The Many Colors of Chameleon Companies
How real estate developer and restaurateur Stuart Thomajan built flexibility and flow into his company from the ground floor
By Mikaela Thomas
Photograph by Leslie Hodge
When asked how he would like to be introduced, Stuart Thomajan has to think. “I have no idea.” After a moment “I call myself a developer, more than anything...we develop concepts and we develop real estate and we develop business. ” Such a broad term is fitting for someone like Stuart. He’s a man who can’t, and won’t, be pigeonholed, his CV tracing a path from commodities trading in Europe and Asia, to software technology, to real estate development, hospitality, and venture capital.
Under the umbrella of Chameleon Companies, a venture group with the vision of investing in people, ideas, and markets, he currently helms a collection of real estate properties that span residential, commercial, and self-storage, as well as three Austin restaurants: Swift’s Attic, Wu Chow, and most recently, Guild.
When founding Chameleon Companies, Stuart was careful not to box himself in with labels. He chose the name because he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted the company to do and he needed a name that would stay relevant as the company morphed. “That’s why it’s called Chameleon. Because it has the ability to change.” He’s undaunted by change and chooses to embrace, rather than resist, it as a core philosophy. The company’s website declares, “We build ideas. We build environments. We build experiences. We build relationships.” And Chameleon’s broad scope has given him the freedom and agility to seize many interesting opportunities as they come.
Transitioning out of technology and into real estate and investment, his foray into restaurants was an unexpected plot twist. It started with an investment into the development of sushi favorite Uchi, and then into Austin brunch staple, Paggi House. Though an investor, he didn’t consider himself to be in the restaurant business, until an opportunity came along to purchase the restaurant and move it in a new direction that he felt would resonate with Austin. He discussed it with his partners at the time and they decided to give it a try. “I literally went out and bought a book, or four books really. One book on restaurant management, two books on restaurant finance and one book on restaurant inventory management… We just sort of jumped in with both feet.”
After getting his feet wet with Paggi House, it seems Stuart was hooked. He opened Swift’s Attic in April 2012 with C.K.Chin, and then opened Wu Chow in November 2015, again with Chin. His latest restaurant venture, Guild, which he started with Head Chef Sterling Ridings, opened its doors in March of this year at 3800 North Lamar blvd.
When it comes to the restaurant business, Stuart has a few guiding principles. It’s about the people, it’s about the story, it’s about a well-communicated and shared vision. “People are the main thing. You have to have the right people doing the right things in the right areas. And you have to have everybody sort of pulling together. Everybody's gotta believe and understand in what the vision, and the goal, and the idea is…I think our team, the Chameleon team right now is amazing. We're really fortunate.”
He also believes that at their core, restaurants are food, service, and ambiance. “There's really only three things. You've gotta hit the food. You've gotta hit the service. You've gotta hit the ambiance.” But beyond that, he says, concept is key. Every space, every menu, has a story attached, and it’s up to you and your staff to convey that story to your guests.
With Austin’s booming restaurant scene, there’s more competition than ever, and it’s not uncommon for restaurants to fold after only a year or so. “There's a million reasons why a restaurant maybe won't make it. But there's also a million reasons why a restaurant can make it.” Stuart sees staffing as one of their biggest challenges within the saturated hospitality industry. The competition for qualified staff is a constant struggle for many in the industry right now. But the other challenge is creating a concept that resonates with the Austin public. “The challenge is finding that thing Austin wants and then finding the place you think it needs to be, then translating what that area wants it to be.”
The long leash he gave Chameleon Companies has provided the flexibility he needs to try his hand in different arenas, and in doing so he has discovered points of synergy between industries and expertise, where skills translate in unexpected ways. He attributes his attention to location and ambiance to his experience in real estate. “I've learned a lot from real estate about how to create a space that people want to be in that feels comfortable, that feels a little warmer…. I don't know if it's an edge, but it a little bit of experience that I bring in that regard, which has helped in the restaurants.”
No restaurant exists in a vacuum and a good concept in one city, or even one part of town, might not translate elsewhere. Stuart and his partners take time to really consider not just concept, but location and fit. “What does Austin want? What does Austin need? What are we missing? What don’t we have?” Answering these questions during development has served him well. The attention to concept and ambiance is evident as you walk into his restaurants. Swift’s Attic prides itself on a farm-to-table menu, which is bound to no single cuisine or style, and instead pledging loyalty to the “creative, whimsical, and delicious.” Located in a building on Congress Ave which housed, in 1905, the Swift’s Premium Food Co., Swift’s Attic’s unique and historic setting sucks you in and opens your senses to the culinary exploration their plates offer.
Meanwhile, the inspiration for Wu Chow came as Stuart and C.K. were exploring new restaurant concepts. They had another concept they were exploring, but when they saw the space, a new idea emerged. “The building sort of looked like a building out of Macau. It had this really interesting little curve to it. We thought there's an opportunity there for something. It had just a slightly Asian feel to us.” Stuart recalls feeling that there was an opportunity for a different type of Chinese food in Austin at the time, so seeing the space struck a chord. “I remember as a child in New York City, growing up, eating really, really good Chinese food. And in Austin, I just felt like there was a need for that kind of thing.” After some time spent traveling and tasting and talking, Wu Chow was born.
With Guild, Stuart and Sterling saw the need for a restaurant that met an increasing demand for high-quality and sustainably caught seafood. He notes that in the last 10 to 15 years there has been a notable drop in the amount of land protein people are consuming, as they opt instead for fare from the sea. Guild’s offerings, which feature seafood, but include land protein and vegetarian options as well, are tailored to keep pace with that trend. They aimed to design a menu that treats each dish with the level of respect they felt it deserves. “It's not like ‘oh would you like swordfish? Would you like it blackened? Would you like it grilled?’ The fish will come the way the fish needs to come based on the flesh and the taste and where we got it.” They’re also excited to be starting a small urban garden in front of the restaurant, to bring the farm that much closer to the table.
If you ask Stuart’s wife, she’ll probably tell you that he’s fearless when it comes to starting new projects. He says that’s not entirely true. He admits that he does feel stress, and doesn’t like to make mistakes any more than the next guy, but he doesn’t let that scare him off. “I don't think you're ever going to have every single answer and what my wife and I talk about is she says that the hardest part that she's seen for most people is starting; is just taking that first step. That's what you've gotta do. You've gotta commit to that first step first…I don't think you should wait for all the answers.”
His advice? “Go down to Secretary of state's office and file the paper work, and get your LP or your LLC, or your C Corp, or your S Corp, whatever you want to do and just do it.” That first step can be the scariest, but once done, he believes, you might just find a new level of motivation; a new sense of responsibility and the inspiration to follow through. “I think you can start almost anything you want with sheer force of will.”
He credits the people around him, like Sterling Ridings, as well as Barry Gamache, Jeff Hammet, and Elizabeth Van Huffel (Director of Operations, Beverage Director, and Director of Marketing and Communications, respectively, of Chameleon Companies), with being essential sounding boards as he takes on new and different projects. “If I don't know something about it, I can just turn to…any of these guys, and say ‘hey, what do you think about this?’”
The other big key to his confidence launching into new ventures is that he keeps a constant finger on the pulse. “I try to consume a lot of information, a lot of data, a lot of magazines, a lot of books, a lot of yes, podcasts. Where the market’s going, what's needed, and what the opportunities are. We just consume a lot of that. I sort of filter it through and try to look for trends and directions, where things are going. But if somebody comes with an idea or a thought or a business that we've never done before, that we haven't been involved in…we have a very open mind.”
In terms of what’s next for Chameleon Companies, the options are limitless. Stuart has built a foundation that is strong yet fluid, and he’s ready to go where opportunity takes him. Of new ventures, he says “we just look forward and we just say ‘we can do this’ and if we can’t necessarily – if we don’t have what we need right this second, we’ll figure it out, or we’ll gain it, or we’ll attract it, or we’ll add it, or we’ll learn it, and we’ll just move forward.”