Jacob Billingsley is a bartender. Actually he is a restaurant owner and business man in Greenville, SC but he is still very much a bartender. I don't know if he can mix a drink or knows what the best beer on tap is, but from the moment he walked into his restaurant, Gringo's, on the day of our interview, he had the bartender swagger and the speech pattern of someone who had spent years behind a bar and now just happened to own one. He knows how to talk to people.
It is about 1:30 in the afternoon and he is strolling in wearing a t-shirt and shorts because even in October in South Carolina, it is still shorts weather. He is dressed comfortably not just because he can, but I suspect that it is because he knows that he is going to be there late into the night and that he will be there to, as much as he can, make things run smoothly on a Friday evening.
Jacob takes a moment to jokingly razz a patron sitting at the bar about taking up three parking spots in the lot outside, one of which is Jacob's own personal parking spot. He makes himself a soft drink behind the bar. He offers me something and tells the patron to just let him know when he is about to leave so that he can move his car to his own space. "Let me know", he tells the patron. This phrase alone denotes the kind of accessibility that few restaurant owners I know exhibit and I get the impression that Jacob can be reached just about anytime, anywhere. Something tells me that there are a lot of people who know his personal phone number and he does not hole himself up in the office while others do the work.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have known and interacted with Jacob a little bit before doing this interview and I know the main reason that I wanted to do it was because he reminded me a little of myself or at least the me that I wanted to be. We had talked at several events and I even went to City Hall to support Gringo's being able to keep the patio open longer than midnight. That did not go well, but when the call did go out for support, I was one of about 30 people who showed up at 4 in the afternoon. So, when I say that Jacob reminds me of myself, it is safe to say that he reminds a lot of people of the people they want to be.
We did not talk long that afternoon, but we didn't really have to. I started this interview mentally pretty much the first day I met Jacob and the day we had our first conversation sitting with him was just the opportunity to get the back story and the details of his arrival in Greenville.
He was raised in West Texas and then worked out on the West Coast for some time. As he tells it, he slid into a desk job in Atlanta and was working in bars at night. "80 hours a week was nothing unfamiliar." he says. All that work allowed him to save up enough money to go into his first venture.
"Mid July 2008, a friend said 'Go check out Greenville' and within 45 days I opened Blueberry Frog on Main St. (Greenville) and just made a go of it and I have not regretted it for one day since." Blueberry Frog was, at that time, the first frozen yogurt place in South Carolina. That has since changed dramatically, but as far as South Carolina goes, Jacob blazed a trail. He now franchises them out and has been concentrating on Gringo's, his taqueria on Camperdown Way in Greenville, SC.
Coming from Midtown Atlanta, he sees that Greenville can be similar, upscale yet still accessible to the average person who just wants to come downtown. Jacob is a risk taker and a shrewd business man, yet he knows how and when to be trusting, hire and work with people who know more than he does about their aspect of the business, and let them do their thing. On this particular day at Gringo's, there is a large table enjoying the patio along with a smattering of people enjoying a late lunch, but he is just sitting back while his managers Brian and Jeremy run the floor and he barely glances up.
"I don't go to music shows and I don't like loud, big crowds." he says as we start to talk about his latest project, a 1500 to 2000 person venue in Greenville. I ask him about the kind of music he would like to see in the venue and his reply is a very quick and enthusiastic, "Citizen Cope." Aside from seeing Citizen Cope come through Greenville because of the kind of music and the kind of crowd Jacob wants to see, he has no preferences. There is no feeling that he is going to open this place simply because he wants to book his own bands and have a place where his buddies can hang out. He has a vision of all kinds of music, corporate events, weddings, and more. "Just like I don't make the menu here at Gringo's (he leaves that to his kitchen manager), I won't get involved in the booking of music or events." He just knows an opportunity when he sees it.
I asked him a very loaded question that had the potential to have a backlash, but I threw it at him anyway and he answered it without a moment's hesitation. Many people get asked what they can do to make Greenville a better place and questions of the like. I was curious about what he thought Greenville can do for him as an entrepreneur and I got another quick answer; "Get out of the way!"
"I appreciate this city, I love this city...but they don't want to leave room for mom and pop shops like myself. When we first got here in 2008 that was all they boasted on was 'We support local' and we don't see that now. Just get out of the way and let business do business."
He had already taken one skirmish to City Hall with a battle over whether or not he should be able to keep the patio open until two a.m. The patio is a huge selling point to the restaurant because it has a great view and the Upstate is pretty warm late into the fall, making it an ideal place to sit for bit and enjoy a meal. Though there were no incidents during his probationary period, the city opted not to allow him to keep it open past midnight. He came before the planning commission flanked by his partner, Adam Bennett and a phalanx of about 25 patrons, myself included and pleaded his case to no avail. My next question was along the same lines. I asked him if opening up Greenville was a battle he was willing to fight?
"It is, because it's what I do." he explains. He opened the first frozen yogurt place in South Carolina, and Gringo's is like no other restaurant downtown or any other taqueria or Mexican restaurant in the area that I have seen. The building itself sits off to the side on Camperdown Way and it is a visually LOUD building, even if the interior volume is not. The dining room boasts local artists displaying their works and murals adorn the upstairs walls. The staff wears t-shirts and jeans and sit down when they are not cranking out good food. Gringo's is a different sort of place. "I get bored," he says about the battles he chooses, "I didn't work for eight months and this is what happened."
He pays attention to the structure of things but is adamant about using his knowledge of the way things work to do other things, different things. We talked about how he franchised out Blueberry Frog using a template taken from things that had already been done, but the thing itself is different. Gringo's is successful and he will take his knowledge and experience of building the place to his next venture, but he says that you are not likely see a Gringo's in every major city or Gringo's-To-Go in airports. Being corporate does not interest him.
Gringo's is never really packed and Jacob is somewhat happy about that. The building sits alone, an island in the midst of a lot of fresh steel and glass. There are even a lot of buildings and structures in the downtown area that are refurbished with an new old look, distressed brick that is was made weeks before placement to make a structure look like it is a hundred years old. Gringo's is different. "We offer cool service, a cool product, and we have cool people who come in," he says.
It is interesting to see the people who work for and with Jacob. Make no mistake, I did not intentionally leave out his partner, Adam Bennett. Adam was traveling and at the time of this interview was in California The sense that I got was that kind of thing was indicative of the rather fluid efficiency that was there. Things were getting done and everyone seemed happy, so taking a little time away for whatever reason is not out of the question for either of them, it appeared
Brian and Jeremy were hustling a little with new tables coming in and even they were able to sit for a moment and talk to me about working at Gringo's and for Jacob. Brian is a stone mason by trade and has an expanding resume of jobs that he has done all over the city. He is a Greenville native and food service is quite different than working with stone all day, but he likes it. His wife is a manager at another local restaurant and he says he was captivated by Gringo's from the moment it opened.
Jeremy was a transplant from Columbia, Maryland and also took a moment to talk to me about how he was in love with the place from the moment he started working there. He is one of a number of employees who came from other states and have found a home at Gringo's. Both Brian and Jeremy agree that Jacob is going to be one to watch in the next few years and as much as he trusts them to run his restaurant when he is not around, they are trusting him to lead them to steady income and fun. They both speak of the feeling that THEY own the place at times and the sections they are running as their own restaurant.
This is the first article that I have written for this site and when I was thinking about who I wanted to write about, Jacob was the first to spring to mind, hands down. Though he and I have a lot in common, there is a key difference that speaks to what makes him a fascinating person. He pulls the trigger on the ideas that people have but do not act on. He is the first to admit that Gringo's is a lot like places in California, but nothing like anything in South Carolina. Jacob did not invent the wheel, just introduced it to another place. He is part of a select breed of people who have an idea and act on it.
I thought about how I wanted to write this and whether or not I wanted to track down cousins and past employers and employees. I thought about whether or not I wanted to peel layer after layer of the man's life apart, but I decided against anything like that. Our stories are pretty much the same, to a point. At one point, he decided to forego the desk job and pull the trigger on a great idea, which led him to another and another. Jacob Billingsley is not afraid to take chances, to fail, to rebuild and start all over again if need be. I am looking forward to seeing what he is going to do with this new venture. Chances are that it is going to be a cool place to go to see something and that is all that counts.
Jacob has that "thing" that Greenville needs and has the ability to tap into what people want. He can look around and see what missing and come up with a plan to make it appear, even if no one knew it was what was missing. I am writing this and being completely honest about my lack of journalistic indifference. I am writing this because I am rooting for him.