Mike Harrah

The Story of Big Mike

Mike Harrah is a daredevil and a developer. Sometimes, he is both at once.

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Building the American Dream: "Big Mike" Harrah

Mike grew up in middle class Whittier and like most California kids in the early sixties loved surfing, playing music (drums) racing cars, motorcycles and boats. In 1969, just after high school he had enough money saved up to buy a one way (Standby) ticket,

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Profiles of the County’s Most Influential Business

Mr. Big in county’s biggest city.

Mike Harrah’s 2009 profile in the Orange County Business Journal highlights some of Harrah’s latest accomplishments. Namely, he owns close to 80 buildings, about 4 million square feet in Santa Ana’s downtown. Harrah has played a key role in revitalizing Santa Ana through restoring buildings, attracting restaurants, art galleries, and others. His One Broadway Plaza project won voter approval in 2005 and is required by the city to have 50% of the footage leased before beginning construction. In the last year, he finished the multi-million dollar Pinnacle Hawaii condo building which is sold out. In the past decade, Harrah has redeveloped much of central Santa Ana and has been called the city’s savior for restoring old buildings. Honored by the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society in 2003, Michael Harrah was named Preservationist of the Year. His company, Caribou Industries, does an estimated $30 million in annual revenue and Mike’s office, complete with a stuffed bear in the corner, overlooks the One Broadway Plaza site. Harrah is notoriously distinguishable from the rest of the local real estate elite. Standing at 6’6 and sporting a ZZ Top beard, Harrah looks the part of his other hobbies—helicopter piloting and jazz drumming, but he managed to direct the construction of the Orange County School of the Arts building from a hospital bed after a major helicopter accident. Harrah has also listed in 2005, 2006, 2007 & 2008 special reports.

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Original Mike’s

From Ruins to Restaurant.

“When Big Mike Harrah, the largest tenant improvement contractor in Orange County, California, spotted what was left of the United Auto Building in Santa Ana, California, he wasn’t repulsed, he was enthused.” Don Weberg of Garage Style Magazine profiles Mike Harrah’s transformation of the first car dealership in Orange County to Original Mike’s Restaurant. Located at First and Main in the heart of downtown Santa Ana, Original Mike’s is part restaurant, part auto museum and part history. Given the “Best Restaurant and Bar” award by Dining Out magazine in 2006 and 2007, Original Mike’s offers a variety of dishes from large, juicy burgers to fish plates and steaks prepared exactly as prescribed by the customer. Tables and booths are intermingled between vehicles ranging from historic Harley Davidson motorcycles, to Santa Ana’s first fire engine (built in 1919) to the only Murphy-Bodied 1929 Packard Touring Sedan ever built, ordered originally by the President of Mexico. The building’s historic character was kept intact by Mike’s construction crews who preserved the leaded glass windows, wood beam ceilings and octagonal tile floor. Myriads of photos of both Santa Ana and the building, circa 1890- 1933 grace the walls. Original Mike’s slogan is, “good cookin,’ good eatin,’ and good livin’” and it’s clear the restaurant lives up to it.      

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Truly an Original

Whether building hot rods or high rises.

Mike Harrah only knows how to go full throttle In a profile for Velocity, a magazine targeted at car enthusiasts in Orange County, Mike Harrah shared stories of his favorite car acquisitions. There was his first car, a 1956 Chevy Nomad he bought at age 14 and restored from the ground up—taking it from an immovable heap filled with acorns and sporting four flat tires to a loved machine he drove for nine years. Harrah also remembered the time he was cited by the DMV with a $1,200 fine for selling cars without a dealer’s license. He was 17-years-old and would buy decrepit, perform basic maintenance and turn them around for a profit. Even in those early years, it was clear that Mike didn’t just love working with his hands, he also knew how to turn that drive into a successful business. Writer Patrick C. Paternie aptly describes, “Developer Mike Harrah lives the lifestyle of a highflying, high horsepower renaissance man. He’s equally at home sitting on drums for ZZ Top, the driver’s seat of his 3000 HP, 632 cubic inch Chevy Dragster, the head table at his award-winning Ambrosia restaurant, or the pilot’s chair of his Gulfstream G-IV business jet. “Mike’s personal garage has come a long way from that Chevy Nomad, but his love for fast cars and fast living remains the same.

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Wonderland Original Mike’s is a feast for the senses.

Owner Mike Harrah has always defied convention but his unique vision for Original Mike’s continues to solidify Santa Ana’s place on the dining map. First a Packard dealership then an empty and condemned building, Harrah has restored this architectural gem and transformed it into a restaurant that brings to mind the all-American den of a rich uncle. Harley Davidson motorcycles hang from the ceiling. Big fireplaces, two antique bars, satellite sports feeds and all sorts of eclectic surprises greet customers. The whimsical décor gives Original Mikes an all ages feel and the scheduled entertainment which ranges from classic car nights to karaoke to Latin-infused dance music attracts everyone from three-year-old kids to 90-year-old grandmothers. One of the restaurant’s chief goals is to inspire people to have fun and this is lived out in Original Mike’s slogan, “Good cookin,’ good eatin,’ and good livin.’” Read More in the Summer 2007 Dining Out Magazine

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The Quintessential Self-Made Man: Michael Harrah

He was penniless when he first resolved to buy a jet. Not anymore. Thirty-five years after launching his career with nothing but competitive zeal and a carpenter’s tool kit, Michael Harrah is the sole owner of Caribou Industries, a major development corporation which has built and managed restaurants, high-rise offices, hotels, golf courses, shopping malls, convention centers and other properties across the western United States. Harrah’s interest in aviation began in 1976 when he saw a simple, “Learn to Fly--$25” ad, took an introductory flight and was hooked. He worked his way up from a Cessna 310 to a 421B, buying and flying a number of planes along the way, all in the course of a couple months. He now owns a Gulfstream IV and five helicopters, including a Cobra combat helicopter he’s flown in a number of blockbuster Hollywood films. While Harrah loves flying, he also sees how owning a jet and helicopters makes a statement. In this interview, he tells a story of flying to San Francisco, picking up his loan officer and flying to Lake Havasu where he had a helicopter parked. They transferred to the helicopter and Harrah flew across the river where the pair had a great dinner in Harrah’s restaurant. He says, “I had a loan commitment for $13 million that same night. I think he was fairly impressed.”

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Divine Intervention

The sweet taste of downtown Santa Ana’s comeback begins with Ambrosia According to Dining Out magazine, “Before its recent facelift, downtown Santa Ana would not have conjured any associations with ambrosia, the mythical food of the deities purported to render immortality to those who consumed it. These days, the nectar of the gods and the rebirth of downtown Santa Ana go hand in hand.” This article charts the history of the restaurant Ambrosia, beginning with its 1970’s incarnation of the Balboa Peninsula. Now, Mike Harrah has reopened the restaurant in downtown Santa Ana as part of his OC Pavilion Performing Arts Theater. Since its humble beginnings in a beach cottage, Ambrosia has come a long way. Today, guests are treated to a magnificent dining venue run by Executive Chef Jean-Marie Josselin, owner of restaurant 808 in Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas. Flawless team service, live jazz, and art reminiscent of the art deco era all serve to enhance the extraordinary dining experience. Ambrosia respects the fine-dining philosophy if a past era and provides cuisine worthy of any five-star palate.

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Michael Harrah One Man’s Blueprint

How visionary developer Michael Harrah rescued Orange County’s biggest city from urban blight This article tracks Mike Harrah’s involvement with development in Santa Ana, starting with his first real estate deal in the early 1990’s, a midrise at the corner of Main and 17th street. While Harrah was excited to finally be involved in Santa Ana real estate, he didn’t realize that a mass exodus from the county seat was quietly underway. While other tenants considered moving to nearby Irvine, Harrah worked fast. He plunged into the developing economic disaster scene, buying up bank foreclosures, renovating them then filling them with government tenants by offering lower rents than their current contracts. Once he was on solid footing with his office tenants, Harrah set to work renovating some of the best historical buildings downtown. He transformed the Santa Ana Masonic Temple, built in 1930, into the Santa Ana Performing Arts and Event Center and renovated the white marble-clad Bank of America building into the OC Pavilion, another performing arts venue that includes a new version of Ambrosia, a gourmet restaurant with a long lineage in Orange County. In downtown Santa Ana, Harrah has been able to combine his love for jazz drumming and the arts with his commitment to architectural redevelopment. Harrah has created a cultural environment ready for the next level of development and is preparing the break ground of his largest project yet, a 37-story class An office building located at One Broadway Plaza. Read More in the September 14, 2006, issue of OC Metro

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Ambrosia: An Icon Reborn

The re-creation of an Orange County classic in downtown Santa Ana OC Metro dining critic, Patrick Mott, calls Ambrosia “unapologetically sumptuous.” Mike Harrah has reopened Ambrosia, the fine dining restaurant which locals remember from its heyday on the Balboa Peninsula, and spared no expense. Located above Harrah’s $21-million OC Pavilion, Ambrosia is upscale, old school fine dining. This article details just a few of the menu’s offerings and raves about the perfectly balanced Bibb lettuce salad, succulent filet mignon and French vanilla bean ice cream topped with strawberry slices, caramelized pear, and a red wine and prune reduction sauce. Ambrosia is located at 801 N. Main St. in downtown Santa Ana and is led by Chef Jean-Marie Josselin, owner of 808 restaurants at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Read More in the September 14, 2006 issue of OC Metro

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Mike F. Harrah


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