Twenty-five years after pouring his life savings into an abandoned Gold’s gym, Danny Kuykendall has emerged as a leader in the niche world of billiards bars. Doctor of Psychology and one-time pool hustler Kuykendall is now best-known as the successful entrepreneur who owns Danny K’s Billiards & Sports Bar in Orange County. Danny recently self-published the book Open Bar, detailing his experiences opening and growing a small business and offering hard-won advice for those looking to do the same. From navigating initial bureaucratic setbacks to rebuilding after a fire to having the cash safe picked up and stolen from his office, Kuykendall has plenty of experience with the pitfalls of entrepreneurship. But over the years he’s developed a balanced approach to business that helps him tackle every new obstacle. He practices diligent management and building quality relationships with employees; dedication to the business and daily time away from it; thrifty habits and investment in the most important areas. Mostly, he strives to make his customers happy. It’s working: in the years since opening, Kuykendall has tripled both the bar’s gross sales and its net profit percentage. Danny K’s boasts 19 pool tables, near-daily pool tournaments, a full bar and kitchen, 41 TVs and 8 HD screens showing virtually any sport, and an all-pervasive focus on customer service. We had a chance to interview Danny and asked about his story, how he started his business and the future of Danny K’s Billiards & Sports Bar.
Tell us your story. Why did you start your business?
I was about 11 years old when the movie The Hustler was released in theaters around the country. A year later the movie was shown on television numerous times, and I became a big fan of Paul Newman and the game of pool. I began playing anywhere there was a pool table available to me, including the YMCA, the local bowling alley and a downtown pool room in Douglas, Arizona, named the B & P Palace. I had a few episodes with the law in my youth, and a friend recounts that while in the Cochise County jail in 1969, I was already talking about opening a “really fancy” pool room when I was older and could raise the money. This has been a dream of mine since I was a teenager.
I turned to drugs in my teenage years, but I met a great psychologist who helped me find my way, and a path back into reality. He also encouraged me to go to college and continue my studies until I achieved my PhD. In 1988 I received my PhD in Psychology, and I even took the California state exam to become a licensed psychologist. I attempted the exam twice but didn’t quite pass either time, forcing me to look for a new path forward. Turning back to my first passion, I supported myself working sales jobs in the billiard industry, always keeping an eye out for a suitable location to open my dream billiard room. When I noticed a vacant building in Orange, California – an abandoned Gold’s Gym – I knew I needed to change my focus and attempt to make this space into my dream since childhood.
How did you come up with your business name?
Throughout my years going to school and working in the billiard industry, I continued honing my game and became one of the best local pool players in Orange County – for a while I was ranked in the top 50 in the nation. I also ran local pool tournaments, and because my last name, Kuykendall, is not easy to pronounce, some of the other players called me Danny K. I thought it would be a catchy name for a pool room, and since I always planned to be around to meet and greet my customers, why not call my place Danny K’s? For 25 years we’ve been open under the name Danny K’s Billiards and Sports Bar.
Tell us about your products and services. How do you help clients?
Through the school of hard knocks, we learned how to prepare great food, offer clean, high-quality pool tables, and provide great service through our wait and bartender staff. Excellent customer service makes customers feel at home and offers a comfortable place for them to spend time shooting pool, watching sports, having a meal or just hanging out and socializing with other local patrons. Our contribution to the community is offering a “home away from home” where patrons feel welcome anytime they visit.
What makes you unique? What is your unique selling proposition (USP)?
What makes us unique is the personalized service we offer each patron who enters Danny K’s. We also put enormous effort into all the elements of running a bar that are unseen to the public; the combination of our high-quality food, pool tables, bar, and especially the great customer service sets us apart from most businesses.
Where do you see your business in the next 3-5 years?
We have been steadily increasing in business and sales since we opened in 1994, with the exception of the recession of 2008. We continue to maintain great service, offer new promotions and make every person who enters Danny K’s feel at home. We expect sales to increase with continued good service and social media ratings as well as advertising.
In my recent book Open Bar, I’ve outlined several precepts for starting and running a successful business based on my experiences with Danny K’s. First and foremost: make sure that this endeavor is a passion that exists deep within. If it isn’t truly a passion, you may not have the drive to last when things become most difficult, or when a payroll cannot be made or a check bounces. I wrote an entire chapter in Open Bar called “A Passion for a Dream” on this topic. This business venture should be not only something that you want to do, but something that you feel compelled to do as a life goal. It must mean more to you than just making a profit.
What is your favorite business quote and why?
Very simple – this was in a fortune cookie many ago: “It is easy to open a business, but very difficult to make it a continued success.” I kept that in my wallet for many years, until I was certain that we were going to remain open. It drives home a concept of utmost importance to a small business owner: complacency is your enemy.
What have been some of your achievements that you are most proud of? Why?
I think I am most proud of the longevity of my business, the livelihoods I have created for all of my employees, and the continued enjoyment we provide for patrons and regular customers. I employ around 35 people, and only ask that they have a happy attitude and do good work. The business has been a success for many years, and I am looking forward to continued prosperity. I am also becoming financially stable after the harrowing early years of a small business, and can now travel and enjoy hobbies, such as music, golf, tennis, painting – and, of course, playing pool.
Anything else additional you want to tell our readers?
I’ve written more about the wide and varied lessons I’ve learned from managing Danny K’s in my new book Open Bar, which I hope you will find interesting and more than just a “how to” book on opening and maintaining a business. I share stories of the billiards industry and discuss how I managed to stay in business and survive the ups and downs of entrepreneurship – including a fire in the building and having the cash safe stolen right out of my office. It is a lively read and I hope it will pique your curiosity.