“One of my customers said to me the other day … ‘You are the reason people come in here.’”
Taking to the Next Level
Grimball area restaurant wins Lowcountry Local First makeover
By Charlie Morrison
“I’ve never been an emotional person, but I was shocked,” says Angie Bellinger, owner/operator of the Workmen’s Cafe, upon learning that the James Island lunch spot she opened over a decade ago with her mother Ruby had been selected as the recipient of ‘buy local’ advocacy group Lowcountry Local First (LLF)’s first-ever “Local Works” small-business makeover award. The award includes more than $50,000 (and counting) worth of small-business counseling, mentoring, and other business services that will be provided to Workmen’s by members of the organization’s “Local Works Team” throughout the coming year, free of charge to the restaurant. The New Year has indeed, brought good tidings to Bellinger and Workmen’s Cafe. With a little help from her new friends and the LLF makeover award designed to take her business to “the next level” in hand, Bellinger stands poised to make 2013 the best in Workmen’s Cafe’s history.
As James Island’s oldest Gullah/Geechee and soul food-inspired restaurant, Bellinger has been incorporating local ingredients and recipes into the menu at Workmen’s since the restaurant’s inception. And while more than a few restaurants come and gone in that same decade since the mother-daughter team first opened up their doors, not to mention their cooking, to the public, the restaurant has survived by sticking to its core business model of serving up large portions of fried chicken, pork chops and other locally-inspired dishes from a menu of made-from-scratch Gullah/Geechee-inspired and soul food dishes.
Each plate at Workmen’s is served up hot with a side of personality exclusive to Bellinger and the staff at Workmen’s, something that caught the eye of the LLF’s “Local Works Team” assigned to the task of reviewing, screening and selecting and applicants to be the organization’s initial recipient. Bellinger was introduced to LLF members as the recipient of their first annual “Public Works” makeover winner at this Wednesday’s meeting of the organization (after press time).
“It’s fun. There’s a tremendous opportunity that Angie has,” says LLF project lead John Osborne of the opportunity to work with Bellinger on the makeover of the Workmen’s Cafe. “The hard part for us is simply reigning in on what is realistically implementable that will be impactful for her business … because it could go 1,000 different directions, but our focus will be what we could really dial it down to over the next 90 to 120 days to get the business on the trajectory that we all know it’s capable of.”
As to what that trajectory will be remains to be seen. As a pre-requisite to the makeover process beginning in earnest later this month, Bellinger’s been tasked with hammering out a mission statement on what she sees for the restaurant going forward.
“She needs to really identify the vision and passion she has for this and what she wants this to be, so that everyone is working collaboratively to make sure it goes in the direction she wants it to go. It doesn’t make any sense for this whole team to go in there and do what they think, they need to go in there and work with Angie on what she wants this to be, and then utilize their expertise in helping her achieve that,” says Osborne.
One thing is clear, however, Bellinger will be pushing hard for new customers in 2013, from throughout the Lowcountry. If that happens, Workmen’s will poised to do what too few restaurants on James Island have been able to, expand.
“I have a feeling that eventually we’ll be doing lunch and dinner every day,” says a smiling Bellinger. “And I would love to see that. I’m really looking forward to offering dinner. I feel like I’ll do extremely well for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays. That’s when I’ll implement my seafood menu.
“My vision for the future of the café is ultimately we’re going to venture into that room,” she continues, pointing to the room adjacent to the restaurant’s current dining room space. “My bigger picture is that the restaurant take up most of the building, which’ll be okay with me.”
As of this moment the restaurant is open for lunch Tuesday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Beginning January 19, they’ll be offering a dinner service on Friday and Saturday nights, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. The restaurant has plans to host a food truck rodeo in February/March, introducing a lighter summer menu in April, offering breakfast on Saturdays, and a dinner service on Friday and Saturday nights. Additional changes in the coming months will likely come from Bellinger’s partnership with the LLF’s “Public Works Team.”
The “Public Works Team” will be donating everything from branding and marketing strategy assistance, point of sale system and accounting interface assistance, work space organization and restructure, team building coaching, entrepreneur mentorship, employee customer service training, balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow analysis. Based on the winning business’s specific situation, this may also include physical space cleaning, redesign, and minor construction.
Lowcountry Local First is still adding new businesses and professionals to their Public Works Team, but the list as is stands now, is still impressive. The list of program sponsors and individuals to donate their time and effort includes David Wenger from First Citizens Bank, Brad Ebenhoeh from C1 CFO’s, Meredith Flittner from C1 Nutrition, Sunny Bowman of Superwomen Services, Wonder Works’ Christine Osborne, Sarah Boyd of SJBusiness Partners, Jorge Riano from GreenBy3, and SC Strong’s John Hamilton. Additionally, architect David Thomson has signed on to work on the physical space that houses both the cafe and Bellinger herself, and the Kickin’ Chicken’s Chip Roberts will be closely with Bellinger on how she can better her management of the business side of the Workmen’s Cafe.
Bellinger might have never acquired the Local Works business makeover in the first place, were it not for another partnership she made last Fall, with fellow Grimball area resident, civic activist and marketing specialist GioVanni Richardson. The two met at a Lowcountry Local First event, discussing, amongst other things, the Grimball neighborhood and the neighborhood’s restaurant, Workmen’s Cafe. By the end of the party, Richardson, who holds a degree in marketing, had offered her marketing and promotional talents to Bellinger and the restaurant free of charge for the coming months.
And while Bellinger doesn’t know exactly what Richardson’s impact on the restaurant will ultimately be, she’s certainly excited at the prospect of having her on board. She and Richardson will likely work with another Public Works Team donor, Robert Prioleau of local marketing firm Blue Ion. The group will assemble a marketing platform designed to to attract new customers to the business.
“Right now, the push is to get the name out there, and let people know that there is a spot, like Ernie’s Restaurant, like Martha Lou’s Kitchen, like Bertha’s Kitchen, right here on James Island,” says Bellinger of her continuing aspirations for the restaurant.
Such was the vision of Bellinger and her mother Ruby when the two first opened Workmen’s Cafe. Originally, the restaurant shared space with another family business, her mother’s Christian bookstore. And though she passed away in March of 2004, and her bookstore has long since shuttered its doors, Ruby’s impact is still felt throughout the property. In that vein, the LLF “Public Works Team” will be trying to work some form of tribute to the restaurant’s inspiration, Ruby Bellinger, into the structure’s makeover.
The coming year is sure to be a busy one for Bellinger, Richardson and the LLF team taking on the task of the restaurant’s makeover. And while winning the inaugural makeover from the LLF will certainly change the business’ ‘trajectory,’ the Workmen’s business model will not fundamentally change. It comes down to a full plate, a clean table and a healthy dose of some of the personality James Island’s famous for. That aspect of Workmen’s won’t be changing any time soon.
“I just want people to feel appreciated, I want them to feel like I want them here. One of my customers said to me the other day, ‘You know Angie, your food … your food is good. But, you mind as well face it, your food is one percent of the equation. You are the reason people come in here.’”
Workmen’s Café is now open for lunch service Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. on James Island. For more information, simply stop by the restaurant, located at 1837 Grimball Road. You can also reach Workmen’s by phone at 225-0884 or find them on Facebook by typing their name in the search box. For more information on Lowcountry Local First, stop by their office at 1345 Avenue G #AA in North Charleston, find them on Facebook or go to their website at http://www.lowcountrylocalfirst.org/.
© 2013 by Wiser Time Publishing, Inc.