In the face of a lagging economy, stiff competition from national dining chains and a desire to play with her grandkids, the owner of Alex's Restaurant is cutting back.
Carol Billips, owner of Billips Enterprises, has put three of her company's four landmark dining spots up for sale — the locations on Dorchester Road in North Charleston, Savannah Highway in Charleston and St. James Boulevard in Goose Creek.
Meanwhile, the flagship restaurant on Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant is set to undergo big changes and take on a different name in an effort to reposition it to compete better against the growing number of nearby dining establishments, Billips said.
Flowertown, Billips Enterprises' downtown Summerville restaurant, will remain open.
Billips and her late husband began their restaurant venture in 1972, opening a 15-seat diner in an aluminium trailer in Mount Pleasant. They named it after their son, who is now 36.
The Alex's chain grew to five restaurants and more than 200 employees across the Lowcountry, building a reputation on its all-day breakfast menu and other comfort-food options.
But in recent years, Billips said, her small operation has been losing the fight with deeper-pocketed national chains that have come into the market.
"We're a family restaurant," she said. "Without the national and corporate advertising, it makes a huge difference."
The shaky economy also has taken a bite out of the local chain's customer base. Even regular patrons have cut back on their weekly — and sometimes daily — visits, Billips said.
"They've been honest with me in that they can't afford to eat out as much anymore," she said. "Some can't afford the gas to drive the distance."
With only two restaurants to oversee, Billips and business partner Deborah Jackson said they will be able to focus on the Mount Pleasant location, which is no longer open around the clock.
A major remodeling is scheduled to begin this fall, which will include the addition of outdoor dining space on a deck.
Billips said outside dining could attract back some of the customers who stopped visiting the restaurant when Mount Pleasant's smoking ban went into effect last year. And the planned changes fit in with the Coleman Boulevard revitalization plan, which is aimed at turning the busy four-lane roadway into a more vibrant, pedestrian-friendly corridor.
The Alex's name will change to Our Bridge Cafe, and the menu will get a makeover as well. Patrons will be able to order breakfast all day, but the beverage choices will be expanded to offer beer and wine, and diners will be able to order seafood and steak dishes, she said.
Billips reassured her loyal regulars that the restaurant won't become too upscale: "We're still a family restaurant," she said. But she wants the changes to put the Mount Pleasant location on par with other restaurants that cluster around nearby Shem Creek.
At 61, Billips said she's seeking a slower pace in her work life. She talks proudly of her grandchildren, who range from 6 to 15 years old, and she said it seemed like the right time to spend more time with her family.
"I'm just going too fast for them," she said.