David Stachel wanted to “open a daiquiri bar on the beach,” and he visited Savannah in October 1989 to talk to a business acquaintance of his brother, local psychologist Bill Dickinson, into partnering with him.
Being a gracious host, Dickinson took Stachel out on the town, starting with the Oktoberfest celebration on River Street.
“Wow, is it like this all the time?” Stachel asked Dickinson upon seeing the festive crowds along the waterfront.
Six months later, Stachel and Dickinson opened their daiquiri bar on the beach on River Street’s cobblestones instead. Wet Willie’s debuted on St. Patrick’s Day weekend 1990 and instantly became the place to party in Savannah.
Today, Wet Willie’s is home to the frozen-drink crowd in 17 locations in seven states. Plans call for the opening of at least six more stores in 2013, including a third local location in City Market and the company’s first foray into the New York City market.
And yes, Stachel got his daiquiri bar on the beach — several stores sit oceanside, including a recently opened location on Tybee and another on Miami’s South Beach.
Credit Dickinson’s ability to master the bar business for the success, said Ansley Williams, owner of River Street restaurants Spanky’s and Tubby’s.
“In the beginning, I told Dickinson ‘Doc, don’t quit your day job,’” Williams said. “Turns out he was a natural — he was better at the bar business than those of us giving him advice. He believed in what he was doing and was willing to do everything necessary to be a success.”
The spirit that has keyed the business’s success makes Wet Willie’s our choice for “Entrepreneurial Business of the Year.”
Dickinson is a psychologist by trade, so naturally he applies a clinical approach to explain Wet Willie’s success.
His entrepreneurial philosophy includes 11 points, culminating in his belief in a “Darwinian approach to business: Change is essential to survival, but only adaptive change. Adapt to change or be selected out of the business ‘pool.’”
In the spring of 1990, the approach was not nearly so defined.
Dickinson was a doctor. Stachel had been an auto executive. They were “good businessmen but good businessmen with no concept of how to run a bar.” They decided to apply good business practices to the bar business and seek out help when necessary.
They were so desperate for guidance early on they flew in a friend of Stachel’s from the West Coast to help.
“Her only qualification was she’d been a waitress for 15 years,” Dickinson said. “That’s how naïve we were.”
Dickinson and Stachel were quick studies, however. They parlayed their Savannah success into three more stores, including the South Beach location and a bar on King Street in Charleston, S.C. By 1997, the potential for further growth led Dickinson to cut back his psychology practice to concentrate on expanding Wet Willie’s.
He and Stachel began by identifying potential new markets. They stuck with what had served them well in their existing locations: they looked for cities with liberal open container laws and sites with room for an outdoor patio. They also tried to avoid areas home to their biggest rival: Fat Tuesdays, another bar chain specializing in frozen drinks.
The search led them to Memphis’ Beale Street, where open containers are allowed if not encouraged, as well as to Tampa’s Channelside district, a location with a large waterside patio.
“Those types of places get a good bit of foot traffic, and when people walk by and see the line of drink machines through our windows, they’re going to stop and try it,” Dickinson said. “At that point, we’ve hooked them.”
Wet Willie’s curb appeal isn’t the only reason the business has succeeded where so many others have failed.
The naivete that led them to consult a waitress for business expertise also “saved” their “butts.”
Unlike others who get into the bar business and treat it like an extension of a college frat house, Dickinson and Stachel always operated Wet Willie’s like a business.
Dickinson chuckles in recalling recent comments by his buddy Williams about how Spanky’s food once sold like “sex on troop train” but Williams and his partners squandered some of their earnings by spending “money like soldiers on that troop train.”
“We never fell into that trap,” Dickinson said. “A bar is not an open house for all your buddies. The first time I step behind the bar and give away drinks to a group of friends is the last time my employees see this for what it is: A business.”
Dickinson also counts Wet Willie’s willingness to embrace their signature item, the frozen daiquiri, as a secret of success. Bars that try to be “all things to all people” lose their identity in what is a fickle business, he said.
“When the economy gets tough and you have a shoe store at the mall, you have a chance to survive, but if you are a department store, you are vulnerable,” Dickinson said. “We decided to be really good at frozen drinks and offer two or three brown bottles and a green bottle for those who just have to have a beer.”
The strategy works, as evidenced by Dickinson’s aggressive expansion plans. The City Market store will open in time for St. Patrick’s Day, and Dickinson is eyeing new markets in addition to New York City.
Dickinson’s buddy, Williams, can envision a day when Wet Willie’s is a household name well beyond Savannah.
“That is a significant possibility,” Williams said. “He’s going to be aggressively pursuing opportunities as long as he’s around, and he’ll do it intelligently and successfully. Heck, I would invest in him.”
ENTREPRENEURIAL BUSINESS OF THE YEAR
• Winner: Wet Willie’s
• Leadership: Bill Dickinson and David Stachel
• Business sector: Bar/Restaurant
• Employees: 650
• 2012 Revenue (approximate): $24 million
• 2012 Accomplishments: Dickinson and Stachel founded Wet Willie’s in 1990 with one store on River Street. Dickinson was a clinical psychologist with no business background and Stachel had recently resigned from a management job with Toyota and longed to “open a daiquiri bar on the beach” somewhere.
Wet Willie’s has grown steadily in the two-plus decades since and now boasts 17 locations in seven states, including on Miami’s South Beach, on Memphis’s Beale Street and San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. Dickinson and Stachel will open a third local location early next year, in City Market, and have plans for stores in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Atlantic City, N.J., as well.
The company made headlines in 2012 by opening a Wet Willie’s on Tybee Island in the former lobby of the Sea & Breeze Hotel on Tybrisa Street. Wet Willie’s soon-to-open City Market store was linked to the city of Savannah’s controversial decision to terminate the lease held by Savannah’s horse-drawn carriage companies. Those carriages stage along Jefferson Street in the heart of City Market, a few dozen feet from the new Wet Willie’s entrance and soon-to-be patio.
• Website: www.wetwillies.com
BEST OF SAVANNAH BUSINESS 2012
All this week, the Savannah Morning News will profile companies and organizations that made major contributions to the local business environment in the past year. The Exchange staff chose the honorees — from a list of nominees submitted by local business and community leaders — utilizing broad criteria, from growth and success to philanthropy and community involvement.
• Thursday: Savannah Slow Ride (Newcomer of the Year)
• Wednesday: World Trade Center Savannah (Advocate of the Year)
• Thursday: The Coastal Bank (Comeback Business of the Year)
• Friday: JCB Apprenticeship Program (Educational Partner of the Year)
• Today: Wet Willie’s (Entrepreneurial Business of the Year)
• Sunday: LMI Aerospace (Manufacturer of the Year)
COMING JAN. 6
Savannah Morning News business writers Mary Carr Mayle and Adam Van Brimmer provide a look ahead to what to expect in each sector of the economy in 2013 in the Savannah metro area.