out a lot of those unknowns. My previous project delivery is definitely attractive," Cash said. "I'm now able to visualize spaces, design them, permit them, build them, and operate them."
Despite his profitability, how does Cash's penchant for controversy complicate things for his partners? The blowback from online outbursts has forced some into hard choices, whether to cut ties or stand behind Cash. Some have opted to do both. For instance, amid Cash's 2017 crisis the Goodnight's operators announced they'd bought out his share of the limited partnership behind that venue. It was not very long before he was allowed back in as a partner, a title he holds today.
Lion's Share Hospitality has also claimed that it bought Cash out of his stake in the West Sixth bar Stereotype. Partner Matt Wolski wrote to Alex Walter of the Shut Down Brandon Cash website with a correction: "Brandon was initially a partner in Stereotype, but [was] quickly removed after the initial issues at Unbarlievable in 2018 and no longer has any relationship with the venue." (Whether Wolski meant 2017, or that Cash wasn't bought out until 2018, is unclear. The site had also listed Parlor & Yard as a Cash operation, but Wolski wrote to Walter that Cash "has zero affiliation with our venue.")
Perhaps the biggest question mark about Cash's business interests hangs over the old Miller Blueprint building at 501 W. Sixth, where Brandon Cash Construction has been building a four-story entertainment hub for four separate hospitality concepts. The property, valued at $15.9 million this year by the Travis Central Appraisal District (a jump from a pre-renovation $4.3 million in 2019), is owned by the Miller Family Foundation, the nonprofit created by the proprietors of the century-old print shop that now does business (as Miller Imaging and Digital) off East Seventh Street. The Foundation gave a long-term lease for Cash and his partners at the Goodnight LLC, effectively making them the current proprietors for the entire building. "I'm sort of the landlord entity," said Cash.
Nova Hospitality, an Austin-based restaurant operator, has already opened its sushi restaurant, TenTen, on the building's ground level, with plans to open a Victorian-themed nightclub called Mayfair on the third level. Nova pulled all information on Mayfair off its website following Cash's recent flare-up. The building will also feature a future bowling and bull-riding venue, called simply Bowl and Bull, on the second floor, where the Goodnight – also a bowling bar – was originally slated to relocate. It's the first concept by B&B Hospitality, a brand-new Austin-based hospitality group headed by Daniel Borelli, with the Bowl and Bull LLC belonging to Jeremy Levy.* The venue was most recently slated to open August 1.
Not All Fun and Games
The backlash against Cash has not only affected his business dealings. "My poor mother going through this, it's obviously not an ideal situation for the family or friends," he told us. "I got physically threatened. It's very easy to spit negativity from behind your keyboard."
It's worth noting that Cash's own strong opinions burst out in public posts on Facebook and on business pages about his bars – not in private conversations or personal messages. They were meant to be seen, and they – more than anything else – have made Cash a public figure. "I guess I've got a voice, obviously, that people will attach to, given the media coverage," he said. "I wish that wasn't the case. I wish I could just go about doing my own business and not get attacked. [It's] unfortunate for the way I want to live my life. But yeah, people take concern with what I have to say and what I'm doing."
Seeing himself as the victim of a biased narrative, Cash doesn't agree that he could avoid this drama if he just kept his mouth shut. "Anyone that wants to search out negativity is going to find it, [but] nothing that I put out has anything malicious behind it. I'm not trying to hurt anyone," he said. "The people that know me, that should be following my social media – that I actually care about – they understand [that] I'm joking around [and] that a lot of that stuff was cropped and manipulated to fit a narrative. Obviously, I don't want racist undertones being tied to my business, or Austin, or myself. I wish I could change that in some way. But I don't have the solution there."
It's true that many people who know Cash personally – employees, partners, and associates – have been quick to defend him as a genuine, good-hearted person and loyal friend. "As a person of color, I never felt mistreated by him," says another former employee who asked that the Chronicle not use their name. "He hired me [and] gave me a home and a family when I knew no one here. I really look up to the guy. I've also never worked in a bar with a more hardworking owner who constantly helped do the support work. He's the type of owner whose employees want to work for them."
These people who know Cash personally see his outbursts as those of a cartoonish alter-ego spouting off absurdities he doesn't truly mean. While there is no shortage of employees and associates who hold more critical views of Cash, it is difficult for them to speak out because of Cash's influence and connections within the bar scene. "It's the same thing with Trump," said Siegel. "People say, 'Well, we agree. He's a bigot and he's crude and he says monstrous things, but ...' Somehow, there's always something that's more important than that. And that's the thing I just don't fucking understand. You look at Brandon Cash, and you look at his bars, and what he's said, and there's something that's just more important to these people than that. I just don't know what's more important than morality."
Cash's solipsistic take on the course of events suggests he may not fully understand how toxic and corrosive his words are to others. "I'm a jokester. I'm a comedian. But again, if you want to try and find negativity in my things, there's nothing that I've ever posted with just malicious intent. It's all in fun," said Cash. "And if you compile these things and crop them and manipulate them into a narrative, then you're going to be able to. But the people that know me and understand my sarcasm can get beyond the negative ... They appreciate the lightheartedness and [that] I'm able to joke around and poke fun at my own businesses ... of white people just as much as anyone else, and I poke fun at myself online. And none of that stuff gets picked up."
That's not how some of Cash's fellow business owners see the state of play. "Symbols are powerful and you have to decide," said C.K. Chin. "If word got out about a restaurant having a dirty kitchen or health violations, then people would not spend money there. People have clear views on health standards but, for whatever reason, not moral standards. I lead with love, humility, and positivity and would rather people focus on positive businesses. We as consumers are the lifeblood of the small business, [and] at a time when all businesses are hurting, now is a perfect time to consciously spend your money at positive restaurants."
If Unbarlievable emerges relatively unscathed, even after a run-in with TABC, it will be among a painfully small number of hardy survivors of the pandemic. Most bars that haven't already gone out of business are hanging on by a thread, but "I'm definitely planning on opening more locations," said Cash. "I couldn't be more confident in my staff and Unbar concept. So yes, I absolutely anticipate future attacks. And no, it will absolutely not stop me from continuing to move forward and opening new units."
As locals become ever more keenly aware of the power of their patronage, they – along with alcohol suppliers and event sponsors – could yet still distance themselves and their money from Cash and his enterprises. That's what Ben Siegel would like to see. "Normally I don't want to talk about another bar owner on the street, but he's a fucking bigot, man. It's just not okay. What he's doing is not okay. And doing nothing, saying nothing, being unwilling to talk because whatever repercussion or just not wanting drama, all the infinite reasons I could give for not doing it ... I felt duty bound to speak out."
Editor's note: This story has been updated since publication to correct an erroneous description of Jeremy Levy as head chef at TenTen. According to a Nova Hospitality representative, Levy has not been affiliated with the restaurant since July 2019; Chef Jon Oh is the Culinary Director for Nova Hospitality, and Chef Harvard Aninye is the Chef de Cuisine at TenTen. The Chronicle regrets the error.