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The Bali Hai: A family affair

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A San Diego landmark, the Bali Hai Restaurant opened in 1955 by restaurateur Tom Ham on the then newly-constructed Shelter Island. Family-owned and operated for more than five decades, Ham's vision continues today through his daughter, Susie Baumann, and her husband, Larry, and sons, Grant and Andy.

The Bali Hai celebrated its grand re-opening in April after a $3.5 million renovation. Susie looks back fondly on this bayside icon and how she and her family are striving to wow a new generation of diners.

Q: What is the secret to succeeding as a family-run business?

A: When you have a family-run business, customers expect to see you at the restaurant. They want to feel a connection with our family.

The members of our family bring different interests and strengths to the business. We try to separate our jobs, so that we don't step on each other. We meet once a week and discuss everything. Sometimes these meetings are heated, but we try to come to consensus and leave the meeting united.

Q: When did it open, and how did you get your start at the restaurant?

A: The Bali Hai Restaurant opened as Christian's Hut in 1953. Within the first six months the business was in trouble. My father came to the restaurant as an accountant for one of the investors from Los Angeles. My dad almost instantly fell in love with the restaurant business; the contact with each customer and the challenge to make their experience personal and special. He convinced his boss that he should run the restaurant. Over the next 15 years, my dad bought stock and eventually owned controlling shares.

The restaurant business is very time demanding. As a teenager, if I wanted to be with my dad, I went to work. I started working as a hostess when I was 15. It is the only job I have ever had.

When our children were old enough, they all worked for a time at the Bali Hai. Two of them now work for us, Grant is our general manager and Andy is the bar manager.

Q: What would you say are the top three contributing factors to the Bali Hai's longevity?

A: We are a family-owned and operated restaurant. We have personal relationships with many of our customers. They feel comfortable and special at the Bali Hai.

The Bali Hai is woven into the memories of many San Diego families. Grandmothers came here for their birthdays, parents had their prom dinner here, some were married here and many on their 21st birthday had their first Mai Tai at the Bali Hai. We have a history in this community and each family has their special story.

The view out the windows is magnificent and the skyline tells the story of San Diego. Many can remember when the El Cortez was the tallest building on the skyline. Look at our beautiful skyline today.

Q: How has Bali Hai tried to stay current and change with the times?

A: The most important thing we have done is involve the third generation in management. They keep us young and bring youthful ideas into the business. We just spent over $3.5 million to make this San Diego icon the most unique and beautiful restaurant in the city. We also hired a great chef, Christopher Powell.

Q: Why do you think San Diegans were so attracted to tiki culture in the 1950s and continue to be today?

A: The tiki culture thrived in the '50s and Shelter Island had that special Polynesian flare. It was like driving to Hawaii. Most of the "tiki temples" from the '50s are gone, so the Bali Hai is one of the few places you can go out in a Hawaiian shirt and enjoy the best Mai Tai.

Q: If there's one piece of advice you'd offer a new restaurateur, what would it be?

A: To be able to last in this business you just have to have a passion for the business. The best part of your day is when it is so busy you get to bus tables. Hard work, but rewarding. It is a hands-on business.

Connect with Susie at sbbalihai@aol.com or Twitter.com/BaliHaiSD.

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