Benjamin Franklin once said, “Out of adversity comes opportunity.” No better words can apply to Bill Dukes, Columbia’s well-known entrepreneur and philanthropist. What could have been disappointment at the beginning of a career in the military turned into abundant opportunity and a path that would lead him to where he joyfully is today.
In 1964, Bill joined the Air Force ROTC with hopes of becoming a pilot, but that wasn’t to be due to his tall stature. Instead, he was assigned to food service — an assignment that would change the course of his life. Bill went through culinary training in the military and studied culinary management. After traveling the world in the military, he earned the opportunity to manage an Officers’ Club, which allowed him to combine his culinary management skills and the business management degree he had earned in college — a promising opportunity for a 23-year-old lieutenant.
When he left the service, opportunities found Bill — from working at a restaurant company in New York City to joining a fast food operation in the Carolinas. He later joined the Steak & Ale chain of restaurants, where he spent 10 years in senior management, managing 160 locations. It was during his time at Steak & Ale that Bill was able to cultivate his entrepreneurial spirit, thanks to the culture found at Steak & Ale. “We truly valued community relations and tried to model ourselves as a neighborhood restaurant even though we were a chain,” says Bill. When the company was later acquired, there was a clash of culture — the entrepreneurial company versus the large corporation. Bill’s leadership position as an advocate for the entrepreneur wasn’t consistent with what the corporation wanted, and he was asked to resign.
And yet again, adversity bred incredible opportunity, even though Bill didn’t feel it at the time. “I was scared and fearful,” Bill remembers. “I had never been fired before!” But this event in 1981 gave Bill a chance to start all over again. He and his family moved from Houston to Charlotte, and Bill began working for Godfather’s Pizza. He had always dreamed of owning his own restaurant and, during this time, found the opportunity to share his vision with a friend in Atlanta. Out of this, the first Longhorn Steakhouse was opened in Atlanta’s Buckhead.
“Once we had the restaurant up and running, and it was evident that it was going to be successful, I continued my employment with Godfather’s and became the only franchise operator of Longhorn,” says Bill. He developed Longhorn in North Carolina, and in 1990, he opened the first Longhorn in Columbia. While he is no longer involved in the Longhorn business, it was the catalyst for what will likely become his legacy — Blue Marlin.
Blue Marlin first opened in Charlotte in 1994, and shortly thereafter, the opportunity to develop Columbia’s old Seaboard Airline Railway presented itself. Since opening in 1994, Blue Marlin has become a fixture in Columbia — one of the Vista’s first. While Blue Marlin has been through its share of challenges, including a terrible fire, each trial has made the restaurant, and the Dukes family, stronger.
The success of Blue Marlin is not by happenstance. It’s by dedication and a philosophy based on building and nurturing what has worked, as opposed to looking for the next best thing. “For 20 years, we have focused on what has helped us be successful, and that is a strict adherence to quality standards and ensuring we have the best products available for our customers,” says Bill.
“It all goes to the consistency of product,” says Ryan Dukes, Bill’s son and business partner. “We had a couple come in here on their first date and then again on their 10-year anniversary, and as I stopped by to ask how their dinner was, the woman told me the first bite of food tasted just as delicious as it did 10 years before and brought back all of her wonderful memories from that first date. That’s the highest compliment someone can pay to us.”
While consistency is important, Blue Marlin has recently refreshed its interior, including a new backdrop for the bar, in an effort to enhance the atmosphere and continue to create a comfortable, yet modern ambiance. The broad wine list has also been renewed and caters to both the aficionado with a discriminating palate as well as the casual wine drinker.
But the focus remains on the food and a commitment to always trying to be better. “When you come into Blue Marlin, you can expect a product you have grown to love and enjoy,” says Bill. “It’s what brought us to the party, so why change that?”
Bill’s commitment to Blue Marlin carried over into a dedication to the development of the area now known as the Vista. Bill felt there was great opportunity to build and develop the area and worked tirelessly with members of the community — initially Mayor Kirkman Finlay, who actually coined the term Vista. Bill’s experience serving on the Charlotte Convention Center Authority and participating in feasibility studies afforded him the opportunity to provide guidance during the process.
“When I first met with Mayor Finlay and he talked of his plans for the area, I could truly visualize what he was saying,” says Bill. At the time, the area had a lot of challenges related to parking, lack of lighting and security and safety issues, which is why Bill is such an advocate today for public safety and synergy among businesses in the area. “People often ask me if competitors in the area bother me,” says Bill. “And I tell them, ‘absolutely not!’ We have created such synergy and, together, have so much to offer people. It’s such a dynamic area.”
The commitment to this area also led Bill to play an integral role in the creation of the Convention Center. Bill was able to bring people together who at the time had conflicting views about what they wanted in a Convention Center. “I invited community leaders to Charlotte Motor Speedway for an event,” says Bill. “We had a great time and were able to start talking about what we could accomplish if we all worked together.” One thing led to another, and Bill was asked to chair a task force to determine the feasibility of an arena and convention center. Groups came together, input was shared, agreements were made and the landscape of the Vista was forever changed.
It’s no surprise that a person with such an unselfish conviction and strong commitment to people and community also has a philanthropic side. He has a commitment that recognizes those who have served their country and those who are often unable to serve themselves — a commitment that spans geographic borders.
As the son of a WWII veteran, Bill thought it only appropriate that he and his family hold an upcoming family reunion in Washington, D.C. so that his father could have the opportunity to view the WWII memorial that had been dedicated to him and the millions of other veterans that served in the war. The trip was so memorable that, on his way home, Bill decided to find a way for other veterans to travel to Washington, D.C. to view the monument. Bill had heard of an organization that might be able to help and contacted them for guidance. He shared the idea with friends, and the Honor Flight South Carolina was born.
“The Honor Flight was inspired by my dad,” says Bill. “We have also been able to extend and expand our reach to now include Korean War Veterans. Honor Flight has truly been one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done.” The 20th Honor Flight in South Carolina was held in May 2014.
Another type of flight Bill took also had a lasting impact. That was a flight he took with JoAnn, his wife, to visit Tanzania. By passing the baton to Ryan, JoAnn and Bill have been afforded more opportunities to travel, and in 2012, they decided to join the Lutheran Synod for a special mission trip. Seeing the suffering of men, women and children who lacked water profoundly affected Bill. “We take so many things for granted and one of them is water,” says Bill. “When you flush a toilet, imagine if people in Tanzania had that water. That amount of water would have a significant positive impact on the life expectancy of children in that area.”
Bill’s determination led him once again to reach out to friends, fellow Lutherans and the community to raise money to fund the construction of safe water systems for the villages he and JoAnn visited. JoAnn and Bill have raised more than $150,000, which has funded three systems. Construction began in 2013 for three safe water systems and plans are to begin construction on three additional systems in 2014.
The Dukes family’s philanthropic arms reach far and wide, and they certainly include the Columbia community, as well as the Blue Marlin employees. In 2011, Bill began the Blue Marlin Employee Community Foundation, which enables employees to give back to the community. Employees serve as members of the advisory board and make decisions regarding the use of the funds. The Foundation also dedicates a portion of the funds to support Blue Marlin employees that may need financial support due to catastrophic events.
This philanthropic passion is a testament to the “family feel” found throughout Blue Marlin. Growing up with a focus on family values is just one reason why Ryan is sure he doesn’t ask employees to do anything he hasn’t done himself — from plunging a drain and cleaning a toilet to bussing a table and cooking a meal. “When it’s time to serve, we are always there,” says Ryan. “It enables me to have a presence in our dining room and talk with customers, which is very important to me.”
Today, Blue Marlin remains a thriving restaurant in the center of the Vista. Blue Marlin now offers a private dining room that can seat up to 50 people and can be used for events, meetings, receptions and weddings. The Dukes have also taken the wonderful reputation of Blue Marlin and spun it off into Blue Marlin Signature Catering, which delivers some of Columbia’s best barbecue, oyster roasts and other fine Blue Marlin favorites. “Through our catering business, we can deliver an experience that guarantees quality food delivered by genuine, friendly southern people,” says Ryan.
The Blue Marlin trifecta — the celebrated restaurant where it all began, the private event dining room and Blue Marlin Signature Catering — are proof that overcoming adversity can lead to unimaginable opportunity. While challenges may have touched Bill’s life early, it was indeed a blessing in disguise. “It’s possible to overcome anything. That I can guarantee if you have the right attitude,” says Bill. “It might be the toughest time you have ever been through, but when all is said and done and you find that new opportunity, I bet you will turn around and say, ‘Wow, that’s the best thing that ever happened to me!’” That, and of course, the shrimp and grits …