SBJ/February 6-12, 2017/Champions

Levy quietly makes mark in real estate development

Larry Levy made his mark in real estate about 10 years before he entered the food-service space, but he’s kept that part of his career relatively quiet compared with the big splash Levy Restaurants made in sports.

“I’ve always been in two businesses, real estate development and restaurants,” Levy said. “Even while I was running this company, I was investing in real estate around the Chicago area. But it confused people after awhile. It kind of mentally made the food taste worse, so I low-profiled the real estate. But I backed other people, so it had somebody else’s brand on it.”

Levy’s 52-story River Point Plaza, a $475 million office tower in downtown Chicago, opened in January.
Photo: COURTESY OF LARRY LEVY
Eleven years after he sold the remaining 51 percent of Levy Restaurants to Compass Group, Levy has no problem discussing his newest project, the new $475 million River Point Plaza in downtown Chicago.

The 52-story office tower opened in January along the Chicago River. It’s currently 85 percent leased and Levy expects the building to be fully occupied by June. His new office is there as well. Levy developed the tower in a partnership with Hines, one of the largest developers of office buildings.

“I’ve owned the land for a long time,” Levy said. “There’s an acre-and-a-half park in front of it that we built over some railroad tracks. There are main commuter lines underneath, but nobody will know that because it’s a park.”

All told, Levy has an ownership stake in more than 50 properties across the country. He’s got a deal with Waypoint Residential, a real estate investment management firm with offices in New York and Boca Raton, Fla., to buy land and build garden apartments across the Southeast. Those projects cover the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, plus several projects in Austin, Texas. Levy also has an ownership stake in Waypoint Residential.

Apart from those properties, Levy’s investments extend to Del Taco, a California-based chain of Mexican fast-food restaurants, and Blaze Pizza, a company for which he owns the rights to developing restaurants in Chicago and South Florida. NBA superstar LeBron James is one of his Blaze partners, and James is also a shareholder in a 900,000-square-foot office building Levy recently bought in Chicago.

“We have a venture capital portfolio of 40 different companies and have had some great exits,” Levy said. “We were investors in Nest, the thing that sits on your wall and adjusts the room temperature. It was sold to Google for $3.2 billion. Another one was Cleversafe, owned by IBM. That’s what I enjoy.”

In Orlando, Levy Restaurants has operated three eateries since 1989 at Disney Springs, a shopping and entertainment district connected to Disney World. The restaurants are Wolfgang Puck’s Grand Cafe, which Levy owns, plus Portobello Country Italian Trattoria and the rebranded Paddlefish.

About 30 years ago, Levy Restaurants captured Disney’s business after winning a national competition. It came a few years after Michael Eisner and Frank Wells took over running Disney.

“They hated the food there,” Levy said. “We were the first outsiders to come in and design, own and operate at Disney [and] do stadium volume. I was the only guy who Disney approved to buy Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant.”

On the home front, Levy splits his time across multiple residences. He spends the winters in Miami Beach and goes to Aspen for most of the summer. He spends the “shoulder seasons” in Chicago, May through June and September through November. Levy also owns Esperanza, a luxury resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, that he bought 11 years ago, purchasing it on the day he completed the sale of Levy Restaurants. It’s a vacation spot, and the Levy family spends about one month a year at Esperanza.

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