by Len Lear
My wife and I and two other family members had dinner at Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant on Germantown Avenue, just off Gravers Lane, in mid-March, when a gentleman came up to the table to schmooze. Bill DeVinney, 49, is a very friendly, personable chap, and the more questions I asked, the more I realized he and his background would make a fascinating article for the Local. Bill DeVinney, a senior assistant general manager for Iron Hill, will soon be opening the 100th restaurant of his 26-year restaurant career, mostly with national chains. To call him peripatetic would be an understatement. He has been to more countries than most whales and at one time was CEO of a company that owned 42 Irish pubs in several countries. I thought the article about Bill would work best in the question-and-answer format.
Q: Did you always want to be in the restaurant business?
A: I started cooking with my mom in St. Paul, MN, at age 5. At age 8 I was the one cooking for my family. It progressively grew into working at restaurants. When I was in high school, I worked for an Italian restaurant, and the owner, Rose, would chase me around the kitchen while I was washing dishes.
Q: Did you go to college to major in culinary arts?
A: No. I went to the University of Minnesota, where I was the “closer” on the school’s varsity baseball team. I was pre-med and ultimately planned to be an orthopedic surgeon but realized there was no way I could do 10 more years of school. In four years as closer, I had an ERA of about 2.00. I had a fastball that reached 98 mph, but I had no other pitch I could get over the plate.
Q: Did you ever play baseball professionally?
A: I tried out for the Cincinnati Reds. I signed a contract and went to their team in Billings, Montana, the Billings Mustangs, but did not make the roster. In two games I threw 12 pitches. I got one save and one loss, but I had a rotator cuff injury that basically ended my career. My total career was eight weeks. Of course, if I was in a bar talking to women, I’d suddenly be Alex Rodriguez (a New York Yankee superstar). The Reds training camp was in Tampa, Florida, and my brother lived there. I just couldn’t go back go school, so I stayed in Tampa and got a job as a manager of a Ruby Tuesday restaurant. I worked hard and wound up opening 12 of them in D.C., the Carolinas and Virginia.
Q: What were your other duties besides opening the restaurants?
A: I was the new store kitchen coordinator. My job was to train the whole kitchen, and my passion for food came out. I have steered many people to work for the restaurant chains because their training programs are great. I worked for Ruby Tuesday from 1987 to 1989. Then I moved to Louisville and worked for Italian Oven, another chain. I was general manager and moved into director of operations. I opened six of them 1989-95, all in Kentucky. I like moving around, Cannot stay in one place. Why? Because it’s hard to hit a moving target.
Q: How many restaurants have you opened?
A: All told I have opened 99 restaurants. About July of this year I will open an Iron Hill in Voorhees, NJ. That will be number 100 for me. In 1995 I was co-founder of Boulder Creek Steaks & Saloon on Long Island. I was v-p of operations. I had a one-year contract. A great experience, but I’m a mid-Westerner, not a New Yorker. Too busy, crowded, rude, noisy, etc.
Q: How did you get involved with Irish pubs?
A: After New York I moved to Nashville to Seanachie, the biggest Irish pub in America with 400 seats. I was managing partner. Probably the greatest Irish pub anyone has ever seen. An unreal stage with performers. People loved it. The second one was in Huntsville, Alabama. Eventually there were 42 of them after just four years. I became CEO of the company, which was called Delta Concepts We put seven in Australia over two years, nine in Ireland, seven in Hong Kong, five in the U.S. and a few in Spain. Selling an Irish pub is not hard. You can have a Guinness with a guy who has a lot of money and persuade him to buy one.
Q: Why did you leave the Irish pub company?
A: In 2000 I sold my part and went to Houlihan’s to have more stability in my life. It was based in Kansas City. The restaurants were in five states. I was with them for two years, and then they went bankrupt. We had 10 units in five states. We closed seven, and the other three are still in business in Missouri.
Q: Did you then go with another chain of restaurants?
A: In 2002 I started with Pussers, a British company that makes rum but which also had seven restaurants and three hotels in Tortola, the British Virgin Islands, and five restaurants in the U.S. I was v.p. in charge of food and beverage. My job was to take the restaurant concept and make it cookie-cutter. It was paradise living in Tortola. Diving, sailing, etc. I went to their five U.S. restaurants to work out the kinks. I’d go to Miami, where it would take me a day to get used to the fast way of life again.
Q: You also did some cooking; didn’t you?
A: Yes. Gourmet magazine in April, 2004, named me one of the best chefs in the Caribbean. Our food was awesome, but my position was eliminated. My friend, who was CEO of Pussers, said, “Let’s do a Caribbean concept restaurant,” so we built a beach bar in Tampa called Coconut Bay Bar & Grille. It opened in mid-2006. I was the only owner. No partners. I planned to use it as a franchise model. I was the chef. Lots of seafood. I’m entrepreneurial. But Coconut Bay only lasted one-and-a-half years. Wrong location. I would have had more satisfaction if I had driven down the highway throwing $100 bills out the window. My ego got in the way, but I did meet my wife, Sandy, at Coconut Bay. She is a recruiter for the life science industry. She’s the smart one in the family. We have a son, Tyler, 6.
Q: How did you wind up in Philly?
A: We moved up here in 2009 because Sandy is from Harrisburg, and there are lots of drug companies headquartered up here. We didn’t like Florida. Too hot. We almost started a beer company. I started with Hooters in 2011 as director of operations. I worked for them one-and-a-half years. We live in Valley Forge.
I started with Iron Hill Oct. 8, 2012. I like the concept. There are not many places where beer is made on the premises and you have so many experienced chefs making everything from scratch … It’s tough for me to stay out of the kitchen. I am looking forward to a long career with this company, and I can honestly say that I have never said that before.