In the 1970s, Bill Latham worked as a waiter in Jackson, Miss., at the TGI Fridays restaurant there, one of the first few locations of the chain.
As a measure of how full circle his career has come, he and his partners in the restaurant holding company Eat Here Brands are preparing to open Babalu Tacos & Tapas next week at Overton Square, in space once home to a TGI Fridays.
The owners of Babalu Tacos & Tapas have been making preparations to open at 2113 Madison Ave. at Overton Square June 16.
It’s not their first effort in Memphis. The company’s properties also include Interim Restaurant & Bar in East Memphis, and bringing Babalu – the original location is in Jackson, Miss. – to Memphis reflects the partners’ assessment of the strong market here.
“We love Memphis. It’s a good restaurant town,” said Latham, whose partners include Ned Lidvall, Al Roberts and Mike Stack.
Babalu, recently listed by “Thrillist” in a piece called “Why you need to care about Jackson, Mississippi’s Food and Drink Scene,” is opening June 16 at 2113 Madison Ave. Latham estimated it’ll have 90 to 100 employees, and the restaurant – which recently hit a record sales week in Jackson – will have features like an open kitchen and will rely heavily on fresh, local ingredients.
“It won’t look exactly the same as the one in Jackson, but you’re definitely going to know you’re in a Babalu,” Latham said.
The restaurant serves a variety of gourmet tacos as well as Spanish-style tapas with a Southern flavor. Items on the menu are made fresh daily. Guacamole is prepared tableside.
Drinks also are made from scratch using high quality ingredients, and available wines include selections from domestic and Spanish vineyards.
“Back when we developed it, I collaborated with our executive chef in Jackson,” explained Roberts, who said they traveled around the country and visited a variety of taquerias and other restaurants.
They hit on the idea of basing Babalu around the small bite, small plate movement, the popularity of which is especially reflected in things like the food truck craze.
“You have tacos blended with tapas, because we didn’t want to be pigeonholed into being a Mexican restaurant. That’s not what we are,” Roberts said, adding that another Babalu location will open in Birmingham, Ala., around the end of August. “We cook our products in-house and fresh. Our sauces, our salad dressings are all done from scratch. We pride ourselves on quality, and we have strict standards for quality.”
The Eat Here Brands team behind Babalu, meanwhile, has a deep bench strength in the restaurant business.
Stack is the former chairman and CEO of McAlister’s Deli. Lidvall is the former president and chief operating officer of On the Border Cafes, whose acquisition by Brinker International he helped negotiate. The team also has opened Five Guys restaurants in Mississippi.
Latham and Roberts both started their careers in the restaurant business waiting tables, then rising through the ranks to eventually become managers of their first restaurants.
Latham’s interest is operations and Roberts’ is culinary, and in the early 1980s they teamed up to revitalize a Jackson, Miss., restaurant called Sundancer.
As they helped it grow, it evolved from a hotspot into a magnet for widespread praise from critics. After a little less than a decade, they sold that restaurant, then set out to pursue other restaurant management ventures.