Ty Burrell on why he opened four bars in Utah
The Founder Series is a monthly column by and about Utah founders and how they got to where they are today. Click here to read past articles in the series.
For a really long time, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I went to junior high and high school in Applegate, Oregon―a small town with 200ish people. I played a lot of sports and was, athletically, a “big fish in a small pond” during my years there. My athletic competition was like eight people out in the country, so part of me delusionally thought I had what it took to become a professional athlete. Which is altogether kind of hilarious, in retrospect.
I had initially intended to walk on to the football team at the University of Oregon. Before the walk-on tryout, I had befriended a player on the team―we played basketball together. This guy was three times the athlete that I was and he was dunking on everyone. I found out, through casual conversation, that he never even made it onto the field for the team because he wasn’t good enough. Needless to say, my dream of being a professional athlete died a quiet death and I eventually ended up leaving the University of Oregon to figure out what I truly wanted to do with my life.
I kind of fell into my acting career
At the time, I had never really considered acting―my high school out in the country didn’t have a theater department of any kind, and I’d known no performers in my circles as a reference point. The only thing I had to go on was that after I MC’d the talent show back in high school, my father told me that ‘I should have my own talk show.’ Which was strangely specific, but I think he was trying to say that he felt like I was natural up on stage and that there was some kind of talent there. When he passed away in 1989, I kept hearing his voice in the back of my head telling me to go back to the University of Oregon and pursue acting, so I did.
It all really came out of nowhere, there was no context for my career―none of my family had any experience in the acting industry―but I am grateful that my father so passionately suggested it because I fell for it instantly, literally on the first day of my acting classes when we had been challenged to improvise Shakespearian characters. Even though I barely knew who Shakespeare was, I stood on this box and played a sort of braggadocious military captain and I somehow got a couple of laughs. And that was it for me, I knew that acting was the thing that I wanted to spend all of my time doing.
I left the University of Oregon in 1992 to finish up my undergrad at Southern Oregon University. After graduating I went to grad school at Penn State. Some actors don’t need to go to grad school, but I really needed the program. I wasn’t ready to go out into the world of acting just yet because I was unprepared both professionally, and maybe more importantly, emotionally. I was a part of a three-year scholarship program there, and it covered all of my schooling expenses, but it didn’t cover much of my living expenses.
So to make ends meet, I was living in my van and relying on the kindness of others to couch surf. Looking back, it was an incredible experience and one of the many crucibles you kind of go through before “making it” in any field, even though I was incredibly stressed about money at the time. My first “official” acting job was at a children’s theater in Pennsylvania where I played, quite literally, a singing bumblebee. I flew around barking orders while singing terribly (a career in acting does not a good singer make). I was paid $200 a week and I was over the moon. After finishing grad school, I moved to NY and did theater there and regionally for years.
My first film role was in Evolution, which was a big sci-fi comedy kind of like Ghostbusters. And while it wasn’t really a big role by film standards, it was an incredibly big role for me because there were big names like Julianne Moore and David Duchovny involved. I remember thinking, “this is the beginning of my film and tv career,” and it was. It was just a long, sputtering beginning. Like most actors, once I was done filming that project, I immediately went back to being unemployed for long stretches of time.
It was during this point in my life and career that I realized that you kind of have to be lucky, you can’t just be hardworking to be successful. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that the harder you work the luckier you get, but you just don’t know what certain opportunities are going to do for you or your career so a certain part of it boils down to luck.
I got incredibly lucky with Modern Family, and part of that luck came by way of having a really good agent, which was my big break. This might seem like a weird thing to say but the industry is totally different when a young actor has good representation.
I ended up working on Modern Family for eleven seasons, and it really was incredible to work on it for that amount of time because we really became a family. I watched Nolan Gould and Rico Rodriguez go from 10 years old to young men in their 20s, and watched the young women on the show do the same, which was really crazy―Sarah Hyland just turned 30 which seems so wild because I think she was 18 when we were auditioning together. The rest of us just got older together―much less exciting―and we’d compare notes about what it was like to decompose.
Then I ended up owning a bar
The idea to venture into the food and wine industry came during the early days of Modern Family. My wife and I were living in Utah when I wasn’t filming, and sometime after we had settled in Salt Lake. I was approached by a member of my extended family, Jeff Bernard―he’s really the reason I ended up in the restaurant industry―who had a really great idea to invest in this dive bar located in the heart of the city.
Though I was filming at the time, we had just been picked up by a network and we weren’t on the air yet. I kind of figured that the show might get canceled―I’ve worked on a lot of shows that have ended up canceled―so I was planning to come back to Salt Lake City a few months later if it did. Modern Family didn’t end up getting canceled and we opened the bar in the midst of it all.
Though I was busy, I don’t regret a thing because Bar X was such the right idea. Bar X originally opened in 1933 and legend has it that the bar was up, running, and ready to serve alcohol the day Prohibition was repealed. However, when we took it over the bar was in a state of disrepair. It had been a cool dive bar for a long time, but then in the last stretch it took an extra dive; it was in pretty bad shape but we felt like we could restore the bar to its original glory if we just gave it a little extra love.
Once we started in on that, and following the instincts of my fellow owners (I’ve learned to follow their instincts…), it became the next logical thing to open Beer Bar directly next door.
After the opening of Beer Bar, we then felt like we had a little bit more of a sense for the food and wine industry in Salt Lake City―though we were still constantly learning―and we then moved to open the Eating Establishment on Main Street in Park City.
The Eating Establishment had been owned by the same family since 1972 and it had a crazy history as well. Much like Bar X, the Eating Establishment needed a little love so we took over and spruced it up a bit.
In November 2020 we reopened The Cotton Bottom in Holladay. The goal of the purchase was the same as it was for Bar X and The Eating Establishment: to enhance the spirit of the original. They used to serve this famous garlic burger, so we rehired the same people back to the restaurant to make it exactly as it was before, and we are thrilled to be able to bring that back in its original glory.
A lot of people ask me why we are so focused on revamping these old places throughout the valley, and it’s really because we see these places as worth preserving. It’s funny, we really didn’t set out to do food and beverage, or refurbish all of these locations, but it has been a really cool experience for everybody involved. More than anything, our hope is to bring all of these locations back to their former glory, to keep the spirit alive, all while adding our own touches along the way.
I prefer working with “shirt-tail” relatives
Of course, all of these businesses’ success is really due to the hard work of my co-founders. Duncan Burrell, Richard Noel, Jeff Bernard, and Dave Hunt are all what you would call “shirt tail relatives.” Except for Duncan… he’s my brother unfortunately for him, and Dave Hunt, he’s not related but he’s ‘family’ by now. The term comes from where I grew up in Oregon, and it means that you’re somehow related to these people but it would take too long to explain exactly how.
So though it may be hard to explain how I’m related to them, there are a lot of relatives involved in the businesses, and the group really came together in kind of an impromptu way. And it sounds super improbable because mixing family and business can be hard, but for the most part, we all get along because everyone has their own roles. Dave is a contractor, Jeff handles the leases and is a good ‘idea’ guy, my brother and Rich are the craft cocktail experts and hyper-educated on beer, and are also wonderful managers of people. My focus is more on PR, marketing, and staying out of the way. We are all pretty good at occupying our own spaces and we’re usually able to get things done relatively smoothly.
When I think about our success, it’s easy to see that trust is a huge part of what makes our ownership group work so well together. I actually trust everyone, I really do trust all of my business partners and I trust that whatever they do is going to be in the best interests of the business at heart. Not only has trust been an important aspect of our team, but I really like to be around my business partners. I think everyone is good company, and we actually like to sit down and have a beer together to catch up, when our schedules allow for it anyway.
It’s always good to pick business partners who are smarter than you―I feel like I am surrounded by partners who are just constantly making good decisions. We realized early on that food and beverage can’t be something that you’re in just for profit, because it can be an incredibly risky investment. It isn’t a ‘get rich quick’ situation, that’s for sure. I think the hope is to live a life that you’re enjoying and make a living from it and that’s been the case for our businesses.
Being part of the community has also been incredible. At the time we started the project, we thought it would be really cool to give Salt Lake City its own craft cocktail bar because there wasn’t really one around, and selfishly, we all just wanted a place to get a good cocktail. Now, there are many cocktail bars in the area and we really are so thrilled. Duncan and Rich have actually trained a lot of the bartenders in the area and we love that so many of the bartenders at Bar X have moved on to start their own successful bars. We’re really proud of their accomplishments.
We have Bar X alumni all over the city and it feels very much like ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ situation in SLC. The better all of these places do, the more there is this food and drink scene that’s pulling people downtown. I think everyone’s efforts to remain connected have really paid off because everyone just sends everyone to each other’s bars. Assuming we all come through the pandemic with our businesses intact, which is a big assumption, I think we’re going to have an even bigger bar and restaurant scene in downtown SLC.
I’m not sure what’s next for me
I have a few things I’m working on right now, The Cotton Bottom is the main one locally, but I also started a television development company―I guess I had a nostalgia for constant failure because much like when I first started acting, its a hilariously rocky road to start all over again on an entirely new path.
Right now, I’m also working on an animated show called Duncanville, on Fox, which has been kind of the perfect project to work on as I debate whether or not I want to continue performing. It’s ridiculously silly and great fun and it’s been lovely to work with Amy Poehler and the creators of the Simpsons, along with a murderer’s row of a cast. I’m also developing a show with a friend of mine who is a playwright in New York, Will Eno, that I kind of imagine I’ll perform in, but I’m honestly not sure yet.
Right now, I’m kind of just enjoying the shift to Utah. My daughters are eleven and eight and I’m really enjoying being able to walk them to school and walk them home and doing all of those things that you just can’t do when you’re working on location. Ultimately, I really don’t know what’s next for me. I imagine I’ll have a sense for whether I might want to perform again in a few months because I’ll probably get antsy, but right now I guess the short answer, which has not been short in any way, is that I’m really just loving living in Salt Lake with my family.