By BECKY GILLETTE
Three guys who went to high school together, graduating from Long Beach High School in 2008, worked at restaurants from an early age. Now, the dynamic trio who are still not even 30 years old own and operate three Murky Waters Blues and BBQ restaurants, and were named Mississippi SBA Entrepreneurs of the Year for 2019.
They also have a 30-minute program on the Cooking Channel, and have been named Best Barbecue on the Coast by the Sun Herald since 2015. Trip Advisor ranks their Gulfport location as number nine among 206 restaurants in Gulfport.
The three friends are Brandon W. Atwell, Frankie Penn, and Thomas Young. Brandon and Frankie graduated from Ole Miss with degrees in management in 2012. They started their first Murky Waters on a shoestring budget in downtown Gulfport.
“We knew we were going to get into the restaurant business as soon as we graduated,” said Brandon, who is the managing partner of Murky Waters. “We had the name and concept and thought we wanted to do something with seafood. Then we realized seafood wasn’t going to be smart business sense wise. Seafood is ultra-competitive on the Coast.”
They all liked to grill, so they decided on barbecue with a live music element. They bought a smoker, and started experimenting with different barbecue recipes.
“We formulated our rub, which is what we consider the proprietary part of our barbecue,” Brandon said. “We started with a small, one-page menu. We had the lease signed on an historic building at 1320 27th Avenue in downtown Gulfport in November 2012. We opened our doors in April 2013.”
Downtown Gulfport was still recovering from Katrina at the time, and there wasn’t a lot of night action. And the three business partners had very limited financial resources.
“The first year, we were broke,” Brandon said. “The day we opened the restaurant, we had $1,800 in bank. We didn’t pay ourselves. We were the laborers, cooks and bartenders, as well as managers, taking care of payroll and other back office functions. It was rough the first year. We got business, but we were just breaking even. We did get a small loan from the SBA through the Renaissance Corp.”
Then, after a year, word-of-mouth took hold. People found out they had excellent products including good craft beer in addition to the barbecue offerings. They started a chicken wing night, which proved to very popular.
“Wings are our bread and butter,” Brandon said. “Chicken wings are probably our most recognizable menu item but we also have really good pork briskets, ribs and chicken.”
The music part initially was a challenge because none of the three had a background in music. Then they were approached by Neil Ladner, who said he loved their concept and wanted to be part of it. He is now music booking director, and given a lot of credit for making the blues happen now at all three locations.
“In terms of our brand, it has intrinsic value,” Brandon said. “There is no way we could go without it now because it is part of our concept. People love it. Each location has live music twice a week. We have Facebook pages for all the restaurants that people can check for scheduling.”
After they started being profitable in Gulfport, a restaurant on Government Street in Ocean Springs approached them about buying the place. They quickly decided against that location, but walked down the street and found another place for lease that was ideal for them.
“The rent wasn’t bad,” Brandon said. “We called the same bank for financing. You need multiple restaurants before you can make any kind of profit. The bank was on board, and we opened at 1212 Government Street in October 2014.”
At that time, downtown Gulfport had grown considerably with another five or six bars opening. People like being able to go from one bar to another. But while downtown Gulfport has little retail or residential happening, Ocean Springs has an abundance of both.
“We love Government Street,” Brandon said. “It is definitely special. It has a night life to it.”
In August of 2017, they expanded again, this time to 1605 Hardy Street near the zoo.
Initially they thought the Hattiesburg location would primarily attract students. But, no, they found the same thing that they had seen in Gulfport and Ocean Springs. It is mostly an older crowd. Their main demographic is affluent 30 to 50-year-olds who often bring their kids.
Are they amazed at what they have accomplished? A little.
“We are humbled by our success, but it is not out of the blue at all,” Brandon said. “We’re very smart and hardworking. With the projections I’ve done for each loan, we hit each projection within five percent in term of revenue and sales.”
It also helps that they all worked in the restaurant industry from an early age. The three worked at fast food restaurants and then at Brandon’s stepfather’s restaurant in Long Beach, Bull’s, and at Bernie’s Restaurant and Lounge at Edgewater Mall owned by Brandon’s uncle.
“All of us at one point worked at Bull’s after high school,” Brandon said. “Frankie would work summers. Thomas worked in the kitchen.”
To be considered for the SBA Young Entrepreneur, the individuals must serve as a majority owner and operate or bear principal responsibility for operating a small business with a three-year track record, and not have reached the age of thirty by June 1, 2019.
The evidence of success as measured by sales and profits, increased employment opportunities created by the nominee’s business, development and/or utilization of innovative or creative business methods, and demonstrated entrepreneurial potential necessary for long-term business success and economic growth.
For more information, see the Murky Waters Facebook pages, or visit www.murkywatersbbq.com.
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