HOUSTON - Tilman Fertitta just arrived by private jet from the NASA launch in Florida, and he was hungry.
So the chairman, chief executive officer, and sole owner of Landry's Restaurants Inc., walked to Willie G's Steakhouse & Seafood about a block from his corporate headquarters here Monday.
"Mmmm, that's good. Y'all did a good job on it," said Fertitta, chewing on a sliver of chicken. He had requested adding the dish to the menu four days earlier. "It has great flavor. You can taste the sear, and it's real good."
What Fertitta (pronounced Fer-tee-ta) didn't like was the plate's name. The boss wanted it changed to pan-seared chicken chop from pan-roasted chicken.
"If I read that, I would think I was just getting some plain chicken breast," Fertitta said in a Texas drawl. "You got to tell the story in what you call it on the menu. Right, George?"
"Absolutely, Sir," said George Kanaan, Willie G's general manager. "We'll change the name."
Such attention to detail is why Fertitta, 53, is a billionaire. His latest acquisition - the Trump Marina Casino Hotel in Atlantic City for $40 million - goes before the New Jersey Casino Control Commission Monday for final approval.
It will be Fertitta's third casino - adding to his Golden Nugget in Las Vegas and one in Laughlin, Nev. - run under Fertitta Entertainment Inc. Landry's owns 250 restaurants in 32 states, six hotels, a convention center in Galveston, and a 50-acre amusement park in Kemah, Texas. Fertitta also owns a Bentley/Rolls-Royce dealership next to his corporate office.
Landry's owns 52 brands, including some of the biggest restaurant chains in the country, such as Chart House, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Saltgrass, Claim Jumper, Big Fish, and Rainforest Cafe.
With a stable of restaurants and hotels, "it was just natural for us to get into the gaming business," Fertitta said.
He built his empire from scratch, one deal and one turnaround at a time. Just don't call the born-and-bred Texan a restaurateur.
"I'm a deal guy," he said. "I buy companies, and a lot of them just happen to be restaurant companies. I'm as much a real estate developer. We own over $500 million in real estate," not including casinos.
His niche: "I buy stuff that's broken."
"I believe you have to eat the weak," Fertitta said with a chuckle, his eyes gleaming as he sat at Willie G's with Landry's general counsel, Steve Scheinthal, and chief financial officer, Richard Liem, for the late lunch. "Obviously, the Trump [in Atlantic City] properties are very weak, all of 'em."
Liem calls Fertitta a "deal junkie." His biggest was taking Landry's private last year, in a deal worth $1.4 billion.
"I like the deal, the action," Fertitta said. "I like redeveloping something, and that's what Atlantic City is all about."
The deal junkie secured the Trump Marina earlier this year at a fraction of what it was going for a few years ago - $270 million in 2009 and $316 million in 2008 by then suitor Coastal Marina L.L.C., of New York. That was before the economy tanked and Atlantic City's casino revenue fell because of competition from Pennsylvania casinos.
Fertitta said an operator has to spend money to make money. Landry's invested $300 million in the Las Vegas Golden Nugget's renovation after buying it in 2005. With 2,400 rooms, it is running at more than 90 percent occupancy.
Fertitta flew to and from Orlando on his jet last Monday to watch a close friend, astronaut Mark Kelly, take off. While he has the expensive toys - including a helicopter and a three-story yacht - the father of four is not flamboyant or flashy. At Willie G's, he was dressed in black jeans, a matching T-shirt, and casual loafers.
"I'm a really normal person for the life I lead," he said.
His entire senior management team has been with him for 20 years or more.
"The reason that Landry's is successful is because we have a culture that I hold everybody accountable," he said.
Gaming, lodging, and hospitality analyst Andrew Zarnett of Deutsche Bank AG, had praise for Fertitta.
"Whether it's one of his restaurants or the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, he is extremely good at operations," he said.
David M. Jacquin, of North Point Advisors, a San Francisco mergers-and-acquisitions consulting firm, has worked with Landry's on several deals, including its acquisition of Rainforest Cafe for $60 million in 2000. Jacquin said the once-struggling chain was now probably worth $400 million.
The list goes on: Fertitta bought Chart House in 2002 for $40 million, now worth about $250 million; Saltgrass that same year for $75 million, now worth $300 million to $350 million; Claim Jumper in December for $43 million, which now could fetch $150 million to $200 million.
"That's how he has become a billionaire," Jacquin said.
The fourth floor at Landry's corporate headquarters is known as "Design and Development." There are pieces of sample tiles, fabrics, and carpet everywhere, as Landry's restaurants and hotels are constantly being redone. A large conference room is devoted to the $100 million Trump Marina conversion into Golden Nugget Atlantic City. Renderings of a new pool, spa, restaurants, lounges, and hotel rooms, are spread over a giant table, which Fertitta has pored over daily for months.
"I think with Harrah's [Resort], the Borgata, the Golden Nugget, the Revel opening up, there's going to be enough destination locations that people are going to want to come to Atlantic City," he said. "It is a gamble.
"But that's what we do - we buy things that are broken and fix them."