Friday, February 18, 2011

Week #7 - Billy Mellon

Billy Mellon (pictured on the left here) is one of those guys whose official job title tells only a small part of the story. Billy recently opened the stunning Manna in Wilmington, NC after a run on the distributor side of on and off premise alcohol sales. Those that know Mr. Mellon though know that he's a constant source of 'everybody wins' ideas to elevate beer, wine, food, music and just about everything in between. Voicemails from Billy in his distributor days usually started with a, "So hey I wanted to get your thoughts on something..." followed by a scheme to get your beer to a new audience in a new way that no one had ever thought of. This is the kind of guy that needed a constant canvas to paint on because he was just too good to leave his mark on everyone else's businesses. He orchestrated one of the coolest beer events I've ever been a part of last year complete with a hidden beer tasting amidst a rock and roll show. If you're in or travelling through the Port City stop in for a meal at Manna.

We met while you were in beer and wine wholesale, but you were in restaurants before that right?

I was "stolen" by the wholesale business from the food industry--nearly 20 years of experience.

How valuable of an experience is it for someone running a restuarant to have spent many of their days selling beer and wine to tons of other restaurants, buyers, chefs and owners?

It makes me understand the business end much better--a lot like when I switched from "buyer" to seller--now I am back as the buyer and I am more dialed into the relationships that occur between the two sides. I know how to better select wines, I am more comfortable with esoteric varietals and regions; I can relate to the salesman's situation much closer and I know the right "questions" to ask with regards to what needs to move and what wines/beers are at discounted prices, sales, etc...

How much of the sales perspective informed your approach to Manna?

Again, now I have the experience of how to get the most from my salespeople. I understand the practice of allocations (when they are available, how much, who's carrying them) and now I am a much better buyer with those key elements in my arsenal: basically, I am more informed=dangerous.

In what ways is the drinks menu at the restaurant is an expression of your fondness and experience with both wine and beer?

I have always been into networks. That said, I have tried to increase the web of those networks within the friendships/relationships that I have derived from the wholesale business. I try to support the artisans and be as local as possible when it comes to selecting wines and beers. I have focused my brands on those people who are in the business of selling "great" products and enjoy what they do--these people tend to work for people with those same goals...goals that I try to maintain within the framework of our concept. It makes selling them to customers more meaningful and the network grows.

The food menu is so descriptive. It's killing me being so far away! I know part of the goal with Manna was to elevate the dining scene in Wilmington and even though you've only been open a short time do you feel like you've begun to reach that goal?

We're on the right track but nowhere near where we want to be. We want to unify the culinary scene of Wilmington to be up there with the likes of the Charlestons, Ashevilles of the world. Hopefully, we can create a scene of successful restaurant groups that have the same goals as we do and make our city a destination for people who love to eat. No "scene" can be like that with limited options for dining.

Wilmington is such a charming city and really unique when compared to a lot of other cities on the coast. What do you like most about it?

It has a "grip" on me that I cannot explain. I moved here in '95 to live for a few summers and I have yet to leave. I've had many chances to leave: SF, Austin, Atlanta, Italy but always found more reasons to stay. I have a large circle of friends that span a vast group of people. it would be hard to replace all of those networks anywhere else. I mean, I have friends in city council, lawyers, doctors, builders, electricians, musicians, the list goes on and on. If I need something, I got a fix in my phone. Besides the beach adds something to the mix, too.

Ok, so Manna closes for the night. Where are you headed out to for a few drinks? And what are you drinking?

Satellite is still my go to spot. They continue to improve their venue--Dusty has added an outdoor movie screen (16 X 20) and a back yard "garden". It still has the best vibe and the best beer. I will typically have a glass of wine that I pair with what the chef makes me for supper and then it'll be a couple of craft beers: most recently, Cold Mountain and Terrapin Wake and Bake. (love to get a shot at picking up some of that New Holland hop tequila....hint)

You've turned me on to a number of bands just through your facebook posts. What's your involvement with Wilmington Unplugged?

I basically am the organizer of the "group". It's a monthly showcase highlighting local talent to perform on one stage with 4 other acts. They get 25 minutes to perform and I've got to meet and witness some fantastic artists over the last 4 years of the event. The monthly has spawned "Super Unplugged" where I branch out to find regional acts to play for a "listening audience" and pair them with the "best of the unplugged..." locals.

What should we be on the lookout for from Manna in 2011?

Hopefully, that we are still open and paying our bills. The goal is to be ahead of the curve in terms of our take on the American restaurant and never being satisfied with being "good"; filled with people who love our product and continuing to get better with every dinner and drink we serve; happy to be doing what it is that truly drives us....making food, beverage and personality "casserole."


manna said...

i'd like to send a more sexy photo than the one that someone obviously photo shopped to make me look like an absolute hog. not sure who that beast was who must have been hired by ralph (abita) or sheridan to stand in my place, but my attorneys will be in touch.

sulu said...

Nice interview with Billy, Dr. Joel. He is quite the cat in Wilmington and has always done so much to enlighten, entertain and nourish the community. He is a gem and a gentleman. (And by the way, the other guy in this photo is Tommy Mills, an excellent chef and owner of Little Pond Caterers in Wilmington.)

Anonymous said...

Billy is a natural business man. When I first got into the craft beer scene and was trying to diversify the selection for my customers, Billy educated and helped me to pick the right ones that would move quickly and give life to my cooler set. I am really happy for him! I wish the best of luck for you and your restaurant Billy.