By Adam Van Brimmer
Georgia Tech President Wayne Clough looked across the airplane aisle at one of his school’s more accomplished dropouts and asked an obvious question.
Why, Clough wanted to know, had Ansley Williams given up a career in the aerospace industry in favor of becoming a restaurateur?
“Two reasons,” Williams answered. “There’s more money in restaurants, and unlike when you’re flying an airplane, you can drink on the job.”
Williams enchanted an audience of nearly 150 Savannahians on Wednesday with his entrepreneurial success story during a Business in Savannah Forum sponsored by Hancock Askew, the HunterMaclean law firm, Abshire Public Relations and Marketing and Business in Savannah.
Sporting sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt and sipping from a spiked orange juice, the co-founder of Spanky’s Saloon and the CEO of Live Oak Restaurant Group shared tales of his humble beginnings and the “wild ride” of his last three decades in Savannah’s restaurant community.
Williams’ passion for the food and beverage industry dates to 1969 when he went to work in Atlanta’s famed Bucket Shop. Located in the Underground district across the street from the Georgia Capitol building, the Bucket Shop specialized in burgers and beer.
Williams was a Georgia Tech undergrad at the time. He started behind the grill, soon graduated to busboy and gradually assumed roles with greater and greater responsibility. He reveled in the “laughing, drinking and talking to girls” that were part of his daily work shift.
“I was getting paid to do something I would have gladly paid to have done,” Williams said. “I had fun every hour of the day.”
He soon lost interest in school and abandoned his pursuit of an aerospace engineering degree and a career as an airline pilot. He became a manager at the Bucket Shop and worked in that capacity at several other restaurants owned by the Bucket Shop’s partners.
Come 1974, he and friend Alben Yarbrough, who had succeeded Williams as the Bucket Shop’s hamburger cook, were tasked with turning around one of the Bucket Shop’s sister restaurants in Savannah, O’Leary’s Tavern.
The duo arrived at the River Street business to learn the general manager had quit when notified Williams and Yarbrough where coming. The restaurant soon showed improvement, in large part because the new managers started charging customers for food and drink.
Two years later, Williams and Yarbrough opened their own place a few doors down from O’Leary’s: Spanky’s. They added a second location and another partner, Alben’s brother Dusty, in 1978 with the opening of Spanky’s Southside. Stores on St. Simons Island, Tybee, Athens, Brunswick and Pooler followed.
The trio eventually took on other partners and opened new brands, like Tubby’s Tank House.
Success ebbed and flowed. Spanky’s food sold like “sex on a troop train” in the early days, Williams said, but he and his partners “spent money like soldiers on that troop train.”
“I learned real quick how to mismanage large amounts of money,” Williams said.
The business evolved over time, and Williams’ Live Oak Restaurant Group now includes the original Spanky’s and the two locations of both Tubby’s and Fiddlers as well as the River House and Molly McGuire’s.
Away from the business, Williams was a fervent supporter of his former school, Georgia Tech. He built relationships with former Yellow Jacket head coach George O’Leary and O’Leary’s offensive coordinator, Ralph Friedgen, which led to his late 1990s airborne encounter with the school’s then president, Clough.
For all the fun and wealth Williams has enjoyed in his 61 years, he encouraged his audience Wednesday to value the love of family and friends above all else. Williams moved many in the crowd to tears with mention of his son Patrick, who died in April 2011 at the age of 31 after a lengthy bout with cancer.
“Making money is way down the list of what really matters,” Williams said. “Hug and love your family every day. Get the most out of it while you can.”