Garten Party

After decades of spectacularly failed schemes, Austrian father-son entrepreneurs Hans and Philipp Sitter hit big with their suburban biergarten. And now they’re headed for the Heights.

Shannon O'Hara

The year was 1996. President Bill Clinton was in the White House. The New York Yankees were on the road to winning their first World Series since 1978, and the Houston Rockets were coming off back-to-back championship seasons in the NBA.

Across the Atlantic in Monaco, with its James Bond-worthy swirl of casinos on the Mediterranean coast, the Austrian-born entrepreneur Hans Sitter, on the verge of his 43rd birthday, was bidding farewell to Europe — and to his then 2-year-old son, Philipp, by his soon-to-be ex-wife. Before Sitter would depart, though, selling the boutique Freizeittempel resort he had built outside Vienna and his 46-foot luxury yacht anchored in Monte Carlo, Sitter’s best friend (who’d hosted his birthday-and-farewell bash) made a bold request: “Repay me by becoming a big success in America. That will be more than enough.”

Twenty years on, Hans Sitter is well on his way to fulfilling the request. He relocated to Kingwood, Texas, where a friend and colleague was building a business exporting margarita makers and marketing indoor air filters. A year later, father and son reunited stateside, when Philipp’s mother released him to Hans’ care. After a few misadventures — helping his dad push holistic health products, buying and selling classic cars online — Philipp enrolled at LSU, but soon dropped out to help his father build a successful and highly entertaining Houston-area restaurant concept, which eventually could go national.

In 2012, father and son Sitter formally launched the Austro-German restaurant King’s Biergarten in Pearland. With its quasi-Bavarian styling and family recipes, the outpost born of a carwash (more on that later) has drawn accolades from across Texas and beyond. King’s has been named on national lists of the best German restaurants and beer gardens. Locally, it’s routinely ranked as one of the best places to work in Houston. Not a bad legacy for a guy like Hans who first trained as a butcher, and whose introduction to the Lone Star State was the ’80s nighttime soap Dallas, tracking the exploits of wicked oil baron J.R. Ewing.

“I came here with $1,200 and couldn’t speak English,” says Sitter, whose departure was hastened by since-dismissed accusations of tax fraud in Austria. “The darkest day of my life. When I look back now, it was my luckiest day.”

Hans Sitter’s wild biography has more twists than an expert run down the Kitzbühel ski hill. After Monaco, he tried his hand as a real-estate developer, a thoroughbred breeder, and even a salt merchant of sorts. That story, which is still unfolding, began with Hans’ lifelong obsession with health and fitness. After reading about the dietary risks posed by refined sodium and the wonders of pink Himalayan salt used in spas, he purchased two truckloads from a dealer in California. Hans then set up a little shop in a mall outside Houston, where Philipp worked as a teenager. But when the mall sold, the shop closed. What remains is an 18-wheeler’s worth of salt in storage in Pearland.

But rather than stew about yet another missed opportunity, the Sitters have turned their pink salt into a windfall of another sort. Not only do they still use the salt for home remedies, but they also mix it into recipes for menu items at the beer garden. Not that a diner would necessarily notice — but it’s hard to miss the Himalayan salt lamps that adorn the tables at the restaurant. Philipp says it’s all testimony to the leap-first, look-later ethos that his father lives by.

“My dad went all-in,” he marvels. “I call it the great parlay: He parlayed 100,000 pounds of salt into a wellness store, then the classic car business and the car wash, and that became the beer garden, and now another restaurant.”

The only thing that seems to surprise Philipp at this point is the stability of King’s Biergarten today, which was born of a brash original impulse. The German eatery got its start in 2009 as a side business to a Pearland carwash Hans bought as a stopgap while exploring other entrepreneurial options. He offered home-style sausage and German lagers to customers, only to run afoul of the Pearland health department. With his hospitality background, however, Hans pivoted to focus on the food, and as word spread, so did the business footprint.

Soon King’s Biergarten blossomed from 45 to 350 seats. From the get-go, it seemed the beer garden was destined to be a winner, garnering culinary awards that belied the high-kitsch factor, which in turn brought early crowds. But there were issues. Growing pains included infrastructure problems, such as an expensive sprinkler system, management failures and the like. By the time Philipp stepped in, budget overruns for construction and labor had topped $100,000. “My father, he can create a business out of nothing. I mean, like, with no money,” laughs Philipp. “But I don’t really think he wants to operate a business.”

Nonetheless, this spring, father and son will double down, opening a sibling to their Pearland place in the Heights. With King’s Bierhaus under construction, the Sitters are working hard to have the new location open by the end of March. According to Philipp, this next spot — which takes the place of the long-shuttered Pecos Grill — offers a more contemporary take on the brats-and-beer model that made the original a smash. “We’re not just in the restaurant business, we’re in the human-connection business,” says Philipp, who, at 22, carries the title of president of the Sitter Group. “We want to create an environment where you can escape the outside world for a while.”

The weight of the world is something that Philipp learned about not just from his parents’ divorce, but also from a complicated tax case that pursued his father for nearly 20 years. When Hans Sitter was in business in Monaco, a tax haven for many wealthy Europeans, Austrian officials targeted him for income-tax evasion. The problem, as Hans explains it, was that the income the government was seeking had never materialized because his assets were all tied up in his business ventures. But appearances count, and with a luxury yacht docked in Monte Carlo, Hans soon faced a warrant for his arrest in Europe — leaving him an international fugitive, stuck in the U.S.

When the case finally went to court a couple of years ago, however, the Austrian judge threw out the charges, freeing Sitter to return to Europe a free man. “It really cost me a lot of energy,” Hans says, his thick accent still intact.

With freshly replanted mature oaks already casting shade across the outdoor seating area overlooking the White Oak Bayou Greenway in the Heights, King’s Bierhaus offers another crack at redemption. Splitting the difference between Old World comfort and New World convenience, the landscaping will boast a creek running through the patio, echoing the rolling Tyrolean countryside of Hans’ youth. The order-at-the-counter menu will offer favorites from Pearland, emphasizing specialty sausages based on Sitter family recipes. Updates and alternatives have been added to draw the inner-Loop crowd. A full-service bar will serve 30 beer taps and craft cocktails.

With handsome young waiters in snug lederhosen and pretty waitresses decked out in bust-flattering dirndls, the Sitters aren’t above using eye candy, among other tricks, to draw crowds. Their thriving suburban eatery today serves about 15,000 customers a month (not including the King’s Oktoberfest, which draws 10,000 customers per day to the parking lot). On weekends, the convivial vibe is enhanced by live music. Hans is usually on hand, and almost always also dressed in lederhosen himself; Philipp prefers jeans. Meanwhile, the Biergarten has emerged not only as the region’s exclusive purveyor of imported Steigl Beers from Salzberg, Austria, but also Texas’ sales leader for popular German imports such as Spaten and Warsteiner.

“We try and take a grassroots approach,” says Philipp. “You know that old saying, if you build it, they will come? Well, it just doesn’t work that way anymore. It can’t just be about me, or my dad. The servers have to make the same connection.”

That also helps explain why rather than naming the place Hans’ Bierhaus, or the Sitter Garten, the father-son team has stuck with the all-purpose King’s for branding purposes. “When we came up with King’s, the thing we knew was that we wanted this to be something bigger than just my dad and myself,” says Philipp.

Modeling his management approach on internet leaders such as Google and Zappos — with a dose of business acumen borrowed from lifestyle guru Tony Robbins — Philipp invites an open back-and-forth at daily staff meetings, and offers a $200 buyout to anybody who wants to quit. So far, the strategy is working. With 60 employees, the Sitters claim to never have had a defection, and this year Workplace Dynamics once again ranked King’s Biergarten high on its “Top Workplaces” survey. “We say we want to be a cornerstone in your life, not a stepping stone,” Philipp says.

Regardless of the name, there’s more at stake in the Sitter kingdom than just ensuring the waiters feel like partners and the establishment feels like home. Plans are already afoot for another Bierhaus in League City, 20 miles or so east of Pearland. And then there’s the burgeoning King’s kolache program, an offshoot of their wildly popular breakfast pop-up featuring a high-gloss Austrian take on the trendy Czech pastries, some utilizing Sitter sausages. Foodies rave about both savory and sweet recipes, from a Swiss cheese and corned beef Rueben to a strawberry and sweet cream dynamo. That concept was Philipp’s, but Hans happily got on board as soon as the first batch sold out.

It did not take long, either, with 1,000 customers lined up at the Biergarten door at 8am. “I was really impressed,” says Papa Sitter. “It was like, oh, wow, you put your heart in, and then you found success.”

Physically as well as psychologically, the pair is a study in subtle contrasts. The father is squat, dark-haired and still hard-bodied in his late 60s, with tight balls of muscle flexing as he reaches for wine. Having achieved modest fame as a bodybuilder, Hans is acquaintances with the former California Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger. The pair of buff Austrian-born businessmen nearly became partners when Hans sought to bring a Red Bull prototype to the U.S.

On the verge of 70, Hans is ready for one last push: “Retirement is not on my page. I’m like a pregnant woman, and this is my new baby. I want it to grow a lot so that when it’s born, it can grow up to be big and strong.”

Hans’ vigor is matched by Philipp’s energy, but the tall, blond upstart often finds himself in the role of responsible adult. He has yet to marry, and avoids alcohol. “My goal is to build the local concept and see if we can take it national, but the millennial in me is worried about life balance,” says Philipp. “We are still in the struggling-entrepreneur phase, and I don’t always want to be about business.”

“With the way he is, at times, I think he’s more ambitious than me,” he continues. “And as father and son, our partnership works well because of that.”

ABOVE: King’s Biergarten owners Philipp and Hans Sitter at their Pearland restaurant; Waitstaff at King’s dress in lederhosen and dirndls
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