Restaurant Rock Star: Bill Latham
Rock star has been redefined.
Eupora, Miss. native Bill Latham may have never become a jazz drummer or a musical legend, but he’s not doing so bad as the star of a different universe.
Latham, along with Al Roberts, is the co-founder of Eat Here Brands and is behind the ever-popular Babalu Tacos and Tapas in Fondren. The company has officially put the word out that they are expanding into Memphis and beyond, and for Latham, it’s been a fun ride.
The restaurant business was never in the plans for the 62 year-old. “I’m an old musician, an old drummer,” he explains from a table inside Babalu prior to a busy lunch shift. Latham was in the high school honorary Lions Band for three years before turning down music scholarships at North Texas State, Ole Miss, USM and Mississippi State. “I felt if I was going to major in music, I’d end up a band director somewhere and that wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
After moving to Jackson in the summer of 1973 and sitting out a semester, promising his mother he would go back, Latham stumbled into TGI Fridays, at once in Highland Village. “My goal was to have a lot of fun and meet a lot of girls,” he says with a chuckle. And he did fall in love – with the business.
By early 1974, Latham was on a management track at Fridays and, by 1977, the owner of Scrooge’s. There were sandwich shops, the Sundancer (where he met now business partner Al Roberts in 1983) and Wild Bill’s Cadillac Bar and Grill in Maywood Mart (he says, “A fun thing to do”). In 1987, the pair opened Amerigo and, by 2000, had opened locations of the Italian white table cloth restaurant in Nashville, Atlanta, Memphis and Brentwood.
That was the same year Jackson welcomed their Chicago-style steakhouse, Char, to Highland Village.
Latham and Roberts sold the company that owned Amerigo and Char in 2006 and, for 18 months, worked with Viking Range founder Fred Carl in Memphis on a new restaurant, Interim. The upscale establishment is solely owned today under their ‘Eat Here’ banner.
In 2008, Latham and his team brought Five Guys to Renaissance at Colony Park in Ridgeland, Babalu to Fondren in 2010 and Five Guys and Table 100 to Flowood in spring 2011. And now, the second location of Babalu is planned for an early 2014 opening in Memphis’ Overton Square with plans to expand to Nashville and Birmingham in the same year.
Latham sees a special connection for the Memphis location of Babalu. He ponders “We’re going into the space in Overton Square that was the second-ever TGI Fridays. This is the second Babalu. Maybe we’ll have same success they did?” With “It’s a Small World” playing in Latham’s mind, he makes another connection: “Buster Corley, one of the founders of Dave and Buster’s, is now on Eat Here Brands’ board and was at one time my supervisor at Fridays in Jackson.” The planets align again. “Forty years ago, I would have never imagined something like this.”
Babalu as a concept is different and unique. “It’s cool and edgy, especially for a 62 year guy to do it,” Latham believes. “My kids were impressed that their dad came up with this.” ‘This’ is something he says is not far off from his original aspirations. “It’s the restaurant business, but it’s entertainment, too. People come in to get fed but they come in for other reasons – for fun, to have a good time. They leave their troubles somewhere else for at least a little while.” Call it Bill Latham’s big hit.
At this point, at this time in his career, success has come, Latham says, because of the right people. “The folks I have had the pleasure of being associated with (are my success). It’s that simple and that’s the key.” He cites Babalu head chef David Ferris, managers like Tara Chez Britton and Nate Delware and the countless servers who have been with him from day one. “Everybody,” he says “plays a part.”
And Eat Here Brands plays a part in community. Latham says the company tries to give back at every turn. A portion of opening day proceeds at Babalu benefited Stewpot and Blair E. Batson Hospital For Children and Batson and the Mustard Seed were benefactors when Table 100 opened their doors.
After all this time, Latham remembers his mother’s words. “As an educator, she was always urging me to continue my schooling. She’d say “You have to go back and get that degree. You’ll never amount to anything unless you get that piece of paper.”” Latham says it’s always been a running joke in his family that, despite not finishing those 18-20 hours at State, success has come in so many ways. “This is fun and I’ve had fun for forty years doing what I’m doing.”