Blu-Willy's reopens in Grove City Town Center

Alan Froman
ThisWeek group
Sarah and Bryan Smink, owners of Blu-Willy's, stand inside their restaurant, 3985 Broadway in Grove City. Blu-Willy's has reopened for carryout from 3 to 9 p.m. seven days a week. The restaurant was damaged by a fire in April.

Bryan Smink always dreamed of opening his own restaurant after studying culinary arts at Columbus State Community College and Hocking University.

"It was something I was drawn to," he said. "The creative nature of the restaurant business appealed to me."

The dream became a reality Sept. 21, 2019, when he and his wife, Sarah, opened Blu-Willy's, a causal restaurant in Grove City's Town Center.

That dream became a nightmare in 2020.

First, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Blu-Willy's, like all restaurants, had to shut down for indoor dining and revert to carryout orders only.

Then on April 9, the couple were dealt an even more devastating blow. An early-morning fire heavily damaged the restaurant at 3985 Broadway.

As they stood watching the smoldering remains of the fire, "it didn't seem real," Sarah Smink said. "I couldn't understand it. I told everybody to just get out so I could start cleaning. It was instinct."

Bryan Smink said he found out about the fire when a friend who works at an adjacent building called about 4:30 a.m. 

"He said, 'You better get down here; your building's on fire,' " Bryan Smink said. "I told him to stop kidding around."

No humor was to be found when he arrived at the scene.

"The building was basically burned down to the cinder blocks," Bryan Smink said. "The exterior was still there, but the interior was gutted."

And he was gutted, too, he said.

In the early 2000s, before he married Sarah, Bryan Smink owned and operated a concession-stand trailer that he had taken to events throughout Ohio and Kentucky.

"It was a full-service trailer, so we could tailor our menu around the event we were at," he said. "We'd go up to an Irish festival in northern Ohio and be able to make Italian ice and Italian sandwiches (and) then sell something else when we were at the (Creekside) Blues & Jazz Festival in Gahanna."

But by 2005, he had sold the trailer, earned his CDL license and become a truck driver, putting his food-service career on hold.

The couple were married in 2006 and moved to Grove City the next year.

When they found out the building on Broadway was available, the restaurant dreams were reignited.

The couple started working in January 2019 to get the building ready for their restaurant concept.

"What we were after was creating a casual, relaxed place that was open to everybody," Bryan Smink said. "You didn't have to dress up. You could just come in as you are and meet up with friends for a good meal."

He developed a menu that included comfort-food staples, such as burgers and sandwiches.

"Like anything, you make every mistake in the book at the beginning, but we had really established a loyal group of customers when first the COVID and then the fire happened," he said.

The worst part was having to lay off employees, Sarah Smink said.

"We had reduced to carryout service, and it was just Bryan and me doing everything," she said.

The restaurant was more than just a business – it was personal, and that applies to the name Blu-Willy's, as well, she said.

Blu is the name of a rescue dog the couple had adopted who died after he was hit by a car.

"Willy" refers to and serves as a tribute to Bryan's father, William, who died in 2018, the day after Thanksgiving.

"Willy was a nickname my sister and I jokingly gave my father," Bryan Smink said.

Blu-Willy's reopened Nov. 16 for carryout orders.

The tentative plan was to have the restaurant reopened for dine-in service by Thanksgiving.

"We have to see what Gov. DeWine says and whether there will be more restrictions with the COVID numbers rising," Bryan Smink said Nov. 17. "You hate to go through the process of hiring people and having them work for a day or two (and) then have to shut things down again. We're going to take it day by day."

Customers who return to the rebuilt Blu-Willy's will find it looks much the same as it had before the fire, Sarah Smink said.

"We've restored the murals we had" that pay tribute to Grove City's history and heritage, she said.

Once all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, the 1,500-square-foot building could seat 40 people inside and 40 people on the outdoor patio, Bryan Smink said.

The menu remains largely the same, but Bryan Smink said he has been working up some new burger and sandwich concepts that Blu-Willy's will roll out in the near future.

"We've also expanded the variety of fries we're offering," he said. "We've got variations like fries boxed with different toppings, Nashville hot fries and pulled-pork and bacon fries."

The creative aspect of the restaurant business remains appetizing to him, Bryan Smink said. 

"No one can tell you what you can't do. It's all based on what excites you," he said. "You can try out an idea for a menu item that may not make any sense to someone else but turns out to be a dish that people really like."

Even the choice of restaurant décor offers a creative outlet, Bryan Smink said.

In its early days of reopening, Blu-Willy's is open from 3 to 9 p.m. daily, but those hours will expand once the couple get the eatery reestablished, hire staff and wait to see how the pandemic situation plays out.

More information is available at toasttab.com/blu-willy-s/v3 or facebook.com/BluWillys.

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