Alexis and Oliver Barbier-Mueller: Building an Empire

By Christine Perez / October 17, 2022 / D Magazine

The sons of Gabriel Barbier-Mueller, the founder and chairman of Harwood International and developer of Dallas’ Harwood District, never intended to get into the restaurant business. But they’re now in it—in a big way. Harwood’s hospitality group (which includes restaurants, catering, and hotels) is one of four divisions Alexis and Oliver Barbier-Mueller lead as co-presidents of their family’s company. They also manage its other three formidable verticals: leasing and asset management, development and construction, and capital markets. Combined, the Harwood International groups have about 700 employees.

Gabriel grew up in Geneva, Switzerland. He moved to Dallas in 1979 and began developing Harwood District on the western edge of Uptown in the mid-1980s. His sons took different routes to arrive at the same destination. After graduating from The University of Texas at Austin, Alexis, 39, worked in banking in Switzerland for several years, then joined Harwood’s office in London. (The company also has an office in Geneva.) In 2012, after two-and-a-half years in England, he returned to Dallas. “We had raised and deployed quite a bit of money, some of it through Harwood International,” Alexis says. “I wanted to be back in Dallas and also work on some of the investments we had done.”

Oliver, 35, graduated from Texas Christian University and then worked for Vacheron Constantin, a watch company in Geneva, doing supply-chain management and managing global sales points and inventory. After a little more than two years, he returned to Texas and got a job as an assistant superintendent at a construction company in Fort Worth. “I was out in the field, learning the more nuts and bolts side of development,” he says. Seeing steep markups on materials led him to launch a construction procurement company; his father let him take a shot at Harwood District’s latest office project, Frost Tower. “That was my segue into the company,” Oliver says. “Then we started doing vertical integration, forming an architectural firm that has become the architect of record for our projects. I was largely overseeing development for the first eight years. Then the past couple of years or so, Alexis and I have stepped up to head the four verticals, co-running operations.”

For years, the only eatery in the Harwood District was Marie Gabrielle Restaurant and Gardens. Developed in 1997, it served as an amenity for the growing tenant base. Thirteen years later, a second venue was added—Saint Ann Restaurant & Bar, a restoration of a historic schoolhouse that was built in 1927 and sits on the same tract as Harwood’s Saint Ann Court office building. Mercat Bistro opened in 2013 on the ground floor of Saint Ann Court as a place for tenants to get European-style coffee and breakfast and lunch fare.

Meanwhile, Harwood evolved from an office park to more of a city within a city. Two residential towers, the 31-story Azure and the 33-story Bleu Ciel, opened in 2007 and 2017, respectively. As part of the shift, the family doubled down on walkability, safety, and green space, and began seeking more feedback from tenants and residents about what the district was missing.

One tenant said he’d love to have an honest-to-god sports bar—a place to get a burger and a beer. Alexis and Oliver targeted some land the company was warehousing on the western edge of the property. It had close proximity to American Airlines Center and plenty of nearby parking. They pitched the concept for Happiest Hour, which became the first project they led for their father. “When he saw our idea for concrete floors, he literally turned around and walked out of the meeting, saying, ‘I don’t understand that,’” Alexis says with a smile.

The two-story, 12,000-square-foot venue has a huge outdoor seating area, a rooftop that overlooks the city, and plenty of Instagram-worthy settings. The brothers challenged a lot of restaurant development norms, including per-square-foot build costs. “Because we were not from hospitality, we would continue to ask why and apply logic,” Alexis says. “We have been able to apply what we’ve seen with the residential towers, the other restaurants, and office towers. With that, you capture almost 24 hours of someone’s day.”

Happiest Hour opened on Texas-OU weekend in 2015. It was an immediate hit, with about 3,000 people coming through its doors. In 2019, the restaurant and bar attracted more than 1.2 million people. It brought a new vibe and crowd—millennials and Gen Z—to Harwood District. And, as one of the highest-grossing bars in the state, it brought in a whole lot of money.

A game-changer that far exceeded expectations, it led to a family discussion about getting into the restaurant business in a more formalized, institutional way, Alexis says. “We said, ‘This is something that’s great for the city, it’s great for buildings, our tenants are happy, it’s creating visibility, and we’re doing a good job,” he says. “That’s when we decided to create a hospitality group as a fourth operating vertical. Oliver and I develop the concepts and manage the growth, and we’ve built a team that’s now approaching 800 employees.”

Since Happiest Hour, six new restaurants have been added in the district. Coffee shop and café Magnolias: Sous Le Pont opened in 2015, as did The Grove at Harwood, which also provides an outdoor amenity for tenants and residents. The upscale Dolce Riviera, in which Gabriel took a special interest, opened in 2016. (It recently reopened after closing during the pandemic.)

Te Deseo, a Latin American restaurant that opened in 2019, is Harwood’s largest venue to date (14,000 square feet) and a concept that turns the wide-open Happiest Hour on its head, with closed-off dining

The latest eateries, Harwood Arms and Elephant East, both of which opened last year, kicked off a new segment of Harwood District called La Rue Perdue (translated as “the lost street”). It’s a European-inspired, cobblestone pathway that connects the Harwood No. 4 and No. 10 office buildings and Harwood and McKinnon streets.

As the restaurant platform has accelerated, it has moved well beyond providing amenities. “We have around 40,000 people in the district now [residents and tenant employees] and about 40,000 people per week coming to the restaurants,” Oliver says. “It’s huge for us because we’re working to make sure that things are not closed to the district. We are trying to make it easy to get here.”

He and Alexis are disciples of a book called Happy City by Charles Montgomery, which promotes the concept of sparking happiness through urban design. “A big part of it is access points,” Oliver says. “So, we’re adding a new drop-off along McKinnon Street for Harwood No. 4, like the drop-off in front of Happiest Hour, to make it easier for people to get in and park and valet. We’re also taking cars off Harwood Street to make it more pedestrian-friendly.”

While others took a pause during the pandemic, the Harwood team pushed forward. They have a distinct advantage; they control their own land and financing.

Harwood Arms, a London-style pub, is among the platform’s most activated venues, with programming hits like live-band karaoke, sports watching parties, and a fun “Wheel of Misfortune.” A Saint Patrick’s Day party closed Harwood Street and attracted more than 1,000 people. The success of the activations has led the Barbier-Muellers to recently hire a team to focus on events—festivals, music performances, and the like—throughout the district. Harwood Arms attracts a wildly diverse crowd, with CEOs stopping in for lunch, couples showing up for brunches and date nights, and college alumni for sports-watching parties. “We have been surprised by the clientele,” Oliver says. “It’s like an SMU bar on Saturday night.”

Elephant East sits within La Rue Perdue on McKinnon Street. Inspired by the family’s love of Asian fare, the design concept changed when the squad took a trip to Santa Fe and visited an antiques dealer. “He had this giant elephant out front, and we discovered he had warehouses full of stuff—walls and doors and arches from Pakistan, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia,” Oliver says. “We flew back with our interior design team and did like an American Pickers thing. Everything was measured on site. The elephant got our immediate attention, so we said, ‘OK. Let’s bring the elephant here and get people’s attention.’”

As with all Harwood projects, Elephant East gets its inspiration from the family’s extensive international experiences. The idea for the red bamboo gardens that surround the elephant was taken from a chateau south of France. “It also bookends the red of Harwood Arms,” Alexis explains. “It’s a way to bring attention and energy and invite people into La Rue Perdue.”

Over the next 15 months, Harwood Hospitality Group will go from 10 to 20 concepts. Up first is a pizza and martini joint called Poco Fiasco, set to make its debut this fall. It will include an oversized bar and a walk-up counter where people can grab a slice and go. It will be followed next spring by a large cantina with access to the Katy Trail opening on the northern end of the district. Two concepts will be added to Harwood’s latest office building, No. 14, and several will be housed within a new 22-story hotel that’s opening in 2023. The Barbier-Muellers describe it as “taking a New York city block and inverting it on its Y axis.”

Harwood also is getting into the retail game. A small marketplace within La Rue Perdue will offer gelato, sandwiches, and snacks. Patrons can also purchase wine by the bottle, coffee grounds, and sauces from Harwood restaurants such as Dolce Riviera. “It will be like a mini Harwood pantry,” Alexis says.

Having a vast number of venues within one neighborhood allows the company to take advantage of economies of scale. It also provides in-house learning and growth opportunities for employees; it’s not unusual for chefs, servers, and even corporate workers to pursue their interests and shift to new roles and brands. This has helped give Harwood an edge in retaining and attracting employees, including top chefs. “The Dallas market is extremely competitive, and there has been a flight of talent to Dallas on the culinary side,” Oliver says. “We’ve gotten a whole lot of chefs from New York, Chicago, Las Vegas, and California. It has allowed us to elevate our standards and expectations—because we have to. Dallas’ tastes and preferences and level of sophistication on the culinary side is skyrocketing.”

Employees also like the security Harwood can offer, with its many venues and built-in tenant and resident base, especially in an industry that’s not especially known for longevity. Alexis says he and his family are in it for keeps. “Our business plan is a generational one,” he says. “We’ll be in the restaurant and hospitality business for decades and generations to come, just like we will be in development and construction and asset management and capital markets. That helps us when people are looking for consistency. It’s stability. They know we are going to be here.”