Island restaurant pioneers passing torch to next generation

Brendan-ReilleyWhen owner Tom Reilley decided to host a wintertime bash at his new restaurant at a time when most of his competition was closed for the season, little did he know that “from that point on, everybody knew who we were.”

His “Mash Bash,” which celebrated the final episode of the wildly popular television show “M*A*S*H” on Feb. 28, 1983, transformed his months-old Reilley’s Grill & Bar into a makeshift 4077th located in the heart of Hilton Head Island.

Two weeks later, Reilley’s sponsored the island’s first St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which attracted more people than the 68-year-old Rhode Island native might have expected — about 20, not including law officers who threatened to shut the parade down before it even started because it didn’t have a permit.

Of course, everyone celebrated at his Irish pub afterward, which was then located at the Gallery of Shops near the Sea Pines circle.

His spontaneous but opportunistic genius inspired the opening of Reilley’s Grill & Bar in December 1982.

“I was trying to survive as a father and a husband with a family,” said the father of seven, grandfather of 12 and oldest brother of seven siblings. “Diane (his wife) cooked all the specials, and we did what we had to do. There was no grand plan. … It was perfect timing.”

Cash infusions from fellow restaurateurs — Peter Kenneweg of the Hofbrauhaus and Serge Prat of The Gaslight — allowed Reilley and his wife to begin putting their signature on the island’s evolving culinary scene more than three decades ago.

Prior to the opening of the first Reilley’s, Tom and Diane Reilley were a waiter and a waitress at the Hofbraubaus in the late 1970s. Tom Reilley approached Kenneweg about opening his own restaurant and “Serge and I offered to loan him money for it,” Kenneweg said, who became a business partner with Reilley from that day on.

Kenneweg, who grew up in Germany and has a long family bloodline of restauranting, was brought to the island in 1971 by renowned chef Franz Meier, a protégé of Sea Pines visionary Charles Fraser, from New York City after stints at the Tower Suite, the Four Seasons and Tavern on the Green. He became the food and beverage controller for all of Sea Pines’ restaurants, and then opened his own Hofbrauhaus on Pope Avenue in 1973, which he eventually sold in 2007.

Reilley and his partner opened the Crazy Crab at Jarvis Creek in 1984, another Crazy Crab in Harbour Town two years later, Reilley’s North End Pub at Port Royal Plaza in 1988, and Aunt Chiladas Easy Street Café on Pope Avenue in 1989. A fire at the Gallery of Shops in 1995 forced the original Reilley’s to move across the street to what is now Reilly’s Plaza, which he and one of his sons, Brendan, purchased in 2005.

“Tom is a very popular guy,” said Kenneweg, who retired two years ago at age 70 and sold his partnerships in all but the two Crazy Crabs. “There’s not many local people that don’t know him or of him. He’s a very good person and a good restaurateur. I was the money man, and Tom was the front of the house, the face of the group.

“Bringing junior partners in is probably the smartest thing we ever did,” Kenneweg said. “Over the years, we hired some other chefs and managers, and they had to put their own money into the restaurants and they got percentage ownerships. They are still with us today. … You’ve got to treat your people right and pay them accordingly.”

Meanwhile, Brendan Reilley and his brother/co-owner Thomas launched The Boardroom at Reilley’s Plaza in 2010. The brothers’ latest venture — Carolina Crab Company at Palmetto Bay Marina — opened last summer. Since 2000, the Reilleys’ daughter, Erin (Reilley) Booth, has been the top shaker and mover at the original Reilley’s as managing partner along with her husband, Jamie. Tom’s brother, David, runs Aunt Chiladas.

So what’s Tom Reilley doing now? He’s sitting back, at least a little bit.

“I basically have two thoughts going on: One, I’m 68, I’m not in an entrepreneurial mood anymore,” he said. “I’m in a maintenance mode. I want to make sure what we’ve got we do right and it’s long standing.”

“My dad is pretty much retired, whatever that means,” laughs Erin Booth, who sees her dad nearly every day at the restaurant.

“The younger kids that are in the business, they’re more in a growth mode,” he said.

Last June, “the torch was passed to the younger generation” when the Carolina Restaurants and Bars (CRAB) group was formed to “solidify everything,” with Brendan Reilley and Courtney Kenneweg (Peter Kenneweg’s son and a Duke University Fuqua School of Business graduate) serving as managing partners and responsible for the day-to-day operations of the seven establishments, he said. Tom Reilley and Peter Kenneweg are the major stockholders.

“Those two are basically running the business,” Reilley said.

“They are the second generation, and he and Brendan are working together,” Kenneweg said. “They have a very good working relationship. The two of them are in charge.”

Born and raised in Hilton Head, Courtney Kenneweg, who this month is marrying Brody Frye (who handles marketing for the Crazy Crabs), returned to his local roots two years ago after spending a number of years in the financial world in New York, London and Arizona. He also spent five years in the Army, serving one tour in Iraq.

“I always had an interest in coming back (to the island) and we always discussed it; we were just trying to find the right time to come back and get involved in the restaurant business,” Courtney Kenneweg said of the many discussions he had with his father before he retired. “It’s something I’d done growing up and really enjoyed the business. I definitely was ready to come back.”

Tom Reilley said the duo “will maintain and grow the brand.”

“It will be a slow growth,” said Brendan Reilley, 34, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, husband of Jill and father of their children. “We want to grow into Savannah and Beaufort … it could take 20 years, but we do have goals to grow.” He noted that the Crazy Crab moniker will be the easiest to market outside of this area.

“We’re trying to guide the direction of the group and brand ourselves together,” Courtney Kenneweg, 36, added.

One thing the group has always done is redirect profits into their businesses to keep them current with multiple remodelings, adding outdoor dining areas and parking spaces, and updating menus. Reilley’s, for instance, is a neighborhood gathering place with a roster of regulars that would rival that of the television show “Cheers.”

“My husband and I both try to keep up with the times by keeping it fresh,” said Erin Booth, who began working in the family business at the age of 14. Running Reilley’s Grill & Bar is a “lifestyle. It’s a lot of work.”

“You just can’t sit still and say, ‘I’ve been successful for 20 years and I’m going to be successful for another 20 years’,” Tom Reilley said. “It doesn’t work like that.”

According to Brendan Reilley, here’s how success works: “We have a little of everything. We’ve got Mexican, we’ve got entertainment, we’ve got seafood, we’ve got a pub on the north end, we’ve got American-style steaks here, almost all of them have patios. For seven days, you could eat at one of our restaurants and never go anywhere else…Everything is family-friendly. Our whole brand is family oriented.”

“I think it’s the people who are running the locations,” Courtney Kenneweg added. “We have a phenomenal staff, great locations, waterfront views and fresh food.

“The thing I love most is dealing with the customers, meeting new people all the time and giving them an experience to come in and have great food, great service and a great atmosphere, and watching them leave happy,” Kenneweg said.

Added Booth, “My dad always instilled in us, and we’re very proud of the fact, that the customer is always right,” she said. “We always laugh (when they talk about satisfying every patron), ‘the answer is yes, what’s the question?’ We never say ‘no’ to anybody. Our staff has the same mentality.”