Written by Paul Allen Wolf | Photography by Frank Farmer
A funky retro style, Latin inspired food and Lucille Ball: they’re all ingredients in the recipe for success for Al Roberts and Bill Latham’s Babalu Tacos & Tapas.
In 2010, just as Fondren’s food scene began to ramp up its offerings, the restaurant veterans took a chance on a new concept, one the metro area had not yet embraced.
Tapas means smaller portions and Southerners do love a good buffet. But, as their dining room full on any given night will tell you, the concept has caught on.
Scan the parking lot for out-of-county tags and you’ll see that what began as a “neighborhood place” has quickly become the talk of the town.
Babalu is uniquely different, “cool and edgy, especially for a 65 year-old guy to do it,” said Latham, who serves as Eat Here Brands – the parent company’s – president. “My kids were impressed that their dad came up with this.”
“This” being something he says is not far off from his original aspirations as a musician.
“It’s the restaurant business, but it’s entertainment, too. People come in to getÂ fed but they come in for other reasons — for fun, to have a good time. They leave their troubles somewhere else for at least a little while.”
It’s the blueprint Babalu is following as they expand and grow across the southeast.
Starting with the opening of Babalu Overton Square in Memphis, Tennessee, in May 2014 and rounding out the year with an October launch of Babalu Lakeview in Birmingham, Alabama, the team has begun recreating what a well-respected food industry publication has called a “mesmerizing buzz.” And, as it would seem, the company’s “sample & share” philosophy, embraced by Jacksonians for the last five years, has taken off.
“We received a welcome in both Memphis and Birmingham that far exceeded our expectations,” said Latham.
The food is important, for certain, but in Roberts’ mind, the dishes aren’t the only star.
“When rolling out Babalu in other Southern cities, not only did we want to ace the menu items, which have been so popular in Jackson, but we also wanted to knock guests out with stellar service,” said Roberts, executive vice president of Eat Here Brands and director of culinary development.
And guests have taken note. The number one thing here that slaps you in the face, they have said, is attention to detail. “Everyone goes out of their way to stop and ask if everything is ok,” one diner noted. “And always with a genuine smile. Really refreshing.”
While those benchmarks have always been at the forefront, aesthetics are important, too. Where diners can enjoy their food and what’s around them have always been paramountÂ concerns to the team.
“Folks seem to have enjoyed the alfresco dining aspect of Babalu Fondren (a covered and patio commands a waiting list) so much that we expanded on it by adding roll-up garage doors in both Memphis and Birmingham,” Latham said.Â Guests have expressed that they can’t get enough of the open air feel on beautiful fall days.”
Or the exquisitely crafted drink menu. The ever popular Babarita is Babalu’s take on a classic margarita (Patron Silver, Agave nectar, Patron Citronge, fresh sour mix and POM). Other selections infuse seasonal fruits and local liquors – like Cathead Vodka – to create the perfect elixir for their diners’ tastes.
From their Jackson and Atlanta-area headquarters, the development team has worked hard to create systems that allow for the Babalu spirit of individuality to migrate, along with the from-scratch food and handcrafted cocktails, to other cities. The group has begun renovating a building in Downtown Knoxville,Â Tennessee and has signed leases for locations in Charlotte, North Carolina’s Dilworth neighborhood as well as Lexington, Kentucky’s new development, The Summit at Fritz Farm.
While most new Babalu locations will be developed in revitalized urban centers, there will never be another Babalu quite like the flagship in Fondren. Located in the former Duling School’s third grade classroom, “I Love Lucy” re-runs are projected just inside the front door and local music posters serve as a wall covering.
On the restaurant’s opening day in 2010, Fondren business owner Eddie Outlaw penned a review that read in part, “…don’t bring pretense. This trip on the Latin side of dining… is all about jumping in with both hands and taking in all the joy, sounds and flavors found in Latin culinary culture.”
As the brand expands across the country five years later, that’s the exact sentiment they hope they evoke with diners still today.