When good friends and Augusta natives Barry Blackston and Matt Flynn opened the doors to Nacho Mama’s on Broad Street exactly 20 years ago, no one knew what to expect.
For months prior to its January 1996 opening, all eyes had been on the activity inside the 976 Broad Street location.
People working in downtown Augusta were anxious for a new option during their lunch hour.
“By the time we actually opened the doors, people knew all about us because there weren’t many places to eat downtown,” Flynn said. “Back then, there were slim pickings.”
At the time, the lunch crowd in downtown Augusta had only a handful of options, such as Sunshine Bakery, Joe’s Underground and Hildebrandt’s.
“Something new was a big to-do in this little town back then,” Blackston said, chuckling. “So, when we opened up that first day, there was a line out the door.”
Blackston and Flynn had worked tirelessly for months to get the restaurant ready for its grand opening, but they were completely unprepared for the enormous crowd that arrived the first day.
“It was nuts. It was absolutely nuts,” Flynn said, laughing. “We had no idea what we were getting into. We ripped through the food that we had prepared almost immediately and just started running out of everything. I mean, everything. We were completely clueless as to how much we needed, like how much chicken we needed or how much rice. It was chaotic to say the least.”
The two friends became so overwhelmed by the number of customers standing in line waiting to try downtown’s newest restaurant that Blackston joked that they got desperate.
“We turned the stereo up loud enough to run people out the door,” Blackston said, laughing and shaking his head. “But people were still coming.”
The first few months after Nacho Mama’s opened in 1996 were some of the longest days of his life, Blackston said.
“We worked day and night,” Blackston said. “Matt and I cooked day and night when we opened. We didn’t have any employees, so we worked our butts off until we finally got a little bit of staff.”
And money was extremely tight, he said.
“Prior to opening Nacho Mama’s, I had two jobs and then I eventually quit my day job, but kept working at Calvert’s,” Blackston said, referring to Calvert’s Restaurant in Surrey Center that has been an Augusta tradition for almost 40 years. “Then, I quit working at Calvert’s about two months before we opened here. So I actually sold personal possessions to buy Christmas presents for my family and my girlfriend that year because I had no money.”
The two friends had no money, but they had tons of free beer, Blackston said.
“We had stocked the place with beer because we kept thinking we could open in 1995 but then we would have to push it back,” he said. “So we had kegs of beer on tap for two months before we even opened, so we had plenty of free beer that Christmas.”
Flynn recalled also working two jobs prior to Nacho Mama’s opening and yet both friends still stayed up in the wee hours of the morning to work on their new restaurant.
“We would work all day, go home and shower, then go back to work and then come here,” Flynn said. “It was a crazy schedule.”
About three months after the restaurant’s grand opening, Blackston said some long-time college friends from the University of Georgia quickly realized he needed a stress reliever.
“We were working and, all of a sudden my friend Bruce came into the restaurant wearing a dress made out of neckties with a banjo,” Blackston said. “So he climbs up on this little stage that we used to have and announces himself as ‘Banjo Bitch’ and he starts playing this banjo and people are looking at him like, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
Blackston remembered walking around to the front of restaurant in complete disbelief.
“So I’m just laughing watching him and I didn’t realize that two other friends were dressed in Secret Service outfits with walkie talkies and they are communicating with each other,” Blackston said. “The next thing I know, another friend in a gorilla suit comes through the front door and hits me in the face with a pie.”
It was an extremely elaborate and hilarious prank that Blackston said he desperately needed.
“That was probably the happiest I had been in five months because we were just working our asses off,” Blackston said. “It was hilarious. So, right next to the menu on the wall when you walk into the restaurant, I keep a picture of my friend and his necktie dress playing the banjo. It’s a good reminder of that day.”
Both Blackston and Flynn say it is hard to believe that Nacho Mama’s has been serving up its enormous burritos, delicious quesadillas and tasty tacos for two decades.
“Twenty years for any restaurant is a pretty long time,” Flynn said.
“We’re an institution,” Blackston jokingly said.
“People support us. Our customers are very loyal,” Blackston said. “We have people who come every week, some of them come twice a week, and they have been coming in here for decades.”
Blackston, who is now the sole owner of Nacho Mama’s after buying out Flynn several years ago, is extremely proud of the restaurant’s legacy in downtown Augusta.
“People have always been super kind to us because, when we first opened, we weren’t that good,” Blackston said, laughing. “The food has definitely evolved in terms of quality and consistency over the years, but people still supported us because we’re local. We know a lot of people and our friends and family definitely supported us in the early days.”
However, many people were skeptical as to whether a restaurant like Nacho Mama’s could survive downtown, Blackston said.
“My dad thought I was nuts,” he said, chuckling. “That is still a running joke in our family. He’s a bit of pessimist anyway, but he thought I was crazy.”
He wasn’t alone, Flynn said.
“Generally speaking, a lot of the people we were talking to for advice were also telling us not to do it,” Flynn said.
But the two friends saw a future and great possibilities in downtown Augusta.
“Obviously, The Soul Bar had already opened a few months before us in 1995,” Flynn said. “And we were friends with those guys way before anybody got into this business. But we were definitely among some of the first to take a chance on downtown back in those days. It was exciting, but who knew what was going to happen?”
Following the success of Nacho Mama’s, Blackston and Flynn opened Stillwater Taproom, a great local bar showcasing a unique blend of bluegrass and Americana music, right next door at 974 Broad Street in 2003.
“Of course, when we told people we were opening a bluegrass bar people thought we were nuts, too,” Blackston said, laughing. “So you never know.”
The partners also previously owned Blue Sky Kitchen featuring eclectic Cuban, Asian and American-style food which opened in 2000, but Blackston sold that restaurant a few years ago to spend more time with his wife and two young boys.
Developing businesses in downtown Augusta has definitely been a journey, but a very rewarding one, Blackston said.
“Downtown is extremely healthy,” he said. “Every year we do more business than the previous year. And, 20 years in, that says something about the health of the restaurant, in terms of business. Downtown is doing great. Anybody who tries to speak poorly of downtown has a grudge or they don’t come downtown. Every restaurant down here that is worth its salt is slammed on the weekends and is doing a good business during the week.”
In fact, less than a year after Nacho Mama’s opened its doors, another popular downtown restaurant was born.
In December 1996, former Augusta State University student Michael Schepis and his then-business partner, Roscoe Williams, opened The Pizza Joint.
The Broad Street restaurant quickly became a popular hangout for Augustans of all ages and a downtown favorite that offered delicious pizza by the slice.
“Downtown Augusta has a long history. It is the backbone of the city,” Schepis said. “But downtown has gone through its ups and downs. Obviously, with the advent of the mall in the late 1970s, that is when it cleared out the downtown district. But I’ve always been attracted to the historic value of a downtown. So, we just tried to open up a little pizzeria to have a place where people could come, eat and enjoy themselves.”
While Roscoe Williams parted from the business very early on, Schepis stuck with the downtown restaurant, determined to make it a success.
He believes The Pizza Joint definitely benefitted from having both The Soul Bar and Nacho Mama’s open up first on Broad Street.
“I think Coco was smart and forward thinking in going downtown and he had a good vision,” Schepis said, referring to Coco Rubio, who opened The Soul Bar in October 1995 with his brother, Jayson. “And so did the guys at Nacho Mama’s. They were all friends and they had a good sense of what the city needed. They were tied into the community really well. I definitely give them credit for reigniting an interest in downtown. They were on the tip of helping bring downtown back around.”
All of sudden, people throughout Augusta were talking about downtown once again, Schepis said.
“Opening around the same time they did, it created a lot of buzz,” he said. “They did a lot of work and we were sort of lucky enough to decide to do something around the same time.”
In fact, Schepis said he would often frequent both Nacho Mama’s and The Soul Bar when he lived on Broad Street for about a decade.
“I enjoyed going to their establishments. So it was nice to open up a place while they were already open,” he said. “I lived on Broad Street for almost 10 years. I walked everywhere. That was my backyard. Everybody said hello and spoke to you. They asked how you were doing. It’s a family vibe down there.”
When it comes to The Pizza Joint’s 20-year legacy, Schepis is extremely humble and gives most of the credit to his long-time staff and his loyal customers.
“We didn’t bring anything to downtown,” Schepis said. “Downtown had everything that made us want to come down there. Downtown provided everything and more that a young businessperson would want: available parking, affordable rent, historic properties, scenic sidewalks, a beautiful river, accessibility to government buildings and professionals that work down there who had remained during the city’s ups and downs.”
Augusta has been extremely kind to The Pizza Joint, Schepis said.
“I give credit to Augusta and its beautiful downtown that made us successful,” he said. “The least we can do is pump out good food, like our scratch-made East Coast-style pizza, for everyone to enjoy.”
The fact that some of Schepis’ employees have been with him since almost the beginning, such as his district manager Diane McCall, also means the world to him and the restaurant.
“Diane has been with me 18 years. She was 18 when she started,” Schepis said. “She has been a huge part of our success. We have a lot of long-term employees, so it is just about creating sort of a family. Sure, we make pizza, we pour beer, but we have evolved as the years have gone by. And pizzerias are meant to be fun. I sincerely believe, happy employees equal happy guests.”
While The Pizza Joint now has locations in Evans, Aiken and even Columbia, S.C., Schepis said nothing will ever replace the Broad Street location.
“Downtown is the original. It has its own unique feel,” Schepis said. “A lot of people who were in their teens going to the downtown location, they met their girlfriend or boyfriend over the years at The Pizza Joint. Now, they are married with five or six kids. It amazing that Pizza Joint played an integral part in all of that. So that’s really cool, but we don’t take anything for granted. Just because you opened up in downtown 20 years ago, you have to keep working hard to provide a good product.”
A few years ago, Schepis teamed up with Chef David Alcaraz to open Oliviana Bar Italiano & Pizzeria in Surrey Center which features rustic, Italian-inspired food in an “elevated, yet casual” atmosphere.
Sitting at a table in the beautiful dining area in Oliviana, Schepis said it is hard to believe its been almost 20 years since he first decided to take a chance on bringing The Pizza Joint to Broad Street.
“I dropped out of college to open up a pizza joint. That was my goal,” he said. “I felt ambitious. I wanted to provide a place that could grow. I like working with people and building a team and trying to create a team that could help grow restaurants. The Pizza Joint, it’s not about me. It’s about our great team.”
It’s also about being a part of downtown Augusta’s history, he said.
“You feel obligated to continue to raise the bar,” Schepis said. “After 20 years, we are not in our 20s anymore. We are all middle aged now and we are hiring friends’ kids to work with us. That history makes us work harder to be even better.”
Looking back over the years, Blackston said the concept behind Nacho Mama’s was simple, but building a successful restaurant literally took blood, sweat and tears.
“The concept came up because I like burritos,” Blackston said, chuckling. “I went to school in Athens and we were poor, so the taco stand was a luxury. But Augusta just didn’t have anything like that. Every other college town had a burrito or a Tex-Mex kind of place, but Augusta didn’t, so we saw an opportunity here.”
Blackston and Flynn also recalled an amazing trip that they took to Copan, Honduras, in 1994.
“We had a giant burrito down there that was life changing,” Blackston said, smiling. “We didn’t have anything like that around here.”
So the two friends began a journey that resulted in a very successful downtown restaurant that has grown each and every year with an extremely dedicated staff.
“I can’t say enough about Shannon Piazza Carpenter and Shaun Piazza,” Blackston said, referring to two of his long-time employees. “They are my right and left hands. Shannon has been there 16 years and Shaun has been there like 14 years. I honestly couldn’t do it without them. I do everything I can for them.”
While Blackston has considered opening up another Nacho Mama’s location in the future, he said that possibility is still “down the road.”
“My kids are still kind of young,” Blackston said, adding his boys are 4 and almost 7 years old. “I may do another one someplace else, but I need to get my kids well into school. Because once I open another place, I won’t have time to hang out with them like I do now and I really like spending time with them.”
But the two young boys already have a great fondness for their father’s restaurant.
“It is funny because when I work, I usually eat here, so my wife always gives me hell that she never gets to come down here because I don’t want to come back and eat when I’m not working,” Blackston said, chuckling. “So she will bring the kids down some days when I’m working and we’ll have lunch and they will have ball. They absolutely love it.”
In fact, all of Blackston’s family appreciates the hard work and great effort it took to make Nacho Mama’s successful.
“My parents come down and still eat here every two weeks and they have for 20 years,” Blackston said, adding that even his dad eventually admitted he was wrong about taking a risk on a downtown restaurant. “He stopped doubting my intuition several years ago after seeing how it has grown.”
As the years go by, Blackston said he and his family have seen the impact that Nacho Mama’s has had on, not only local Augustans, but people all over the region.
“Last year, I was in a restaurant in Beaufort and I was talking to the owner and I just happened to say the name of my restaurant,” Blackston said. “Suddenly, the guy next to me just chimed in and said, ‘I love that place! I travel to Augusta every year and I always go there!’”
Only a few months later, a similar situation happened while on vacation in North Carolina, Blackston said.
“We were in the Catawba Science Center in Hickory, N.C., and my wife had on a Nacho Mama’s T-shirt,” Blackston said. “Well, a guy came up from a tour group and started to talk to her about how he loves that restaurant and every time he comes to Augusta, he eats there.”
On two separate trips just last year, Blackston said he was floored that complete strangers from outside the Augusta area raved about the great food and fun atmosphere at Nacho Mama’s.
“Both people told us the name of their favorite item on the menu when they come in and eat, so I knew they were telling the truth. They weren’t lying,” Blackston said, laughing. “It is just one of those things that kind of makes me happy inside. It’s a really good feeling.”