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SoWal People - Billy McConnell Makes Full Seaside Circle

August 16, 2012 by Joyce Owen

Twenty-one years after opening Shades in Seaside, Billy McConnell is back where he began his South Walton adventure, in the same building which now houses the Great Southern Café.

Shades was the hub of the busy Central Square in Seaside for many years until it moved to Inlet Beach in 2006.

“Everyone says I’ve come full circle,” Billy says.

After running Billy’s, a pub in Tuscaloosa, Ala., he felt the call of the coast. When his first attempt – running a marina in Fort Morgan – wasn’t the right fit, he looked up and down the coast, combing the beach for a place he could run.

On a trip to Seaside, Billy found a vacant restaurant on Central Square. With a recommendation from Birmingham chef Frank Stitts, Billy received approval and opened Shades in June 1991.

All summer he watched as prospective customers walked right by his place to eat at Bud & Alley’s.

There were valid reasons besides the fact that the old house was haunted, he admits. The house didn’t look much like a restaurant and there was no money for advertising. The previous restaurant had closed, because, as Billy tells it, the food wasn’t all that good, so he had to fight misconceptions.

Add to that, development was not here yet, he says.

There were about 150 houses, and the commercial property was limited to Perspicacity, Bud & Alley’s, Modica Market and the Hall building.

Billy struggled all summer and when the season ended and the tourists were gone, he looked for a way to bring people in.

Wine festivals were popular in Sandestin, so Billy, Erica Pierce, Dave Rauschkolb and Scott Witcoski decided to hold their own wine festival in October.

“It was a scary weekend. We didn’t have a lot to spend,” Billy says. “We charged $8 to get in and just hoped to break even.”

He considered it a success when they made $20, but it was much more than that; the festival was the first of the popular Seeing Red Wine Festivals now held in November.

After Billy sold Shades in 1995, he and his wife Nancy spent about a year working on a boat in the Florida Keys.

“I’ve always found something to do,” he says. And the next few years when he returned to South Walton he proved his versatility.

Billy worked with Walton County Commissioner Van Ness Butler, handled public relations for Regional Utilities and even got his real estate license.

One day this spring while selling advertising for the Seaside Times at The Great Southern Café, owner Jim Shirley offered Billy a job.

Because Jim had the confidence to leave him alone and let him run the restaurant, Billy accepted. 

“Working at the restaurant isn’t like going to work at all, because I love it here.”

As the day manager, Billy hears from many customers, “don’t change anything, everyone seems happy to be working here,” and he realizes he is doing what he does best and that folks are right – he’s right back where he belongs.

Read a SoWal Forum thread about the transition of Shades to Great Southern Cafe.

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Joyce Owen

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