Jonathan Morris’ idea of Fort Worth is creative, cool and collaborative. So when he struggled to find spaces that reflected his community, he set out to create them himself. His fix? Design-forward spaces that support visionaries and Black artists, reward boldness, and welcome all.
Jonathan joins Trademark’s Cassie King, Senior Director of Design & Placemaking and Alex Hayes, Creative Manager, to talk about his vision behind Fort Worth Barber Shop and Hotel Dryce, a 21-room boutique hotel. Plus, how his supportive spirit has no city limits as host of Self Employed on Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Network.
Leaning In is published every second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Subscribe to hear part 2 of the conversation.
Terry Montesi: Hi, this is Terry Montesi, CEO of Trademark Property Company. Welcome to Trademark’s podcast Leading In, where we look at the future of retail and mixed use and how we can lean into it while others are leaning out. This is part one of a two-part episode. Thanks for tuning in.
Cassie King: Today, I’m here with my friend Jonathan Morris, serial entrepreneur, and host of Self Employed on The Magnolia Network. We talk about what inspires him as a small business owner, what he has learned on his entrepreneurial journey, and the importance of diversity in business operations. We are also joined by my cohost Alex Hayes, Trademark’s Creative Manager.
Hello, thank you for joining us, Jonathan.
Jonathan Morris: Thank you. I am glad to be here, Cassie.
Cassie King: You are a serial entrepreneur as the owner of Fort Worth Barbershop, The Lathery, and now the boutique Hotel Dryce. You have an immense eagerness to learn, be inspired, are always growing and seeing voids in the community as it grows and changes that others may not see. Tell us more about the projects you have going on and where your journey started.
Jonathan Morris: I think that for me, exactly what you said, it’s like being able to see what I, at least, feel like is missing in the community that I live in. For me, back in 2014 when I opened up the barber shop, it was very much a kind of scratching my own itch situation. I was looking around the country and seeing that there was this resurgence of the barbershop craft. It was coming back. You saw these really cool barber shops and these barbers that were really leaning into their craft in a way that I thought had gone away for really decades. And meanwhile, in Fort Worth, Texas, where I live, this growing city, I didn’t see any version of that. And so, as an entrepreneur, my goal was to create a space, a barber shop that I wanted to go to. And my hypothesis was that I would not be the only one that felt that way. And so, the community responded really well to that idea. We hit the ground running.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I got it into my head that I wanted to do a hotel. And that came about because when I travel, I love boutique independent hotels. And I just felt like if someone is coming to Fort Worth, Texas, the city that I love, that they wouldn’t be able to find accommodations that felt the way I would want for them to feel and connect them to the city in a way that I feel like we could. And so that was kind of the birth of the idea of developing a 21 room hotel that helped us tell the story of where Fort Worth was going and invite people to the city in a really authentic, communal way. So that’s kind of been my story in terms of stepping into entrepreneurship. It’s a story of looking around, seeing what feels very much like a void in the marketplace and doing my best to take my ideas and apply those ideas to what could be, and in my case, it’s been a barbershop and this hotel that is getting off the ground. We just hit one year. And so, it’s been an education to say the least.
Cassie King: I can’t believe, I mean, in so many ways, it’s been a year but it’s been longer than that because watching your journey-
Jonathan Morris: It’s been a year of operating. It’s been like 4 or 5 years of conception and development and construction and design and all of that, which that’s most of it and that’s a big part of it. And so I’ve had to kind of switch from idea mode to full-blown operation mode over the last year but it’s been a lot of fun.
Cassie King: We understand that at Trademark. We understand the back side of opening and getting open. That’s what we do. We love that. We live inside of that. I loved seeing the ground development of Hotel Dryce and talking to you about even where a couch should go. And as a friend, I love that you reach out to your peers in the community and you don’t, just like we don’t at Trademark, we don’t profess to know everything when we start out. We are learning. We are always growing. And I feel like that is something you have in common with us, that you lean in to your friends and ask a lot of questions. You ask a lot of questions which is great, and you ask for a lot of opinions.
Jonathan Morris: I am a question asker. I absolutely do not know it all. But I think that for me one of the things that I would say even relish in is the idea that I can have ideas and I can create things, but ultimately, I feel in a lot of ways I’m not alone in doing so. I feel very much like I have the support of community around me and that is something I try to lean on.
A lot of times people think about mentorship and finding a mentor. I think about my mentors as being the people that I’m in this journey of life with, my neighbors, my friends, my colleagues. It’s been a road of constant curiosity and learning and learning what I don’t know and leaning on others to help find answers and create solutions for developing spaces that hopefully are impactful in the community.
Cassie King: They are. And you hit right on it, the sense of community. And Fort Worth has always had a very rich community. We all know that. Everybody that’s from Fort Worth knows that. It ebbs and flows. And right now, it is at a high point specifically within the younger entrepreneurial crowd. And we have mutual friends that have shops and restaurants and bars and hotels now. And it’s that group, and you know all the people I’m talking about because you’re friends with them, that it becomes that community. And you’re able to bounce ideas off of each other and ask how did you do this or how would you do this, and if I was going to create a space, how would you want to enter it? And how would you want to utilize it?
And so it is that sense of community that you have had such a huge role in. And I just wanted to say thank you first of all because I’ve really enjoyed it, and I’ve really enjoyed watching the synergy of all of these groups. I want to say there’s probably 25 or 30 now people that have that rich balance in the community.
Jonathan Morris: I think it’s really important to have peer groups and to be able to lean into peer groups of other people who are doing a lot of the same thing and having a lot of the same struggles and/or have overcome a lot of the same struggles. And not only that, I think there’s also something to be said for just the representation of seeing other people in your peer group, people that look like you, people that come from the same background as you, people that are looking for the same answers, have some of the same aspirations and finding those communities of support in people you can fire ticks off to and ask how they went about handling and HR situation or tax situation or a customer situation. That’s something I think is, like you said, very rich in our community in Fort Worth. I find that it’s very advantageous to lean into that sense of community that we have and really use it as a notch in our belt to continue to grow our businesses.
Alex Hayes: So Jonathan, do you think that diversity and community, as we’ve talked about it, is something that is going to be more of a consumer trend in the future? I know that experiencing the spaces that you’ve designed firsthand, it is something you can actually feel when you are in it. You can feel the collaborative spirit when it comes to design and programming. Do you think that we will see more of this in terms of consumer trends in the future?
Jonathan Morris: I know that with anything I do, you will see that. I think that sense of- the idea of creating spaces that feel particularly inclusive, that feel particularly diverse, that feel particularly welcoming to a lot of people, and a lot of different people from a lot of different walks of life, is something that I found I think- for me, I think of it as being something that has to be done very intentionally through design, through programming, through the way that you build community in that space whether it be through customers and client base or even just through staffing.
That is something to me is really important because that is something I want to see more of throughout my community, not just in my businesses, I want to see that everywhere I go in Fort Worth. And I think that there is real business sense in creating spaces that are not necessarily for everybody but communicate to people that you are welcome here. You are invited here. I think when you do that, you see that there can be ripple effects where people go okay, this place feels like I can be my truest self and I can bring my fullest identity into the space. I think it is a powerful tool and that is something I want to continue to do and I want to continue to find better ways of doing so.
Alex Hayes: I love the idea that your vision for the space, it kind of goes in two directions. One direction is you are creating an experience that you really want to see yourself, but you are also creating an experience that you hope others can see themselves in as well. I think as far as design and building a business that’s really a pillar of the community, I think it is almost like art. You have to create it for yourself and hope that it reaches people in an authentic way. I think that’s a lot easier said than done. And I’m wondering how you balance that desire to create something for yourself while also trying to create inclusive spaces for others as well?
Jonathan Morris: I think my own sensibilities are, though maybe unique to me, I think they also can register with other people. And I think that I used to have this idea that I would create spaces that were- that just weren’t offensive and everyone would enjoy. Now when I think about Hotel Dryce and I think about what we’re doing and who we are looking to appeal to and who we want to reach, one of the things I’ve settled into is that we will not be for every traveler. We will not be for every hotel lobby guest. But I do believe that what I try to recognize is what are the things that we are just missing as a community.
When I think about Fort Worth, we are a deceptively very large city if you just think about in terms of the population and even land mass. And when I look around the city, I think about what are the things I don’t see felt. What are the spaces that feel like, like Cassie said earlier, feel like voids. And even just comparing it to when I travel to other places, what are the things that I see? And a lot of times, Fort Worth can be a few steps behind other major cities, other cities that are creeping towards a million people plus. A lot of times, I feel like it’s really almost obvious what is missing and to be able to create those, fill those blanks in with ideas that I have and things that appeal to me, things that spark my interest or spark my curiosity, that is the bet I am making. That is the roll of the dice. Hopefully, other people will respond to those things as well, and when they do, it makes them feel like we are doing something right.
But at the same time, that is an ongoing game of creating and testing and seeing what works. I think a lot of times if I just lead with my gut, it serves me well. I’ve also had losses and I’ve learned from those as well. But I’m going to continue to lead with my gut in the things that I think will appeal to a lot of other folks, not everybody, but a lot of people, and place those things in the market and roll the dice and see what happens.
Cassie King: Well, I think your gut has been right on, so I’m behind you and your gut. Alex, you mentioned art earlier, which I totally forgot to mention this, but Jonathan, would you please talk a bit about your vision for all the art that is in the hotel? You told me about this at the very beginning of your thought about the whole thing as a really unified design and how it went together, but please talk about that a little more.
Jonathan Morris: Well, one of the things that I knew going into the hotel project was that I wanted to bring in local artists and artists from in and around Fort Worth. And as we got further into the design process, one of the things that I kind of looked around the city and it stood out to me, particularly just in hotel spaces, is I didn’t see a lot of representation of artists of color throughout the city. And to me, again, what kind of stood out to me about that is when I look throughout the city and my friends and people that I admire who are doing really interesting things in hotels, a lot of them happen to be people of color. And I felt like you wouldn’t know that if you were traveling to Fort Worth, you wouldn’t know about the diversity and vibrance in our art scene if you just paid attention to what was happening on the walls in hotels.
And to me, it just felt like an opportunity to say something that was very true and very authentic about our city which is that we have lot of amazing creatives and artists who are adding to the fabric of the landscape of who we are and who we are becoming as a city. And so I created an art grant called You Are Here, and we called it You Are Here because I felt like that is a term that gives you a sense of place but I also wanted it to be kind of a statement to artists of a color throughout the city that says you’re here, you’re in Fort Worth. And the art that you’re making, the work that you are creating is important, and we want to be able to showcase a handful of these artists throughout the walls in our hotel and welcome them to Fort Worth and give them just a little bit of a taste of who we really are as a city.
One of the things that was really important to me was I did not want to, through the art, through the design, through the painting, through the photography, I did not want to say something that had been said over and over and over and over again. Fort Worth very much leans into its Western culture, it’s cowboy culture. And that is a unique and special and I think a very, very important aspect to who we are and who we have been. But I thought to myself, like okay, if and when we do say anything about cowboy culture, let’s say something about Black and brown cowboys. When you walk through the hotel lobby at Hotel Dryce, you see two prominent Black cowboys on horses. And I had just not seen that in Fort Worth, particularly in hotel spaces.
So, I wanted to say something to people when they came to Fort Worth which was this is an authentic representation of who we really are. These are the faces that you see on these paintings and in these photographs throughout the hotel are people that represent Fort Worth. And I wanted to make sure also that locals, people who live in Fort Worth feel like they see their own versions of Fort Worth through the space and not just a caricature of cowboy life or Western culture or longhorns and boots and hats, which are all things that we love, but how else can we say something that has been said over and over and over again? And that is what we wanted to do.
Cassie King: You did it wonderfully and perfectly.
Jonathan Morris: Thank you. I didn’t do it. We just put together the artists who are telling those true stories about their Fort Worth. So that process was really, really rewarding for me.
Cassie King: Well, I love that I walked in after you had everything on the walls and I said, “Is that Dion’s piece behind the reception desk?” And you said, “Nikki?” And I said, “Yeah.” She is a wonderful fiber artist that we are hoping to work with. And I was like wait a second, and that’s something that really appeals to me as a local, walking in and knowing the artist right away. It is a level of comfort. It is a level of I am so happy that someone else is using these artists that are so amazing. So anyway, I just wanted to bring that up but I will move on. Also about Hotel Dryce, you launched the hotel construction during the pandemic and contended with the surrounding neighborhood. There was a very nice city council meeting that I was able to attend. Can you talk about the challenges and advantages of doing it during that time, what makes the hotel so successful, which we’ve hit on, and then what has been your favorite part of this project?
Jonathan Morris: We kicked off construction in March of 2020, literally a week or two after the world shut down. In Texas, a lot of development didn’t really stop per se. And so over the course of several months, we were very much in the thick of it. And it did present some challenges. But ultimately, as we were going through development, we’re in the thick of COVID, and we did not know what it was going to look like once we opened up the hotel. At that time, bars were closed. We didn’t even know if we were going to open up our bar. At that time, occupancy in hotels across the country was next to nothing. And we were very optimistic that things would recover, but it wasn’t until just before we opened that things started to kind of come back to life and people started to get back to traveling in more of a regular kind of flow of moving about the cabin if you will. So there were just a lot of unknowns going into it.
Now, the thing that served us really well was in terms of preparing for COVID, we didn’t have to change things we had done, we just had to figure out how to live in this COVID world with this hotel from the jump, which I think in some ways, that helped serve us well. Going into the project, Cassie, you asked about some of the pushback we had even just from the neighborhood. So where the Hotel 6 is, just adjacent to a residential neighborhood, and there was a faction of the neighborhood association that was against us building this project. And some of it I think was personal. I think some of it was we were brand-new to the hotel space, and they didn’t trust us to build a product that, I guess, they felt like was worthy of being in the neighborhood.
Cassie King: A little fear of the unknown probably.
Jonathan Morris: The fear of the unknown, and yeah, that was tough. That was tough. For me, as an entrepreneur, that was the first time that I was met with someone or people being very adamantly against this idea of mine, this dream of mine, this opposition of what could be for me a game changing moment in my professional life. So, to come against that opposition, that was kind of tough. But all that said, it was ultimately our community that showed up and supported us, a lot of our neighbors and people just throughout all of Fort Worth that showed up for our project, showed up for this dream that we had to build this hotel and helped us petition City Hall. That’s the last time I’ve been to City Hall was when I went to fight for my hotel zoning project.
Cassie King: And it was packed.
Jonathan Morris: That’s community though. That’s a testament to relationships over the years and people that have showed up. And yes, they’re showing up for us and our project, but I think that even more so people are showing up for themselves and their own dreams and their own aspirations. We just got to hold the flag for our community that day, and so that was a really special moment. And we got the go ahead to build, so that was huge.
My favorite part about the hotel project thus far which is something that I did not realize I would encounter so much which is I have met so many people at the hotel that it’s their first time in Fort Worth. There’re several people I’ve met that it’s the first time they’ve been to Texas. And I didn’t realize how often that would happen. But what’s so cool about that is we get to be perception makers. We get to tell people what our city is, what Texas is to us. And for so many people, that impression that we leave on them is their first impression of Texas, their first impression of Fort Worth. And so it feels very much like an honor to be a part of someone’s experience in that way. And we’ve got a great team of people that are in many ways welcoming people not just to Hotel Dryce but that we are welcoming them to this city and this community that we love, this community I was just sharing with you. We get to invite people into that, and that has been so special, so rewarding over the last year-and-a-half.
Alex Hayes: I love that. Hospitality can be such a rewarding business. I think when people are at the center of it, it can be really exciting to engage with them and connect with them, and you realize I am introducing them to a place and to a city that I love and I get to show them all of my favorite parts of that. And I think that is really special.
Jonathan Morris: It has been. I think that’s something that I feel like is- it is kind of at the core of what we do. It’s about, like you said, it’s about people. I think I’m really happy with the space that we built and the design and all those things that have gone into it, but I think ultimately, the thing we’ve done well and I want to continue to really, really key in on is how do we introduce people to people in a community because that is the differentiator. That is the thing that I think allows us to stand apart, leading with the people that make our community what it is.
Alex Hayes: We’ve talked a lot about community and how that was the center of your vision for the businesses that you’ve been able to open in Fort Worth. If you were starting over today, would you do anything differently?
Jonathan Morris: I don’t know what I would do differently, but here’s what I know. The way that I think about entrepreneurship is I think about it like academia. I think about it like education. I think about every day that the doors to my businesses open as another opportunity to learn. And it’s another opportunity to improve upon the day before. And it’s a continuous ongoing filtration of the things that maybe I would have done differently I have the opportunity to do differently or learn from moving forward.
So that’s just the way I try to think about day in and day out with growing and maintaining these businesses that are very much my babies. I want for them to continue to thrive. But I’m just a student. I’m a student dressed up as an entrepreneur. I think that as time goes on, I continue to look back, and I see, man, I’ve improved upon that, but I’ve only improved upon that because I’ve learned from the bumps and bruises. So I don’t know that I would do much differently because that which I’ve done has allowed me to refine, but there’s still things I’m very much looking to improve upon.
Alex Hayes: I love that. I think that is really important. I feel like as a designer, a lot of the job is actually problem solving, understanding what the issue is in front of you, and understanding that wholly and then learning what your options are for solutions.
Jonathan Morris: That is literally all that we are doing day in and day out. The hotel business, which is a business that I still very much consider myself novice in, it’s this rhythm of ongoingness that is like no other. When I tell you we opened up the doors of the hotel in August of 2021, and guess what, we haven’t closed since. So it is just this ongoing rolling ball of an education and refinement that takes people to learn and to be curious and to problem-solve on an ongoing basis.
Alex Hayes: What is the most shocking thing you’ve learned during this process?
Jonathan Morris: I think that for me, personally, the most shocking thing in the process particularly of opening the hotel is how important it is for other people to see what has been a dream of mine come alive. And I say that because I did not anticipate a lot of the conversations that I’ve had, people coming up to me and like thanking me for creating this space. And it’s weird, it’s shocking because it is like this is just my idea. And I did believe, I always believed that other people would respond positively to it and that was my hope and my goal always.
But it has been surprising almost how emotional I’ve seen other people be about this thing that I’ve been emotional about myself and it has been a dream of mine, it has been so close to my heart, but seeing other people and people that I don’t know, people I’ve never met come up to me and tell me how much this thing means to them. I think that I have learned that there’s like this- I think there is a power in hopefully inspiring other people to pursue their own things. It doesn’t have to be another hotel. It could be a sandwich shop. I don’t know, it could be anything. But I think- and particularly I think for other Black people to see other Black people create things and bring things to life, it has been super, super powerful and I didn’t see it coming the way that it has come.
So that has been surprising but also energizing in a lot of ways and affirming that we are on the right track. Again, we still have a lot of room to grow and a lot of things I want to do with my businesses, but seeing people just have a sense of pride in what we are doing, it is humbling and it is energizing all at the same time.
Alex Hayes: Yeah, dreams can absolutely be shared.
Cassie King: Speaking of inspiring, Jonathan, if anybody has been paying attention, they know that you are a host of a new TV show on Chip and Joanna’s new Magnolia Network. It is called Self Employed, and it focuses on the country’s most inspiring small business owners. You’ve even featured some of the metroplex’s entrepreneurs as well as showcase diverse business owners. How did the show get off the ground, and why do you think it is so important to share these stories?
Jonathan Morris: Yeah, I’ll just say this experience of hosting a television show was something I never saw coming. It is not something I ever sought out to do or aspired to do, but then the opportunity came about and I said you know what, I think this would be fun. And after having done so, it was inspiring for me. I got to meet these entrepreneurs from all over the country including some right here in our backyard that their stories are incredibly inspiring, and their stories help me remember why I do what I do and the things that drive me.
So, a good friend of mine, Reg Sanders who has worked in television and film for a very long time now, reached to me and said, “I’m talking to the folks at Magnolia. Chip and Jo are launching a new network. Would you be interested in doing a TV show?” So, I said, “I think so.” So, we hit the ground running and developing what would end up being Self Employed. And so, I got to travel around the country and meet a handful of entrepreneurs who some of which I call friends to this day, and they are people who inspired me through telling their stories. So just given this platform and this space, TV space to have people share their stories, and I got to just be myself and I got to be curious and I got to ask people questions about their stories and learn about where they are in their businesses and hear about these entrepreneurs’ aspirations for where they want to take their businesses and what drives them.
So that’s been something that, for me, I would never have guessed I’d be doing, but it’s been such a pleasure getting to know these small business owners, getting to know Chip and Joanna Gaines, seeing what they’ve done which, you want to talk about inspiration, it’s been incredible to see the empire that they built. And they started out as entrepreneurs, small business owners down in Waco. And so, they are huge inspirations for me and being a part of this network project that they are pursuing is something that I am honored to be a participant of.
Cassie King: Well, I don’t think they could have picked a better person. And that’s another example of community and having entrepreneurial vision and sharing. Reg saw something in you, and he’s known all along that this is probably going to be a good thing for you, and you didn’t even know. That’s another viewpoint of being an entrepreneur. Our brains work in such funny ways. You saw a void long ago that we needed a barbershop in Fort Worth, and that’s something that I love the way people’s brains work where they can actually see things in people that they can’t even see in themselves. So I think this is a great full-circle for that entrepreneurial community spirit in Fort Worth that one entrepreneur called upon another one to lift them up. So, it’s beautiful.
Jonathan Morris: Community. That’s community. That’s community and collaboration. And it will take you a lot of places, and I can say that because that’s been my story, leaning into community, leaning into relationships. Leaning into relationships has opened up doors that I never would have thought I was walking through.
Cassie King: So the Fort Worth Business Press named you in its Top 100 Entrepreneurs of the Year. And Dallas Innovate selected you for the Future 50 in DFW. Do you find that these platforms allow you to share your entrepreneurial passion in a way that you didn’t before?
Jonathan Morris: When it comes to awards and things like that, for me, the real value is in representation. I think that the value is in lighting a fire in other people and other people being able to see themselves through whatever platform or awards or whatever was bestowed upon me. I hope what that does is allow other people to see where they can take their own dreams, where they can take their own aspirations, and understand it’s a matter of not just having the best idea or being the smartest in the room but I think with perseverance and obsession, I’m probably more obsessive about things than a lot of other people may be, and to me, that is one of the stories of my entrepreneurial journey. I just want people to be able to see it is within them as well, and sometimes I can be the person to wave that flag, but ultimately, everything I do hearkens back to a community of people around me that support my dreams and my ideas.
Terry Montesi: Thank you for tuning into today’s episode. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast so you can hear the rest of the conversation. To learn more about Trademark, visit trademarkproperty.com