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The War Mouth

Columbia, South Carolina

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WARMOUTH.jpg
Interview with The War MouthMeena Khalili
00:00 / 20:04

Interview recorded:
October 12, 2021

Porter Barron + Rhett Elliot
Co-Owners


Cheff Rhett Elliot passed away in December 2022. Thank you to Cheff Rhett for all of the ways he made us smile.

People were coming out, putting themselves at risk, just to help us out.

 

Porter

A bit of a caveat as far as this interview goes, is so much of this has just been a blur for me. I will probably have a hard time giving you detailed descriptions of what we went through. It's all just been by the seat of the pants.

Rhett

My business and personal timeline over the past two years is not existing. I couldn't tell you.

Porter

It's just, yeah, it's all pushing forward, not looking back. My name is Porter, Barron Jr., co-owner of the War Mouth.

Rhett

And I'm Rhett Elliott, co-owner of War Mouth.

Meena

Have you always been interested in owning your own business? Have you always been interested in the things that you are doing right now here at the War Mouth?

Porter

Certainly not for me, my original background, my original path was print journalism. So yeah, I was in that career because, you know, newspapers in the US at the time were laying off and not hiring and I found myself in Southeast Asia, which was the one place on the planet where newspapers were growing and hiring. And so, I wound up in Phnom Penh working for the Cambodia Daily, which published in English and Khmer. And Rhett and I have been buddies since 8th grade. Since before we had a drivers license. And so, you know, I took this path into journalism and Rhett started cooking at a young age. He's from down the road in Camden, it's here in Columbia. Our lives went in different directions, but we always stayed in touch over the years. Especially when I wound up in Cambodia, I was started getting, I guess, homesick kind of reconnected then with just I would call him—back then Skype had just come out and so I could call him and he could tell me how to make, yeah, BBQ sauce and..

Rhett

Those were some of my first emails.

​We've been accused of starting a clubhouse.

Porter

Yeah, with he’s sending me emails to Cambodia. So that I could start cooking BBQ over there and just for fun. And it became a very popular thing over there and morphed into an annual Christmas BBQ—all of my Cambodian colleagues loved South Carolina BBQ too.

Rhett

But it’d be things like I can't found brown sugar, palm sugar. Let's see. Why not? Or I can't find apple cider vinegar, I'm going to have to use this rice vinegar.

Palmer

Of course, no hardwood to smoke over, so found out that more people smoke their fish over coconut husk. So, we smoked over coconut husk, and that was kind of how it he and I got on this food path together, where I started on this trip. My interest took off in it and that's how you and I just started talking about food and restaurants and I got more interested in what his life is like as a, as a chef and. So probably I'd say I came back to the US and like permanently in 2009, 2010.

Meena

Rhett, how about yourself?

Rhett

Well, I grew up in Camden and my dad had a BBQ catering company. First party I worked for was when I was in the 7th grade for the touring crew of Prince as they were coming through Charlotte. Got a backstage pass out of the deal! But yeah, so that's all I've ever done, I've. I’m like Porter, I've managed to live a full life with one skill. Which is cooking. This is all I've ever done so, it's no brainer for me, but I always dreamt of you know having our own spot where we could put up all the things we want on the walls and have the menus be exactly what we want that day.

Porter

We've been accused of starting a clubhouse.

Rhett

Multiple times!

[Laughter]

But yeah, you know, growing up, you know, as a line cook or, whatever management positions you have, you always kind of look down the line in the middle of a service, and think there’s a bunch of talented guys in here like. I wonder if I'm going to be the one if it's going to be that guy or that guy that gets to build my own ridiculous clubhouse and we were very fortunate that we were able to buy all the Alfred Newman, and you know.

 

You couldn't plan for anything more than a week or two out.

 

Porter

Yeah, that's true.

Meena

Y'all have these separate sorts of eventful lives and what was the thing that clicked to bring you together to The War Mouth to build this “clubhouse?”

Porter

We were both closing in on 40.

Rhett

We've been talking about it for too long.

Porter

We talked too much about it and it's like we need to either shut up or figure it out.

Meena

When did The War Mouth open?

Porter

We opened a couple days before Christmas in 2015 that was not on purpose, but as the fates would have it and [Rhett] moved in with me and Shannon in the beginning of 2015.

Rhett

That was the big news. Like, alright, so we put our notices in, right? We’re putting our notices in!

Meena

Who are the people that The War Mouth serves?

Porter

We always imagine ourselves serving what were the traditionally underserved Uptown neighborhoods. Anything north of Elmwood you know, it's really been kind of a blighted commercial corridor of Main for years and years, and it's slowly improving.

Sometimes we're very flattered when people pull off the Interstate. We're right off on 520 and I-26 here. And sometimes folks from out of town on their way to Charleston or somewhere in Florida or somewhere, and will stop through and say they read about us and that's always wonderful. Makes us feel good about ourselves, but folks who love food. Folks who love fellowship. Folks who love to relax and without pretense.

Rhett

And like I moved here to open this place up and I would say 90% of the people that I know in the city I met in the dining room here.

​Do good work and get satisfaction from that work.

Porter

I like to think it's a pretty good mix. That's what we love about it. I'm very proud of that. That a lot of different folks feel welcome here and you know it took a while for folks to feel comfortable when you know you got two bearded white dudes ofa certain age, you know. Might not seem like the most—I don't know what we seem like, but I'm glad folks have found us.

Rhett

And it’s like you said. Every night, here's a little bit different, so makes it exciting for us. Like when we walk in the door and just kind of look around, you never know what kind of night is going to be or who's going to show up or if it's going to be a couple of big tables full of people celebrating birthdays. Or is it going to be a bunch of first dates and two tops? Or if there's a baseball game down the road and everybody's in lightning bug uniforms or whatever.

Meena

Tell me a little bit about the people that work here, like how many people do you have working for you or working with you?

Porter

Right now we've got 20 or 21 on the payroll.

Rhett

Yeah, right at 20.

Porter

Yeah, we've had a skeleton crew during the pandemic and we've only recently been able to get staff back up, which has been a real relief. And very grateful that we seem to have a pretty good crew in place now. But you know, I'm also very proud that we've got some guys who've been with us since the very beginning. You know, there's a lot of, as you know, it's kind of turnover in our industry.

Rhett

Especially in the last year, two years.

Porter

I'm very proud of the fact that we’ve provided a pleasant enough workspace that people just want to continue to work here because as you know, restaurant jobs are tough, especially these days. And so that's very important to us we’re just trying to create a comfortable environment where you can do good work and get satisfaction from that work.

​Our entire thing is trying to make people happy.

Rhett

Yeah, I mean when you're coming up you should be looking at almost equally, picking out the things you want to you want to keep hold of when you do your own place, but also the things you’re like, “I'm not. We're not doing that.” Whatever it is that you found so unpleasant.

Meena

You go back to March 2020 and schools are starting to shut down. Hospitals are starting to get overwhelmed. Everybody's starting to get overwhelmed, what were your initial thoughts as a service industry restaurant owner.

Rhett

Is this the end of the dream?

Porter

Yeah, yeah. Are we done? You know, we didn't know. Yeah, I just. We just didn't know what was going to happen. It was like the rug, the rug was yanked out from under us, and then, you know, you'd think something was going to happen very quickly. It was so interesting. The way things kept changing every week or two, what we were being told, how it was going to play out. I mean, it just became clear before too long that you couldn't plan for anything more than a week or two out. Fortunately, the PPP came through. We wouldn't be here without it.

Rhett

And we certainly understood people being nervous about coming in. I mean the first couple of months of us just doing takeout and our concept was changing like once a week. We were like, “Casseroles! Does anyone want casseroles?”

Porter

No, we didn't close down! And then I started driving delivery later on. And we were able to get more people to come in and pick up and then we had very limited seating with outdoor seating of course. We put in that [gestures to large building fan built into the side of the restaurant] that came out of the consultations with our friend, Tiffany James, was with a group, a national network, and she set up some Zoom meetings with some very thoughtful virologists who just helped us talk about you know, what does your dining room look like, what does air flow look like? And so we went ahead and we added this in there before the CDC was telling people it's about air flow, air quality.

Meena

This large fan this like an industrial.

Porter

Yeah, this is a 36-inch industrial box fan to put in a warehouse or attic. You know it's certainly not a silver bullet. All we can do is mitigate risk, but.

You couldn't plan for anything more than a week or two out.

Rhett

Even during that that that whole time period, I'd listen to all these guys and I wouldn't fully understand what they were even talking about. But it was just anything that we can do that felt like we're moving forward. Leaning into it.

Porter

And after a while, it felt like we're throwing so much at the wall that it was just, like, exhausting. And none of like....We were like OK we’ve got to quit pivoting.

Rhett

Fried chicken nights.

Pasta night.

Porter

And then the PPP came through and that was a relief. Is that just, you know, we're going to be able to keep the payroll on. And you know that's all they wanted us to spend it on was payroll. Well, that's all  we want to spend it on, too!

Meena

Right. So about six months in you're getting the PPP.

Porter

We got that first round of PPP. We eventually get a second round. Yeah, we got that first round, you know, like, great. And then they're talking about other stuffs coming from restaurants that relief that never came. And then it just took forever for another round two to come. After that first round, then depleted. You know, we started getting nervous again.

Meena

So let me bring it back to December of 2020. Y'all put up a post [on instagram] that was it was, “Please read...”

Porter

We were, yeah, we needed help. Were waiting for that second PPP to come through and the wolves were at the door. We had back rent and due we had taxes due. I was on a payment plan for the taxes that we were struggling to keep up with and that was the craziest week. I don't regret having done it, but I don't think I would ever ask for help publicly again because we couldn't handle the help that was offered. I was drinking from a fire hose, and we were very touched by it and I’d say it kept our asses out of the fire but. But it got the job done. It kept the wolves at bay.

​It was hard. You didn't see smiles out there.

Rhett

So it went from the empty dining room one week to the next night there was a line going to Main Street, you know. It was it was touching too because it was still scary.

Porter

Touching and inspiring.

Rhett

It was people coming out that weren't coming out because they were afraid to be in public. So they're, you know, putting themselves at risk just to help us out and going against what their natural instinct was: to not go out. So that's why the dining room was empty the night before. So, and then a lot to me that. You know, they're like, alright, we'll put on a mask and try not to catch COVID, these guys need help.

Porter

Yeah, that was special.

Meena

March 2021, people started getting shots in arms. People started coming out a little bit more. How did you see that impact of the vaccine affect your business?

Porter

It was good. It was a time of great hope.

[Laughter]

Rhett

Well, the main thing from a hospitality standpoint is, you know, our entire being is trying to make people happy, trying to welcome them into this building and put smiles on their faces. And that's one of the things I love is looking out the window and seeing people having a good time and that's you know why we're all here. During that time when people you know, you didn't see smiles out here. They looked like—You know those old black and white photos of when people got their first picture taken? They were like “Uhhh...I don't know if I should be doing this!” So it was hard to like be back there working and be like, “I think this tastes delicious let’s see what they think,” and you look out there, and they're just like doing the shifty eye around the room.

Porter

You're talking about that period right after we started getting shots?

Rhett

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Porter

People were a little hesitant and nervous to come back into a restaurant.

Rhett

Yeah. They were like, “We're putting our foot in the water, but we're not so sure about this pool...”

​How can we turn a best case scenario out of a worst case scenario?

Meena

Are any of those things that you did—like casserole night—Any of those Cirque du Soleil moves that you had to sort of perform things that you can see yourselves adopting? Were you happy that you were able to do some of those things or are you like never again?

Rhett

We're a lot more lenient towards to-go orders now, but you know before I’d be like you just can't do fried fish to go. Now I say yes to everything because I'm just more grateful that anyone's giving us a shot, you know? And we repeat this over and over and over, but we're yes, restaurant. If you want it. We have it. It’s yours. There's no like judgment. But no, the casseroles and all that stuff, none of them really made it because none of them ended up being great ideas. That's why we kept changing. I live single so, I just scrounge whatever I eat. But I'd be like, what do families want? I'll do it. Broccoli cheese casserole? Like little fried chicken? I don't know.

Meena

What was the hardest decision that you all had to make? And conversely, what was the easiest decision that you all had to make?

Porter

Hardest thing I remember doing—And it wasn't a decision, though, I mean, there wasn't a choice—It  was telling people, they were going to have to get on unemployment. As employers, we do what we could, but we were just, I was so sure. I was so arrogant and so sure I was going to figure out a way around this. You know, just kind of having to accept that was heartbreaking.

Rhett

You know, and for me, I love this place so much. It was like if the bottom falls out and we can't figure anything else out, maybe we can just still afford to rent and sell hot dogs. There could just be one person back there. Just having to every day wake up and think about it. How could we turn a best case scenario out of a worst case scenario? Or does it all just go away? And then...Lord knows what?

Porter

We tried. We spun our wheels. We exhausted ourselves. At the end of the day we knew we just had to do what we do best, and we just need to be able to do that or else we would come up with something else altogether. Fortunately, we've managed to stay alive. Fortunately, people have come back and let us do what we do best.

Meena

So what was the easiest decision that you think you made?

Rhett

Waking up every, every day and coming in to work. That was second nature, you know?

Porter

Driving delivery just here and there. You hear about all these stupid businesses that take such a large cut and you know, and it's not like we had a ton of delivery. I was, you know, I think my record was 4 deliveries in a night.

Anything we could do to feel like we were moving forward.

Rhett

Yeah, we definitely had a couple of families that ordered it once or twice a week, you know.

Porter

I really enjoyed sprucing up the patio back there! That was nice.

Meena

One more question, because I am overtime already. Are you hopeful for the future? Of The War Mouth and what's next?

Porter

I'm very hopeful. As for what's next, we just want to stabilize, take care of this good team we've got and be here for many years to come.

Rhett

Yeah, try to make The War Mouth more War Mouth. That’s what I always think about with the food: How do you make the food, how do you trim the fat, how do you make it more concisely what we do? Yeah, that's what our focus is on. And just keep decorating the clubhouse.

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