The F Word with Libby Billings, Elote

She just wanted to be her own boss and create some unique Mexican food. She had no idea her work would be the start of the revitalization of downtown Tulsa- especially since she had no formal business training. But despite flirting with failure multiple times, Libby Billings ended up founding some of Tulsa’s favorite restaurants and bringing new life into an area that many saw as dead. Listen as Libby talks about fighting for her dream, taking big risks to stay afloat and walking down the road less traveled.

[TRANSCRIPT]

Libby Billings: There was definitely days where I thought, “I'm not going to make it. This week I might have to close the restaurant.”

Lauren King: This week on The F Word…

Libby: I didn't take a salary for the first year. It was not making money. I took a second mortgage out on my house.

Lauren: Libby Billings, the founder of Elote, Roppongi and The Vault.

Libby: Actually, the first time that we wrestled, we didn't realize that there was licensing involved, and we got shut down by the Oklahoma Boxing Commission and got into some trouble for it.

Lauren: I think it's safe to say that downtown Tulsa's Deco District would not be what it is today without Libby Billings. She first revitalized the neighborhood with her restaurant Elote, known for their puffy tacos and their huge Cinco de Mayo block parties. Then she opened The Vault, which is a restaurant in an old bank around the corner, and most recently, a quick-service ramen bar called Roppongi. But when she started, Libby had no formal business training. She had to learn a lot through trial and error. Libby, thanks for coming in to share your story with us.

Libby: Thank you for having me.

Lauren: This all started with Elote. I read a recent article in Edible Tulsa about you that was so good, and it called you an accidental pioneer. You really were. You came to a part of town that was really dead. It was before the Deco District was really anything. Why did you take that risk? Like how did you get started? What made you say, I want to put a restaurant here, when there wasn't a lot going on?

Libby: Honestly, I just knew that I wanted to open up a restaurant, and originally, I had just wanted to be open Monday through Friday days. I have children. I thought if I could do that, then I could not work nights and weekends, still be able to have time with my family, etc. That was the plan, and where you can do that is downtown because the Monday through Friday nine to five business was there in the beginning. It was the evenings and the weekends that were pretty sad. That's how I started, was just Monday through Fridays. We were only open from 11 to two, but as it turns out, it takes a lot more hours to put in, and there just weren't a ton of sales to be had then. Additionally, what I found was because I was doing things that were different than what other restaurants were doing, like buying biodegradable to-go boxes, using organic meats, composting, recycling, all the positive environmental practices I was doing, people who didn't work downtown wanted to try my food. On days that banks and attorneys offices and stuff are closed, Memorial Day, Labor Day, etc, we would be open, and we would be busier than usual because people had heard about us and wanted to try the cuisine. People wanted to frequent little Elote, but I didn't realize that at the time that it was going to be more than just a Monday through Friday kind of place.

Lauren: I know that your background's in restaurants. You worked at Spaghetti Warehouse, and Mexicali and Chimi's, and the other restaurants. What made you want to open your own restaurant, especially with no formal business training? Why were you so set on, I am opening a restaurant?

Libby: I think I had just had a lot- I just wanted to be my own boss honestly. Actually, there's a busboy who's now their catering manager at Mexicali, he says when I worked there back when I was 16 that I told him I would own a Mexican restaurant in downtown Tulsa, so I think that's pretty funny that I actually ended up doing it.

Lauren: Told the future.

Libby: I know, right? Honestly, I think I just want to be my own boss. I did work in the kitchen in a lot of upscale restaurants in Tulsa, and I saw so much waste environmentally, people wrap everything in plastic wrap and throw away a lot of styrofoam. Everything goes in the trash, and it just made me really sad. I kind of joke that I was raised by hippies, but it's really true. Seeing all that waste really bothered me, and knowing that I couldn't really change those things. Sometimes I would go to my chef or my owner and say, hey, have we ever considered composting? That was just too much work for them. Opening my own place, I could do those things. It was, is, more work, but I wanted to do that because it was just more important to me, with the amount of consumption that there is, that it have as little of a negative environmental impact as possible.

Lauren: It was for a bigger purpose, a bigger cause than just having a restaurant.

Libby: Yeah, and also, I wanted to- I'm a vegetarian, that's another thing. I'm a vegetarian, and at the time, ten years ago, there were very few vegetarian options in Tulsa. I just sort of knew that what I was doing, people would enjoy, and so hey, let's give it a try. I didn't have anything to lose at the time. I was pretty broke. I didn't really have anything to lose. It was like, well, let's give this a try and see what happens. If it works, it works, and if it doesn't, I'll be right where I was.

Lauren: Talk about your journey at the beginning. I know it was hard getting into spaces, probably hard finding capital. This is called the F Word podcast, so we talk about failure. What are the things you really screwed up, or you look back and you're like, Libby, I can't believe you did that? How did you learn through that process?

Libby: Yeah. Within that first year that I talked about, that we were just open Monday through Friday lunches, we didn't make any money. I didn't take a salary for the first year. It was not making money. I think I took a second mortgage out on my house. I remember asking my parents to borrow money, and they were like, no. There's no money for you. They didn't really encourage me to own a restaurant in the first place, given what they hear about failure rates and whatnot. There was that, and then, I just wasn't making money. It was really, really hard. We ended up taking a gamble and opening nights. There is a slightly higher profit margin in alcohol than there is in food. With the BOK Center coming online, we were able to open nights, and took out another small bank loan. That really is what propelled us to be able to hire a manager, hire an additional manager, and then be able to make a little bit of money, and then build. I grew in stages. First I was Monday through Friday days, then I was Monday through Friday days and Tuesday through Saturday nights. Then I opened up six days a week, day and night. Then I added a bar. It's just in stages.

Lauren: Incremental-

Libby: Yes, exactly. I messed up a lot. In that first year, there were definite weeks where if I had to pay payroll and my large food purveyor at the same time, I was going to fail. I never got behind on my credit card payment or my tax payment. I knew that those two things were very important.

Lauren: That's huge. That's great.

Libby: There was definitely days where I thought, I'm not going to make it. This week I might have to close the restaurant. That's when I took the second mortgage out on my house, which is crazy to think that I did that, but I did.

Lauren: What followed that?

Libby: That's whenever I opened up the evenings and put in a little tiny bar. Now we have a huge room that's got a full bar, full stocked bar, but at the time it was just a little counter that the servers could make margaritas at and bring them to the customers. Doing that, and then that kind of propelled what I realize is that people really liked what I was doing, they just didn't know about it. Nowadays there's lots of things that draw you downtown, but at the time there really wasn't a lot drawing you downtown. I had to create the reason to come downtown. I put on all these events to bring people down, and then once they were downtown, maybe they come to a salsa fest that I put on, that has chihuahua races, and chihuahua costume contests, and salsa dancing, and salsa music, and salsa tasting, etc. Then once they're there they would try our food, and come back, and like what we were doing in our community involvement and everything.

Lauren: You do the luchador wrestling too, which is super fun.

Libby: Yes, that definitely helped out. When I first started doing luchadors it was every other Thursday. That was just something, nightlife. There wasn't anything else going on at night downtown.

Lauren: I have to know, where did that idea come from?

Libby: I joke that that came from lots of Tecates on the river one time. Really, I was just going to build on the bar. I knew that that was what the restaurant was needing, was a bar. We were just trying to come up with a decorative theme. I think we were down to Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera theme, or luchadors. Somebody after a few Mexican beers said, we could have a luchador wrestling ring, and the bands could play in it, and we could actually wrestle. We did that, and actually the first time that we wrestled, we didn't realize that there was licensing involved. We got shut down by the Oklahoma Boxing Commission, and got into some trouble for it. Because of that I wasn't going to fail, so instead I just became a licensed professional wrestling promoter, and now I have a wrestling federation.

Lauren: What a great line for your resume.

Libby: Right?

Lauren: We talked about money a little bit. I've read that you don't take investor money. You told me you keep a line of credit with the bank, but you will not take investor money. Have you ever been tempted to do that, so that you don't have to go for other forms of capital?

Libby: No, not really. If I need money, I'll ask the bank for it. I've succeeded in that so far, but it's also not like anybody's been offering me money. Like I said, one of the reasons that I went into business for myself was also I liked being my own boss, and I think it would be hard for me to meet with a board. I just think that that would be a challenge for me. Certainly if I needed it, I could see myself doing that, but right now I don't need it, so I don't see why I would start.

Lauren: Do you still have to take out lines of credit and work with the bank, or is that way in your past, don't have to worry about it anymore?

Libby: No, I absolutely still do. I still goof up from time to time.

Lauren: Like how?

Libby: Well, like last month, I redid the floors at Elote, and replaced the air conditioning, and I did some other big costs. Then when it was time for payroll a couple weeks ago, I was like, oh, crud, I'm cutting it really close. That's what the line of credit is for. I took out a little bit of money against my line of credit. I don't like that. I do not like debt at all. I definitely grew incrementally, and tried to keep as little debt as possible. It makes me very uncomfortable, I get straight up anxiety. I wake up in the middle of the night, and that kind of stuff, and I do not like that feeling. Also, then I have to remind myself, most people that own three companies either have investors that they're paying off, or they have a huge bank loan, so the fact that I am teetering between 20 and 30 thousand dollars in a line of credit that I usually keep out, and then I'll pay it off, and then I'll get excited and buy something, and then payroll will hit corresponding with a slow weekend, I'm like, d'oh, why did I do that? That's maybe the thing that I need to get a better grasp on, reminding myself, really, that it's okay to have a little bit of debt. I'm kind of old school in the way that I don't really like to have it at all.

Lauren: I think many people would say that's wise.

Libby: Yeah. It is wise.

Lauren: Sustainability can be a really big buzzword right now. You kind of touched on it earlier. You really embrace sustainability, it's not just something you do for fun, or you do to make your marketing better. From the very beginning, you've been using biodegradable takeout containers, and you buy food from local farmers. Why is that so important to you? Does it impact your bottom line? I think a lot of people don't because they think it will impact their bottom line too much. Why is it important, why should other people do it?

Libby: Yes, it does impact your bottom line. It is more expensive to buy organic meats. It's more expensive to buy hay straws as opposed to plastic straws, or fiber to-go boxes as opposed to styrofoam. There's a decent profit that can be made in the restaurant industry, and so if I cut into that a little bit but I'm being a good steward to the environment, I feel like that's just my role on earth. I just don't think-

Lauren: What inspired that? What put that in you?

Libby: This is the way that I was raised. I think that that's why Elote, honestly, is probably- the best job that I do is probably at Elote, because it's really a version of me, myself. I love The Vault and I love Roppongi, and they have little bits of me in them as well, but they're definitely a part of my company for growth. Elote's like- somebody told me it's like a trip inside my brain. I was raised, we didn't have paper towels, we used cloth napkins. We composted and recycled, we were raised vegetarians, all those positive environmental practices that I use in my restaurants was just the way that I was raised. It's second nature to rinse out a Ziploc baggy, should I actually have a Ziploc baggy. Sometimes I forget that that's not the norm. I'll be at other people's houses and see people every day eating on paper plates and plastic. I'm like, why are you doing that? It kind of crushes me, a little bit. I think it's just the way that I was raised, and I would hope to spread that a little bit. That's definitely how I'm raising my own kids as well. You have so much more of an impact on a commercial level as opposed to residential. If I use styrofoam to-go boxes at the restaurants, that's hundreds a month that are going into landfills, that'll never go away.

Lauren: Before we met today, we were chatting about the haters, people who criticize your food, really in awful, really rude ways. What have you learned about addressing criticism?

Libby: If it's constructive criticism, I try to address it and take it with a grain of salt, and fix it if I can. There are a lot of really valid complaints about service, or food, that I want to listen to and repair. There's also some people that- I just sort of joke that this relationship's not meant to be.

Lauren: Can you tell us that story about Yelp that you were telling me the other day?

Libby: Yes, I feel so bad about that. A woman went online- it was actually on Facebook- and she, sort of in one half a paragraph review, said that she tried Elote and didn't like it. The salsa was nothing to be excited about, and the beans were just meh. While she was at it, she went ahead and included that The Vault was nothing to be impressed about it, and the ramen shop that I own was just meh, don't even give them a try. It just was so hard to read that. I've had people criticize individual aspects of the restaurant that I can maybe work on, but to just basically say, the past ten years of your working life are just meh, it was really awful. I typically will respond to things, and that is one that I would normally just not respond to, because that relationship is not meant to be. If she doesn't like anything about all three of my restaurants, and she's an online troll, hater, whatever, then I don't need anything to do with her. For some reason- I had seen the Mr. Rogers documentary and I was trying to understand people better, and kindness and all this stuff. I just invited her for a cup of coffee.

Lauren: You fed the troll.

Libby: It did not go well. Yeah, it didn't go well. She left very angry, and then wrote me another unkind email. Basically, I was trying to understand where she was coming from. I did learn to understand, I just don't think there was anything nice going to come out of her mouth. It made me sad, more than anything. I didn't feel good about it afterwards, I felt very sad for her afterwards. I realized I should never do that again.

Lauren: Do you read online comments a lot?

Libby: Oh yeah. I don't do the ones on- if there's an article about me I won't read them, because that's a lot easier, but I have to keep up with Yelp and TripAdvisor and Facebook. There's a lot of really good ones, but there's a lot that are just mean. Sometimes there's consistently things, more than one review will repeat that something is wrong, and that's whenever it's a red flag. I'm like, oh, I need to fix that issue. I'm spread really thin between three restaurants, and I have two teenagers, so sometimes I don't notice things that other people do, or just being in the environment- I still am at all the restaurants every day, but I might be used to something that other people are like, it's not okay that the napkin dispenser is broken, or whatever. I'm like, it's fine! Hearing that from somebody, a fresh set of eyes, is good.

Lauren: Tells you what to prioritize.

Libby: Exactly.

Lauren: How do you keep that criticism from clinging to you? I feel like, especially a lot of women, I would think, can take that personally, or can hold onto that and let it define them. How do you step away from that and say, okay, that's not who I am, I can move forward, that doesn't define me?

Libby: Yeah, I did used to read the Tulsa World comments, and it was bad. The same kind of people say rotten things a lot. I try not to read that kind of thing. How do I let it go? It gets easier with time. There's also a lot of really nice things said, too. I'm really fortunate that I can also post a picture on social media of something that I'm doing in the community, and people say really sweet things. Maybe that's what I should do next time on my monthly trip to look at Yelp and Facebook, I also need to go and post a picture of something nice on Facebook that people can comment positively on. For the most part, I do get more positive than negative comments, and so that probably makes it easiest.

Lauren: I bet. You have two kids in their early teens, and you were a single mom for many years. For any single moms that are listening, would you share how you navigated running your businesses and raising your kids?

Libby: Yes. Well, I just juggled it- I always want to drop my kids up at school and pick them up from school. I've never done aftercare or anything like that, but that works in my line of work. I can work nights and weekends. When they're at their dad's house, I work a lot. It did take a little bit of a toll on my social life, for sure. Then if I did have a new boyfriend or something like that, then that would take a toll on my work life. It's pretty easy for me to prioritize my kids over work, and sometimes that is not good for my job, honestly. I usually do put them first. Last night, I wanted to go see Wicked with my daughter, and I had to pick her up from the bus stop at 4:40. We went and got a bunch of play-doh, and she made a pizza box play-doh island at a table at The Vault while my mom was there drinking a glass of wine and having dinner with her, and I was in the kitchen. Then when we were done, we all walked over to Wicked. Sometimes you just juggle those things. I've had to tell myself a lot, when the kids- my son, I can remember him sleeping in the wrestling ring when he was sick one time. I had to go to work that morning and process payroll. I didn't want him there whenever the restaurant was open, but he had to come with me. He was on a sleeping bag in the wrestling ring. It was like, well, I have to go work. My dad's an entrepreneur, he's a photographer, and I remember spending a lot of time at his studio when I was younger. I think that it instilled some work ethics in me. That's sort of what I've had to tell myself. If they ever have to put on a cute little suit and dress and be the hosts at The Vault on Valentine's Day, hey, these kids are going to be hard working individuals when they grow up, and they learned it from their momma.

Lauren: Is it worth it?

Libby: Yeah, I think so. I don't feel like I've missed out on my kids for my job. I would probably feel very differently if that was the case. If the restaurants came crashing down but I had two happy children, it would be worth it. They've always been my number one priority, but like I said, sometimes they're just in tow, and they come with me. It's a lot easier now that they're teenagers, because they can be left at home alone, and they don't want to go everywhere with me now. That has its own set of challenges, because now-

Lauren: What, you don't want to be with me?

Libby: Right. If it was up to them, they'd just sit at home and look at their phones non-stop, which I can't have that either.

Lauren: Just snatching them away, take them to work with you.

Libby: Yep, exactly.

Lauren: Yeah, nice. You're really big on community engagement too. You host the white party at The Vault. You are a water stop for the Route 66 marathon. You have a float in the Tulsa Pride Parade. Why do you do all that?

Libby: That stuff is fun to me, I really enjoy it. I think that deep down, I'm a hostess. I like to have friends over to my house, I like to throw parties at the restaurant, I like to cook for people. I'm probably more of a people pleaser than I should be, maybe that interferes with being a good businesswoman from time to time. I like that, and it keeps it exciting. Creating a float for the Pride parade was really, really fun. Encouraging people that are running for a rest stop, the Route 66 marathon, is really fun. I think ultimately, it's really fun, and the community does appreciate that. I use it as a form of my advertising too. If I'm seen in that area, I'd rather be doing that than just buying a quarter page ad in a magazine.

Lauren: How do you decide what to say yes to? I feel like you could easily get stretched thin with community events that aren't truly impacting your business.

Libby: Yes, that is very true. I actually, just this year, have decided I'm sticking with the things that I really do love doing, that I've done year after year, like Tulsa Tough, and Pride, and those kind of things. What is really hard is people ask you for things all the time. You get hit up for sponsorship and free food all the time. I actually, this year, have just decided that I'm taking 12 months off from doing that. We have basically a gift card that we'll give out to people whenever they're doing silent auctions and those kind of things, but myself and my catering manager were spending so much time going to events to give out free food that I realized we were donating food to organizations that were serving my employees. Many restaurant employees are benefiting from things like family and children services. It's not exactly a super high paying job, to be a cook or a waiter. I realized that I wanted to take a step back from that and focus more on raising my employees' standard of living. That's been really well received. People are still emailing me non-stop for- I get upward of ten requests a week for a donation. Sometimes it's something I've never heard of, and they want a 1500 dollar lunch donated.

Lauren: No big deal.

Libby: That's it, no big deal. I just have to respond and say, I like your organization and I'm proud of what you're doing, but I have written this document that basically says, I need to focus my time on ensuring that my companies are profitable, so that I can raise the standard of living for my employees through raises. Most people have been like, good for you. In fact, one of them ended up ordering the lunch from me, and paying for it. They're like, thank you, that's great to hear. How much would it cost for those tacos? I was like, oh my gosh. I think people- we all serve on boards and committees, and we get, who can you ask for things? I like being involved and I've really enjoyed that, but it has stretched me very thin. Like I said, when myself and one of my highest paid employees, when a good percentage of our job is taken up with giving away free stuff, it's like, I had to say, I'm going to take 12 months off for that and see how that affects business.

Lauren: Restaurant culture is really unique. I'm sure there's a lot of turnover, there's a lot of navigating different personalities. How do you invest in your employees? You said you're intentional about giving raises. How else do you invest in your employees?

Libby: We do profit sharing, so the more money the restaurant makes, the more money that my employees make. That's a pretty new thing that I've started doing. That is important to me. It has caused my employees to take more ownership, and do things that they- maybe they would have called the plumber, and now they're fixing that little leak themselves, or at least googling how to fix a leaky faucet before just calling up a plumber, because now they get a percentage of that. That's made a big difference, for sure.

Lauren: Is there a downside to that?

Libby: I've only been doing it for a year, and it's tiered. They haven't made it into the higher tier, but they're working for it. I don't know, maybe I'm going to find out, oh crud, I can't afford to pay my taxes, I gave too much away, or something. I don't think that's going to happen, though. I think in general, if they make more money, so does the company, which means that should be good.

Lauren: Yeah, good for everyone. I know you said many times in many interviews that you are not ready for a fourth restaurant, and I respect that. If you were to create a fourth restaurant, what do you think it would be? I know that I read Roppongi came because you went to Dallas and you saw a cool ramen bar, and you're like, oh, I got to bring this to Tulsa, Tulsa doesn't have this. What else does Tulsa not have? Where do you think the gap is right now?

Libby: In a dream world, I will sell all my restaurants and I'll open one small vegetarian restaurant that doesn't- I only accept cash, and I don't have to-go wares, and the menu changes, and if you're not in a good mood you just probably shouldn't even come in. I sort of have an ongoing list of, oh, when I my perfect restaurant someday, no straws, we just don't even have them, things like that. I do think that Tulsa needs a vegetarian restaurant that's exclusively vegetarian.

Lauren: 100%.

Libby: I think that would be really good. I'd like to do that, or I would maybe consider doing that someday. Yeah, that would probably be it.

Lauren: Where do you eat in town?

Libby: Where do I eat? I eat at my restaurants all the time. I don't really love eating out, because I do eat out all the time, but my kids like to eat out. They always want to eat at my restaurants, or they like Hideaway, just easy stuff. Let's see. We went to Papa Ganoy, is that right?

Lauren: I don't know.

Libby: Is it Papa Ganouj? Maybe. We went there last week. I try to try different places. The restaurant industry is getting real tough right now, because so many new restaurants are opening up. I'm trying to go try old restaurants, because like me and my old restaurant, all these new restaurants open up and I'm like, hey guys, don't forget about me over here.

Lauren: Do you have community with other business owners in town, specifically restaurant owners? What does that look like?

Libby: Yeah. Sometimes I'll reach out to Elliott Nelson whenever I'm in a panic about something. He has helped me out significantly. Actually whenever my ex-husband and I split, my ex-husband handled a lot of the finances. I opened the restaurants and did that, and then he came on and worked for us, or worked for me, and handled that for a few years. Then whenever we got divorced, he no longer handled that, and so Elliott was very gracious, and looked over my P & L's with me and helped me out. I really appreciated that. Sometimes I just think about things, things that are happening in the industry, and I'll shoot him a text. Are you going through this too? He'll say yes or no. He's been really helpful, and I always think, he's running really successful companies in Tulsa that are growing, Oklahoma City, Kansas, etc. If he's struggling with the same things, then we're good. If he's not, then I'm making a mistake. He's really friendly in that area. I really like Chris from LaSalle's. He's my neighbor right down the street, and really good to talk to as well.

Lauren: Roppongi moved into his old space.

Libby: Yeah, his old spot, yeah. I have a new neighbor at Boston Avenue Title and Abstract, and we've been chatting a little bit, just because we're business neighbors now. I try to communicate and see what's going on. A lot of times, we're all experiencing the same thing. Yeah, I'll get a text from Chris every once in a while, he'll be like, it was so slow this weekend, how about you? I'm like, yes. Okay, cool. We both feel better. We didn't do anything wrong, it was just whatever was going on.

Lauren: Yeah, that's really awesome. The question we always end with is, what would you tell someone who's maybe in the midst of a failure right now, a business owner who is struggling to make it work, maybe in a similar stage when you were first in the beginning? What would you tell them to encourage them?

Libby: Well, I would definitely say that Mexico's always an option. Just quit and go to Mexico. That brings me a little bit of happiness from time to time, knowing that if you fail, it's not the end of the world. You'll be just fine. Also, I think just trying to step away from the day to day for a second and see the bigger picture, and don't just plan, actually do things. I think that a lot of times, you can get yourself into a place where you're just planning and planning and planning, but you got to execute, you got to be talking to your customers, you really need to be in the business to know exactly what your errors are that are in there. If you're only in a management role, then you get a little too far back. I have to remind myself of that from time to time, when I'm in the office and it's noon. I'm like, I need to be out. I needed to be at one of my restaurants, because it's noon and I need to see customers, and talk to them, and make sure that the food looks perfect. That's what I would do.

Lauren: Thank you so much, Libby, for coming in to share your story. I'm excited to see what comes in the future.

Libby: Me too. Who knows! Thank you.

Lauren: Next week on The F Word…

Blake Smith: I was hopeful. I was actually hopeful that the dollar business would hang in there, but I knew that the possibilities were there that we would either have to turn it first run, or I'd have to flip it to somebody else.

Lauren: Blake Smith, the owner of the Admiral Twin drive-in and other local movie theaters, talks about the changing climate of the movie industry and the disappointment he's wrestled with as he's been forced to adapt over time.

Dustin Curzon: The F Word is brought to you by 36 Degrees North, Tulsa's base camp for entrepreneurs. To learn more about our workspace, community and resources, visit 36N.co. The F Word season two is recorded in the KOSU studio and produced by Lauren King.