Key to Maxim’s success one man: Camille Bermann
Editor’s note: This story originally ran Sunday, June 14, 1987. Maxim’s served its last meal in 2001. It was sold to Pappas Restaurants, which had plans to renovate and reopen the legendary restaurant but never did.
When Camille Bermann opened his first restaurant in Houston four decades ago, he borrowed flowers from the local undertaker to put on the tables.
“We had no money, so we made do,” shrugs Bermann, the man responsible for the success of Maxim’s restaurant. “But don’t tell anyone because some people who used to come in then are still around.
“They’ll kill me!”
Bermann - who has operated a restaurant for noted Mafia chieftain Frank Costello, roomed with artist Salvador Dali, and provided much-needed entertainment for some of Houston’s movers and shakers - isn’t in such financial straits today. He points out some of the flourishes in his Greenway Plaza eatery: beveled glass doors, luxurious entry ways, and a peach and green color scheme. And, he emphasizes, well - appointed, marble - tiled rest rooms.
“The ladies’ room here cost more than either of my first two restaurants,” Bermann exclaims as he throws up his hands. “What am I to do?”
What the 71-year-old Luxembourg native has done since the 1940s is educate tens of thousands of Houstonians about food and wine and - as customers paying their tab joke - profited handsomely. Long before there was a Tony’s or a La Colombe d’Or, there was Maxim’s.
“When I came here, there were nine (good) restaurants in Houston,” recalls Bermann. “But the people in Houston were class.
“They ate with a knife and fork. They came to Maxim’s once and they kept coming back because I make people feel at home. I am a butler. Most of the people you see in the restaurant now were probably engaged at the old Maxim’s, and they’d have their birthdays here, and anniversaries.
“When the wives became pregnant, I’d bring food to them. They are my customers, and friends.”
Developer Wayne Duddlesten has dined at Maxim’s for more than 20 years, “ever since I was a kid,” and continues to frequent the restaurant.
“Camille is family,” said Duddlesten. “He’s one of the most colorful restaurant people around, and the hardest working. I’ve been going to Maxim’s for 25 years, and Camille is the major reason.”
Adds nightclub and restaurant impresario Mike Steinmann, “Camille is always there. He hasn’t gone out and done a lot of other places, but stayed with his restaurant. He has been an extremely successful entrepreneur because he understands the restaurant business.”
Bermann - who has had restaurants at three different locations - has prospered by personality and persistence, dominating the restaurant.
A kindly, grandfatherly appearing gentleman, Bermann greets patrons by name. He bobs and weaves from table to table commiserating, cajoling and complaining with customers. He has a more extensive vocabulary than a sailor and isn’t shy about criticizing his staff. He browbeats them, yells at them, fusses at them, and continually tells them that they’re not doing their job.
“I expect a lot from my employees. When I make out the payroll, I ask them, ‘What do I pay you with, money or excuses?’ ” he said. “You have to watch the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.”
Despite Bermann’s tirades, Maxim’s doesn’t have a large employee turnover. Helen Bullock, a captain, has been with “Mr. Camille” for 33 years. Rita Marchbank, another captain, is considered one of the new kids on the block, having been at the restaurant for a mere 29 years.
Jonesy, a captain who recently retired, was with Bermann 37 years. When she turned in her order book, Bermann gave her his Lincoln Continental.
“There are very few professional waiters left,” Bermann explains, adding that he prefers women captains because they are more attentive and stable. “Men, they really don’t stay. After six months, they want to be an owner. They want to go and open up their own place. My captains stay with me, and it helps the business because they know the customers.”
Bermann began his career in the hospitality industry at the age of 14, learning to make pastries at a local shop. Before long, he was training in cities throughout Europe, working in a number of hotels and restaurants. Then fate intervened in the person of Henri Soule, the noted manager of Drouant’s Restaurant in Paris.
Soule was commissioned by the French government to operate a restaurant at the country’s pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair; Bermann was among the group brought to the United States. Before long, Bermann was made a captain at the World’s Fair restaurant and then graduated to La Cremaillere, an eatery in the Big Apple. While in New York, a man known by the press and the police as Frank Costello asked him to go to New Orleans.
“I said, ‘Where’s New Orleans?’ ” he recalls. “I didn’t even know where it was, but I found out soon enough. They offered me more money than I had ever seen and I decided that was for me.”
Costello, the noted organized crime leader, had been running his own restaurant in the Crescent City called The Beverly Club. It was described as a mecca for sportsmen, but hunting ducks and playing polo weren’t on the minds of the Beverly’s clientele. Gambling was; food was sort of an afterthought.
After arriving in Houston, Bermann hitched up with Max Manuel, who was operating the Peacock Restaurant. The name was soon changed to Maxim’s and the menu quickly adapted to introduce Houstonians to world delicacies and take advantage of local foods.
“We were Mex-Tex Louisiana,” he said. “People here in Texas and Louisiana have certain tastes, and we kept that in mind.”
Early on in his Houston restaurant career, a group of six came in and each ordered an appetizer, soup, salad, entree, and the best wine available.
“They ran up a big bill and I got worried. Then one person left.
They kept kibitzing, and another left. Then another. I said, ‘they’re going to stiff me,’ ” said Bermann. “I didn’t know what to do. I thought I was going to have some trouble. Finally, there were two big fellows left. One of them calls me over and tells me to bring the check. I thought, ‘Oh boy, this is it, I’ll be left with the check.’
“Then the guy peels off a $500 bill and gives it to me. They leave. I couldn’t believe it. It taught me that in Houston, you never know.”
Located for decades in downtown Houston, Maxim’s became an integral part of the city’s restaurant scene. Then, in 1981, Bermann moved to Greenway Plaza.
While Bermann is there every day, management chores have been passed to son Ronnie, who has been in the restaurant business for 27 of his 43 years. He spent a year in the vineyards of France at his father’s urging and came back to work in the restaurant, beginning as a water boy, busboy, waiter and up the ladder.
“Sometimes he lets me pick out the color of the toilet paper,” said Camille Bermann.
BUSINESS & ECONOMY
COMING NEXT THURSDAY
Remembering the times when Maxim’s restaurantwas Houston’s hot spot.
BUSINESS & ECONOMY
COMING NEXT THURSDAY
Remembering the time when cellphones first arrived in Houston.