Lessons from Joe Edwards

September 5, 2011 § 3 Comments

"Uncle Joe."

Joe Edwards (above, left, with Chuck Berry, right), is a real, live folk-hero.

If you’re from St. Louis you already know the story, and you’ve already visited and revered his trademark restaurant, Blueberry Hill. If you’re not, you can pick up the story from his Blueberry Hill profile, or his Wikipedia. The jist of it: Joe opened a bar/restaurant in the 70’s, spearheaded a movement that turned a questionable area of town (called “The Loop”) into a nationally-recognized entertainment district and tourist destination, is currently involved in an impossible number of new, vibrant business projects, and is generally a very highly regarded and respected person in the scene.

I was incredibly lucky to have met Joe personally through our professional relationship while I was at Eleven. We didn’t talk much—business, with Joe, never took much negotiating—but I still learned an incredible amount through working with him directly, and in the same city. Here’s a few lessons.

1) Live the story you tell. Joe’s story is Blueberry Hill: A homey, feel-good bar, stuffed with pop-culture memorabilia. There’s a very 50’s feel. Likewise, Joe hasn’t changed much over the years—same pony tail, Hawaiian shirts & khaki shorts, vintage sports car, and cheery attitude as ever (see above, minus the car). You can spot him from down the block. He’s a natural extension of his business—for lack of a better word, a living, breathing mascot. Every voicemail he’s ever [grammar error fixed. Thanks, Pete!] left has started “Hello! This is Joe Edwards from Blueberry Hill!” It feels good to see him, to talk to him, and as a natural extension, it feels good to spend time in his place of business.

I’ve heard stories that, in the 70’s, Joe would from time to time have to physically eject ruffian customers who didn’t fit his image. Bad for business in the short run, as the gangster kids figured out that Blueberry Hill wouldn’t even accept their business. Families figured this out too, and moved their business in soon after the punks took off.

There are countless other factors involved, granted. But it all starts with #1. Joe is Blueberry Hill’s best salesperson. He picked a story and business to match, and totally immersed himself in it. You don’t go to Blueberry Hill because they’re running a good price special (they don’t have any). Nor do you go, for the most part, because it’s the corner bar (even going through Wash U, Blueberry Hill is notorious for having among the hardest-carding bouncers in the city). You go to Blueberry Hill because it’s Blueberry Hill, and because it’s Joe’s place.

2) Have a cohesive, comprehensive vision. Everything—literally, everything—that Joe gets involved in is geared or optimized to serve #1. It’s incredible. Let’s look at some examples:

A) Everything, from the restaurant, to the bowling alley, to the hotel, to the movie theater, has a distinct “Joe Edwards” feel. The 50’s vibe. The penchant for collectibles. I can close my eyes and envision the types of materials I’d expect to see and feel, the fonts and diction used. The hours (open every day of the year, without question, ever). Just distinct enough to be unique, and yet, bring to mind the good feelings drawn from every prior Joe Edwards experience.

The Loop, surrounding Blueberry Hill, has a (possibly unwritten, but verifiably Joe-enforced) rule that no bars are allowed to open on the street. Every liquor-licensed venue in the neighborhood is a restaurant (I suppose, encouraging a family-friendly environment) that happens to also have a bar. Even the places that Joe doesn’t own conform to the Joe feel.

B) Joe’s businesses actually complement each other. Pi and Pappy’s, respectively wildly successful pizza and barbecue places in St. Louis, responded to their good fortunes by opening up new pizza and barbecue places—there’s now five places serving Pi-style pizza, and two serving Pappy’s-quality barbecue. How much of either could you consume in a day (much less a month)?

On the other hand: Joe noticed that his Blueberry Hill bar patrons were still thirsty after the place closes at 1:00am. He then opened Pin-Up Bowl, down the street with a 3:00am liquor license. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve made that 1:02am trek between the former and the latter (because of the frequency, mind you, not my inebriation).

Joe is the city’s biggest proponent for developing and promoting The Loop. Why? The more foot traffic on the street, the more people who are likely to stop in for a burger or a pint.

Joe revitalized the Tivoli Theater on the Loop. Because “dinner and a movie” makes sense, and movie-goers only having to park once for both even more so. Joe built the Moonrise Hotel on the Loop. Where are out-of-towners (who probably don’t have a car, and certainly don’t have a good grasp of the neighborhoods) who stay at a hotel most likely to go eat?

C) Non-business ventures that still ultimately promote #1. Joe founded the St. Louis Walk of Fame, a series of commemorative stars embedded in the sidewalks along (you guessed it) the Loop’s Delmar Boulevard. The organization is billed as a non-profit—but at the end of the day, who do you suppose the increased foot traffic serves?

He had a hand in the Loop Planet Walk, which starts directly in front of his Moonrise Hotel.

Most recently, Joe installed a Chuck Berry Statue across the street from Blueberry Hill. Joe is renowned for being a good friend of Chuck’s, who, by the way, plays St. Louis shows exclusively at Joe-owned venues (a monthly gig at Blueberry Hill, and occasionally, a date at The Pageant down the street).

And finally, there’s Joe’s forthcoming Loop Trolley project. It’s designed to connect the Loop to nearby Forest Park, bridging and enriching two of the city’s best public attractions. Two of the proposed train stops are directly in front of Joe’s Pageant and Tivoli. But forget that—the local stuff is small potatoes. The trolley project has already received $25 Million in federal funding, and is a sure-fire bet to win a ton of nationwide publicity and tourism interest.

I’ll give Pi some credit here: I’d bet it’s no coincidence that they’re widely known for receiving a positive review from Barack Obama and that their first geographic expansion point was Washington DC—let the consumer draw their own fascinating daydream conclusion there. But Joe wrote the book on the subject. Everything he’s done is intertwined in a beautiful, expansive, self-nurturing and ever-growing web.

3) You’re only as busy as you make yourself. Perhaps the most important, and practical, lesson of all.

Even given the towering number of projects and businesses he’s involved in (and I’m sure I’ve only just scratched the surface), Joe is simply not that hard to get a hold of. You can reach him by calling his extension at Blueberry Hill (which anyone at the bar will give out)—on a bad day, he’ll respond to your voicemail and call you back within 36 hours. On a good day, he’ll pick up the phone on the very first ring.

Everything he does he handles without a computer—or at least, an email address.

It seems impossible. Maybe Joe’s simply a step ahead, again—physically avoiding the timesink that we general public succumb to on the internet. I prefer to think that he’s just a model for work ethic. One might conjecture that the biggest hurdle to getting things done is simply worrying about not getting everything done. Joe responds to everything on his plate, swiftly and decisively. He doesn’t leave loose ends or putz around with petty debt or open deals—with all the time and energy I’ve seen some bar owners expend making and further delaying delinquent payments (and my experience, indubitably, being just a minuscule sample), who knows what they might have otherwise accomplished. On the contrary, his abilities to reach decisions, follow through, and get work (big or small) done are the stuff of legend.

Thanks, Joe.


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