After years in the Memphis hospitality industry, most recently managing events at B.B. King’s and Itta Bena, Libby Ware Wunderlich had an unexpected opportunity to turn her restaurant dreams into reality. Just to make it an even bigger adventure, that chance came as she was awaiting the birth of her first child. Both Bar Ware and the baby arrived the same weekend, and Libby found herself plunging into both new worlds at the same time. We managed to catch up with this entrepreneur and very new mom in between her many other duties. Meet this week’s FACE of Memphis, Libby Ware Wunderlich!
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Augusta, Georgia, but it was a very brief stay there. My family moved to the Atlanta area and then we moved to Memphis when I was 5. My dad actually decided to change his career in the medical profession, and he went to UT here. Then we just got kind of sucked into Memphis and ended up loving it.
What brought you back to Memphis after college?
A lot of my friends were still here and one job led to another. I did have the temptation to move several times when I was in my early 20s, and then different things like friendships and relationships kept me here. I’m glad that they did, especially seeing how much it’s become now.
How did you become interested in becoming a restaurateur?
I’ve been in the hospitality industry for a really long time — since high school — off and on. I think everybody, whether they’ve worked in hospitality or not, they go out to dinner and in the back of their minds they think, one day, if I had my own place, I would have it this way and this would be like this … I never actually thought it would become a concrete, real-life thing. I thought it was always going to be a pipe dream. But certain things fell into place; the next thing I knew, it was really happening. I still wake up and can’t believe that I actually opened a bar downtown.
What did you feel like you learned about the local industry while working in one of the most tourism-focused areas of the country?
Working at BB King’s and Itta Bena was an experience that I’m so fortunate that I got to have. Before I worked downtown, I had no idea how many people came from all over the world. You walk down Beale Street and you hear like nine different languages, and it just kind of blows your mind. It’s easy to take Memphis for granted; it’s hard to imagine that people travel from the other side of the world to come here to see us. It’s pretty amazing.
What did you feel was the difference your concept could bring to the food and beverage scene?
I wanted to bring some of the flavors and vibes that I’ve found in other restaurants around the United States, and around the world, to show people something that they may have not tried. I just wanted to give Memphis something cool. I feel like it’s given me so much, I wanted to give something back.
How did the partnership with JuiceBrothers happen?
I became friends with [JuiceBrothers founder] Bibi [Janus] in New York. Our husbands had worked together, and we became really fast friends. When we were in the beginning stages of signing the lease and opening the bar, there was a second bay available (which is where our kitchen is now) and it had street frontage. Bibi was in town for Memphis in May, in 2018, and she fell in love with the city. She was like, “We should definitely put in a miniature license operation in the front. I think it would do really well.” And it has. We’ve been doing great. We’ve picked up a lot of clientele, and it’s continuing to grow. I love being able to provide Memphis with something that’s another healthy option.
What is your favorite thing on the Bar Ware menu?
I’ve really been eating a lot of the kale salad and drinking a lot of the FroBeer. Those two kind of cancel each other out. My guilty pleasure is the grilled cheese. It’s delicious! You can’t go wrong with the beef Wellington —it’s also really delicious. And I do like the world’s smallest sundae. It’s our little tiny dessert that we have.
What has it been like to launch the business at the same time as welcoming your new family member?
Yeah, it’s been nuts. It’s been really crazy. I feel like just now I’m kind of coming up for air, but then I get knocked back down a little bit. I initially thought that we would have the bar open in May and then I could gradually ease into parenthood after that, but they happened literally the same weekend. I opened the bar on Friday and she came on that Monday. Luckily I did have a lot of good people helping me. I don’t recommend it to anyone, but I feel like there’ll be a time of my life when I really look back and I’m proud of myself.
Other than your business, what is the first place you take visitors to Memphis?
To the river. I feel like it’s our best geographical asset. I love watching the sunset down there. I’ve taken a lot of people across Big River Crossing; that’s where I take them most.
Once you can imagine such a thing, how would you spend an ideal day off?
I can’t remember what one feels like. I would probably sleep in and have an amazing lunch on a patio somewhere. Exercise, go for a bike ride, something like that. And then, maybe go hear some live music. I would probably fit in some couch time — just alone time with the TV — and then cook dinner at home and have some wine and just totally relax.
If there is another profession or industry you could explore, what would that be?
Design. I love it. I’ve always been envious of the set designers on films. I think that’d be a really fun job because you would have to do it really quickly and get really into the film, and figure out the characters and what their setting would be. I think that’d be a really fun job.
What is your best advice?
I have to agree with Doug when he said, “Don’t open a bar and have a baby the same weekend.” I do not recommend it! Although, it did teach me that anything is possible. One day, when I finally have some free time, I would love to read Everything is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo because I truly believe it is!
What are three things you can’t live without?
It used to be exercise. I’m hoping to get back into that. My morning coffee, but I haven’t had coffee in a year. And can I say wine? I miss that, too — so much. Basically, the things I miss most!
Thank you for the wonderful interview, Libby! And thank you to Abbey Bratcher for the beautiful photos of Libby at Bar Ware.
You can visit Libby’s restaurant, Bar Ware, at 276 S Front St, Memphis, TN 38103 or call to make reservations at (901) 443-5807. Bar Ware is open Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Mondays.
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