When Kristi and Eric Kinlaw opened up The Bee’s Knees on 10th Street in downtown Augusta about 15 years ago, it wasn’t just luck.
The Kinlaws put a lot of time and effort into working jobs throughout downtown Augusta to learn the ins and outs of the food and beverage industry.
Just this month, the Kinlaws happily announced that they officially own the building on 10th Street that houses both of their restaurants.
While it is a huge milestone for the husband-and-wife team, the opportunity didn’t just fall in their laps.
They had to work for it.
“We are definitely not opportunists,” Eric Kinlaw said, laughing. “I moved here in 1989, back when I was 15. And I started working at the Boll Weevil from about 1993 to 1998.”
Back then, there were only a handful of downtown restaurants that had jobs for young people willing to work hard.
When Coco and Jayson Rubio decided to take a chance and open The Soul Bar in a vacant storefront on Broad Street back in 1995, Eric Kinlaw was there to help.
“I started working at the Soul Bar in 1995 as a bartender when they opened,” Eric Kinlaw recalled. “I was there seven years. I also worked at Blue Sky Kitchen in 1998 right when Barry (Blackston) opened it.”
Around that same time, Kristi Kinlaw moved to Augusta when she was 19 years old.
“My first job downtown was at Luigi’s back in 1999,” she said. “I also worked at Blue Sky Kitchen right when Barry opened it, and then I worked at Soul Bar. That’s when Eric and I first met. He actually got me a job at Blue Sky and a job at Soul Bar.”
During the late 1990s, Eric Kinlaw briefly stepped outside the food and beverage industry to start a vintage clothing store in the former D Timm’s building on Sixth Street in downtown Augusta. Ironically, it was called The Bee’s Knees vintage clothing store.
“That was in 1999, but I closed that store and met Kristi almost immediately in 2000,” Eric Kinlaw said.
“At the time, we were both bartending at Soul Bar and our original concept was, we wanted to open up a restaurant that had a really great bar and just served really good food late at night,” Kristi Kinlaw said. “We were thinking along the lines of what we always wanted, which was a place to go after work that wasn’t Waffle House or Krystal.”
When the Kinlaws traveled to nearby Athens, they enjoyed eating at a restaurant called the Speakeasy on West Broad Street.
“The Speakeasy had tapas, and we thought that was a really cool menu,” Kristi Kinlaw said.
Eric Kinlaw had seen similar, successful tapas restaurants while traveling around the West Coast in cities such as San Francisco and Seattle.
“We just wanted a cool place for the community. Something that wasn’t here that we always wanted for downtown Augusta. But we were young,” Eric Kinlaw said, laughing. “It was a lot of work. A lot of work.”
Even though the two had spent several years bartending and waiting tables, Kristi Kinlaw admits owning a business brought on several new challenges.
“Sure, we worked in restaurants, but I don’t think we knew what we were getting into at all,” she said. “I was literally 23 years old when we opened up Bee’s.”
The two quickly learned it is not all fun and games when you are responsible for every aspect of a restaurant.
“It seems glamorous, but you have to be a plumber and an electrician and a carpenter and a jack-of-all trades,” Kristi Kinlaw said. “If you are not all of those things, you’ll probably go out of business because you’ll have to pay people to do those things.”
As owners, you also have to be willing to work with a lot of different personalities over the years, Kristi Kinlaw said.
“You can’t be selfish because you are providing livelihoods for so many people,” she said. “You have to look at yourself alongside everyone because that is really what a true mom-and-pop restaurant is all about. It’s not a bunch of people working for us. It’s all of us working together. I would love to come down here and just be a chef, but there’s so much more to it.”
You have to be everything from a psychologist to a bookkeeper to a plumber all in one day, Eric Kinlaw said.
“I’ve seen so many people come down here and say, ‘I can cook. I can have a 12-person dinner party at my house. I am going to open a restaurant,’” he said. “But that is not the reality of it at all. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work, and the profits aren’t high.”
In fact, the Kinlaws said they borrowed a little more than $30,000 to open The Bee’s Knees in 2002, and it took them several years to pay off that loan.
“To be honest, we opened Bee’s for nothing, and it took us years to pay it off,” Eric Kinlaw said.
It is unheard of these days to spend only $30,000 to start a business in downtown Augusta, Kristi Kinlaw said.
“You could never do that now,” she said, chuckling. “But, back then, we did everything. We assembled and stained our chairs ourselves. In fact, they are the same ones we have today. We pressure washed our brick wall. You have to be willing to do it yourself, and we did it all.”
By owning a restaurant, you truly learn the meaning of commitment, Eric Kinlaw said.
“Do it because you love it,” he said. “You have to have a passion for it. You can’t do it for anything else. It doesn’t work if you do it for the fun of it because it’s not always fun.”
One of the keys to their success is having a core group of employees who have been with them for several years and understand their passion for local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients, as well as their commitment to recycling all glass, metal, cardboard and paper in both of their restaurants.
“You have to be a bee,” Kristi Kinlaw said. “In being a bee, that means you get it. You understand what we are doing. You get the concept. You are proud of it. You are proud of the quality you are serving. You understand the importance of recycling, and you understand the reasons why we want sustainable and regional ingredients. You have to just get it. That’s being a bee. And not everybody is going to be a bee. But the ones that get it, stick around for a long time.”
The Kinlaws also were never afraid to try new concepts in their restaurants.
In fact, when The Bee’s Knees first opened in 2002, the local media had to explain to residents the idea behind a tapas restaurant.
“Bee’s Knees is a tapas bar, which means that the menu is comprised of small dishes (appetizer size) that are meant to be shared,” The Augusta Chronicle wrote in 2002. “The bartenders are the servers. You come in, order a little food, a bottle of wine and just share everything. Many of the 16 dishes are vegetarian (with some being vegan), and the only meat served is seafood.”
Local Augustans weren’t used to a mainly vegetarian menu, especially one that offered vegan dishes.
“I remember we were also the first place to have Wi-Fi downtown,” Eric Kinlaw said, laughing. “People were amazed because we offered it for free.”
But the Kinlaws liked experimenting with new technology.
For instance, not long after the first iPods hit the market in the early 2000s, the <<IT>>Metro Spirit<<IT>> interviewed Eric Kinlaw about using his iPod to play music inside The Bee’s Knees.
“When we pulled that iPod out, people were in disbelief,” Kristi Kinlaw said, adding that many people didn’t even know what it was back then. “When we worked at Soul Bar, there were racks and racks of CDs everywhere. We would hurry to put on the next CD while we were trying to work the bar. So people didn’t know what to think about an iPod.”
About five years after opening The Bee’s Knees, Eric Kinlaw also had the opportunity to become part-owner of Sky City with Soul Bar’s owners, Coco and Jayson Rubio.
So, in June 2008, the three teamed up to purchase the 500-person capacity, live music venue at 1157 Broad St.
Since opening almost 10 years ago, Sky City has showcased hundreds of local bands and attracted some big-time national acts including Drive-By Truckers, Jucifer, Fishbone, Dinosaur Jr., Cage the Elephant, Black Lips and Carolina Chocolate Drops.
“Over at Sky City, Coco handles the creative end, Jayson does the bar and I do the business,” Eric Kinlaw said. “I basically make sure the lights stay on, the bills are paid and I try to fix things. I can’t believe it’s going on 10 years at Sky City now.”
Then, in 2015, the Kinlaws introduced downtown Augusta to their newest restaurant and pub, Hive Growler Bar.
The Hive surprised locals by offering growlers-to-go, a concept that was still fairly new to the area a few years ago. Basically, The Hive introduced residents to unique 32- and 64-ounce jugs of beer and wine that patrons could take home.
It was definitely not your typical downtown pub.
The main concept was the Kinlaws wanted all of the more than 70 beverages to be offered on tap, including beer, wine, craft sodas, kombucha, cold-press coffee and cocktails.
The Hive is truly a “tap house.”
And its menu features everything from crawfish boudin balls to tuna poke salad to smoked gouda nacho burgers.
“I have always loved to cook since I was little,” Kristi Kinlaw explained. “I am from southern Louisiana, where cooking and eating is everything. It’s the whole culture down there.”
Growing up, her family cherished food and respected the art of making traditional dishes, she said.
“I remember sitting on my aunt’s kitchen counter — she was an amazing cook — and just mashing up potato salad and watching her in the kitchen,” she said. “And my grandma cooked every day. We never really ate out at restaurants growing up.”
Instead, almost every meal was a family event, Kristi Kinlaw said.
“My grandma would cook a big meal in the morning, and everybody would come in throughout the whole day to enjoy it,” she said. “So, any time of the day, she would have food on the stove and you would make a plate. It is just something I grew up with and I was just kind of good at. Using different flavors and seasonings and the timing of making dishes so they would all be ready at the same time, that came really natural to me.”
Now that the Kinlaws have three children of their own — a daughter who just started at Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School and twin boys who are 4 years old — the couple is excited about the future of not only their restaurants, but downtown Augusta as a whole.
“A lot has changed since we opened Bee’s Knees in 2002,” Kristi Kinlaw said. “Bee’s grew up with us. It became more mature with us as we matured. It went from this late-night bar, because that’s what we did when we were in our 20s, to kind of a family restaurant because these days, we have a family.”
And now that they own the building that houses both restaurants on 10th Street, the sky is the limit, Kristi Kinlaw said.
“It’s exciting, and it was kind of a surprise,” she said, adding that the previous owner, Bryan Haltermann, didn’t seem interested in selling the building for many years. “But during the first part of the year, we began discussing it, and it was perfect timing because we couldn’t have afforded to buy it 15 years ago. So the opportunity came at the right time.”
The historic building was built in 1888 as Claussen’s Bakery. By the 1930s, it became Maxwell’s Furniture Store and eventually Bush’s Florist in the 1950s until it closed in 1999.
“We always loved the location and facade of this building,” Eric Kinlaw said. “It has the large windows and unique sideline layout as opposed to other downtown shotgun-style architecture.”
“We definitely want to do some improvements to the building. First of all, we want to replace the roof,” Kristi Kinlaw said. “And we are trying to think of an interesting awning that we could do on The Hive side.”
They have also gotten local artist Chris Murray to create a new sign for The Bee’s Knees.
“It is really a cool design. We just have to figure out how to get it up there,” Kristi Kinlaw said, adding that The Bee’s Knees’ current sign is the original Bush’s Florist sign from the 1950s. “Local artist Raoul Pacheco actually painted the sign for us when we opened up Bee’s in 2002. It’s been great, but we need to replace it, so we had Chris Murray make a new sign that is the same shape.”
Now that the Kinlaws own the building, they are also looking to eventually, possibly turn the upstairs apartment above The Bee’s Knees into a catering space or rooftop deck.
“The sky is kind of the limit in terms of what we can do,” Kristi Kinlaw said. “But we are not in a rush. I’m sure it will take a little while. But, now it is worth us doing because we will be improving our own building. We’ve always had the ideas, but now we own it. That makes all the difference.”