Restaurant owner devoted to downtown

Every couple of years, Barry Blackston gets an urge to open a new business. The Augusta native now owns three businesses within feet of one another on Broad Street: Nacho Mama's, Blue Sky Kitchen and Still Water Tap Room.

Nacho Mama's specializes in Mexican food, while Blue Sky Kitchen offers an eclectic mix of dishes that Blackston has tasted during his travels. Still Water Tap Room is a bar that features bluegrass music.

Blackston fondly recalls how each business started.

"The things that always stick out with me are openings," he said. "Opening a restaurant, getting ready for the first day, is one of the craziest things you could possibly go through. You're up all night. You want to do everything yourself, if you're a control freak. That's what always sticks out in my mind: the insanity of the 24 hours before you open the door."

People frequently ask Blackston to open a restaurant in Columbia County or other places, but he is committed to staying in downtown Augusta.

"I like old things. I love old architecture. I live in an old house. I'll never live in a new house," he said. "The thought of being in a strip mall or something generic like that has no appeal to me. I like walking down the sidewalks, and (I like) trees and tall ceilings. It's my hometown.

"I grew up coming downtown, so it just had a good feeling to me. I couldn't imagine being anyplace else."

He is proud that he has been able to succeed in downtown Augusta, which is a "pretty tough gig." Downtown is not centrally located, he said, so there's not much of a bedroom community.

Also, when the weather is bad, people don't visit downtown as much. This winter has been one of the worst for business in 15 years because there's been so much rain, Blackston said.

"But we have families that have been coming here for 15 years," he said. "I've got kids that I've seen since they were born who are in high school now. My employees know what they're going to eat before they order. We wouldn't be here if it weren't for people like that who come back."

Blackston doesn't think he'll open another business anytime soon -- at least until his young son, Bridger, begins school.

When he was getting started, Blackston worked round the clock. Now he works about 35 hours a week.

"I made a decision that for better or worse, when my son was born, I was not going to be a slave to the business," the businessman said. "I know the repercussions of not always being present in your business ventures, but my son was more important to me than any of that."

A year and a half ago, Blackston bought out his partner, Matt Flynn, in both of the restaurants, but they are still co-owners at Still Water Tap Room. It was a business decision, and it made sense, Blackston said.

"It made him happy, it made me happy, and we're still friends," he said. "We've never had a disagreement in 15 years of business together. He's a good guy."

Taking a chance

Partner Flynn said they first came up with the idea to open a restaurant while casually tossing around plans with some of their college buddies. They didn't put it into action until years later.

"We figured you have to take a chance at something," Flynn said. "We were extremely naive going into it. We had been in the business most of our lives, but never on the ownership side. It was kind of a whirlwind, and you kind of learn trial by fire. Either adapt and overcome or you fail."

Flynn said Blackston is a "genuine person who doesn't pull any punches."

"He's probably a bit impetuous, which is not necessarily a bad thing," Flynn said. "I'm glad that we were able to work together. It's fun to work with him.

"Certainly in the early days at Nacho's when we were working 80 hours a week, we were back there cutting vegetables and trying to make the best of it. Even on the worst days, we still had a good time. He's the real deal. He's just a straight-up guy."

Blackston grew up in Augusta with his older brother, Steve. Some of his favorite childhood memories are of going downtown. He and his grandfather, Leonard Cox, often visited Wilkinson's Hot Dogs in the 900 block of Broad Street, now the site of The Playground.

His father, Gene Blackston, worked for the U.S. Postal Service. His mother, Linda Blackston, worked for McGraw Hill Construction.

Blackston recalls fishing with his father and grandfather at Thurmond Lake. In his teens, he developed a love for cooking.

He began his studies at Augusta College (now Augusta State University) and transferred to the University of Georgia, where he earned a degree in English literature.

After graduation, he pursued graduate studies in English education at Augusta College. To earn extra money, he waited tables. During that time, he took a trip to Central America and did some soul-searching. He decided that he wanted to work for himself rather than become a teacher.

Since he loved to cook and had restaurant experience, Blackston decided to open a restaurant with Flynn.

"I was really too scared to do it by myself," Blackston said.

They took about six months to get the financing. They started the business at a low cost, so they were able to fund the project with their money and a small loan. It took them another year to finish construction.

Challenges

"We did most of the work ourselves and bought used equipment," Blackston said. "We were able to do it for a fraction of what most people spend to open a business like that."

He wanted to open a business in downtown Augusta because he loved the community. It also seemed like a good investment, he said.

"There were still a lot of people working downtown with not that many options for interesting food. I knew there was potential for business in terms of the lunch crowd," he said.

In January 1996, Blackston and Flynn opened Nacho Mama's at 976 Broad St.

"We had no idea what we were doing," Blackston said. "It was crazy. It was extremely hard work, very little pay. A lot of fun. The beer was free. We opened up to a line out the door, which we were completely unprepared for."

They had only one staff member and didn't anticipate the huge lunch crowd. Luckily, they had friends who volunteered to assist them.

"We did probably in the first hour what I thought we would do in the entire day," Blackston said.

They became so overwhelmed that they turned up the music full blast to turn customers away. It didn't work. People thought this was just part of the gimmick and kept coming, he said.

On the second day, they were better prepared and had two employees. The restaurant was open for lunch and dinner, and they closed between meals to restock the food.

"It was the longest few days of my life," he said. "I probably had about 12 hours' sleep in three or four days when we opened. It was rough. It was a learning experience, but we figured it out."

They hired an accountant to handle their taxes, but they had to learn how to be business owners. Blackston consulted with his godfather, who worked in banking, and with businessman Bryan Haltermann.

"It took me a number of years before I really got control over handling cash flow and learning the cycles of the business year," Blackston said. "It took me a long time to think of myself as a business person. For a long time, I was just a kid with a restaurant."

He had been dating Katie for six months. They had met while working together at Calvert's Restaurant, but had broken up and stayed close friends over the years. Eleven years later, Blackston realized that he was in love with his friend.

"I finally wrote her a letter," he said.

They were engaged four months later and wed eight weeks after that. Her father was ill, and they wanted him to participate in the wedding. They have been married for 31/2 years.

Business was going well at Nacho Mama's, and several years later Blackston wanted a new challenge. He and his business partner decided to open Blue Sky Kitchen at 990 Broad St. in June 2000.

"I'm kind of a workaholic, so I got bored. We had figured out a pattern or a rhythm over there, and I was looking for something else to do," Blackston said.

Also, he lived in downtown and had always loved the building. Someone was renting the space for storage, but he thought he could put it to better use.

The menu at Blue Sky Kitchen was inspired by food that Blackston has tasted during his travels. He had eaten his first Cuban sandwich in Miami.

"I tried to incorporate things that I'd had in different places that you couldn't get around here. It's sort of an eclectic thing," he said.

At first, Blackston and his partner tried to operate the restaurant the same as Nacho Mama's, but they realized they needed to switch to waiters in the first couple of months. They had 12 employees.

"By then, I kind of knew what I was doing. I opened with a full staff. I wouldn't make that mistake twice," Blackston said.

The food at Blue Sky Kitchen wasn't as familiar as the dishes at Nacho Mama's, so it took awhile for the restaurant to develop a following, he said.

"We had a few bumps," he said. "The first summer, business slowed down. I remember not paying myself for six weeks at one point. After that, it picked up and got busier and busier. It's grown each year."

As nightlife increased downtown, the evening business for both restaurants improved, he said.

In July 2003, Blackston was again eager to start a new business. He and his partner opened Still Water Tap Room at 974 Broad St.

Blackston said that a friend had bought the building next door and renovated it, and he thought it would be convenient.

"I knew I could make it into a neat place," he said. "We really didn't think about it very long. The concept was kind of odd, though. I think some people thought we were kind of crazy when we said we were going to open a bar that featured bluegrass music."

He enjoys camping and fishing in the mountains. Bars in Asheville, N.C., are "full of young, hip people, but there's bluegrass music playing," he said.

"It was always such a wonderful setting to me. It worked. People were really supportive, and they still are," he said.

Four years ago, Blackston purchased the building for Still Water Tap Room, but he still leases space for Nacho Mama's and Blue Sky Kitchen.

Several employees at both restaurants have remained with him for more than a decade, he said.

Renaissance man

Blackston loves fly-fishing for trout in mountain streams, though he doesn't go as frequently since his son was born.

"Most people that fly-fish are fanatics. You either love it or you hate it. It's a great passion for me," Blackston said.

He tries to go fishing out West once or twice a year. His close friend, Andrew Swift, has traveled with him. A skilled camper, Blackston served as guide and instructed everyone where to hang their packs to protect them from bears.

Blackston has also traveled to British Columbia, Mexico, Scotland and the Caribbean, Swift said.

"He really is an impressive guy. He's honest and hardworking. He's very smart, very funny. He's just a wonderful person," Swift said.

Blackston still loves to cook.

"I love Southern food. I grew up eating it. I cook at home all the time. I have to find creative outlets," he said.

His other outlet is carpentry. He has made many renovations to his home.

"He built the three businesses quite literally by hand," Swift said. "Barry did most of the construction work inside the various businesses. He also bought the antique furniture. If you go in Still Water, a lot of the fixtures are old and carefully selected to match the décor.

''He also created the menus for the two restaurants. He's a fabulous cook. He can cook it all. He's amazing."

Barry Blackston

TITLE: Owner of Nacho Mama's and Blue Sky Kitchen and co-owner of Still Water Tap Room

BORN: June 21, 1968, in Augusta

EDUCATION: University of Georgia, bachelor of arts degree in English literature

FAMILY: Wife, Katie; and son, Bridger

CIVIC/EXTRACURRICULAR: Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau, board of directors

HOBBIES: Fly-fishing, cooking, reading and carpentry

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