Bill Dickinson had earned a vacation. It was the 1980s, he was in his 40s and he’d worked hard to build a thriving psychology practice in Savannah. But holidays left him frustrated: When he wasn’t seeing patients, he wasn’t making money. “I knew I had to figure out some way to make a living and be able to take time off,” he says.
That’s why he was intrigued when, in 1988, a friend approached him with an investment idea: The guy’s brother was going to start a daiquiri bar called Wet Willie’s. These watering holes, with their colorful swirling machines, were mostly a beachside novelty -- but what if they were taken inland for everyone else to enjoy? Dickinson bought a 22 percent stake, and its first location opened near his office in town. It was a quick hit, and they expanded to Miami Beach and Charleston, S.C.
Dickinson was thrilled: Finally, he had a path to the passive income he wanted. After a few years, he started pushing the company to expand even more -- and that’s when his other investors changed the game. Wet Willie’s founder, Dave Satchel, was stretched thin by managing three locations across 500 miles. If Dickinson wanted more, they said, he’d have to dial back his practice to help manage the bars.
Dickinson did. “I had no idea this would be my life’s work,” he says now. “It’s gratifying, the way people feel about our product. What’s the old saying? Therapy is good, but liquor is quicker.”
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In 1998, he took over management of the original Savannah bar to learn day-to-day operations. That gave him -- and his investors -- the confidence to expand to 10 locations, mainly in the South, over the next decade. Eventually, Dickinson became CEO.
By 2010, Dickinson decided that Wet Willie’s should begin franchising. The brand had a proven business model and enough name recognition to attract the right kind of franchisees. A national obsession with cocktails didn’t hurt, either. Now the company has 14 bars open, including franchise units, and another 10 franchises in the pipeline.
The first Wet Willie’s may have succeeded because it was novel, but Dickinson says that wasn’t enough to make it worth franchising. The key, he says, is how seriously the company takes its food and drinks. The kitchen is full of Southern favorites: Savannah shrimp and grits, burgers and blackened grouper sandwiches. And Wet Willie’s has spent years tweaking its drink flavors. Most locations have 20 machines, with 24 different flavors on rotation, including four trademarked drinks -- its signature drink, Call A Cab, accounts for more than 40 percent of drink sales at some locations.
“In Miami, there’s another daiquiri shop a block down from us,” Dickinson says. “I’ve seen people walk by our bar and say, ‘I didn’t know Wet Willie’s was down here.’ Then they’ll throw their two-thirds-full drink in the trash and get one from us.”
But there’s one thing the daiquiri business hasn’t provided him: time off for vacations. After 25 years, he’s ready to start. He’s planning to hand the business over to his daughter Emily this year.