Greensboro-based Libby Hill president reflects on company’s history

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Ken Conrad is the chairman of the National Restaurant Association. This means he’s the spokesman for more than 13-million Americans who work in 980-thousand restaurants in the United States. He spends much of his time travelling, speaking and lobbying for the organization. But, as you’re about to read, he hasn’t forgotten his family’s humble beginnings.

Conrad feels most at home in the kitchen. It’s what he’s done all his life. When he was 10-years-old he was taking out the trash at his father’s seafood restaurant. Conrad’s father, Luke, and his mother, Elizabeth opened the first Libby Hill Seafood Restaurant at the corner of Battleground Avenue and New Garden Road in Greensboro in the early 1950s.

Ken Conrad (left) with FOX8's Neill McNeill

Ken Conrad (left) with FOX8’s Neill McNeill

Conrad would come back to work for the family business after getting an economics degree from Guilford College and serving in the Army National Guard. He became president of the company in 1983.

When the economy started facing challenges in the 1990s and 2000s, Libby Hill felt the impact.

“All of a sudden those people who had those manufacturing jobs no longer had those jobs, “ Conrad said. “And in almost all our core markets, we were looking at double-digit unemployment. We were looking at gas approaching four dollars a gallon. We were looking at our customer that drove a pickup truck. And discretionary income just wasn’t there.”

During this time, Libby Hill would shrink from a company of 17 restaurants in North Carolina and Southern Virginia to just nine restaurants. But with his contacts in and knowledge of the seafood industry, Conrad was able to start a seafood importing and distribution subsidiary called Bay Hill Seafood.

Headquartered in Greensboro, it’s now the company’s biggest money-maker.

But Conrad still believes in the Libby Hill Restaurants, and the family still owns all 17 buildings that used to and currently house his restaurants. He’s just looking for a concept that might work in them.

“Those people are still our customers,” Conrad says. “[Cooking and operating restaurants] is in my blood.”

Many years ago Conrad and a restaurant-owning colleague started the annual Thanksgiving Dinner for the Greensboro Urban Ministry — a project that continues to this day. That colleague would own a successful restaurant in Greensboro for many years before closing it several years ago.

Just within the last few months, Conrad hired this person to run the restaurant side of his business (in other words, the Libby Hill Restaurants).

Conrad’s son Justin runs the Bay Hill subsidiary mentioned earlier while Conrad himself remains chairman of the company.

The person running the restaurant side of Conrad’s business is someone I profiled in Newsmakers the spring of 2011 just before she closed her own restaurant on West Market Street. You can watch her piece here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FMFcxc4tD3Q

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