A pair of brothers turned entrepreneurs are holding on to the heart of their home city one business at a time.
by Heather Haines
Brian and Mark Wilson grew up with a Southern, Methodist minister father who taught them about humility and the art of authenticity.
Today, those characteristic have made them some of Charlotte, North Carolina’s favorite sons. Their business undertakings, while unconventional, are wildly successful. As they sit on the eve of their next venture, the brothers are looking forward and paying homage to their unassuming beginnings.
“We started in church,” explains younger brother Mark. “Dad would want us to play at Wednesday night suppers. So me, Brian and the church organist would play for 45 minutes or an hour. We tried to be diverse, but basically our music was rooted in old country like the Carter Family.”
That led to the creation of The Loose Lugnuts (pictured below), a country/western band the two brothers started. The ensemble has been a consistent part of their entrepreneurial progression — and also helped set the theme at each new establishment. So, when older brother Brian opened a vintage clothing store called The Rat’s Nest in 2004, The Lugnuts had a permanent home. Their music was just as big of a draw as the vintage cowboy boots and t-shirts being sold.
“Brian opened the store and we started playing out front for Gallery Crawls,” Mark recalls. “We’d just set up the drums and speakers in a gravel parking lot. Before you knew it, there were people out there listening and we picked up a harmonica and bass player.”
Mark’s eyes widen a bit at the telling. “You wouldn’t think a bunch of relatively young guys playing old country music, well … you wouldn’t think there’d be a longing for that,” he says. “When we first started, I thought people were going to laugh at us. I thought this was going to go over like a lead balloon. But it just clicks with everyone. We like to play music, but we love playing the kind of music we play. People can see that. We’re not just killing time.”
What the brothers do is draw people in, and their ability to draw a crowd came in handy when they opened The Thirsty Beaver Saloon four years later. Since its launch, The Beaver has been voted Best Dive Bar/Neighborhood Bar in Charlotte year after year.
This isn’t your average saloon. The walls are lined with vintage beer signs, seventies movie posters, funny board games, vinyl records, concert stubs and anything else that might evoke some kind of memory.
Brian’s vision for the bar was precise, right down to the details they’d use for embellishment. “We wanted people to have to talk to each other,” he says. “That’s what makes the world interesting: people from different walks of life getting together and seeing how similar they really are. Sometimes things can go a little slow in the beginning. So, the memorabilia helps generate conversation. It’s a starting point. Customers recognize something like a funky beer they drank in high school and that starts a conversation or brings up fond memories or ‘my Dad drank in a place like this’ and the other guy is like ‘yeah, my Dad too.’”
Brian and Mark are currently finishing work on their next enterprise — a restaurant that’s yet to be named. Asked why open another business, Brian didn’t hesitate to answer: “Everything’s just kind of progressed,” he says. “To me, it’s all the same. It’s just one company that’s expanded from place to place. The idea behind each business is similar: a place to hangout, get to know people better, have fun.”
Their new restaurant may serve up food and provide a larger venue to hold events and music acts, but it also allows the Wilsons to round out their own legacy. Each time they’ve opened a business, they found and utilized old and unique buildings in great locations. The brothers complete a lot of the renovation work on their own to save money, but being hands-on also allows them to control even the tiniest details. Most entrepreneurs harbor the expectation for one successful business, but the Wilson’s are shooting for their third homerun.
“We’ve built a bar and have the band and play good music, because those are things we’ve always liked,” Mark says. “We enjoy hearing and playing great country music and hanging out in a cool bar. I think, in general, things that come from a personal place, even if it’s a lot of work and hassle and frustration to get there, somehow that particular aspect comes through in the end.”
From a practical standpoint, the success of the Wilsons can’t all be credited to heart. “The fact that we’re from Charlotte has helped us,” Brian notes. “We know Charlotte’s history, at least in a small way. You can move into any town and have a successful business, but you may not be able to fully grasp what a neighborhood is about. The Beaver is full of people who were born and raised in Charlotte. That kind of helps create a homey environment. That’s one thing people really appreciate, that feeling of home and being welcomed.”
“Charlotte always seems to be wanting to be something else instead of itself,” Mark adds. “It keeps changing its identity. I can understand that, everything needs to shift with the times, but it seems like Charlotte wants to keep moving without holding on to her core. We’re trying to hold onto part of the heart of what Charlotte used to be even though it’s expanded.”
The Wilsons, at least on some level, seem to be a mirror image of their home city. With all their business expansions, they’ve been able to retain their own authenticity and offer both locals and visitors a place to feel at home in the Queen City.
Photos courtesy of Chris Edwards Photography.
Heather Haines is a freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina.