As a running back, Billy Sims blasted his way through opposing lines under legendary Sooners coach Barry Switzer, and in his post-football career he has overcome the odds against translating his fame into creating a successful restaurant chain.
Time and time again, Oklahoma performers, sports figures and personalities have attempted to match the football legend’s success with Billy Sims Barbeque only to find celebrity alone isn’t enough to draw crowds after the initial buzz fades.
Switzer twice lent his name and fame to opening not one but two restaurants. Switzer’s Light House and Barry’s Chicken Ranch both closed within a couple of years of opening. Another hometown football hero, Heritage Hall graduate Wes Welker, also was unable to translate his popularity as an NFL receiver into a successful restaurant partnership with the Hal Smith restaurant chain.
But Billy Sims Barbeque, founded by Sims and partner Jeff Jackson in 2004, has remained a popular chain for 17 years with restaurants in eight states.
Only one other Oklahoma-based celebrity restaurant has fared as well — the Hal Smith-run Toby Keith’s I Love this Bar & Grill, which first opened in 2005.
But when the country singer teamed up with a different operator to open restaurants outside of Oklahoma, that chain expanded and collapsed quickly with allegations of unpaid rent and taxes.
Sims’ success story based on taste
“It’s a tough business,” Sims said. “You have to have great people around you. It’s like football; if I didn’t have great people around me, I wouldn’t have had that success. It’s not just my name.”
For Sims, the right partner was Jeff Jackson. The two met in 2000 as the Sooners were returning to glory with their first national championship in 15 years. They started a store in Woodlands Mall in Tulsa and worked together marketing sports apparel and memorabilia.
“As we got to know each other, I said we needed to do a version of Eskimo Joe’s,” Jackson said. “I’m from Kansas City and I didn’t like any of the barbecue around here.”
Jackson, however, did have a friend who often shared a sauce he liked to make that would be the starting point.
“We got a group of friends together in a private setting, blind tested the food – 40 to 50 versions of baked beans, potato salad, recipes from family,” Jackson said. “We put it all together. And we knew it wasn’t just about what we liked; it was about what the crowd liked.”
They started off small with just a 1,000-square-foot restaurant and have grown ever since with franchises in Oklahoma, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Michigan (where he played for the Detroit Lions) and Wisconsin.
“Billy is the name and face of the business,” Jackson said. “He shakes the hands and kisses the babies. People ask if Billy is just a celebrity pawn. That’s not true. Where there is an opening, he comes out. He cares about the food. He cares about the restaurants staying clean.”
Fame doesn’t always translate to food
Other Oklahoma-based celebrities have had far less success translating their fame into successful restaurants.
Switzer, who won a Super Bowl and three national championships during his coaching career, started with Switzer’s Lighthouse, a restaurant at East Wharf overlooking Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City. The restaurant opened in 1999 and closed one year later.
Switzer took another shot at restaurant fame, teaming up with Scooter Yates to open a Barry’s Chicken Ranch in Norman. The pair envisioned operating a chain of eight to 10 fried chicken restaurants and opened additional locations along NW 39 in Oklahoma City and another in Lawton.
The chain, started in 1999, ended with the closing of the original restaurant in 2003.
“I’m too old to be in the restaurant business,” said Switzer, who was then 65. “It’s a hard business to run.”
Before coaching in the NFL, Jimmy Johnson and Switzer were both assistants to OU coach Chuck Fairbanks. And after Switzer took over as coach of the Sooners, Johnson was named coach of their rivals at OSU.
Johnson came back to Oklahoma in 1997 to open Jimmy Johnson’s Three Rings Bar & Grill at the former Lincoln Plaza. One of the featured offerings on the menu was the “Jerry & Barry” Hog Wash Sandwich, which consisted of tongue and bologna.
The location was the second of what he hoped would be a chain that had started with a restaurant in Miami Beach, Florida. The Oklahoma City restaurant faded fast, and while the original eatery in Miami Beach later closed, Johnson still has a Jimmy Johnson’s Big Chill in Key Largo.
Sometimes even the best restaurant operators as partners can’t guarantee celebrity branded success. The Hal Smith Group operates some of the region’s most successful restaurants that include Charleston’s, Louie’s and The Garage.
KD’s legacy sours the business
After successfully launching Toby Keith’s I Love this Bar & Grill, the Hal Smith Group teamed up with Welker only to change that concept to a “Pub W.” And then there was KD’s in Bricktown, which exposed another risk with celebrity-driven restaurants.
What happens when a once beloved athlete is no longer beloved?
Kevin Durant was a superstar in the NBA when Lower Bricktown developer Randy Hogan, restauranteur Hal Smith and city dignitaries gathered for a groundbreaking in 2012 of KD’s, which would feature memorabilia and a southern-style menu.
Crowds flocked to the restaurant when it opened in 2013, just as they did with Toby Keith’s I Love this Bar & Grill next door. Business remained brisk until July 4, 2016, when Durant shocked his fans with an announcement that he was going to play with the Thunder’s rival, the Golden State Warriors.
Yelp reviews for KD’s took a dark turn. The restaurant was closed two weeks later and is now home to a Charleston’s.
Al Eschbach, a longtime sports radio commentator, made two attempts at opening his own place, first with an Eschbach’s Hall of Fame Sports Bar & Grill on Campus Corner in Norman, and then, after that closed, the restaurant reopened in the Oklahoma Hardware Building along the Bricktown Canal.
During a 2006 interview, Jennifer Burgell, manager of Al Eschbach’s, said they believed Bricktown would be a better fit than Campus Corner.
“Al doesn’t just concentrate on Sooner sports — he looks at OSU and OU,” Burgell said. “So, we figured Bricktown might be neutral ground, and we might get more people to see us here than when we were in Norman.”
The restaurant didn’t last a year.
One of the earliest local celebrity-driven restaurants was attempted by George “Spanky” McFarland, arguably the most popular character from the Depression-era “Our Gang” comedies that also were known “The Little Rascals” during a television syndication revival that started in the 1950s.
Like the other child actors, McFarland did not receive proceeds from the syndication deals, toys and other marketing that used their work. As an adult he revived his Spanky character hosting an “Our Gang” revival in Tulsa, as well as performing on college campuses and signing photos.
His first restaurant attempt was Spanky McFarland’s Bar-B-Q in 1963 at 4122 N May Ave., followed in 1965 by “Spanky’s Clubhouse” at 4805 N Eastern Ave. Both closed by the late 1960s, though McFarland would later discuss his barbecue sauce recipe while guesting with Yoko Ono on an episode of the “Mike Douglas Show.”
Dolly and Dottie attend opening of Twitty Burger in OKC
No celebrity restaurant in Oklahoma City opened with the star power that greeted the opening of Twitty Burger in south Oklahoma City. Harold L. Jenkins, better known as Conway Twitty, was living in south Oklahoma City when he decided to switch from rock and roll to country. His popularity was regional at the time, but his first big hit, “The Image of Me,” released in July 1968, followed by another, “Next In Line” that November, established Twitty as a major recording artist.
That same year, Twitty convinced 75 of his friends, including former Oklahoma Gov. J. Howard Edmondson, singers Merle Haggard and Sonny James, and songwriter Harlan Howard, to invest $100,000 in opening Twitty Burger with a first location to open at 7200 S Western Ave.
His signature burger was a thick sirloin topped with a deep-fried pineapple ring coated in onion ring batter and graham cracker crumbs. The opening was attended by Dolly Parton, Porter Wagner and Dottie West.
The restaurant was built to seat 120 people, featured a Western decor with roughhewn beams on a cathedral ceiling, natural stone and leather. Covered parking could be found under a permanent canopy which was designed in the shape of the letter “C.” When combined with the T-shaped kitchen and dining room, the initials C.T. could be seen by people flying above the restaurant.
The sign out front, the menus and glassware all featured the singer’s signature logo – A Tweety bird playing a guitar.
In 1970, a year after the restaurant opened, Twitty released his mega-hit “Hello Darlin” – a song that spent four weeks at the top of the country charts.
But the restaurant didn’t fare so well, and mismanagement was blamed for it closing in May 1971. He repaid his investors but ended up being sued by IRS over $96,000 in deductions on the payments to investors he claimed were part of the expense of maintaining his reputation with fans.
Twitty won the court case.
“What I know about is how to make restaurants and how to sing songs,” Twitty explained. “I’m not too good at anything else, and Twitty Burger is a prime example.”
Staff writer Steve Lackmeyer is a 31-year reporter, columnist and author who covers downtown Oklahoma City, related urban development and economics for The Oklahoman. Contact him at email@example.com. Please support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.
Original posted at www.oklahoman.com