By Adam Van Brimmer, Savannah Morning News
Brian and Jennifer Huskey spent the drive between Hilton Head Island and their home in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee discussing the “how” and not the “if” of opening a restaurant in Savannah.
The couple wanted to buy the East Bay Street bakery Brian’s childhood friend had turned them onto during their just completed Hilton Head Island vacation in 2006. The Huskeys found b.Matthews “a bit dusty” but otherwise appealing.
Their financing options were less promising. They had one nickel but not two “to rub together.” Yet sensing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they became restaurateurs anyway, borrowing money from Jennifer’s mother and opening up five unsecured lines of credit to buy the business three months after first seeing it.
Today, the Huskeys are the proprietors of five eateries and bars. They own not only the b.Matthews business but also the building in which it’s housed as well as another property that will soon be the new home of Blowin’ Smoke BBQ.
Huskey shared how he and his wife’s burgeoning restaurant empire, known as the Gaslight Group, began so humbly only to explode despite the biggest recession since the 1930s during Wednesday’s Business in Savannah Forum in the Savannah Morning News auditorium, 1375 Chatham Parkway.
The quarterly luncheon was sponsored by Hancock Askew, the HunterMaclean law firm, Abshire Public Relations and Marketing and Business in Savannah.
“Small business is really the engine of our economy,” Savannah Morning News Publisher Michael Traynor told the audience. “It’s impressive what they’ve done in a recession in a tough business where the margins aren’t very big,”
The Huskeys have proved adept at growing their business. They were able to convert their unsecured credit lines into more manageable loans shortly after buying b.Matthews, thanks in part to help from the Small Business Assistance Corp.
From there, they altered the concept for b.Matthews. They secured a liquor license and added a dinner menu and shortly thereafter abandoned the bakery component.
A year later, the Huskeys opened Blowin’ Smoke BBQ on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Two years later, in 2010, they bought Abe’s on Lincoln, located two blocks from b.Matthews. They added two midtown eateries — Blue Turtle Bistro and 5 Spot — in 2011 and 2012.
“And we plan to keep growing because opportunities keep popping up,” Huskey said.
Huskey’s restaurant business acumen stems from his time on the front lines. A restaurant’s staff determines its success, and Huskey believes in “delegating and empowering.” He recalls how motivational being trusted with management duties, such as doing inventory, was while he was still an hourly employee.
“Show a little trust in your employees and they will buy in,” said Huskey, who has spent his entire adult life in the hospitality industry, starting with a college job as a concession worker at University of Tennessee football and basketball games. “You get long-term employees that way.”
Communication is another Huskey philosophy. His managers share sales figures and trends with Gaslight’s 117 employees so “they know where we stand.”
“You want people who understand your vision and what you’re trying to accomplish,” Huskey said.
As for relationships with customers, Huskey admits to a fatal flaw:
“You can’t make everybody happy, but we still try,” Huskey said. “Our goal, I guess, is to make them as happy as possible.”