LAGUNA BEACH MAGAZINE
At first glance, Chris Keller appears like any other 30-something with his easy smile, casual style, and approachable demeanor. You might mistake him for the guy who gives surf lessonsdown the road, or maybe your friendly, laidback neighbor who waves while walking his dog.
But while Chris is charming and affable, he's also driven,highly focused and making a big difference within Laguna Beach's city limits. He stopped just long enough to share with Laguna Beach Magazine his thoroughly impressive resume in the hotel industry, which has culminated in the success of his Casa Resorts. He also shares his vision for Laguna Beach, the city he loves and whose vitality he will help shore as 2010 Chamber of Commerce President. The Casa Resorts family counts among its holdings Laguna's La Casa del Camino, Laguna Beach Inn, The Rooftop Lounge, K'ya Bistro Bar and Anaheim's Hotel Menage and its restaurant venue, K'ya Street Fare. The inherent love he shows for Laguna-carefully restoring the historic Casa, urchasing and transforming the Laguna Beach Inn and the mportance he places on customer service-you'd think he as native. In truth, he's originally a long way from So Cal, ut there's no question where his hme-and heart-lie today.
Chris was born and raised in Cranford, N.J., he says it's "a great little suburban town about the size of Laguna Beach." He always had the entrepreneur spirit within him. Even as a kid, he worked, delivering newspapers like most young boys. Then, at age 15, his dad handed him an application to a new local pizza shop. "I got hooked on the business immediately," Chris says, and within two years was opening, closing and supervising. "I loved everything as I do today-from the operations of the restaurant to the sales and marketing that are needed to keep it going. I have been in just about every position in a restaurant from busboy to owner to everything in between." Chris began the Hotel and Restaurant Management program at Providence's Johnson & Wales University, a no-second-thoughts career move. Immediately after his 1993 graduation, Chris landed a plum gig for a newly minted college grad: opening the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, a crystal event in his memory. "The morning of December 18, 1993, the GM called me in my office to do the very first announcement," he says. "It was 5 a.m., and over the loudspeaker I introduced MGM Grand to the world." It was the start of an exciting career in Las Vegas. Three years later, Chris left the golden lions to open another vividly exciting Strip destination-New York-New York. It was during this time his destiny took another forward step. "In 1998, I was asked to give a tour of New York-New York to several Hilton executives," he explains. "Afterward they convinced me to interview and ended up recruiting me to California to work for the Hilton Anaheim." After four years there and the opportunity to enjoy the splendor of the California coast, "I had my eyes on a small bed and breakfast in Sunset Beach," he says. While working on the financing, Chris asked his friend and boss (Richard Ham) to check out the property and received his honest opinion: the property was too small; the two of them should buy a larger hotel together. Three short months later in April 2002, with the help of the pair's third partner and investor (Takao Shimomiya), the trio bought La Casa del Camino. Although it had been renovated in 1997, Chris says La Casa was tired and really needed fresh energy. The partnership began carefully remodeling the rooms in the spirit of the era in which they were first built; then added the service and personality for which it's known. "Within a short period, the business was up and running, and we became a successful boutique hotel operation," he says. Chris smartly saw the key to success was bringing the hotel and the on-site restaurant under single ownership. The property's restaurant was leased out as Savoury's, but shortly after the establishment opened, it was put on the market. "We took over, began to make changes and expanded the Rooftop popularity. With the help of an amazing chef and a fantastic location-not to mention the hard work in between-we are a small staple of the community today," says Chris, adding that K'ya Bistro Bar is also a great success, thanks to Chef Craig Connole.
A certain reverence enters Chris' voice as he talks about the historically significant Casa, which is celebrating its 80th year. First opened in 1929 by local City Councilman William Riddel for local residents and artists, and a retreat for some of Hollywood's greatest legends, including Humphrey Bogart and Douglas Fairbanks, as well as visionaries J. Paul Getty and Howard Hughes, "this historic boutique hotel is one of the oldest and most treasured establishments in Laguna," says Chris, who has remained steadfast about keeping the hotel's charm and authenticity intact. "We must recognize the time, effort and money we invested in keeping this historic structure sound, not only by us but also by previous owners. We continue to look at capital improvements to continue to keep La Casa del Camino a treasure for all to enjoy."In August 2006, Hotel Menage in Anaheim was brought into the Casa Resorts family as a 244-room venue on a five-acre property across from Disneyland. K'ya Street Fare, its signature restaurant, offers a unique concept by presenting street foods from around the world. The very next year, Chris and his partners recognized the opportunity to take over Laguna Beach Inn as a golden one. "It wasn't known for its value, and looked pretty much like a motel," explains Chris. "We not only renovated the property a bit, but we also put in our own personality and style. We transformed it to a super quaint location where people come for the cleanliness, large rooms and comfy beds, but also for the fact that they're also paying a great value for being one block off the beach." He says he enjoys offering an alternative to La Casa del Camino. "Laguna Beach Inn is great for the leisure guest and families, and we run it like a family-owned business."To say that Chris is highly motivated is an under- statement. "My enthusiasm and motivation come from loving this business to the max and never allowing myself to grow content with the status quo," he says. "I am always trying to improve our service and the experience for our guests. " Down to City Business If at the still-tender age of 38 his burgeoning hotelier/restaurateur resume isn't stunning enough, wunderkind Chris is the 2010 President of Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce.
As someone who possesses tireless energy, vast service-oriented experience and tested, savvy instincts, he's confident that he and the board have the skills to maneuver the city through these challenging times and ensure it emerges more vibrant and vital than before. "We have an amazing board that comes with great experience and background, and I believe we will be able to make some great changes in the years to come," he says. "As president of thechamber, I hope to continue to move forward in developing the organization into a very significant business support structure for Laguna Beach. My hope is for the chamber to build a sound structure to help promote business, provide guidance and direction to existing businesses, welcome new businesses and fill vacant store fronts." Chris says he's eager for the chamber to continue to work with the Visitor's Bureau on developing synergies to help the city's hotels, restaurants, retail stores, art galleries and other small businesses, and believes the reinforcement by the City of Laguna Beach, the City Council and Planning Commission in taking active roles in the business landscape will provide the strong, united front the city needs.
"We all have to continue to work together to get through these times," he urges. Chris' deeply rooted affection for Laguna Beach is clear. "I'm going on 12 years in California, and I simply fell in love with Laguna Beach, the culture, the charm and of course the water,"he says with a smile. Immediately more serious, returning to that strong sense of purpose wrought from a youthful dream, he remarks that his drive spurs him to keep his eyes on the prizes: hospitality and Laguna. "I believe that with passion, persistence and patience, anything is possible," he says. "I know that when you really want something, and you do everything possible to get it, everything works on your behalf-and you succeed."