Bellevue Business Leader Series interviews a wide range of business leaders in Bellevue. These in-depth interviews focus on how the leader got started in business and how they continue to lead today. I interviewed Joseph Brazen, owner of 520 Bar & Grill, Central Bar + Restaurant, and Managing Broker/team lead of The Brazens at Windemere Real Estate.
Brazen has not been afraid of taking risks in his career and throughout his life, in fact, taking these risks and betting on himself is what has helped him to get many opportunities and ultimately allow him the level of success that he has had.
Starting in Restaurants Since the Beginning
Brazen was born in Chicago. His dad was in the Navy, so he moved around when he was younger but ultimately settled down in Southern California. When he was 16, his parents split, and because they didn’t have much money, he got his first job. This job began Brazen’s work in the restaurant industry where he started at an Italian restaurant making $1.65 an hour as a dishwasher.
From 16 to 22 years old Brazen worked in the restaurant business. He had several jobs including being a busser, server, and bartender. One thing that stuck with him was the family environment at the restaurants. Over these six years, this was the group of friends that became his family and that he would spend most of his time with. He knew that he could always count on having a beer, laughing, and having a good meal together.
While he was working a bartending gig in Newport Beach and living in Costa Mesa, he met an Irish real estate broker named Mike Fallen that told him, “You could make more money selling real estate.” Fallen had a real estate brokerage, Tarbell Realtors, and Brazen quickly went to work for him while still bartending at night. “I did everything that he said,” Brazen said of the experience working with Fallen. In 1979, Brazen was 22 years old and found himself selling $65K homes in Anaheim, CA and with interest rates at the time pushing 18%.
Selecting a Path Forward: Hollywood or Real Estate
Although he was having success selling homes, at the time, his dream was to become a screenwriter, so he moved to Hollywood where he began taking screenwriting and acting classes while now selling real estate in Santa Monica. It was there he met what would be his future wife, Randi. After a 5-day conference called “Lifespring”, some classmates were going to Santa Monica to celebrate. On this outing, he asked Randi if she wanted to go to dessert in Malibu where they had chocolate cake and red wine. 10 weeks following the dessert, he asked Randi to marry him (spoiler alert – she said yes). Five days later, the couple got married in front of their fireplace in Studio City with 40 friends.
Brazen stopped selling real estate and was screenwriting while Randi was having a successful modeling and acting career (Randi has done over 45 TV shows and seven movies). Early on during their marriage, there was a writer’s strike which led to four months of no work, which had the couple questioning their careers as well as where they wanted to raise a family.
Because of the strike, Brazen bounced back into real estate. He was going to real estate conferences across the country, and a big one at the time was Star Power, which was put on by Howard Brinton. Every month, Brinton would choose a broker with an interesting story. In 1991, he interviewed Brazen and in Brazen’s words, “it put me on the map”.
A Flip of a Coin Brings The Brazen’s to Bellevue
The Brazen’s began taking weekend trips to scout various cities where they were interested in living, including Boulder, San Francisco, Portland, and Bellevue to check out the various lifestyles. When in Bellevue they walked the neighborhoods and visited every shop and restaurant for seven days. It felt like the place they wanted to raise their three daughters. While attending a Bellevue High football game they fell in love with the local spirit but were afraid to leave their success in California.
They read in the local paper that the newly opened Meydenbauer Center was hosting the Washington Association of Realtors annual conference. To their surprise, Howard Brinton was one of the speakers. Seeing the Brazen’s in the audience delighted Howard who introduced them to all of the attending brokers as one of his past Stars of the month and someone they wanted to know. “What the heck are you doing in Bellevue?” Howard asked. To which Brazen said, “long story”. That night the three of them had dinner where the Brazens shared their interest in Bellevue and how they were seriously thinking of relocating their young family here but were afraid they could be making a mistake leaving what they had in California. The next morning at breakfast Brinton asked if they had made a decision, to which they replied that they had not. Finally, Howard had to cut them off telling them he had to catch his plane home but that he was not going to leave until the Brazen’s made a decision. He then pulled a quarter out of his pocket and said something to the effect of, “I’m tired of you both whining so this is how we’re going to make your decision. Heads you move to Bellevue and don’t look back. Tails you stay in California.” He flips the coin and says, “call it in the air”. Quickly, at the same exact time, both Joseph and Randi shout “heads!” Suddenly Howard grabs the coin in mid-air, smiles, and says, “Congratulations, you both called heads, you’re moving to Bellevue”. 45 days later the Brazens moved to Bellevue in 1992 with their three young daughters, Cody (4), Joey (3), and Taylor (1), without any family or friends in the region.
Starting Out in Real Estate in Bellevue
Briton introduced Brazen to Bill Riss, the owner of William Bain & Associates (now called Coldwell Banker Bain) to join his real estate practice. Brazen (after 13 years as a Broker in California) was now surrounded by some of the top agents in the state of Washington., He went from “know it all” to “know nothing” and didn’t have any clients. Randi would call the office upwards of three times a day just so the other brokers in the office could hear his phone ring. To get acclimated with the community, Joseph joined every club and association that had the word Bellevue in its name and together the new transplants attended as many meetings and events as possible.
This turned out to be a trying time for Brazen and his family. After their first wet seasons (Fall and Winter) in Bellevue, Brazen had not sold a home and had nothing in his pipeline. He arrived home one night to then stay-at-home mom, Randi, who was having a meltdown with a house full of boxes signaling that she wanted to move back to California. Joseph got a babysitter for the weekend to revisit their decision and why they wanted to raise their family in Bellevue. On Monday the boxes went back into the garage and the Brazen family decided to stay in Bellevue.
Brazen got his first break, a come “list me” call. It was a man from Pasadena, California (three miles away from where the Brazens had lived in Glendale) whose mother had passed away and needed a local broker to sell her home in Medina. The son, now seller, happened to find Joseph’s contact information on a branded notepad Joseph had mailed into the neighborhood which was now next to his mom’s phone The home later sold for $320K and the Brazens celebrated their first commission check seven months after they arrived in Washington.
When the Brazens decided to move to Bellevue they were so excited to be moving that they didn’t want to wait for their home to sell back in California, so they first rented a house in West Bellevue on Meydenbauer Bay. When their home finally closed, the Brazens moved to Bridal Trails, which in Brazen’s words “was a disaster” because he didn’t realize that they would have to start all over again with new schools, new friends, new routines, and a different community. Randi and three daughters revolted; they did not want to go through all the “new family on the block” awkwardness again. The move made them all realize how much they liked Medina Elementary and the closeness of West Bellevue. Joseph went to work on finding their new home and soon found an off-market, four-bedroom fixer-upper for $395K.
Breaking Into The Community Through Medina Days
As the Brazen’s were growing their business it was also important for them to get more involved in the community. After moving to Medina they quickly volunteered to chair the Medina Elementary Halloween carnival and haunted house. It turned out to be a great way to meet a lot of the local parents and families. That same summer Medina Days was a bust because it rained all day, lost money, and the committee resigned. The mayor at the time had a son who attended Medina Elementary and had met the Brazen’s at the carnival. According to Brazen, the mayor thought he would be a good leader to revise Medina Days the following summer.
Joseph brought a new strategy to Medina Days, to get a hundred families in Medina (they were called “Patrons”) to donate $100 each, which would allow the event with $10K in funding. In the first year, they had 119 Patrons and it was a success. The Brazen’s continued to chair Medina Days for the next 8 years and it grew to over 500 Patrons annually (with $50K in contributions) and became a five-day event featuring a concert in the park, a softball tournament (dividing the city into 4 neighborhood teams), lock parties, a fishing derby, a parade, carnival, boat rides, and ending with a Saturday night firework show and dance party at Medina Beach. “As more money came in we added more activities. In those days I loved going to the mailbox and seeing all the Medina Days checks coming in from the neighborhood Patrons”. This gave Brazen an opportunity to develop deep relationships with many key members of the community over the years. Joseph joked “We finally had to move our family to Clyde Hill to get off the committee”.
Expanding Their Real Estate Brokerage
Brazen began to have more real estate success at this time and ultimately launched Brazen Group Real Estate in Bellevue with an office on Main Street, across the way from the Chevron station. As the brokerage continued to grow, Brazen began seeking a larger space.
After a failed attempt to lease office space above Tully’s in Clyde Hill, Brazen connected with Colin Radford in 2001 who let him know about a property on Main Street in Bellevue that was coming on the market. Brazen had accumulated rental properties over the years and decided to liquidate them to purchase the commercial property for their real estate office.
As the property was under contract and financed, in the last hour of escrow, the seller decided they wanted to pull out of the deal giving Brazen a scare. Ultimately the deal resumed and they were able to close.
Brazen, unfortunately, had not done his due diligence on the property. When he went to the City of Bellevue to put up a sign for his real estate office at the Main Street location, they came back and let him know that Old Bellevue had an ordinance that didn’t allow for banks or real estate companies to occupy street-level commercial space – they wanted pedestrian-friendly businesses. Brazen got creative with the City and pushed through, ultimately coming up with a solution to host their real estate office behind an art gallery that Brazen created to satisfy the regulations, and ultimately put their real estate office behind the gallery. In order to make this happen, Brazen needed to create an entrance on the west side of the building. So, they applied for a permit to turn the west side parking lot into a patio that would lead to the new front door of their real estate office.
Getting Back to Brazen’s Restaurant Roots
While coaching kids basketball, Brazen got connected with a Microsoft executive, Rick Post, who was a leader in Ireland. During their friendship, Post organized a guys trip to Ireland that Brazen joined. This trip had a big impact on Brazen, regarding the pubs in Dublin. Temple Bar in Dublin was one of the establishments that specifically stood out to Brazen. He came back ecstatic about the idea of having a pub on Main Street in Bellevue and suggested to Randi that they should create one and move their real estate office upstairs. Randi quickly shot down this idea suggesting it was “crazy”.
A year later, Brazen took another trip to Ireland with Post, but this time, Randi joined the trip. She saw all of the pubs, as well as Joseph’s vision firsthand, and upon getting home, she said “let’s do it”. The planning began and Brazen spent time with restaurant consultants and friends in the industry to begin bringing their vision to life.
According to Brazen, the wood tables and bar tops were handmade and crafted inside his garage in Clyde Hill. Six weeks prior to opening, Brazen and some friends were drinking at the Mustard Seed (a local bar that has since closed) trying to brainstorm names for the establishment. “Main Street Pub, LLC ” was the working name for the restaurant, but friends suggested that “nobody would want to go to a pub with that name”. Joseph wanted to create a place that would cater to West Bellevue, and discussed how the local real estate MLS called the area between the three freeways I-90, 520 and I-405, “Area 520”. And with that, a light bulb went on. Brazen decided to call it “520 Bar & Grill”. Finally, on May 20, 2006 (5-20), Brazen’s pub opened to the public. The restaurant grew in popularity over the years and the Brazen’s were interested in expanding the restaurant, but to expand the restaurant but had to wait until 2011 for their tenant’s lease to expire.
520 Bar & Grill brought Brazen back to the hospitality industry where he had first started as a dishwasher but is now owner and operator of the iconic Main Street bar. Brazen loves teaching and advises his younger staff, “If you just give it all you got, you’re going to learn a lot and you’re going to learn how to talk to people and serve the public. I am who I am today because I started out in this industry working directly with the guests to make their experience the best it can be.”
Expanding With a Second Restaurant
“In the paper, I heard Kemper was going to have the Lincoln Square expansion project and I met with some of the Kemper team and talked to them about opening a luxury real estate office there.” Unfortunately for Brazen, they didn’t like the idea because it wouldn’t drive foot traffic. The Kemper Development team came back to Brazen after their initial meeting and suggested they liked their 520 Bar & Grill restaurant and wanted to see if they’d be interested in bringing a local bar and restaurant concept to the new Lincoln Square development. And with that, the Brazen’s decided that they would proceed with a second restaurant that would open in 2017 as Central Bar + Restaurant.
At the time, the Brazen’s three daughters had all graduated from the University of Washington and were working and living on their own in Los Angeles, Dallas and Bellevue. It left Brazen and his wife with an empty nest in Clyde Hill so they decided to “right size” and sell their five-bedroom home. In addition to signing the lease for the restaurant space, they also signed a lease for an apartment at Two Lincoln Tower (above the restaurant). It was a three-bedroom unit on the 38th floor, which they customized into a large one-bedroom open concept that they tailored specifically to their liking.
Leaving a Family Business Legacy
Over the years, the Brazen children became interested in the family businesses and are now running them with their parents. Cody moved back from LA to help convert the empty shell at Lincoln Square South into what is now Central. She has been the General Manager from day one. Cody and 11 other employees just celebrated five years together at Central. Taylor graduated from Foster School of Business majoring in accounting and got hired at Price Waterhouse. She soon realized she was great with numbers but didn’t want to be a CPA and joined The Brazen team at Windermere and has helped grow the business over the last eight years. And last but not least, Joey graduated from UW and went to Dallas to work with Teach for America teaching middle school children for four years. She has since returned and is now the General Manager at 520 Bar & Grill for the last six years. In talking with Brazen, this was not the master plan, in fact, it’s taken shape organically over the years which makes dad happy. The Brazen’s now have three grandkids – Tatem, Baker, and Bennett.
With all of the Brazen’s family back in the area, they returned back to where their family began their life in Bellevue, in the Medina neighborhood. They bought a home last year on the fifth hole of Overlake Golf Course.
Their restaurants each average 500+ customers per week and are now a place that their staff calls “home”, similar to how Brazen had found the restaurant industry when he began his career. One employee, a dishwasher, has worked at 520 Bar & Grill since its opening 16 years ago and other employees have grown their careers as the restaurants have expanded.
Joseph Brazen’s Superpower: Determination
In talking with Brazen, and one of his employees, when he has a vision, he does not stop until the initiative is complete. He regularly has bursts of inspiration and then becomes fixated until the vision is executed. He’s naturally a dreamer but quickly matches it with execution. He also is not afraid of taking chances. Brazen’s story has many examples of risk-taking. Not all risks paid off, but many have led to new doors opening for Joseph, Randi, and the entire family.